Saturday, June 10, 2023

Winnipeg Jets Ready to Explode

Winnipeg Jets logo
The fuse was lit in the Winnipeg Jets organization before the start of the 2022-23 season when head coach Rick Bowness stripped Blake Wheeler of the team’s captaincy. Wheeler’s post-castration reaction made it clear, if not in words then in tone and the barely concealed contempt that came off him in waves: this would not soon be forgotten. But the words, too, were important. Parse them and you find some odd contradictions.

The  Jets had an up and down season, culminating in a late-season collapse that has become a tradition for the team. They snuck into the playoffs, had one good game in their series against the Vegas Golden Knights, and then promptly curled into the fetal position and begged to be kicked into submission. Vegas obliged.

When Bowness ripped into the team after they were eliminated by the Knights, Wheeler had his opening. At the Jets’ end-of-year media availability, Wheeler’s smugness was palpable. He lectured Bowness on etiquette and gave fans and reporters a lesson in the gleeful serving of cold dishes. In years gone by, it would have been called insubordination. Some of Wheeler’s millionaire team-mates suggested that their tender sensibilities had also been offended by Bowness’s blunt comments about their lack of effort in their first-round series against the Knights. And maybe they truly did believe what they were saying.

But after years of rumours and odd incidents, it’s more likely that one or more individuals in the locker room are pushing buttons and setting the tone. And in any situation in which a core group of manipulators operates, someone can always be identified as the leader. It’s clear that other Jets players understand the importance of the lead ape’s words and actions, demonstrated by the fact they lined up and pointed to the supposed grievance that Bowness dared to share his feelings after the Jets were eliminated. And it was notable that the most recent player to arrive on the Jets’ roster chose not to ape the lead ape.

The sudden departure of Dustin Byfuglien in 2019, the resignation of Paul Maurice in December, 2021, and Pierre-Luc Dubois’s recent request to be traded by the Jets can all be explained away by other factors. But the behind-the-scenes weirdness probably comes under the ‘it makes it easier to leave’ category. And a player has to feel remarkably comfortable in his hold over the team to be able to tell a group of reporters to ‘fuck off,’ as Wheeler did at the conclusion of the Jets’ 2018-19 season.

And so we come to that topic which always accompanies any discussion of the Jets, especially when signings and trades are the focus. Yes, we get it. Winnipeg may not be the most glamorous city on the NHL circuit. Vicious winters, mosquitoes in the summer, and nothing for hundreds of miles in any direction are part of the reality. (And I grew up in Winnipeg, so I’ve got immunity to rip the place while sprinkling in the requisite bits of whimsical nostalgia.) But I have the sense that those unpleasant aspects of life in Winnipeg have been weaponized by some current players. As if to say, ‘We’ve deigned to come and play here, therefore we have granted ourselves a licence to manipulate, sulk, run people out of town and pitch a gutless effort or two whenever the mood strikes. And you better not call us on it!’

Enough of this garbage. Connor Hellebuyck clearly wants out. Get the biggest haul you can for him, knowing full well any trade partner has the leverage. Wheeler will be more difficult to unload. He’ll be 37 before the start of next season and carries a sizeable cap hit. Get creative and do whatever it takes. Clear out the rest of the petulant dead weight and get on with it. This doesn’t have to be, and almost certainly won’t be, the beginning of a rebuild. But big changes are coming.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are creating a template for small-market teams. Bring in people who want to play, regardless of their baggage or even because of it. Another ingredient the Jets might want to add to the mix: get some vicious players who are willing to leave everything on the ice and brutalize opponents. Get angry about the sneering contempt from other fan-bases and the legion of players who would never play in Winnipeg. Bowness seems like the right coach, at least in the short term, to lead such a team into battle. He rightfully doesn’t give a damn about coddling overpaid millionaires. The perennial disappointment in Winnipeg has to end. Start the garbage removal, hoist the black flag, and give Jets fans something to cheer about.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Return of Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock is set to be hired as the new head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1, 2023. His four years in well-paid exile marks one of the most unique episodes in recent NHL history.

