It is, on its face, a dream job.
It hasn’t always been the case, not even close. Just about every other time it ended ugly. A good number of times it started out ugly and ended uglier.
No matter, circa 2018, the post of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager is a dream job and it’s all Kyle Dubas’s.
There was absolutely nothing shocking in the announcement the team put out there Friday morning that Dubas was succeeding Lou Lamoriello as GM. And it seems perfectly ordinary that the average age of the last two Leafs GMs is 52.
The Leafs will improve immediately, first evidence coming at the next GM meetings, when the Leafs execs go against their peers in the golf tournament — though it’s just another opportunity for Dale Tallon to hustle the league.
Seriously, though, that the 32-year-old Dubas was going to get a shot at this job someday was virtually a sure thing so long as Brendan Shanahan was president of the Leafs. That was bumped up to a given when you heard that teams had asked Shanahan for permission to talk to Dubas with regards to GM jobs and Shanahan politely hung up on them. There had to be a promise and not an unspoken one that the Leafs GM post awaited him. That other teams were interested, well, that made it more pressing.
I mean, if Lou had stayed in place, oh, another season or two, it’s not like Dubas would have become Prince Charles. But c’mon, at some point Dubas might have found a grey hair and wonder: “What the hell have I been doing with my life? Time is passing me by.”
Shanahan did a round of interviews for the position in recent days but Dubas probably gained the inside track four years ago. As Shanahan remembered it Friday, what he had intended to be an hour-long talk with the then-boy-wonder GM of the Soo Greyhounds wound up being a nine-hour discussion about all things hockey and matters outside the arena.
Upon the announcement of the Leafs hiring Dubas away from the Greyhounds the narrative was set: Shanahan will bring in a veteran GM to show the kid the ropes. And when Shanahan coaxed Lamoriello to come aboard it was a perfect fit with the storyline.
The only snag in the scenario was Shanahan’s hiring of Mark Hunter, who could have, not unreasonably, his own ambition at the GM’s job down the line. Hunter’s own CV was lengthy — cred as a NHL player, an unmatched record of success as boss of the London Knights and relationships with 95 per cent of folks in the game on a first-name basis. Dubas and Hunter were at the same level on the organizational chart but if you looked at their LinkedIn pages, you’d figure that the more experienced hand was first in the line of succession. Maybe having a rival in place was part of the president’s grand design, although that seems a little heavy on the intrigue. Every organization, hockey or otherwise, is a team of rivals. That’s just how it plays out.
Anyway, Dubas’s big day would not have been a day for Hunter to pop the champagne — nor would Wednesday have been a day celebration in the Hunter household, when Shanahan made the call to let him know that he had won the silver. Shanahan said that he had interviewed both internal candidates and considered hockey execs outside the organization but quickly settled on staying within the office.
What happens in the coming days is not altogether clear, not to fans and media, not to Shanahan and Dubas. Hunter’s future with the club hangs out there. Shanahan made it clear that he’d like to have Hunter around and he said that the public image of Hunter as a scouting guy underestimates his contribution to all aspects of the organization. But by Shanahan’s account, Hunter told him that he just wanted time for the regime change to sink in.
In this business and all others, age and experience aren’t everything to those who do the hiring. Age and experience are completely front of mind to those not hired. The wounds cut deep and the next team meetings, not far away with the combine looming, could be awkward in the extreme. One man’s dream job is another man’s living nightmare.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock is on the record for calling Dubas “a superstar” and Dubas was effusive in his compliments for the coach and spinning positive on their personal connection. Still, you don’t have to have met Babcock to know that the NHL arenas stand on foundations of rebar-fortified egos.
Exactly how Dubas establishes that Babcock works for him and not vice versa would be one hell of a reality show. Big Brother, Little Brother.
It’s not like Dubas just sat around for four years and took notes. When Dubas was given management of the AHL affiliate, among his other duties, some might have looked at it as a way for upper management from keeping him from being underfoot. And maybe the hiring of Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe, another Soo alum, made it look that way all the more. As it turned out, however, Dubas and Keefe effected an overhaul of the mothership’s farm system.
Once upon a time, the Leafs minor-league teams were where talent withered and dreams went to die. If you looked at the Leafs lineup this season, Marlies alums abounded and Dubas received deserved credit. Now, you could think the infusion of young talent is evidence of the excellence of Mark Hunter’s scouting department but really, it’s hard to separate scrambled eggs.
Lamoriello (heretofore known as Dubas’s “mentor and friend”) landed in Toronto at a low point — not the lowest because there have been many, but low nonetheless. Under his stewardship, the team went out and found talent, which he had a record of doing in New Jersey. He also changed the culture of the team — in the wilderness years, Toronto’s room at its best had been so-what and often toxic. For the likes of John Ferguson Jr. and Brian Burke and Dave Nonis, the GM’s job wasn’t a dream job so much as an evolving, living nightmare. Dubas spoke at length Friday about keeping his players and staff in a positive mindset, letting them know that management has their backs. At 32, he could give a masterclass for CEOs on working a skeptical room and maybe even a potentially unruly workplace.
Dubas comes into a great situation but not a perfect one. How will Dubas juggle the millions with the expirations of the entry-level contracts of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander? How can Dubas keep Sheldon Keefe aboard with NHL teams looking to fill openings and no places open internally?
Shanahan suggested Friday that the Leafs are probably a season ahead of schedule, that being where management hope the team would be when in its tear-down phase. He talked bravely about the Leafs being a contender for the Stanley Cup sooner rather than later. He installed Dubas in the GM’s job when the team was poised to succeed. That stuff happens in the NHL even less often than a 32-year-old getting the corner office.