Kyle Dubas spent his first two months as the Pittsburgh Penguins director of hockey operations watching the staff around him adjust almost seamlessly to a new work environment.
So seamlessly, it turned out, that Dubas feared any more change would affect the synergy he’s felt since joining the club on June 1. So rather than add another external voice to the mix, he opted to take on the role of general manager last week, confident there are enough checks and balances around him to put the Penguins in a position to return to contention in a crowded Eastern Conference.
Pittsburgh’s revamped front office included promoting Andy Saucier to director of professional personnel, naming former NHL defenseman Trevor Daley and U.S. women’s national hockey team icon Amanda Kessel as special assistants and shifting Erik Heasley’s duties to director of minor league and amateur scouting operations.
The 37-year-old Dubas called the workflow during a very busy offseason that included a massive trade for three-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson “open” and “transparent.” He credited the input of assistant general manager Jason Spezza and director of hockey operations and legal affairs Vukie Mpofu for helping the team navigate an eventful stretch that he hopes will let the Penguins bounce back after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
“I (feel) like we are in a really good spot,” Dubas said. “I didn’t want to unsettle it further. And I feel and with what they all bring and my current energy level and where I’m at, that it was just best (for everybody) that way.”
Just over a third of the teams in the NHL have a general manager who also runs their respective club’s hockey operations, including five of the seven other teams in the Metropolitan Division.
Dubas said he was going to look for an external hire shortly after taking the job. He’s not ruling out having someone take over that role down the road, but not now.
Combining the jobs is a different direction for the Penguins, who had Brian Burke run hockey operations and Ron Hextall serve as general manager after Jim Rutherford resigned abruptly in January 2021. Burke and Hextall were fired after the Penguins fell one point short in the standings of reaching the postseason. Dubas isn’t worried about feeling he has too much power.
“I want everyone in our front office, in our building to directly call me up, including everybody in (the media),” Dubas said. “When you don’t think I’m doing something right or doing something wrong … I want to hear that versus hear the opposite.”
Dubas believes Pittsburgh’s busy summer is over and anticipates the roster as it currently stands — a group that includes free-agent signee defenseman Ryan Graves and forward Reilly Smith, who came over in a trade with Vegas — will be the roster that takes the ice when training camp begins in September.
The Penguins will begin camp, however, without forward Jake Guentzel. Guentzel underwent surgery last week to deal with a right ankle injury that had been slow to heal during the offseason. The 29-year-old, an All-Star in 2022, will be re-evaluated in late October. Dubas is hopeful Guentzel will miss only a handful of games.
Dubas believes Guentzel’s absence will provide an opportunity for some of the team’s younger players such as 22-year-old forward Sam Poulin to step in. The Penguins, who had the NHL’s oldest team last season, will likely be among the oldest this season but Dubas is confident Pittsburgh is in better shape to compete for a Stanley Cup than the franchise was when he arrived.
His message to the prospects hoping to make an impact is simple: show us what you’ve got.
“This is the opportunity you’ve waited for all this time and you’ve got six weeks to put yourself in the best spot to take advantage of it,” Dubas said. “And I’m just excited to see who comes in and takes it.”