This post was first published in 2019, and was republished as part of our Retro May look back at our work over the years.
On May 11, 2018, Kyle Dubas was named General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, replacing incumbent Lou Lamoriello and beating out fellow Assistant GM Mark Hunter. The promotion was very popular in the nerdier quarter of Leafs fandom; Dubas is a very smart, very well-spoken executive who seems to embody the progressive hockey mind.
We’re coming up on one year of Kyle Dubas officially being in charge, and it seems like a good time to take stock of how things have been going. (I did this with Lou Lamoriello’s whole tenure here, if you want to read that.) While Kyle Dubas partly acted as GM during the interregnum between Dave Nonis being canned and Lou being hired in 2015, and he did some interesting things—trading for Zach Hyman was one—this has been the first full season with the Leafs being unequivocally Kyle Dubas’ organization. It’s his ship now, and it’s on him to steer or sink it.
As with Lou, I am evaluating every transaction based on three things:
- How significant was it? Did this make a big difference in impacting the team and its future prospects?
- How difficult was it? Was it a gimme, or did it require some real management finesse?
- How good was it? How has it turned out?
Also as with Lou, I am assuming every decision involving a Maple Leaf player or significant prospect is Kyle’s responsibility, even if he probably delegated some of it. When you’re the boss, you take the credit or get the blame. Excepting signings that seemed strictly relevant to the Marlies (sorry, Kasimir Kaskisuo), I am trying to cover everything, so this is going to be a long article; if you’d like to just see my conclusions, scroll to the bottom.
I am indebted to CapFriendly’s excellent GM history page, which makes this job a lot easier than it was the first time around.
May 17, 2018: The Signing Of Ozhiganov And Others
The Leafs sign KHL defender Igor Ozhiganov, SHL centre Par Lindholm, forward prospect Pierre Engvall and defence prospect Jesper Lindgren to entry-level contracts.
One-line summary: Free wallets and faint hopes, they make the world go round.
Significance: Modest. Igor Ozhiganov played a regular shift for much of the regular season and did a perfectly cromulent job of it before being edged out after the Jake Muzzin trade; he is rumoured to be heading back to the KHL this summer. Par Lindholm played a depth role and was okayish without really producing offence in the Leafs before he got traded. Pierre Engvall (who was actually drafted under Dave Nonis) has actually blossomed as a forward with the size and build of a giraffe and is playing a serious role with the Marlies. Jesper Lindgren (he shoots right!) had a decent year in the Liiga and he’s about to turn 22.
Difficulty: Real easy! Ozhi was rumoured to be coming here long before Kyle took over, and Lindholm was likely already in talks too, so Kyle probably didn’t have to do anything but sign the papers. Then he just inked deals with two prospects that were already in the org.
Quality: Not bad when you consider the cost was just SPC slots. Getting free depth out of Europe is a reasonable thing to do and the Leafs keep doing it. Engvall is the only one of these that I think might have long-term significance and even then it ain’t all that much, but signing him to an ELC wasn’t a given and it’s shaping decently well. See Hardev’s thoughts on him here.
June 20, 2018: Signing Carrick and Pickard
The Leafs sign defender Connor Carrick (one year, $1.3M) and goalie Calvin Pickard (one year, $800K) to RFA extensions.
One-line summary: Remember these guys?
Difficulty: Maybe if Kyle were like, hungover and had the shakes and couldn’t hold the pen. That would make this tougher. He might have to go back and sign it again when he sobered up.
Quality: That’s actually a bit more money than I’d think Connor Carrick is worth, but we traded the deal, so whatever.
June 22-23, 2018: The 2018 NHL Entry Draft
The Leafs conduct two pick transactions: trading down from 25th overall to acquire the 29th and 76th overall picks from St. Louis, and trading their 2019 sixth for Buffalo’s 2018 sixth.
With their picks, the Leafs select:
- 29th overall: Rasmus Sandin (defender, OHL)
- 52nd overall: Sean Durzi (defender, OHL)
- 76th overall: Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (forward, OHL)
- 83rd overall: Riley Stotts (forward, WHL)
- 118th overall: Mac Hollowell (defender, OHL)
- 149th overall: Filip Kral (defender, Czechia)
- 156th overall: Pontus Holmberg (forward, SHL)
- 209th overall: Zachary Bouthillier (goaltender, QMJHL)
- 211th overall: Semyon Kizimov (forward, Russsia U18)
One-line summary: Kyle likes smart players, small players, Soo players, and players named Semyon.
