Maple Leafs’ Dubas Putting Value on Leadership

After another early postseason exit, all eyes became fixated on Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas. The defense was an eye sore for most of the season, but having players be accountable for their play on the ice and their ability to play the game responsibly was evidently missing from this team.

As young as they are, they’re not going to have success unless major changes are made. In a recent article posted by Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, Dubas admitted not putting an emphasis on veteran leadership. They did have a few names, but it still wasn’t enough. You need to have more than two names to be that vocal presence on the bench and in the locker room.

“Why, after the first time, I just didn’t realize it and learn it then and then apply it every time moving forward, that’s just a mistake on my end,” Dubas said according to Fox. “Shame on me for that.”

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

After this realization, Dubas learned a valuable lesson and his mandate changed this offseason. Leadership and accountability from the players would go a long in winning a championship. If everyone wants to hoist the Stanley Cup, then they all need to be on board. 

Dubas Had a Lot on His Plate

Consider this past season as a lesson learned for the young general manager as there was a lot of work to do on this team. After all, this was just his second season as general manager. He had to get rid of major contracts that Lou Lamiorello signed to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. Marleau’s contract was a major mistake — giving an aging, although still durable, player $6.25 million dollars — and Zaitsev didn’t perform as well after an impressive rookie season.

When you come in and have to re-work your team’s cap situation, you need to prioritize your top players, which is not an easy feat. Nevertheless, Dubas, with the help of assistant general manager Brandon Pridham, managed to make the moves in order to accomplish this. 

It’s a lot of pressure to manage a team and know what you can improve on. Even more so, it’s difficult in a market where millions of eyes are constantly watching and critiquing everything you do. Admitting that he didn’t focus on a key aspect to a team’s success is great, but it shows that Dubas is still figuring out how to put the best team forward. Without fully accepting these characteristics in any sport, you’re not going to have much success. 

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas
Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Kyle Dubas (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

There were many factors that Dubas faced this season. Criticism from the Tyson Barrie deal that didn’t work out, a coaching change, multiple injuries to his roster, etc. Nothing seemed to go right. However, it seems like things could work out this time around. A new outlook from him could be what this team needs. Adding in the names that Dubas signed in the offseason, you can expect a different attitude and mindset heading into the 2020-21 season, when it starts up

Leadership and Accountability

With the Maple Leafs core set, the ability to obtain depth players with strong intangible qualities on cheap deals to fill out the bottom of the roster could pay off. I’ve written before that the key to success is balance. Though he has his methods and philosophy that puts an emphasis on analytics, one shouldn’t outweigh the other when a team is striving for success. 

While analytics are important and gives a deeper perspective to the game, somethings can’t be viewed as a number. Heart, accountability, leadership and grit are all factors that make a great team successful. The Maple Leafs were lacking these aspects and Dubas sought to address it.

When you look at teams like the Boston Bruins and 2020 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, they have a lot of things in common. They have the skill but they also have a strong group of veteran and role players that are still able to make an impact on the ice. They’ve always been at the top of the Atlantic Division with the success they’ve had. It’s something the Maple Leafs have longed to emulate and make themselves tougher to play against. 

The Maple Leafs have tried to surround their young core with a group of veterans to lead them in the right direction. Having past names like Marleau, Matt Martin and Roman Polak didn’t quite work out. With the offseason moves he made, this seems to be a strong group of veteran forwards to help this young team take the next step.

This year there was hardly anyone who spoke out. As the captain, John Tavares did, but his play didn’t seem to reflect his message at times. Jake Muzzin was probably the most outspoken out of all the players after an embarrassing performance. Even then, that wasn’t enough. Having players like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and even T.J. Brodie (who played with Mark Giordano) and Zach Bogosian, they will do their part to lead by example and hold everyone accountable. 

Joe Thornton San Jose Sharks
Former San Jose Sharks centre, Joe Thornton is looking to bring a strong leadership presence to the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dubas even called out the top players to say that they need to sacrifice a little more. In a recent episode of the Sticks in the Six podcast, Andrew Forbes and I covered this topic in length. Accountability is at the forefront with his team. Other young teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Colorado Avalanche play with a high competitive nature and know that nothing comes easy in this league. The Maple Leafs have yet to understand this as they didn’t have the consistency factor to play the way other teams do. Even though their core has four seasons under their belt and are offensively talented, they have to do more.  

Dubas said, “If there’s a 50-50 puck, do you desperately want to win that puck every single time? And are you willing to be the first one on the puck? Are you willing to go to the difficult areas of the ice with and without the puck and be successful?”

Yes, Mitch Marner can play on the penalty kill. Auston Matthews has shown that two-way presence and brings a bit of an edge as he showed in the playoffs. William Nylander regained his offensive form. Clearly, that’s not enough. They’re at the point now where that message has to sink in or they’re never going to learn what it means to truly succeed. They’re going to have to battle every minute, of every shift, of every game. You can expect the new veteran additions will hold everyone accountable and make sure they aren’t making lazy plays.

Can’t Win on Skill Alone

Dubas has made some great moves to help improve the team. Some of his moves have paid off but others, not so much. It’s great that he prioritizes skill — every team should as we’ve seen how skilled players are right now. 

But you can’t win on skill alone. We saw that this season as well as in the past. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, especially when you bulk up your defense with puck-moving defenseman who always jump into the rush and don’t prioritize play in their own end.

Dubas took a chance with Barrie after he had a strong season with the Avalanche. His offense did start to turn around after Mike Babcock was fired, but his inability to play defense was evident. He was on a team leading 61 goals against at five-on-five during the regular season as well as 35 high-danger goals against. It was clear that he wasn’t what the team needed. Dubas corrected that decision by signing someone more responsible in Brodie who was on for 44 goals against and 23 high-danger goals against.

TJ Brodie Calgary Flames
Former Calgary Flames defenseman T.J. Brodie is looking to bring balance to the Toronto Maple Leafs defense. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Yes, the team has Muzzin as a defensive-minded player, but that is all. Cody Ceci was a major disappointment, but expectations were higher with Barrie. That was a gamble that didn’t work out and it was back to the drawing board for Dubas.

This offseason was a tipping point in his philosophy and approach. That focus immediately shifted after what transpired in the play-in round. It’s not enough to just get depth players, you have to find the right mix that’s willing to buy into the team’s mentality and play with urgency. You didn’t see that with Kasperi Kapanen. Nylander wasn’t as engaged as we hoped he was in the regular season. 

It may seem trivial to criticize Dubas about the role leadership plays on a team. There’s no doubt that your best players are relied on when you need a goal at a crucial point in the game. But the ability to rally around one another and put forth the effort as a result of a vocal voice on the team shouldn’t be overlooked. Not even for a second.  

They’re just as important as those that score the goal to get a win or even the Stanley Cup. Having players like Thornton, Brodie and Simmonds could have a major impact on the team both on the ice and off with their leadership and veteran presence. 

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick.