In Kyle Dubas’ season-opening press conference, the Maple Leafs GM announced that President Brendan Shanahan told him he would not be receiving an extension entering the final year of his current contract.
“Obviously, Brendan and I talk all the time and have very open communication on it. We met at the end of the summer and kind of went through the way the year was going to go. Frankly, that is what I expected.
The reality is that I fully acknowledge we haven’t gotten it done at the end of the season.”
It hasn’t been talked about much, but it’s a little strange that Dubas announced his own contract status rather than the person in charge of the decision. So much of the focus in the market has been on Dubas specifically and his contract, which really isn’t framing the entire picture correctly. It is Shanahan who is making these calls.
Shanahan was the first major hire in this era of Leafs hockey, and unlike Dubas, he is under contract until the summer of 2025. Shanahan’s fingerprints are all over every major organizational decision over the last eight or nine years, and he’s been front and center for all of the major announcements since he was hired.
When the Leafs fired Mike Babcock, it was only Shanahan’s name beside every quote in the news release – and only Shanahan who met with the media later on that evening in Arizona. When COVID cut the 2020-21 season short, Shanahan granted interviews. He has made a number of radio appearances over his time as Leafs President. At every season-ending press conference, Shanahan has spoken.
Interestingly, the last time we publicly heard from Shanahan was May 17, 2022.
It’s not like he doesn’t normally speak before a new season begins, either. Before last season, he conducted an interview with Steve Simmons. Prior to the season before, he was a guest on the Ray and Dregs podcast.
I would imagine this is a strategic and calculated move on the part of Shanahan, who is sitting back and evaluating the season (and the playoffs, of course) while trying to figure out the right way forward. His silence has also completely shifted the conversation and attention away from him, even though he is pulling the strings behind it all.
Shanahan is the top decision-maker with whom the buck stops. Kyle Dubas was hired and appointed the number two person in the hockey ops hierarchy. Even if Dubas is generally making the day-to-day player personnel decisions, we can be sure they’re done with Shanahan’s knowledge and approval.
If we look at it through Shanahan’s eyes, the situation is set up quite nicely for him to make a decision one way or another. The contracts of the President, General Manager, and Head Coach expire in the following years:
|Personnel||End of Current Contract|
If the results are positive this spring, the decision is an easy one. The GM is extended, and his hand-picked coach – who is already under contract – probably receives an extension, too. The top players on the team are all under contract through at least next season, and the 2023 offseason will be about sorting through the half of the starting forward group in need of new contracts (plus decisions on Justin Holl, Conor Timmins, and Ilya Samsonov).
There seems to be a notion within the fan base that it’s possible the Leafs are slighting Dubas by not already extending him and that it could come back to bite them. This assumes Dubas wouldn’t sign an extension with the richest franchise in the league – who no competitor would outbid – following playoff success.
None of the other top teams are about to fire their GMs. Dubas would be going to a smaller market, to a franchise that likely can’t/won’t pay as much as the Leafs, and to a team that is almost certainly worse than the Leafs – all because he wasn’t preemptively extended following the four straight first-round exits since taking over a 105-point playoff team? It would be a strange move on Dubas’ part.
If the Leafs won it all this season, would he not want to create a dynasty with a core he has taken it on the chin defending for years now, one that’s already under contract through next season? If the Leafs went to the conference finals, wouldn’t Dubas want to finally get the job done in one of the league’s flagship markets?
It would be akin to cutting off his nose to spite his face if he held a grudge and didn’t want to extend his contract following some level of playoff success.
Dubas was the first one to stand up and admit that the team simply hasn’t broken through and an extension wasn’t the expectation. The team’s regular-season success is probably somewhat taken for granted, and they have been in the toughest division in the league (in terms of elite teams at the top) for pretty well Dubas’ entire tenure save for the Canadian division season. Those two factors are not insignificant.
At the same time, the goal is playoff success and Stanley Cups. Dubas would be the first to admit this. He isn’t waking up in the morning trying to figure out how to be the best regular-season team (which is also something they haven’t accomplished anyway). He is trying to figure out how to win in the playoffs and ultimately win a championship.
To that end, extending Dubas now – halfway through a strong regular season to date – would make little sense. If this was about regular-season success, he would have been extended already, at some point last season or in the summer. Nothing has changed between the end of last spring to this point in time.