Significance: Potentially real big! Like every draft. Toronto has since signed Sandin, Der-Arguchintsev (also known as SDA), and Hollowell to entry-level contracts (since I’ve noticed this here, I have not done separate sections for their contracts later in the piece.) Sean Durzi was a piece in the Jake Muzzin trade. Bouthillier has signed a contract with the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate, the Newfoundland Growlers, so he’ll likely get some pro playing time next year.
Difficulty: Drafting is hard. I’d be bad at it. I would just take guys with points and cool names.
Quality: It is far too early to tell, but I will note a few things real quick:
- The trade down from 25th to 29th and 76th is standard draft nerd practice to maximize value, and it looks good now...
- ...because at the time, everyone (including me) was mad at Dubas for passing on centre Joe Veleno twice, at 25th and 29th. Veleno had a good year, so the jury’s still out, but Rasmus Sandin has become the top prospect in the Leafs’ organization after an excellent 18-year-old season in the AHL. No one’s mad about picking him now. Plus, we got SDA, who had an up and down year in Peterborough but remains a very young, very interesting prospect.
- Sean Durzi was worth enough to be included in the Muzzin trade, so that’s something.
- The Leafs did not draft a skater taller than 6’1” and they picked several who were quite short (Mac Hollowell is 5’10, SDA is 3’8”). Virtually all Dubas’ chosen players were described as “smart” and having good hockey sense as their chief attribute. Decide for yourself what you think of that.
Beyond that, how you felt about this will still be how you feel about Dubas’ draft strategy in principle. We’ll see if it pays out.
July 1, 2018: The John Tavares Signing
The Toronto Maple Leafs sign free agent centre John Tavares to a seven-year contract at an $11M AAV.
One-line summary: It’s not every day you get to live a childhood dream.
Significance: In the history of Western Civilization, there are basically six things: the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, World War II, a bunch of stuff with computers, and John Tavares.
Difficulty: Genuinely a lot. Isles fans have developed a complex about this that our boy John hated them and was just waiting to run away to his pajamas, but by all accounts Tavares was genuinely conflicted and had to be persuaded by his agent to even take meetings. And by those same accounts, Kyle Dubas absolutely hit the presentation out of the park. Even granting Dubas had an edge because Tavares was a Toronto boy growing up, this was an incredible coup.
Quality: John Tavares is a top-10 centre in the NHL and he did brilliant work for us. He finished third in the NHL in goals, behind the greatest goal-scorer of all time and a dude on a shooting heater playing with Connor McDavid. If anyone tells you this was less than a fantastic move for the franchise, kick them in the shins.
July 3, 2018: The Matt Martin Trade
The Leafs trade F Matt Martin to the New York Islanders for goalie prospect Eamon McAdam.
One-line summary: Toronto frees up $1.575M in cap space.
Significance: Cap space is good to have. Martin’s deal still has another year on it, by the way.
Difficulty: Less than I thought it would be? Now, the Leafs GM who signed this contract (Lou Lamoriello) was now running the Islanders, so that probably helped, as did Martin’s rep in New York. But I thought this contract would be tough to get out of. Shows you what I know.
Quality: I am very glad we did this.
July 3-13, 2018: The Period Where We Signed Some More Dudes
The Leafs sign RFA defenceman Justin Holl (two years, $675,000 AAV), RFA forward Frederik Gauthier (two years, $675,000 AAV), and UFA forward Tyler Ennis (one year, $650,000.) RFA forward Andreas Johnsson elects to pick up his qualifying offer (one year, $787,500.)
One-line summary: Tyler Ennis is extremely cool, Holl and Gauthier are extremely a couple of guys, and Andreas Johnsson took this out of Kyle’s hands.
Significance: Fair. Johnsson was an everyday player for Toronto and put up 20G/23A/43P. Gauthier played extremely low-event 4C minutes at a passable level, and for this I salute him. Justin Holl couldn’t regularly crack the lineup. Tyler Ennis, though? Tyler Ennis played 51 games and five more in the playoffs, scored and did other cool stuff.
Difficulty: Excellent buy-low move to pick up Tyler Ennis coming off a buyout and a bad season. This is the kind of little move you love your GM to make, and not all of them make it.
Quality: I’m going to say quite good on Ennis and totally respectable cheap depth deals for Gauthier and Holl. The Johnsson contract is a bit of a disappointment because everyone expected him to break out, and he more or less did. The thing is, there’s nothing Kyle could do about it; you have to give guys a qualifying offer to keep their rights and if they want to bet on themselves by taking it, they can. Johnsson did. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
October 1, 2018: Waiving Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard
The Leafs choose to go with Garret Sparks as their backup, waiving goaltenders Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard. Both McElhinney (Carolina Hurricanes) and Pickard (Philadelphia Flyers) are claimed, and so the Leafs lose much of their organizational goalie depth in one day.