When the Leafs under President Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello hired Babcock in May, 2015, they hailed their new coach as one of the greatest ever in the NHL. And they certainly paid him like they meant it. He’s still the league’s highest paid coach ever at an AAV of $8 million per season. His contract runs out on June 30, 2023, the day before the Blue Jackets will likely announce his hiring as their new bench boss.

When the Leafs handed Kyle Dubas the GM’s reins in 2018, it was only a matter of time before Babcock was fired. In November 2019, with the Leafs struggling in the first half of the season, the axe came down. And then a mass pile-on began, the likes of which has never been seen in the NHL. As I discussed in an earlier post, Mitch Marner and his ‘entourage’ wanted to damage Babcock as much as possible as he was on his way out the door. Marner had to have sought permission from Dubas before going public, and no doubt the license was granted.

Babcock did not deny the alleged wrong-doing, though he quibbled with the details. He read the room, and the zeitgeist, very well. Societal sentiments at the time regarding all sorts of bad behaviour and wronged individuals were at a fever pitch. If you ransacked the pasts of numerous NHL coaches, you would likely find similar conduct or worse. But everything would have to line up perfectly as it did with Babcock for a similar spectacle to ever happen again.

The Toronto hockey media herd is like no other: larger, more desperate for access, and more willing to exchange positive coverage for leaks and other special treatment. The Leafs really need to do nothing to keep the herd in check. The herd monitors itself, engages in self-censorship and gleefully attacks the rare herd member who doesn't follow the unwritten rules. When the herd was granted the license to go after Babcock for his alleged sins, they dutifully swarmed into action. They did Marner and Dubas’s bidding and all but tarred and feathered Babcock on his way out of town.

So the moment in time was perfect, the media was on board, and a handful of grudge-holders from Babcock’s past stepped up to play their parts. I have no doubt former players coached by Babcock feel their gripes are legitimate. But Babcock has no chance of ever receiving a fair hearing regarding their claims. At least one of the aggrieved individuals bemoans the fact that he simply has no choice but to embrace the recognition on offer every time Babcock is in the headlines. The point is, all these factors helped create a situation ripe for the zero-nuance, mob mentality social-media spectacle that played out after Babcock was fired by the Leafs.

Argue about the horror of ‘the list’ all you want. But it’s hard to deny that Babcock could have played his post-Toronto hand any better than he did. He did some analysis on TV, volunteered with the University of Saskatchewan’s men’s hockey program, and mostly enjoyed life. And for the most part he kept his mouth shut. The $20 million-dollar plus salary the Leafs paid him for not coaching for the last 4 years of his contract likely helped. He’ll be paid every last penny of the contract, which finishes on June 30 of this year.

The Dubas media sycophants have mostly stuck to their guns about Babcock. Maybe some nuance has been introduced with the passage of time and because the Leafs’ core four (John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) have achieved nothing in the post-season since Babcock’s departure. Gutless, overpaid and coddled into emotionless, dead-eyed, post-elimination delusion, the core four’s annual disappearing act is the main reason for the Leafs’ playoff failures since Babcock was fired. But did you see the effort by Marner and Nylander in the Leafs’ final game of the 2022-23 season as they tried to achieve those personal milestones they always claim are so meaningless? Incredible!

Dubas’s cack-handed public machinations in trying to squeeze more money and power out of MLSE may have caused some people to reconsider the entire Babcock saga. Perhaps Dubas’s bizarre final media availability as the Leafs’ GM forced Shanahan to rethink how the Babcock firing was handled and confirmed some suspicions he had about Dubas. Who knows? Maybe it was even front of mind when he gave Dubas the Luca Brasi treatment.

Regardless, it’s not hard to believe Babcock was right all along in his handling of the Leafs’ young stars. But one thing is for certain, the Blue Jackets will be a bigger draw in the coming NHL season, especially when they play Toronto or Pittsburgh. Many fans and hacks will want to cast Babcock as a villain. He’ll joust with reporters, answer questions about Marner and Dubas, and pontificate on whether he’s changed as a coach. And I have no doubt he’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The Tale of Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs: Power, Pity and the Proverbial Ton of Bricks

When Kyle Dubas arrived to speak at the Maple Leafs’ year-end media availability on May 15th, 2023, his attire was the first indicator that things weren’t going to go well. A pullover sweater in May is not a good look. It was reminiscent of the Sally Ann sports jacket Craig MacTavish wore at one of his last press conferences as the Oilers’ GM a few years ago. Whether contrived or simply representative of how he felt, the sweater was a bad omen. The slumped shoulders, the down-beat tone and talk of his family only confirmed the worst. We were watching either a defeated man or a shameless manipulator. If you go with ‘manipulator,’ then you have to acknowledge that Dubas has a crater-sized lack of self-awareness in his personal make-up.

Whatever the truth is, after five years as the Maple Leafs’ GM and nine years in total with the organization, Dubas is out. It’s hard to believe he was given the chance in the first place. With zero NHL experience, Dubas was hired as the Leafs’ assistant GM at the age of 28. Four years later, he was promoted to GM. On-the-job training as an NHL general manager with one of the league’s most valuable franchises, and the one which undoubtedly receives more media scrutiny than any other. It’s hard to fathom. But then, the person instrumental in hiring him, Brendan Shanahan, is also a rookie in his role as team president.

Though Shanahan had a long and successful NHL playing career, he’d never had any team-executive experience before signing on with the Leafs. In turn, Dubas as Leafs’ GM hired his buddy Sheldon Keefe, who also— that’s right—had zero NHL coaching experience at that time. It wouldn’t be hard to advance the theory that Shanahan hired a neophyte in Dubas in order to insulate himself against the aspirations of a more seasoned GM. Shanahan, had, indeed, hired Lou Lamoriello as the Leafs’ GM earlier and then replaced him with Dubas. Perhaps taking his cue from Shanahan, Dubas pulled the same stunt by hiring Keefe as head coach.

Regardless, that’s the situation that existed. Dubas was handed the dream job of a lifetime without any real experience. So what went wrong?

You have to first look at Dubas’s record of negotiating contracts as general manager. When Dubas took the general manager’s reins, the core of the team was already in place, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. A few months after boy-wonder Dubas was handed the keys by Shanahan, Dubas signed John Tavares to a seven-year contract at an AAV of $11 million. Even at the time, many fans and pundits questioned the deal. Though Tavares produced for the first four years of the contract (even in the season just finished his totals were respectable, though 5 on 5 points for him are now rare), he’s now hitting the aging curve hard and will undoubtedly be shifted to the wing next season. More importantly, the massive over-payment will be a millstone around the franchise’s neck for the final two seasons of the deal.

The Tavares deal set the stage for Dubas to renegotiate new contracts with Nylander, Matthews and Marner. Dubas was taken to the woodshed on all of those deals, a sequence of failed contract negotiations (read: team-unfriendly) perhaps unmatched in recent NHL history. All the deals were bad at the time, and though Nylander’s deal now looks better than the others, they all combined to handcuff the team and limit the all-important depth pieces that could be added later. Marner’s contract negotiations were particularly unpleasant and cemented his reputation as a shameless money grubber whose lack of self-awareness is maybe only matched by Dubas. While Matthews has improved as a player over the past few seasons, and his contract’s AAV was acceptable based on his scoring ability, the term was the real killer. In addition, Matthews has now taken on the dreaded ‘chronic injury’ label and may never again match his 60-goal, Hart-trophy winning season.

So Dubas had his skull caved in with the so-called core four’s contract negotiations. Forty million dollars, nearly 50% of the cap, tied up in four players. Dubas paid them as if they’d already won a Cup or two. He tacitly announced he was doing things differently. More than a whiff of arrogance emanated from Dubas when he discussed the players he’d blessed with mammoth contracts.

Yes, the Leafs’ regular season record under Dubas’s guidance as general manager was impressive. But the core four, already in place when he took over, has failed repeatedly in the postseason and now will undoubtedly be broken up. Tavares, Matthews, Marner and Nylander are oddly similar in the way they perform in the playoffs. Gutless, emotionless and rarely rising to the level of play that their contracts demand. At least Tavares seems to give an honest effort most of the time. But the other three regularly disappear for stretches in games and sometimes for full games in the postseason.

While Matthews has improved his back-checking and fore-checking and throws more hits than at any time in his career, his demeanor and actions when challenged are bizarre. There’s literally no fight there when an opposing player gets in his face. Marner plays scared in the playoffs and has recently adopted a rictus grin when he’s being rag-dolled by an opponent—the same kind of grin Matthews has sported for years when someone gets in his face during a game. And all of those four players deliver eerily similar, don’t-give-a-fuck responses when their gutless play results in another early postseason exit.

Dubas’s performance on other fronts is mixed. On trades, he’s made some horrible blunders, including shipping Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot, Mason Marchment to the Panthers for Denis Malgin, Matt Martin to the Islanders for Eamon McAdam, and a first-round pick to the Blue Jackets for Nick Foligno. Foligno played 11 games for the Leafs and accomplished nothing of note, unless you count a staged fight against Corey Perry in the 2021 playoffs. Dubas also puked up numerous other first-round picks for various trades, some of them rentals.

On the other hand, Dubas has made some decent trades as well. The Jake Muzzin trade in 2019 with Los Angeles worked out well until Muzzin’s body fell apart. Even the trade the following season, again with the Kings, that brought Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford to Toronto in exchange for Trevor Moore and a pair of third-round picks wasn’t too bad at the time. Dubas no doubt got the best of the Penguins when Toronto received Jared McCann in exchange for Filip Hallander. The problem was, Dubas promptly turned around and protected Justin Holl instead of McCann in advance of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

That brings us to one of Dubas’s fatal flaws. He often makes decisions based on emotion instead of cold, hard logic. Despite all the talk of Dubas’s reliance on analytics, it’s perplexing how often he goes with sentiment when making a decision. Mixed in with that emotion is a huge dollop of arrogance. His decisions as Leafs’ GM were precious to him. Things to be guarded, stroked, revisited and doubled down on. His invincibly rigid stance on any player he signed, traded for or otherwise considered ‘his’ is a story of a strange kind of neurosis. His commitment to the gutless four ensured that the same story played out postseason after postseason, with the same sullen, vaguely disinterested post-elimination interviews from players.

And then there’s his pathological obsession with former players from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Ontario Hockey League team Dubas cut his teeth with on his road to becoming an NHL GM. He started out as a stick-boy with the ‘Soo’ because of family connections and ended up as the team’s general manager. And during his time as Leafs’ GM, Dubas was often single-minded in his pursuit of signing or trading for former Soo players. Before the start of the 2022-23 season, Dubas acquired Soo alumni Matt Murray in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. No one else in the league wanted Murray, despite the two Cups he won with the Penguins. In fact, in Murray’s last season with the Sens, they put the egg-shell fragile goalie on waivers and no one bit. But Dubas knew better. The rallying cry at the beginning of Dubas’s final season with the Leafs was ‘Matt Murray’s got a lot to prove.’ This line was repeated numerous times by Dubas, Keefe and even Shanahan. It was one of the worst trades Dubas made as the Leafs’ GM. His mulish stubbornness ensured his Murray obsession became the final word on his inability to ever fully sort out the goal-tending situation during his time with the Leafs.

Dubas’s drafting with the Leafs was also less than stellar. It’s hard to develop home-grown talent when you keep trading away picks. At least Leafs fans can probably look forward to Matthew Knies contributing in the coming seasons, though even that expectation is a bit premature.

Despite all Dubas’s shortcomings, he has many things going for him. Most importantly, he’s a good communicator and is obviously well liked by his players and peers. His ability to speak about both the game and the increasing importance of analytics, and his vision for how to build a winning team, undoubtedly cast a spell on Shanahan and led to Dubas being hired in the first place. While he doesn’t speak to the media in public more than any previous GM, when he does, he is eminently respectful and somewhat forthcoming. It’s hard to believe that it took Dubas to figure out the ‘speak nicely to people who buy ink by the barrel’ angle, at least when compared to some of the blowhard Leafs’ GMs and coaches of the past.

And maybe in this day and age, that ability to communicate directly with the media and fans is more important than ever. Coupled with Dubas’s instinct for understanding the zeitgeist and how professional sports teams now have to be conscious of so much more than in years gone by, it’s easy to believe that he will land another NHL GM job at some point in the future. Especially now that his training wheels are off and he will learn from his numerous mistakes with the Leafs. But there’s a very real chance Dubas has learned nothing at all.

Of course, there's more to interactions with the media than speaking in scrums or at press conferences. It’s clear that Dubas has cultivated some media members to do his bidding in their on-air hits and in the columns they write. I have no doubt that he leaks info to certain media dupes and engages in quid pro quos: access and information from Dubas in exchange for favourable coverage. But not everyone in the media plays along. In a recent 32 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discussed a situation in which Dubas sent a profanity-laced text to them when they mentioned something on Hockey Night in Canada that didn’t sit right with him. And they suggested it was something that wasn’t uncommon from Dubas. Once again, arrogance and temper tantrums. And a personality far different than the one he tries to project in public.

But what about his relationship with the players? Yes, as mentioned, it’s obvious the players like him. But then, why wouldn’t they after the largesse he’s rewarded them with before they’ve won anything? By all reports, he’s hired dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people within the organization in an attempt to make life as enjoyable and stress-free as possible for his stable of millionaire players. And that may be part of the problem. Together with his penchant for sentiment over stepping on necks when the time is right, Dubas is loyal to a fault. It’s created a sense of security among the gutless four, and instilled the idea—confirmed year after year—that there are no consequences for lack of postseason success. Whether Dubas set out to cultivate loyal sycophants, or he simply came to the understanding of how taking care of people pays off, the reality is he likes the outcome. At times the whole set-up has a vaguely cultish feel to it.

And when Dubas’s arrogance and lack of self-awareness flare up, things get weird. Those public temper tantrums near the end of the just-finished season contrast oddly with the image Dubas tries to maintain. He passed off those incidents as displays of passion. I don’t buy it. It’s a lack of self control. People with anger problems like to grant themselves the license to be enraged. I think Dubas wasn’t pleased that he was left hanging throughout the season without a contract extension. The tantrums were the result. But Dubas’s end-of-season tantrums aren’t something new. Justin Bourne, sports-radio host and former video coach for the Toronto Marlies, says he witnessed Dubas explode on a regular basis when things didn’t go his way. Framed pictures shattered on the floor and other destroyed objects were often the result, according to Bourne.

That arrogance was no doubt simmering under the surface when Dubas took the podium for his year-end media availability. But what really did him in was his lack of self-awareness and terrible mis-reading of the situation. Perhaps a touch of greed also spurred him on during that odd display. After being given the chance of a lifetime by Shanahan, and—have I mentioned this yet?—having zero experience with an NHL team before the Leafs hired him, Dubas went with the pity-play and mused that  perhaps he did not even want to return as GM. While Dubas may have discussed this with Shanahan prior to speaking publicly about it, Shanahan was no doubt stunned to hear Dubas openly expressing doubts about whether he wanted to sign an extension. After hearing everything that Shanahan said on Friday, May 19th, it’s hard not to believe that Dubas was trying to wrong-foot Shanahan and MLSE with this comments earlier in the week. Dubas has not responded specifically to the timeline laid out by Shanahan. Which tells me that it's probably accurate for the most part, though Dubas will undoubtedly one day add his own spin to those events.

