Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas used the 2019 Entry Draft to make a statement: It’s time to do things his way.
Despite being with the Maple Leafs organization since 2014, Dubas had never enjoyed full autonomy until the past year. He was promoted to GM in May 2018, just days after former GM Lou Lamoriello stepped down. With Dubas’ promotion, assistant GM Mark Hunter, who had been in charge of running the Maple Leafs’ drafts since 2015, also parted ways with the club. That meant Dubas was finally the man in charge, with the ability to surround himself with his own hand-picked staff, and the chance to mold the future of the organization according to his vision. The 2019 Entry Draft presented an opportunity for him to do so.
Small in Stature, Big on Skill
With six selections from the second round on, Dubas displayed a clear pattern by drafting skilled, undersized players. In fact, not one of the Maple Leafs’ six draftees is over 5-foot-11.
- Round 2, #53: Nicholas Robertson (C/LW), 5-foot-9, 161 pounds
- Round 3, #84: Mikko Kokkonen (LD), 5-foot-11, 198 pounds
- Round 4, #115: Mikhail Abramov (C), 5-foot-10, 161 pounds
- Round 4, #124: Nicholas Abruzzese (C), 5-foot-9, 163 pounds
- Round 5, #146: Mike Koster (LD), 5-foot-9, 172 pounds
- Round 7, #204: Kalle Loponen (RD), 5-foot-11, 187 pounds
The likely reasoning behind drafting these players was that it allowed Dubas to collect higher-end talent that had, for one reason or another, fallen past their expected draft ranking. The Maple Leafs’ first selection, Nicholas Robertson, was the perfect example of this. He was ranked 17th by Central Scouting and according to Habs Eyes on the Prize, consensus rankings based on 14 sources placed him at 28th. Whether due to his size, potential (but fixable) skating issues, or a combination of both, Robertson slid all the way to the late second-round, and Dubas was able to pick up an undervalued prospect. The same applies to Mikko Kokkonen, who was 54th according to consensus rankings, Mikhail Abramov, who was pegged to go at 87, and Mike Koster, who was ranked at 112.
The theme of drafting skill over size is nothing new for Dubas. In 2018, the Maple Leafs made nine picks at the draft and, excluding goaltender Zachary Bouthillier, just two of the eight skaters were over 6-feet. The team came away from that draft with promising prospects like Rasmus Sandin, Sean Durzi (later traded in the Jake Muzzin deal), Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, and Mac Hollowell.
That was Dubas’ first draft without Lamoriello and Hunter, and his preference for skill shone through. It was a far cry from past Lamoriello-led drafts where the Maple Leafs gambled on taller, less talented players like Keaton Middleton and Fedor Gordeev amongst others who never signed entry-level contracts with the team. Dubas’ selections this past Saturday were a continuation of that skill-first philosophy.
If you’re still not sold on the idea of drafting skill over size, consider this: 5-foot-11, Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross and Hart Memorial Trophies this year, and six of the top 12 scorers in the league were 5-foot-11 or shorter. If we expand to 6-feet and shorter, that tally increases to eight and includes Toronto’s Mitch Marner. Speed and skill and trending upwards in the NHL while size and physicality are trending down, and it’s a pattern that Dubas has recognized.
A Message to Mike Babcock
Whether intentional or not, Dubas’ work at the draft sent a clear message to head coach Mike Babcock. While Babcock has been outspoken on several occasions about his desire to ice a more robust lineup, the Maple Leafs GM went the other way, acquiring and drafting plenty of undersized players while ridding the team of bigger, slower assets. Hard-nosed veterans like Roman Polak and Leo Komarov were allowed to walk last summer, and 38-year old Ron Hainsey may be the next of Babcock’s favourites to leave.
But aside from Dubas’ selections at the draft, the biggest news of the weekend – and the clearest message to Babcock – was Patrick Marleau and his $6.25 million cap hit were traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Not only did Dubas free up a sizeable chunk of much-needed cap space, but he also got rid of Lamoriello’s worst contract and one of Babcock’s inexplicable favourites.
The move was as practical as it was symbolic: By trading away Marleau’s contract, a relic of Lamoriello’s old-school philosophies, Dubas was able to reallocate that money towards younger, better, cheaper players in Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. It simultaneously made it clear to Babcock that it’ll be Dubas’ show this time around.
Can you blame the 33-year-old GM for wanting a change? For wanting to do things his way, after Babcock’s beat-your-head-against-the-wall strategies have led to three consecutive first-round exits?
A Sign of Things to Come?
You can’t help but wonder whether Draft Weekend may have signified a changing of the guard in Toronto.
You may recall that Brendan Shanahan eased his way into his new role with the Maple Leafs. He was introduced as president and alternate governor in April of 2014 but didn’t make his first move until April of the following year, when he fired then GM Dave Nonis and interim head coach Peter Horachek. From that point on, it became clear that Shanahan was in charge, that his vision would be followed to a tee. Similarly, Dubas hadn’t really rocked the boat until this weekend. He made a few trades throughout the season bringing in players like Muzzin and Nic Petan, sure, but nothing seemed as assertive – as emphatic – as Saturday’s events.
You can’t help but wonder what this Maple Leafs team may look like by opening night on Oct. 2. The aforementioned Hainsey is a pending free agent, Nikita Zaitsev has requested a trade, and Connor Brown, another Babcock favourite, may be on his way out. The team also needs at least one more top-four defenceman and that acquisition seems like it could be made without much input from the head coach.
Dubas and the Maple Leafs have a busy summer ahead, and if this weekend was any indication, there could be some big changes on the horizon.
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.