One-line summary: Sometimes the right choice can still bite you in the ass.
Significance: More than we’d like it to have, though less than it might have felt like. Curtis McElhinney continued right along having a quality backup year in Carolina and putting up a .912 save percentage, while Garret Sparks increasingly struggled as the year went on and finished with a .902. The difference there is probably only a couple of wins over a backup’s workload, but that’s unfortunate all the same. Calvin Pickard did not have much success and eventually made it down to the Tucson Roadrunners of the AHL, Arizona’s affiliate.
Difficulty: The Leafs had to pick one of their three waiver-eligible backups, and there was a hunger in the market for goalies. All they could do was choose one and hope.
Quality: I will plant a flag here: the decision to keep Garret Sparks was the right decision based on the information known at the time. Sparks was 25 and coming off three consecutive quality seasons—and most recently, an outstanding season—in the AHL. McElhinney was 35 and coming off the best, most outlier-ish looking season of a journeyman NHL career. As much as McE is a good pro and a great backup, you have to bet on the younger AHLer who could be more. This was good process and a tough result.
October 3, 2018: The Connor Carrick Trade
The Leafs trade defender Connor Carrick to the Dallas Stars for a conditional 7th. The condition is that Carrick plays at least 50 games in the season, in which case it would become a 6th. The condition is not triggered and Carrick winds up traded to the New Jersey Devils later in the year.
One-line summary: Get that asset value!
Significance: Kyle Dubas is now the sexiest nerd in the organization.
Difficulty: Well, they were going to waive him, so good work putting out feelers for the trade beforehand, I guess?
Quality: Might as well get a pick for a depth guy your coach won’t play.
December 1, 2018: The William Nylander Signing
After a protracted negotiation, the Leafs sign RFA forward William Nylander for six years at an AAV of $6.96M for years two to six. The deal is front-loaded so that its AAV is $10.28M in the first year of the contract.
One-line summary: Oh dear lord thank God it’s over.
Significance: Pretty substantial. This was a big commitment, Nylander is (despite what some will tell you) a key player, and this was the first major RFA negotiation of several Kyle Dubas will have to conduct. There are really four items that are the most important in Kyle’s first year, and this is the second of the four.
Difficulty: I think if you gave Kyle Dubas the choice of going through another six-month negotiation like this or climbing Mount Everest, he would ask you for some hiking boots.
Quality: This is going to be one of the more controversial takes in this article, but: I think this was a good piece of business by Kyle Dubas, even granted he later said he regretted how it dragged on. He held on as long as he could to work towards the best dollar-value for his team, and he clearly didn’t cave early (the deal was completed literally with five minutes to go before the deadline that would have seen Nylander sit the season out.) At the same time, he didn’t get so hardened in his position that he told Nylander to fuck off to Europe for the year and hurt the team.
Yes, Nylander had a rough year, although it’s better than you might think it was. But Nylander is a key player and the Leafs were (sigh) pretty close to getting to the second round, something that would have been a hell of a lot harder without him. He’s locked up going forward and I firmly believe he’s going to earn his money with production next to Auston Matthews next year. So I’m chalking this up as a positive.
December 3, 2018: The Josh Leivo Trade
The Toronto Maple Leafs trade forward Josh Leivo to the Vancouver Canucks for forward prospect Michael Carcone.
One-line summary: A small but honourable thing.
Significance: Not huge—Leivo is a depth F and Carcone is an interesting but faint hope prospect—but it’s notable. After seasons of failing to crack the Leafs’ lineup regularly, Josh Leivo finally got some regular ice-time for the first two months of the year. With the return of William Nylander, though, there was no longer space for him. Kyle Dubas, having made a promise to Leivo that he would find him an opportunity elsewhere rather than pressbox him for another season, flipped him to Vancouver.
Difficulty: Not much. I don’t have serious NHL hopes for him, but Carcone is kind of neat. Some Marlies watchers (like Mike Stephens) will tell you he’s worth keeping an eye on.
Quality: The Leafs may have lost this trade on quality, although I’m not sure Leivo will ever top this year’s 14 goals unless the Canucks play him with Pettersson a bunch more. But I think it’s to Dubas’ credit he kept his word here and found a good situation for Leivo. You’d like to think this is something players will keep in mind.
December 10-January 13: The Leafs Sign Some Moore Guys
The Leafs sign goalie prospect Ian Scott to an entry-level contract. They also sign forward Trevor Moore (two years, $775,000) and defender Calle Rosen (two years, $750,000) to extensions.
