TORONTO — Kyle Dubas is either the most fortunate or most doomed general manager in hockey, depending how you view these things.
He climbed a mountain to take control of the Toronto Maple Leafs before his 33rd birthday, then quickly realized that getting the job was the easy part. There can only be two possible outcomes from the position he occupies now: Either he shapes and molds this franchise into one capable of ending the longest Stanley Cup drought going, or he’s eventually fired for falling short.
There is no in between.
The starkness of his task only becomes clearer on a good-news day like this one, when Dubas sat beside Auston Matthews and signed off on a $58.17-million, five-year extension, because it reinforces how difficult it’s going to be to keep one of the NHL’s most promising rosters intact long enough to see it through.
“We’re trying to build a team that can have sustained success. Not just contend once,” said Dubas. “I think you look, there’s [many] teams all across every professional sport, they’re very good teams for a long time but they can’t ever push it across the finish line. I think a lot of that is luck-related and luck-based, and I think we want to give ourselves the maximum number of chances we can to make a real good go at it.”
He will ultimately be judged on how well he navigates both the bounces and bonuses. A hard salary cap is the enemy of every GM with oversized aspirations, especially when you’re soon to be allocating nearly half of the available money to a core four: Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and eventually Mitch Marner, the only one of the elite Leafs still in need of a big contract.
Dubas became increasingly motivated to nail down the Matthews extension with the Feb. 25 trade deadline coming into view and felt secure enough about where the negotiations were headed to pull the trigger on acquiring defenceman Jake Muzzin last week. Moves like that become easier to make with a clearly defined salary picture.
The phrase you’ll hear bandied about in NHL circles is “cost certainty,” which translates roughly to, ‘Do I have enough cap space to justify acquiring or keeping Player X at Salary Y?’
It’s an equation they’ll be running often in the Leafs front office moving forward. Every decision, big or small, will need to be filtered through it.
The only major missing piece to be filled in is the next Marner contract, which could prove trickiest of all. As much as Dubas might like to get that hammered out immediately, he seems content with honouring the request of agent Darren Ferris and waiting until after the season.
“There’s going to be no pressure from us on that,” said Dubas. “For us, if they want to talk, we’re here. But we’re respecting their wishes and I would expect everyone else would as well in terms of how they handle Mitch. When they’re ready to sit down, we’ll talk. He’s going to be a Toronto Maple Leaf for a long time, regardless of how we had to come to that.
“So it’s no issue at all.”
It will take some creativity from the front office to get Marner signed at a manageable number. He’s likely to lead the Leafs in points for the second straight season, and will seek a contract on par with Matthews — just as we once saw Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane take matching deals in Chicago coming out of entry-level, following Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.
However, another $11.634-million AAV looks like too much for Toronto to bear.
The team’s entire salary structure would have been crippled had the Leafs even stretched to reach Matthews’ desired $14 million on a max eight-year deal, which is why management zeroed in on something shorter. Sure, it narrows the guaranteed window of Cup contention and will likely see the centre command an even larger piece of the pie at age 26, but it works in the immediate term.
“We’re trying to balance obviously keeping this together while also contending and not having to delete parts from it,” explained Dubas.
Talk about a challenging job.
Dubas has only been running the Leafs since May 11 — some 270 days — and already he’s landed Tavares in free agency, engaged in a three-month contract stalemate with Nylander, traded for Muzzin and signed Matthews to one of the richest deals in franchise history.
Next up is his first trade deadline in a little more than two weeks and then the potential volatile Marner negotiation, plus some tough secondary challenges with promising wingers Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson set to become RFAs this summer.
With the cap ceiling projected to be at $83 million next season, it’s hard to imagine all of Patrick Marleau (who owns a full no-movement clause), Nikita Zaitsev and Connor Brown returning. There doesn’t seem to be nearly enough room for negotiations with pending UFA Jake Gardiner, either.
So while Dubas was clearly fortunate to take over an Original Six franchise that had the makings of a top-flight contender, he also assumed a position with the potential to age him like a president. And even with Matthews signed, the tough work continues.
“I think the issue at hand here is one that we’re very fortunate to have,” said Dubas. “It creates some headaches at times, but we do have a very talented young team and we’d rather be trying to keep that together than probably where we were at the beginning, which was trying to build it up.”