Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Leaf-Hounds

Everyone develops algorithms and heuristics for decision-making, whether they are conscious of the fact or not. Kyle Dubas, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs has a very simple approach when it comes to signing or trading for a player: if said player previously played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League, preferably when Dubas was part of the organization, the player rises to new heights of desirability. He must become a member of the Leafs at all costs regardless of recent play and injury history.

Dubas's love affair with former Soo players was vaguely endearing to Leafs fans over the past few seasons. But now his obsession has risen to the level of neurosis. Sure, Dubas has had some success with signing players from the OHL organization where he got his uber-privileged start as a stickboy on the same team his grandpappy used to coach. 

As the walls close in and the Leafs playoff-round winless streak with Dubas as GM stands at 4 seasons (18 in total), Dubas now seems to rely on nothing else but the Soo connection when adding players to the roster. How else can you explain his decision to take Matt Murray in a cap-dump trade from the Ottawa Senators? With only 25% of salary retained and some late-round picks from Ottawa thrown in (and the Leafs still owing the Sens future considerations), Dubas has effectively made Murray the Leafs' starting goaltender next season at a salary a shade less than what Jack Campbell was seeking.

Toronto Leaf-Hounds

But Campbell wants more term, the invincibly gullible Dubas acolytes say. That's no rational argument about a Leafs team stripped of first-round picks over multiple seasons by Dubas as he continually tries to band-aid over his blunders. Besides, Dubas will be long gone by the time Campbell's next contract, now likely with the Oilers, reaches its twilight stage. 

Over the past few seasons, Campbell has undoubtedly been a better and healthier goaltender than Murray. Murray's save percentage was lower than Campbell's during that stretch, he's started far fewer games and has been absolutely hammered by injuries. When Murray has been bad with the Sens, he's been waived-and-no-other-team-gave-him-a-second-look bad.

Does Campbell have issues as well? Of course. He hasn't been immune to injuries. And his borderline weepiness after tough losses and self-admitted mental weakness aren't selling points. But he's played lights-out during stretches and at a level that should at least give the Leafs a chance to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. But the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John 'Legs-Turning-to-Cement-in-Real-Time' Tavares have hardly shown their worth in the playoffs when it counts the most. 

The irony is, Campbell is also a former Soo Greyhound, traded for by Dubas when he was GM of  that team and made the starter over, you guessed it, Matt Murray. And that in a nutshell is Dubas's fatal flaw, the basis of his Soo obsession: he's a sentimentalist. For all the talk of advanced stats and whiz-kid analytics, Dubas is no more forward thinking than other NHL GMs born two or three decades (or sometimes four) before him.

The Toronto sports-journalism herd had always had its share of braying mules in Dubas's corner. Dubas is forever respectful of  those around him (though it's been said that Dubas throws some classic tantrums behind closed doors), especially the hacks, who can turn nasty when the time is right. So it's not surprising that some are giving him a free pass on the latest head-scratcher. The argument in this article is basically, 'well, what else is he supposed to do?' Which nicely avoids the fact that Dubas's over-payment to his top four playoff under-performers has handcuffed the team for the duration of their contracts.

Dubas is in bunker mode now, oblivious to the waves of criticism and ridicule crashing down around him. He and his Soo alumni (Head Coach Sheldon Keefe, Head of Goalie Development (?) Jon Elkin, among others) have their narrative and they're sticking with it. Dubas recently made a slew of hires that only an organization like the Leafs could justify: assistants to assistants to assistants. All well qualified, accomplished people who will go on to have long careers in the hockey world and can return the favour long after Dubas's tenure with the Leafs ends.

Could the wild, flailing, low probability Matt Murray trade work out for the Leafs?  Of course it could. But betting on sentiment alone is a risky move for a GM whose time remaining with the Leafs is now measured in months instead of years.