One-line summary: Cheap depth is all the rage.
Significance: Modest but still worthwhile. Signing Scott to an ELC was a no-brainer; he was dominating the WHL. But getting Trevor Moore and Calle Rosen, who can be a reliable 12F and 6D respectively, locked up for a couple of years at very cheap salaries is exactly the kind of move Toronto needs to make as they move to a top-heavy lineup with big salaries. If Moore can be more than that (sorry), even better.
Difficulty: Well, it should be easy, but you don’t always see teams doing easy, smart things. The Leafs also have the wealth to pay large salaries to players they demote to the AHL, so that helps.
Quality: Es bueno.
December 29, 2018: The Michael Hutchinson Trade
The Leafs acquire goalie Michael Hutchinson from the Florida Panthers for their 2020 fifth-round pick.
One-line summary: We needed a goalie!
Significance: We got a goalie!
Difficulty: We paid a reasonable price for a goalie!
Quality: This was a knock-on consequence of losing McElhinney and Pickard; when injuries struck our third-string guy was very not NHL-capable goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo. So Dubas went out and found a functional enough guy who did a passable job for a few games and is now with the Marlies. Fine by me.
January 28, 2019: The Jake Muzzin Trade
The Leafs trade forward prospect Carl Grundstrom, defence prospect Sean Durzi, and their 2019 first-round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for defenceman Jake Muzzin.
One-line summary: The Leafs acquire the top-four D you’ve heard so much about, even though he shoots left.
Significance: Pretty big. Muzzin played a huge role down the stretch and in the playoffs and is poised to play an even bigger one next year as the Leafs likely lose Jake Gardiner. Getting a player with an additional year on his deal at a reasonable cap hit ($4M) was a big deal.
Difficulty: This was a bit of a fraught trade: the Leafs gave one of the better forward prospects out of a very thin prospect pool, but held onto their top two defence prospects (Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.) Giving up a 1st always hurts when your team is eliminated and the draft is coming up, but this looks like a fair deal.
Quality: I think the Muzzin trade is terrific. It wasn’t cheap, per se, but Sandin and Liljegren are the prospects I’d have really hated to lose and we didn’t give up either Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen. Muzzin is a big, defensively capable defenceman who, once he settled in, was a huge part of the Leafs largely surviving the Bergeron line in Round 1. He even made Nikita Zaitsev look like a real player!
There are some people who say Dubas didn’t do anything to improve the defence, which is the weirdest talking point imaginable. This was the thing!
February 5, 2019: The Auston Matthews Extension
The Leafs extend centre Auston Matthews for five years at $11.634M.
One-line summary: That is a lot of money!
Significance: I don’t know, is signing your franchise centrepiece a big deal?
Difficulty: So here’s the thing. Auston Matthews is a superstar. He came out like gangbusters to start the season. If he’d stayed healthy he might have hit 50 goals. He had a whole lot of leverage with a team that frankly, could not afford to have him hold out the way Nylander did. It is possible there was simply no way they were going to get this any lower than they did.
Quality: Auston Matthews is going to have the second-highest cap hit in the NHL next season, behind only Connor McDavid, who is the best player on Earth; and he’s going to do it on a deal that runs five years compared to McDavid’s eight. The contracts were signed at different times, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but I went into much more detail on the Matthews deal here.
Your opinion on this deal is going to depend on what options you think Kyle Dubas had. If you think he really had no leverage and nothing good could come from waiting—and it’s worth noting if he hadn’t signed this deal, he’d be staring down the Matthews and Mitch Marner negotiations simultaneously—then this was simply him doing what he could to get the job done. But if you think (like I do) that this deal was functionally equivalent to paying Matthews like the best player on Earth, well...it’s hard not to wonder if there was any virtue in waiting a little longer. Would Matthews be any cheaper coming off a first-round exit, but one where he had five goals? I don’t know.
February 25, 2019: The Nic Petan Trade
The Leafs trade forward Par Lindholm to the Winnipeg Jets for forward Nic Petan, and subsequently extend him for two years at $775,000 per.
One-line summary: A guy who didn’t score for a guy who juuuuuust might.
Significance: Not huge. Lindholm was the thirteenth forward at this point, and when you lose your job to Freddie Gauthier, you probably are due to skip town. Nic Petan didn’t regularly crack the lineup either, but might next season, if he grows on Mike Babcock a bit.
Difficulty: This seems like a pretty clear trade of guys each team was tired of.
Quality: I am very pleased with this move. Petan has some offensive flair even if it never quite worked out in Winnipeg, and Lindholm was pretty much a replacement player even if you wanted him taking PK faceoffs against Boston. We’ll see if Petan can produce anything on that contract. If he does, great; if he doesn’t, no problem, it’s buriable.
