Based on how busy his summer went, it’s almost amazing that Kyle Dubas has yet to oversee his first regular season NHL game as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was big enough news when the Maple Leafs announced that Dubas would be taking over for legendary hockey man Lou Lamoriello as GM in Toronto, but everything that followed has been a whirlwind.
First, you had the Toronto Marlies winning their first AHL championship, taking the Calder Cup in a Game 7 romp over the heavy, veteran Texas Stars. That Marlies team had a lot of Dubas in it, as the squad was a large part of his portfolio when he was assistant GM of the Leafs. Coach Sheldon Keefe had worked under Dubas with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the Marlies title was clearly an emotional experience for the duo. Now removed from that heady celebration, Dubas looks at the long-term value of the title.
“Our goal was to have our prospects exposed to a long playoff run,” he said. “That journey affirmed that when the games got tougher and the season got longer, they were able to raise their level.”
Several of those players will have good shots at NHL roster spots this fall. Left winger Andreas Johnsson tore up the Calder Cup field, earning himself playoff MVP honors and showing off a fast, tenacious game that can see him play up and down the lineup based on need. I’d also like to see right winger Carl Grundstrom get a long look at camp, as he displays similar attributes and could be a nice fit on the Leafs’ fourth line to begin with.
On defense, Travis Dermott is an obvious choice to be a full-timer with the Leafs this fall and though he missed Game 7 due to injury, his play during the rest of the post-season was solid. Dermott has the skating skills and the puck management for today’s game. Another option on the back end is Justin Holl, who did very well in a short NHL call-up this past season and once again showed off nice smarts and two-way play with the Marlies. Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman had similarly strong AHL runs and will provide competition.
Speaking of the blueline, it’s become a hot topic once again this summer. Other than the aforementioned Marlies, the only new face could be Russian free agent Igor Ozhiganov, friend of Nikita Zaitsev and a tough dude to play against. Improvement from Zaitsev, who struggled through injuries this past season, would also help. But there was no Chris Tanev, no John Carlson, no Drew Doughty; Tanev is still in Vancouver while the other two are now locked in long-term with their original teams. Fans may be hollering, but Dubas is more chill about the situation.
“I know people are antsy, but elite players are costly and hard to come by,” he said. “I don’t have the same anxiety; I’m more bullish than the public is about our blueline.”
Truthfully, the blueline just needs to be good, not necessarily great. Because Dubas’ crowning achievement this summer was signing John Tavares to a seven-year contract that sees the erstwhile Islanders captain join a forward corps already brimming with gamebreakers such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Add in solid veterans Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri and the Leafs will be a matchup nightmare up front.
The fact Dubas was able to foist Matt Martin’s contract upon the Islanders and Lamoriello was another win. Veterans Tyler Bozak, Roman Polak and Leo Komarov were allowed to leave as free agents, while fellow UFA James van Riemsdyk had priced himself out of Toronto with his excellent 2017-18 campaign. So now we wait to see what the first Kyle Dubas Edition of the Maple Leafs will look like on the ice. In terms of a philosophy, Dubas points to his old Soo Greyhounds and Toronto Marlies squads as indicators.
“The key was having intelligence and skill,” he said. “To encourage the creativity of the players and to have toughness, but not in the sense most people think of it: I mean the way Mitch Marner uses speed and tenacity to get the puck back, or the way Zach Hyman wins 50-50 battles.”
And what did Dubas do to celebrate the Tavares signing; champagne, chocolate cake?
“I sat in the office with our staff, thinking of ways to make our team better,” he said. “Then I went home and went to bed. We’re still a long way from where we want to get to.”
Guess Dubas prefers his players to head up the excitement department – he certainly has the names to do it.