You have to believe Brendan Shanahan already knows how this ends.
Or at least how he wants it to.
It certainly seems like a stretch to say the Toronto Maple Leafs are now "searching" for someone to replace Lou Lamoriello as general manager when you consider the candidates Shanahan already has in-house. That the president didn’t come out and name an immediate replacement for Lamoriello on Monday afternoon is more a reflection of the delicate nature of his decision than a need to look far and wide for someone capable of doing the job.
He has been grooming Kyle Dubas for this position for nearly four years. It would be shocking if anyone other than the 32-year-old was eventually named the 17th general manager of the team. But there are ramifications to that choice – namely what happens to fellow assistant Mark Hunter, who many in the industry believe is unlikely to stay on in a role subordinate to Dubas.
Working through the new front-office structure appears to be Shanahan’s true challenge now that he’s shuffled Lamoriello off to the position of senior advisor. It also explains why he had so little to say about a "search" for a new GM after the decision was announced.
"First and foremost, we were playing hockey a week ago, so our focus was on hockey, on the games," Shanahan told reporters on a conference call. "I felt what was best for the organization was if I were to make a decision to make one early. I haven’t begun that process yet and that’s why nobody has been named. My focus was on Lou and making a decision – taking a little bit of time right after the season ended to really reflect on that.
"Just handling one thing at a time."
Shanahan didn’t go into detail on why he chose not to keep Lamoriello where he was other than to say he was sticking to the original timeline they contemplated back in July 2015. Lamoriello’s contract with the Leafs called for three years as GM and another four as senior advisor, but could have been amended had Shanahan decided to leave him in charge.
The most notable part of that plan was that it included Dubas taking over the GM role from Lamoriello – something Lamoriello mentioned to reporters the day he was hired by the Leafs.
"I think he’s a young fellow who has tremendous abilities – I know of his background – and if he doesn’t become the general manager here, and I’m not going to be here for a lifetime, it’s going to be his fault," Lamoriello said on July 23, 2015.
Dubas can hardly be faulted for anything that’s happened since. His primary role within the organization has been running the American Hockey League affiliate and the Marlies have gone a combined 150-63-15 the last three seasons.
Several AHL-groomed players have jumped into full-time roles with the Leafs each of those years, with Travis Dermott, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson all taking the final step in recent months. Sheldon Keefe has also proven to be an astute hire as head coach and he came over from the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds with Dubas.
No wonder the Leafs stepped in and prevented the Colorado Avalanche from hiring Dubas to be their GM last off-season. Along the way they’re also believed to have given him the kind of lucrative contract extension reserved only for blue-chip assistant GMs, one that essentially marks him as the GM-in-waiting in Toronto.
Shanahan could make his promotion official quite quickly.
The Hall of Famer has shown himself to be a thoughtful decision-maker since taking over the Leafs presidency in 2014, which makes it even less likely that he’s not three moves ahead of where he appears to be right now.
Remember that Shanahan entrusted Dubas with the interim GM duties after firing Dave Nonis three years ago, making him the point of contact for opposing teams during the Phil Kessel trade talks and allowing him to run their 2015 entry draft in concert with Hunter.
He showed the right touch in bringing in someone with Lamoriello’s experience soon afterwards. Unquestionably, the highlight of the veteran GM’s tenure in Toronto was the teardown of the roster he inherited – with his signature move coming in the form of a nine-player deal with Ottawa that got the Leafs out from under the bloated contract of former captain Dion Phaneuf.
Now they are facing a new set of challenges with the scaling-up of a contending team – a job suited for a creative thinker like Dubas. The Leafs need to bolster the right side of their blue line without sacrificing too much of the high-end scoring talent they’ve amassed. They need to get working on extensions for William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner while being mindful of the ripple effect down the roster. They need to decide how best to use the significant cap space they have for next year to take a serious run at the Stanley Cup.
You’d have to think keeping Hunter is also a priority. He plays a huge role in overseeing their amateur scouting department – it was no coincidence he was picked to go to the podium and announce Matthews as their No. 1 draft pick in 2016 – while also working with Jim Paliafito to land professional free agents out of Europe.
Finding a way to make it all work at the top falls on Shanahan. Some thought there would be too many Type-A personalities around when he brought in Lamoriello to lead a group that included head coach Mike Babcock and that didn’t stop the organization from taking steps forward.
Now he’s got to reshuffle the deck with Dubas, Hunter and Babcock, plus Lamoriello as senior advisor (assuming he stays) and cap specialist Brandon Pridham. With those men already under contract, it’s hard to imagine the president bringing in a GM from outside the walls.
"I haven’t gone there. My focus has been on this today," said Shanahan. "Certainly as I go through my process I will consider everything that I think is best for the Toronto Maple Leafs."
There is no need to look elsewhere. Shanahan already has his man. It’s just about making sure the dominoes fall over in the intended order.