TORONTO – Game 5 was still hours away.
The Maple Leafs had staved off elimination in Game 4 and were set to host the Panthers with hopes of keeping their season alive again. Their GM, Kyle Dubas, had just watched an optional morning skate at Scotiabank Arena and was headed back down to the Leafs’ home dressing room.
The vibes weren’t great.
“Even my guy Jimmy’s gone negative,” Dubas said as he passed by, referring to one of the happy-go-lucky security guards.
Even Jimmy, apparently, didn’t think Dubas would return as Leafs GM. “Hope to see you again one day,” he told Dubas.
Exactly one week later, Brendan Shanahan fired Dubas in his office at the team’s practice facility in Etobicoke.
In pretty unusual fashion, Shanahan laid out his version of the events that led to that shocking-but-not-shocking decision. His explanations didn’t exactly compute and left a lot of questions unanswered. (Shanahan took questions for less than 15 minutes.)
It left the impression of an organization that willingly walked itself into chaos and tremendous uncertainty at a time when Auston Matthews and William Nylander are both due for extensions, the organization has an Earth-shattering star trade to make, major roster question marks to address, and a new coach to be hired (or not).
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Most puzzling, still, and at the root of the whole fiasco, is the Leafs’ decision (was it ownership? Was it Shanahan? Both?) not to extend Dubas’ contract in the first place last offseason.
As Shanahan himself said of any lame-duck situation, “It’s not ideal, certainly.”
In short: Would the Leafs have fired Dubas on Friday had he been under contract already? The answer is almost certainly no. This leads you to wonder why the Leafs decided to fire Dubas at all, especially when they were committed to bringing him back only a few days ago.
Shanahan said he approached Dubas last summer and told him he wouldn’t be receiving an extension.
“I tried to reassure him that it wasn’t a reflection on his future with the club,” Shanahan said.
But what exactly was it a reflection of? The Leafs were coming off, literally, the best regular season in franchise history and had taken the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning to the brink in seven games.
What else exactly did the Leafs need to see from their GM at that point? Was it simply a matter of playoff success? Shanahan didn’t clear up the matter, which he declined to address last fall, on Friday.
The Leafs president, who celebrated his nine-year anniversary with the team in April, said Dubas had a “great” offseason that summer of 2022.
“We had some difficult choices to make,” he said, no doubt referring, to among other things, the decision to move on from Jack Campbell. “I think Kyle did an excellent job.”
Shanahan went on to praise Dubas’ performance throughout an “excellent regular season,” particularly his work at the trade deadline, when he acquired, among others, Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn, and Noel Acciari.
“As a matter of fact, I thought that again, Kyle did an excellent job,” Shanahan said.
So excellent that the Leafs were interested in renewing his contract. Again, Shanahan approached Dubas in his office, according to Shanahan’s retelling of events, and told him that he had “seen enough in my mind that I wanted him to be our general manager going forward.”
This was mid-March, according to Shanahan.
But what exactly had he seen by that point that he hadn’t seen already? What had really changed about the Leafs? The assumption was always that a Dubas extension was tied to postseason success. But then, apparently, it wasn’t after all.
Dubas’ Leafs were, again, a very good regular season team. Just like they were the season before and the season before that. Why were the Leafs willing to extend Dubas’ contract in March if they weren’t in July, August, or September? Was ownership suddenly on board when they weren’t before, and if so, why?
It doesn’t make much sense.
Shanahan said he told Dubas to consider the possibility. If he was, in fact, interested in extending, Shanahan explained, he would approach ownership. He didn’t want Dubas worrying about his contract when the playoffs rolled around. (But he was OK with Dubas having that thought in the back of his mind when he was tinkering with the team during the regular season?)
A week later, Shanahan said Dubas had thought it over and wanted to go ahead with an extension. He pointed Shanahan in the direction of his agent.
By the end of the regular season, after what he said were good conversations with Dubas’ agent, Shanahan felt like they had “pretty much a finished deal that reflected what he wanted financially and what he wanted as a general manager, what was important to him.”
On that Friday night, when the Leafs’ season ended in Game 5 against the Panthers, Shanahan said he again expressed to Dubas that “he had done a good job.”
They texted again on Sunday and according to Shanahan, seemed to be in agreement after another in-person meeting. Shanahan presented what he said was a contract along the lines of the one he and Dubas’ agent had discussed.
“We talked about how, quite frankly, it’s hard on all our families,” Shanahan said.
Dubas then acknowledged those realities, earnestly and emotionally, when he addressed the media on Monday afternoon. Dubas said he wasn’t sure if he even wanted to return as GM after a particularly “taxing” year on him and his family. And it was then, Shanahan said, that his view about bringing Dubas back as GM began to change.
He drove home that night and began to wonder. But not to the point, apparently, that he was ready to move on right away. No, Shanahan was still intent on bringing Dubas back. The two met on Wednesday, according to Shanahan, and continued discussions.
“I had probably more questions than answers, and I did not have clarity,” Shanahan said. “It further made me feel that there’s a strong possibility…he might not want to be the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Despite starting the season without a contract extension for his GM, it was only then that Shanahan said he began envisioning what the Leafs would like with a different GM. In other words, the Leafs had no clear backup plan to that point.
Shanahan said he heard from Dubas’ agent on Thursday and was presented with what he said was a new “financial package.”
More money in other words.
It was just before dinner, Shanahan said, that Dubas emailed to say he would like to return. After some soul searching, on the heels of a disappointing season, he was committed to being the GM again.
“At that point, if I’m being honest, I had gotten to a different place about how I felt about the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs and what was best,” Shanahan said. “The email that I received from Kyle, I just felt differently. And I felt that the long-term future of the Maple Leafs might have to change.”
This means it wasn’t Dubas’ job performance that concerned him and ultimately cost him his job. Quite the opposite. Shanahan stressed repeatedly how pleased he was with the job Dubas had done. It’s why the Leafs were ready to commit to him before the playoffs.
No, what apparently swayed them was Dubas’ brief, days-long reluctance to coming back. Even though the Leafs had left him dangling without a contract all season, a moment of hesitation on his part led them to dramatically change course and dive deep into the unknown.
Which frankly seems like an unusual way of doing business, especially with all that pressing work ahead.
Door 1 was Dubas. The known commodity. Someone who had established relationships with the players and especially the stars, but also someone who appeared willing, finally, to change course and perhaps move on from one of those stars. Someone who had built the Leafs up into a high-functioning operation.
Door 2 was a giant question mark.
The Leafs chose Door 2 and the giant question mark, all because, it seems, Dubas hesitated.
That giant question mark will now be entrusted with convincing Matthews to stay by July 1, trading one of those stars, and presumably finding a new coach to replace Dubas’ guy, Sheldon Keefe. All in a matter of weeks. And because those decisions are so massive, so franchise-changing, the Leafs will evidently seek out someone with experience – which narrows the pool of candidates considerably to those who’ve been GMs before.
It might not be the best person for the job necessarily then.
Does that mean that said person will do a better job than Dubas would have? Maybe. Maybe not. That person will be walking into an organization they’re completely unfamiliar with and will nonetheless have to execute a series of whoppers in a matter of weeks.
The Leafs could have simply brought Dubas back to do the work he started.
“To me, there’s an urgency to do that,” Shanahan said of finding a new GM. “I don’t think it needs to be rushed. I want to really say, I’m not gonna do it in a (hasty) way. I want to be very thoughtful and thorough, but I do think it is a priority and it needs to happen rather soon.”
Which sounds a lot like it “needs to be rushed.”
It will have to be rushed because of the timing of all this. The timing could have been avoided had the Leafs simply extended Dubas last summer.
The entire operation Dubas built may well come down in the process (Jason Spezza has already resigned), all because he hesitated.
And what now with Matthews? Will he want to commit to the Leafs without knowing much about the next GM? Will he prefer to wait and see how things play out? And what then? The Leafs can’t possibly trade Matthews, but what if he won’t sign that extension?
Will the next GM, the one who doesn’t know Nylander or Mitch Marner well like Dubas did, the one who may assume the worst, will that person properly execute a trade that involves one or both? Will they sign ludicrous contracts in free agency like some of Dubas’ predecessors did, including the one Dubas replaced in 2018? Will they hire the right coach if Keefe isn’t brought back?
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This decision should cast an even brighter spotlight on Shanahan.
He’ll be hiring his third general manager in less than 10 years. He pivoted to Dubas from Lou Lamoriello after three seasons and has now decided to replace Dubas after five. He wears the Leafs’ ultimate failings more than anyone.
It was Shanahan who decided to hire a coach – Mike Babcock – before he had a GM. It was Shanahan who brought in Mark Hunter to run the draft for the Leafs (which backfired). It was Shanahan who had Hunter and Dubas running the Leafs together when the Leafs still hadn’t hired that GM (Lamoriello).
It was Shanahan who purged the entire front office after the 2014-15 season.
It was Shanahan who plucked Dubas from Sault Ste. Marie. It was Shanahan overseeing the Leafs when he and Dubas sat together on a summer day in 2018 to announce the signing of John Tavares. It was Shanahan in charge when the Leafs lost in the first round in the two seasons before Dubas took over and the four that followed after that.
It was Shanahan who changed the direction of the Leafs when he promoted Dubas to GM. It’s Shanahan now leading the Leafs back into the unknown.
“We had a good relationship the whole year,” Shanahan said of Dubas this past season.
But something clearly changed that day when Shanahan told Dubas he wouldn’t be extended. In seasons previous, the two watched the Leafs play alongside one another in a private box. That changed this season. Dubas looked on from the press box for the first time alongside Spezza, Brandon Pridham, and various members of the front office.
But not Shanahan.
“Kyle was instrumental in where this organization is today,” Shanahan said. “I’ve got to think about, how do we get where we want to go in the future and what are the best ways for us to be better and what are new ideas and new thoughts.”
And who will be the person leading that process?
Outside of Shanahan, that’s the big unknown right now, the unknown that Shanahan chose when Dubas hesitated.
(Top photo: Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)