If anything, it would be a strange message to the team to award a contract extension halfway through the 2022-23 season. The accomplishments so far are not exactly surprising or unexpected. They ran back the nucleus of a team that just finished in the top five in the league, and nobody was expecting them to become a poor regular-season squad all of a sudden. Outside of goaltending, the team’s biggest addition was Calle Jarnkrok. Regular season success was to be expected unless a massive wave of injuries struck.
Shanahan is in the process of evaluating whether these were the right moves and if the team can finally get the job done in the playoffs. If all goes well, it’s set up quite nicely for him to move forward with the current personnel in place. If the season ends prematurely in the spring yet again, I’d argue it’s also set up quite nicely for him.
When last season ended, Shanahan articulated a vote of confidence in Dubas and Keefe:
“As we look forward to next year and getting to work towards next year, I think it is important to state that I see both of them as being extremely important to getting us to the next level, so that when we do approach next year and we do come back, we are ready to take that next step.”
Should the worst-case scenario happen – another first-round exit – it would be fairly justifiable for Shanahan to determine that Dubas has generally done a good job but that a new voice and fresh set of eyes are needed to get the team to the next level. I don’t want to list any candidates – the second I write a name down, it will be the only takeaway readers have from the article – but there is any number of potentially available options that have had playoff success and could pair up with Shanahan to also – at a minimum – make the playoffs and lose in the first round.
The team’s core is already under contract and pretty well the entire bottom half of the forward group is due up for a new contract. In all likelihood, Shanahan would be bringing in a new GM to take a new approach to building around the current core.
Even if the goal became to shake up the core in some capacity, the suggestion that they would automatically be fleeced in any trade is a bizarre assumption. Shanahan has been here from the outset, and the Leafs have generally ascended steadily and made smart decisions under his watch. The idea that Shanahan would oversee the giving away of a top player or that the team would totally fall apart while he remains in charge does not add up given his tenure to date.
Any new GM would inherit Sheldon Keefe with a year left on his contract, so they would probably have to put some level of “extension” in place or hire a new coach. It would be fairly reasonable for a coach not to survive a fourth first-round exit. Much like GM candidates, I’m not going to list a bunch of potential coaching candidates – it totally shifts the conversation – but there is any number of coaches available with track records of playoff success.
Short of blowing up the team or a trade that makes them significantly worse, the floor for this core and any new GM/head coach combination is to make the playoffs and exit in the first round – which is exactly where they’ve been as of the end of the 2022 playoffs.
If you’re Brendan Shanahan weighing up the options at the moment, it makes sense to wait this out and evaluate. He has a close relationship with Lou Lamoriello, who is famously fond of the saying, “If you have time, use it.” The table is set up nicely for Shanahan either way.
The only potential complication is if there is any legitimacy to the possibility that Dubas has special relationships with the team’s core players that would impact the Leafs’ ability to sign them to future contract extensions. I don’t know how legitimate of a concern this is, but I would imagine Shanahan also has relationships with the players and their agents.
When Shanahan was able to convince Lamoriello to come to Toronto, Lou remarked, “If I want anybody recruited anywhere to go anywhere, I’m sending Brendan.” It was largely Shanahan who won the Babcock sweepstakes. He clearly has the ability to negotiate, sell sought-after talent on his vision, and nurture relationships.
If the conversation shifts to the Leafs entirely cleaning house from Shanahan on down, this would be a scary proposition. Some of the legitimate fears Leafs fans harbour after decades of futility would be realized if the ownership group wiped the slate clean and hired a whole new management team from the President on down.
Should the 2023 playoffs go the way of the seven before it, it’s possible ownership takes a look at the situation and decides to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Any number of awful scenarios would be on the table then.
With Shanahan at the top making the hockey decisions, though, it’s hard to see the team completely falling apart – even if he decides to move on from Dubas and/or Dubas decides to leave. Certainly, the talk of the Leafs becoming a laughing stock again without Dubas as GM has been overblown to some degree.
The biggest decisions are made at the top, and we don’t really know what the Leafs’ top decision-maker is thinking right now, partly because we haven’t heard from him in almost a year. To this point, we have no indication that Shanahan’s job is on the line, and based on his tenure so far, there isn’t a ton of merit to the argument that he would chart a disastrous path forward around the core he oversaw the assembly of every step of the way.