Kyle Dubas passed his first test as the Toronto Maple Leafs newest general manager on Friday – the news conference announcing his promotion to the job recently vacated by Lou Lamoriello.
It may not be the biggest challenge of his new job, but it was an important one. One of Dubas’s predecessors, John Ferguson, came in with many of the same obstacles facing him and in a lot of ways never really recovered from his disastrous introductory news conference.
Someone asked Ferguson at that event about giving Leafs icon Doug Gilmour, who was coming off a serious knee injury that quickly ended his return tour with the Leafs, a chance to make the team in training camp. Instead of murmuring something non-committal because he was dealing with an enormously popular player at the end of his career, Ferguson made the mistake of implying he wasn’t interested. Outrage followed.
Ferguson was 36 when he took the Leafs job in 2003, four years older than Dubas (the youngest GM in Leafs history remains Gord Stellick, who was 30 when he was appointed in 1988) and he, too, was a rookie. Like Dubas, Ferguson also had to establish a relationship with a veteran well-respected head coach with a strong personality (Pat Quinn). Ferguson also did not have carte blanche with his bosses when it came to major moves. They required approval from the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s board of directors.
Dubas faces a long to-do list – decide which if any of the Leafs’ pending free agents will be kept, make some repairs on the defence, start on contracts with the big three, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, and decide if a captain needs to be appointed. But his most important jobs in the short term are to establish a rapport with head coach Mike Babcock, who is no shrinking violet when it comes to his wish list, and try hard to keep the fellow he beat out for the GM job, assistant GM Mark Hunter, from leaving.
Based on his first official appearance as the Leafs GM, though, Dubas was impressive despite his tender years. He sidestepped the land mines thrown in his path by the media, almost all of whom he addressed by name, another plus with that group, without committing to any specific course of action.
Of Babcock, Dubas said, “I’ve worked with Mike the last three years here. I’ve always had a good relationship with Mike. Very, very good talks about not just hockey but all aspects of life: Fatherhood, family, and so on and so forth. My opinion is the way he is perceived he is very open to ideas, very open to change, very open to trying to make the Maple Leafs better. That is his only focus.”
Dealing with Hunter will likely be a much trickier matter. But given Hunter’s value to the organization as a talent scout and overall hockey mind, losing him, either because he is not happy working for someone more than 20 years his junior or because he gets the NHL GM job he wants elsewhere, would be a blow.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan first told Hunter he was not his choice as GM on Wednesday and that Dubas had the job on Friday. At this point, Shanahan said his impression is Hunter is going to think a bit before making a decision. “He first expressed his support for [Dubas], but I also think he wanted to take a step back and breathe a bit,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan also said it is up to Dubas to work things out with Hunter. And the new GM said the right things here as well.
“As with every staff member, we will go through that whole process,” Dubas said. “Obviously my hope is the team will continue to move ahead as it has. I recognize things change in everybody’s life, Mark [Hunter’s] and everyone else working here. Mark is the assistant GM, so he’s right at the top of the list of discussions as we depart here [Friday].”
Dubas also made it clear if Hunter or salary cap guru Brandon Pridham or anyone else decides to move on he won’t be scrambling for replacements.
“I’ve always tried to have a good network of people I think could potentially fill in because I never want to be caught empty-handed if we have a transition or we have a move, anywhere in the organization,” he said. “I always keep that in mind when building relationships that if I do have to make another hire it’s not someone unfamiliar or it’s not someone I would have to go through that process of integrating it.”
Lamoriello was not at Friday’s news conference but he was invoked many times, mostly by Dubas as a great mentor over the past three years. So the impression is Lamoriello will at least try to see if his new role as senior adviser works for him.
Another problem Dubas and Ferguson had in common was managing up. Ferguson was never able to master handling his overseers, which eventually led to his dismissal. But Dubas has the advantage of coming into the GM job after working for the Leafs for four years, long enough to build some relationships with people above him and learn how the organization works.
As for what kind of GM he will be, a control freak’s control freak such as Lamoriello or something a little less omniscient, Dubas indicated he will not be a remote figure to the players, if only by the simple fact he is in the same age range. He also passed along some advice he received from the master.
“Lou’s always said to me that when it comes your time you can’t imitate me and be successful,” Dubas said. “You have to be yourself and have your own way of doing it. I’ll continue to do that.”