But let’s get this straight: Dubas mewled and whimpered about his family and talked about how hard the whole enterprise was while likely making $2 million or more per year? This as the world is coming out of a pandemic that cost almost seven million people their lives? The resulting economic convulsions have resulted in housing and affordability crises in Canada that have crushed thousands and thousands of people. And this little whiner offers up this horse-shit? He painted himself as invincibly arrogant, insulated and monstrously self-absorbed. And now we find out that Dubas’s agent sent Shanahan a new ‘financial package’ on Thursday followed up by an evening email from Dubas that he was now onboard with returning? Word is that Shanahan and Dubas were earlier working on an extension that would have given Dubas $4 million-plus a year over five years. And that wasn’t enough for him? Speculation floating around online, thought unconfirmed, is that the new ‘financial package’ was close to $7 million per year. The $4 million per-year offer was probably double his five-year, on-the-job training contract. And he was looking to almost double again the offer he’d been discussing with Shanahan?

Something is fundamentally wrong with Dubas if all this information is correct. And of course, the caveat, especially regarding the contract details, is that we don’t know for sure. But again, Dubas has not disputed the series of events that played out as detailed by Shanahan after Dubas’s cringe-worthy public display  on Monday. And so the whole talk of family starts to look like a ploy. A rather shameless and myopic ploy. Or maybe both things are true. Perhaps Dubas was genuine when he spoke about his family. And it just happened to come before he jacked up his salary request. All that loot would no doubt help ease the stress experienced by his wife and children. But the quick turn-around and last-minute request for a huge increase in salary is very slithery. I don’t see how Shanahan had any choice but to turf Dubas at that point. If Dubas is willing to play public games to extort salary increases (and isn’t it rich for Dubas to suggest in his vague statement released on Twitter that he won’t talk about private discussions?), what other stunts would he pull in the future?

Perhaps this whole talk of family is a generational thing. Everyone cares about their family. But to talk about it in such a way that can be so easily seen as disingenuous is very risky. Psychologists say that pity is the trump card of sociopaths and hard-core narcissists. That’s not to say that framing yourself as hard done by makes you a sociopath or narcissist, and I’m not saying that about Dubas. But by God, suck it up and be grateful for the privilege of having such a rewarding, high-profile job that would be the envy of many. His salary probably puts him in the top half percent of all earners in Canada. I guess attention seeking via airing in public your every weakness, doubt, grievance and instance of not getting your own way is considered ‘authentic’ nowadays.

But back to the blow-by-blow details which Shanahan provided regarding the breakdown in talks and eventual firing of Dubas. Some people suggest it was egregious to disclose exactly what happened. Perhaps in normal situations. But Dubas is the one who got the ball rolling with his performance at the media availability. Shanahan advised him not to do it. Dubas did it anyway. Shanahan is his superior and could have told him not to speak in no uncertain terms. Perhaps at that point, Shanahan still trusted him somewhat. Following the emoting session by Dubas, Shanahan still trusted him, but unfortunately for Dubas, it was only as far as Shanahan could swing a bull by its balls. Shanahan had to get in front of things and advance a narrative. It’s called ‘prolepsis’ (look it up).

Again, the Dubas arrogance and lack of self-awareness. After working alongside each other for nine years, without question Shanahan had seen other warning signs regarding Dubas. And oh yes, there was another very public incident that played out under Shanahan’s watch while Dubas was GM. One that is unique in the history of the NHL. It received almost unanimous praise at the time from Dubas’s sycophants in the media. He’d already built up good relations with the media at that point. And remember, many of the Toronto hockey hacks indirectly work for MLSE. Bell and Rogers own MLSE. And Rogers also owns Sportsnet, which employs numerous fawning, desperate-for-access hockey journalists. I use the word ‘journalist’ lightly because perhaps no other sports media outlet employs so many flat-out terrible writers. But that’s the subject for another article.

