Leafs GM job means huge challenges, opportunities for Dubas

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Earlier today, the rumblings were confirmed, as the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that 32-year-old Kyle Dubas was promoted to the level of being their new GM. By many accounts, the push for Lou Lamoriello’s successor came down to Dubas or more experienced executive Mark Hunter.

However Leafs fans feel about this bold (if expected) choice, it should be grab-your-popcorn-level fun to see how everything plays out. Well, if you’re enraptured by nerdy team-building stuff, that is.

(Raises hand emphatically.)

The good news is that Lamoriello & Co. left behind a great situation for Dubas, who’s been learning the ropes since joining the organization in July 2014. With great organizational powers come great responsibility, however, and the young executive faces an array of short and long-term decisions that will make a huge impact on the fortunes of the massively popular NHL franchise.

Let’s take a look at some the opportunities at his fingertips, the obstacles in his way, and ponder some important situations that could go well or blow up in Toronto’s face.

An outstanding young core, a fairly clean slate

The best is almost certainly yet to come for this outstanding nucleus of young players.

Auston Matthews is 20, Mitch Marner is 21, William Nylander is 22, and even Morgan Rielly is only 24. Frederik Andersen should have prime years left at 28.

Toronto managed to get rid of Dion Phaneuf‘s contract, while Joffrey Lupul will no longer need to shade the Leafs about using his deal as a loophole. Aside from a few exceptions (Matt Martin, Nikita Zaitsev), there isn’t the baggage you normally see amid a regime change. Chalk that up to the Shanaplan if you want, but the world is Dubas’ oyster.

A small window and some big extensions

According to Cap Friendly, the Maple Leafs have $50.1 million devoted to 15 players for 2018-19. Dubas faces some intriguing possibilities considering the fact that the cap ceiling is expected to range between $78-$82M.

Sure, some of that space will be eaten up by RFA deals, most notably that of William Nylander.

The bottom line, though, is that the Maple Leafs should be flush … for one summer. The entry-level contracts for Matthews and Marner are set to expire after 2018-19, with those two becoming eligible for proactive extensions as early as this July.

First things first, Dubas is charged with pushing the right buttons as far as signing Matthews, Nylander, and Marner to team-friendly deals. Any free agent moves would surely be made realizing that those three will make this cushion evaporate with considerable speed.

With that in mind, Dubas might opt for creative one-year contracts. If James van Riemsdyk ends up unhappy with the market, would he take a rich, one-year deal to stay with Toronto? Would the Maple Leafs be able to convince a useful player to take a one-year deal under similar circumstances in the more likely case where JVR leaves?

Tavares or another blockbuster addition?

Again, with just about any situation, a team should make it work if John Tavares is interested in signing up. Of course, the Maple Leafs join the Sharks on the short list of teams that make the most realistic sense for Tavares if he doesn’t re-sign with the Islanders. The Maple Leafs could give Tavares a real chance to win it all; on the other hand, he might not appreciate being under such a magnifying glass with Toronto.

(Personally, I think Tavares would love the challenge, but it’s tough to know for sure what he actually wants to do.)

The Maple Leafs could get some ancillary benefits from signing Tavares to what would almost certainly demand a $10M+ cap hit. Signing Tavares could conceivably help to set a ceiling of sorts for Matthews, and perhaps Marner and/or Nylander would be more willing to sacrifice a bit of cash to be a part of what could really be a contender? One wouldn’t expect these RFAs to take an extreme cut from what they might otherwise get, but even a million here or there could be huge if Toronto ends up scraping against the cap ceiling with rapid speed.

There’s also the amusing thought of Tavares signing close to the maximum for one year, although it’s difficult to picture the star player signing such a risky deal.

Interestingly, similar circumstances could arise if the Maple Leafs landed a big fish in a trade. The Senators wouldn’t trade Erik Karlsson to their bitter rivals, but maybe he’d sign there in the 2019 summer? Maybe the Maple Leafs would land another would-be 2019 free agent in Drew Doughty or Oliver Ekman-Larsson?

This flexibility in 2018-19 could help the Maple Leafs into the future, especially if Dubas gets creative.

Liked by Mike?

Mike Babcock might have his old-school tendencies, yet he’s also shown plenty of signs of being pretty progressive, especially for a coach with his impeccable resume. Chances are, he’ll be fair to Dubas.

Still, there’s a human nature element to this that should be fascinating to watch, even if the juicy stuff would likely only happen behind closed doors.

Consider this. Like Mark Hunter, Babcock is 55 years old. Lou Lamoriello is old enough to be Babs’ father at 75, while Dubas could be the grandchild at 32. As professional as everyone involved surely must be, that could make for an odd dynamic when inevitable turmoil surfaces. Granted, it certainly helps that Dubas has already been with the organization for about four years, giving him plenty of chances to build chemistry and trust.

You wonder how often Dubas will feel compelled to “throw Babcock a bone.” Like just about every NHL coach, Babcock has “his guys.” Will Dubas grudgingly sign off on some minutes for Roman Polak if the Maple Leafs otherwise embody a more modern approach?

It’s going to be a little uncomfortable at times for Babcock to take orders from a guy who’s 23 years younger than him. Here’s hoping that the situation doesn’t devolve like Art Howe grumbling about analytics in “Moneyball,” although it might be fun to banter about which Hollywood actor would play Babcock.

***

As expansive as this post is, it doesn’t cover everything facing Dubas. That tells you how complex a GM’s job can be, particularly in a high-pressure market such as Toronto.

Dubas will be charged with finding ways to improve the Maple Leafs’ defense. He’ll need to manage the cap with those sweetheart rookie deals set to expire. Eventually, it will be crucial for the Maple Leafs to find new sweetheart rookie deals by drafting well, even with less favorable draft positions.

It’s been ages since the Maple Leafs boasted such potential at just about every level, not to mention a coach who can get the most out of those players. Toronto fans have been patient with the process so far, but that honeymoon stage probably won’t last longer than Matthews’ ELC.

Fair or not, Dubas will be judged as a failure if he can’t mold this potential into a contender, if not a flat-out champion.

He’s been handed the keys to a great situation, but Dubas must avoid some serious pot holes. Either way, it will be fascinating to observe, and considering his age and preferences, it might just change how NHL teams conduct business.

No pressure, barely-not-a-kid.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.