TORONTO – On the day before the Montreal draft — the site where both Kyle Dubas’ quest for a starting goaltender and Pierre Dorion’s plot to salary-dump a once-great one intensified — the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was asked a very direct question.
Is your job on the line this season?
“It’s a fair question. I feel it's on the line every year, and I'm judged at the end of every season. I don't necessarily feel there's more of a pressure; I just think it's a very important thing for me personally to help deliver for the organization,” Dubas responded.
“For me, the pressure doesn't change day to day. Every day I'm getting up, trying to do everything I can to help our organization, and obviously the end goal is that we're having success in the playoffs.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver for the people who have hired me and the people that I work with. And that’ll never change.”
Years from now, when we gaze back at the Kyle Dubas Era in this city — a run sparkling with wild regular-season highs and, so far, crushing post-season lows — we are likely to crash the blue paint.
We might vaguely recall Garret Sparks or Michael Hutchinson. The hockey nerds might bring up Michal Neuvirth’s last stop before Nowhere, that wasted 2021 pick on third-stringer David Rittich, or Harri Säteri’s ill-fated waiver claim.
We most certainly will remember Frederik Andersen walking out the door for nothing, as an ailing backup, after five workhorse seasons. Then bouncing back to win the Jennings Trophy in Carolina.
And the general manager’s misguided gamble on injury-prone gear head Petr Mrazek: three years, three groin pulls, three 8’s in his save percentage.
Dubas is a smart executive, aggressive in mending mistakes, stingy with term on the fringes.
Dubas has also forever been playing catchup when it comes to a real plan in net.
That’s partly due to the Maple Leafs’ organizational failure to properly draft and develop a homegrown goaltender that sticks in the NHL since James Reimer, a 2006 fourth-rounder now entering his 13th big-league campaign.
That’s partly due to goaltending’s inherent crapshoot nature. Paradoxically, it’s the sport’s most important position and the one thinnest on elite talent and hardest to fill with predictability.
That’s also partly due to Dubas under-prioritizing his goalies.
They said, “Build your roster from the crease out.” Dubas found — and paid — his forwards first. He had another way.
Which brings us to the most critical off-season of the GM’s tenure, that job on the line, and a vision that will be unshaken by outside opinion.
Dubas did not wish to give term to Stanley Cup champion Darcy Kuemper (aiming for six years near $6 million per) or late bloomer Jack Campbell (craving five years at $5 million apiece). The former appears to be headed to Washington, the latter to Edmonton.
Despite Campbell’s strong numbers, solid playoff performances and connection to the fanbase, Dubas never tendered Campbell a competitive offer.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” teammate Mitch Marner told Breakfast Television Monday. “He’s an exceptional player, exceptional goalie. We’ll see what happens with him. I think he knows he’s got the whole city behind him. He’s got our team behind him. And hopefully something can happen (on an extension).
“Whatever it is, there’s gonna be a lot of guys happy for him because he’s that person that’s always bringing joy and a smile around you.”
Hours later, Dubas officially sent Campbell out the door and sent Leafs Nation into a tizzy.
He traded Ottawa for Matt Murray.
Dorion, desperate to unload a bad contract he signed in 2020, included a third-round pick in 2023, a seventh-round pick in 2024, and retained 25 per cent of Murray’s salary.
Murray will be on the Maple Leafs’ books for $4.6875 million against the cap the next two years (the same term and about $900,000 more than Mrazek costs).
After doing their due diligence on the oft-injured Murray’s medical condition Sunday, the Maple Leafs agreed to pay $11.25 million in real dollars on Murray for two seasons — the final two seasons of MVP Auston Matthews’ (and William Nylander’s) current contract.
Barring a trade of more salary out, Dubas now has $6.36 million in cap room to (a) accommodate raises for RFAs Rasmus Sandin and Pierre Engvall, (b) upgrade a forward group that lost Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Colin Blackwell and Jason Spezza, (c) re-sign Ilya Lyubushkin or find another rugged right-shot defender, and (d) explore the backup goalie market.
Undisputedly, the Matt Murray trade is a bold move.
A swing so hard, it yanks Dubas out of his shoes on a 2-0 count.
If the GM connects, if the 28-year-old Murray avoids serious injury and performs to his 2018-19 level, Dubas deserves to hit us with a big, fat “I told you so.”
All that familiarity and fierce loyalty to the Soo Greyhounds alum with the shiny playoff résumé (29-21, .921, two rings) will have paid off in spectacular fashion.
Toronto’s Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and goalie guru Jon Elkin may well be proven correct, that they understood the character and foresaw a triumphant bounce-back.
But if Murray is still what he was in Ottawa, where he was waived to the AHL, struggled to string together meaningful starts, and lost his job to younger, cheaper talent?
Well, asking if Dubas’ job is on the line becomes an even fairer question.