So what event am I talking about? The sacking of former Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. When Babcock was hired by the Leafs in 2015, there was a lot of fanfare. Babcock was hailed as one of the greatest NHL coaches ever. And he was paid more than any other NHL coach before or since. His $8 million per-year contract with the Leafs skewed head-coach salaries sharply upwards in the NHL. Brendan Shanahan was instrumental in convincing Babcock to come to Toronto. Babcock had coached Shanahan for a time in Detroit, and Shanahan couldn’t say enough good things about his former coach. The Leafs improved under Babcock but still couldn’t break through in the playoffs. But perhaps more importantly, Babcock didn’t coddle the gutless four. And so, the time was right when the Leafs got off to a slow start in the 2019-20 season, and Dubas fired Babcock. Shanahan had to have been on board with the firing. But what about everything that came after?

As Babcock was on the way out the door, Marner shared his opinions of Babcock with the Toronto hockey media herd. And what he had to say wasn’t very complimentary. It seems Babcock has a vicious streak and convinced Marner to write out a list of who he, Marner, believed were the laziest players on the team. And then, according to Marner, (and yes, later confirmed by Babcock) Babcock by accident/on purpose, let some other players know who Marner had ranked on that now-famous list. The horror! A list! Sure, a bit manipulative if we take Mitchie boy's word for how it went down. But anyone who knows anything about hockey and the history of the NHL knows how utterly tame that incident really was, regardless of the details. Yes, things in the league have changed for the better in past decade and nastiness isn’t going to build trust with players in the long run. But I bet Marner was thrilled at first to think he was being brought into the inner circle and asked for his opinion.

Regardless, for that knee-capping of Babcock to take place, a couple of things had to happen. First, Marner and his ‘entourage’ would have gone to Dubas and told him what they wanted to do. And Dubas would have said ‘Yeah, sure, let’s get it done!’ That’s remarkable. After the Leafs had praised Babcock as one of the greatest coaches who’d ever lived, they now thought it was a grand idea to try to ensure that he would never again coach in the NHL. Was Shanahan fully on board with the career assassination of his former coach? He had to have been to some degree. But perhaps it was floated to him in one way and then it played out in a harsher manner than he’d anticipated. Perhaps Dubas already had numerous staff and management types on his side and made a real push to show everyone to what lengths he would go to protect one of the gutless four.

I imagine that whole sordid affair was in the back of Shanahan’s mind as he laid out the timeline of poor little hard done by Dubas’s final days with the Leafs. One interesting footnote to the Babcock affair: Babcock and Dubas’s contracts expire on the same day: June 30, 2023. Except Babcock got paid a lot more not to coach the Leafs than Dubas did to perpetrate his failed on-the-job training experiment on the team. Regarding that huge amount of money that Babcock was paid for four years after being fired: even for an empire like MLSE, $20 million for not coaching is a lot of money. That must have grated and was likely a black mark on Dubas’s record (and Shanahan’s) as far as MLSE was concerned.

It now appears that Dubas will take some kind of management job with the Pittsburgh Penguins only a week or so after he said it was Leafs or no one. And right on schedule, the media shills say that going against his word doesn’t really matter. It does matter. It shows him to be a shameless manipulator willing to say and do a lot to get what he wants. He thought he was rocking MLSE with Machiavellian masterstrokes, but he was really offering up cack-handed blunders that highlighted him as the lacking-in-real-world experience novice he actually is.