March 5-March 24, 2019: Extensions and Joe Duszak
The Leafs sign RFA goaltender Garret Sparks (one year, $775,000), RFA defender Andreas Borgman (one year, $700,000), and college free agent Joseph Duszak (two-year ELC.) They also sign prospect goalie Joseph Woll to an ELC.
One-line summary: Takin’ care of business.
Significance: This is standard GM work. As much as everyone got mad at Garret Sparks for being lousy most of the year, this made sense and the contract is buriable if we get another backup. Borgman can be NHL depth or AHL strength. Duszak is a roll of the dice, and you might as well take them. Woll is a decent goalie prospect.
Difficulty: Meh. Maybe a bit of college scouting work on Duszak?
Quality: Solid work all around.
There are a few other things that are worth noting about Dubas’ reign.
- The Leafs hired women’s hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser and amateur scout Noelle Needham. Apparently Needham was hired based off a blind review of scouting reports, without names attached. It should not be all that notable when an NHL front office hires competent women through a professional selection process, but it is, and good on Dubas for doing it.
- There was an incident in the latter part of the season where Morgan Rielly was alleged to have used a homophobic slur; he was then found not to have done so after the league investigated. Both Rielly and Dubas handled the situation well, and it’s encouraging to see.
- In my opinion, at least, Kyle Dubas has handled his media and public appearances with grace and even charm. He’s well-spoken without giving too much away and his humility in his post-season presser was impressive. Basically the only semi-controversy from his office this year was a paranoid reading of a Twitter like he made. Having competent PR may seem superficial, but in a fevered hockey environment like Toronto, small controversies can become big distractions, even to the point of impacting player signings and retention. While the Leafs are no longer the silent behemoth they were under Lou Lamoriello—I’m pretty sure somebody high in the organization is talking to Sportnet’s Chris Johnston regularly—they nonetheless haven’t done anything to damage themselves under Dubas.
So How Is He Doing?
- It’s too early to form firm conclusions on Dubas’ drafting, since we aren’t considering what his role may have been in 2015 or subsequent drafts. All I can say is I liked his work reasonably well on draft weekend and I like it even more now.
- We’ll likely get a clearer idea of Dubas’ trading acumen in this coming summer, as he doesn’t have another obvious way to improve his team significantly. But insofar as he lost the Josh Leivo trade, it was a minor trade and his reasons for making it were good; and the Jake Muzzin trade is exactly the kind of move I want my general manager to make.
- Some people continue to lament that he should have “done more” on trades during the year. It’s very difficult to gauge what was possible without knowing what was available, but I find this hard to understand. Most of the big pieces on the market were rental forwards (like Matt Duchene and Mark Stone—and the Sens may not have wanted to trade those guys in-division anyway.) Of all the complaints about Dubas, I find this one the hardest to understand.
- Kyle Dubas made one major UFA signing, and it was one of the best and biggest in the history of the franchise. He may not have the cap room to make another big buy anytime soon, but the good news is his little signings have been good too, finding value in Tyler Ennis and extending it with Trevor Moore and Calle Rosen.
- There seems to be some sign of a preference for skilled players, and Dubas has done nothing to move away from the idea of a high-skill team thus far, even in the face of criticism. The criticism is growing louder in the aftermath of the loss to the Bruins, but it sounds like Dubas will stay the course. He addressed this in his end-of-year presser; scroll to about 11:20 if you’d like to hear the man in his own words.
- And then there are the RFA signings. When asked about retaining his core players, Dubas famously declared “we can and we will”, and it seems clear that he’s going to deliver on his promise. I have little doubt that he’s going to end up reaching an agreement with Mitch Marner. The question is how much money will be left over when the job is done. I think it’s fair to say that Kyle Dubas has not succeeded in getting a significant discount on either Nylander (where I don’t think he could have done better) or Matthews (where I question whether he could have.) It’s possible Dubas has simply played the hand he’s been dealt. But Dubas has not yet made a signing for a major player that saved the organization much money. Insofar as there is a flaw in his first year, it’s that the Leafs haven’t been able to capture value on big contracts.
- Still, big picture: there may not have been much value to be captured there. And if you believe, as I do, that the Nylander contract was good and that the Muzzin upgrade was worthwhile, I think you have to admire what Kyle Dubas has accomplished this year as GM, even if we hoped for more out of the team. He has put Toronto in a position to win and helped solidify that position going forward, and I can’t think of a GM I’d rather have helming our franchise.
One-line summary: I think Kyle Dubas is doing a good job.