His most loyal media lackeys are currently in full cloak-and-dagger, palace-intrigue mode. A couple of The Athletic’s writers are doing their best to please Dubas with teary-eyed pieces about the emotional destruction suffered by the servile troops left behind to soldier on without their fearless leader. These are some real hyper-sensitive Leafs staff members who need immediate triage for the horror they’ve experienced. What trauma did they go through? They had to watch the person who handed them their cushy jobs find out what consequences are all about.

Another access-seeker who likely fancies himself a real operator in the world of ‘NHL insiders’ says that Dubas’s words about not going elsewhere no longer matter because of a ‘paradigm shift.’ Mind you, he’s the same person who claimed that Auston Matthews’s vicious cross-check into the side of Rasmus Dahlin’s head at the 2022 Heritage Classic in Hamilton wasn’t what it seemed. Trying to defy reality but failing miserably, the journalist in question said that Matthews didn’t drive the cross-check into Dahlin’s head at all. In fact, the fabulist claimed, Matthews drove the vicious blow into Dahlin’s shoulder, and pesky fantasy-world physics did the rest. No one bought it, least of all the NHL, who assessed Matthews a two-game suspension for the gutless assault. Nothing warmed Dubas’s heart during his time as Leafs’ GM more than a loyal media boot-licker going to bat for one of the gutless four, regardless of how unhinged or divorced from reality the claims may have been.

So the fallout from the media availability, Dubas’s sacking and Shanahan’s public account of how it all went down has included numerous questionable articles in the media. Though it may seem like ex-post-facto reasoning, the flood of nonsense from Dubas’s media shills lends support to the logic behind Shanahan’s sharing of details at that press conference. Even if he hadn’t done that, the innuendo and gossip about a supposed power struggle would likely have shown up anyway. Shanahan had learned enough about Dubas to understand what he was dealing with. So he protected himself.

This is not to suggest that Shanahan looks good after all the melodrama. He doesn’t. But getting his side of the story out first makes more sense than ever after the articles and leaks which have followed. And it's important to note that not all hockey writers are going along with the Dubas-friendly narratives being peddled. Push-back has appeared and more is coming. As mentioned, Friedman and Marek are offering up less than flattering accounts of blunder boy’s time as Leafs’ GM. Friedman is one of the most reliable NHL insiders. He covers the entire league instead of one team and strives for accuracy and fairness. He apologizes when he screws up. And based on everything else we know about Dubas, Friedman and Marek’s anecdotes have the air of truth about them.

And what exactly does Fenway Sports Group see in Dubas? I’m not exactly sure. They’re on record as saying that no one they currently employ really knows anything about hockey. But for whatever reason, they like the cut of Dubas’s jib. His communication skills (when he’s not in tantrum mode) have got to appeal. And his ability to develop mutually beneficial relationships with the media also have to be a selling point. Similarly, years of postseason failure with the sword hanging over his head but never falling, has got to impress his potential new bosses. And Fenway have made it clear, through the forced actions of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke in their final season with the Penguins, that Fenway, like Dubas, understands the importance of coddling and hanging onto to marquee players, no matter their age or ability to deliver when it matters most.

Or maybe, more simply, they just speak the same language as Dubas. They come from the same privileged backgrounds and can speak off the cuff, crafting clever new platitudes on the fly while using all the right words to appeal to the emotions of the fan base. Perhaps that dubious display of emotions in Dubas’s final press conference with the Leafs actually impressed them. In the modern era of North America’s bloated, 30-plus-team professional sports leagues, winning may come along but once or twice in a generation. Or not at all. Maybe hiring a GM who can spin narratives, feign emotions when necessary, and be someone younger fans can identify with, is now more important than having a winning record.

But if they don’t know much about hockey, what are they going to ask Dubas when they sit down to interview him for some kind of management role with the Penguins? Maybe they’ll go with the free association, get-to-know-you-over-several-days-and-different-interactions type of examination. Stand to the side and see how Dubas performs when interacting with Penguins players for the first time. Get him yapping about his vision for the team and see how well he distills esoteric information into something the layman can understand. Invite him for a nice dinner at a restaurant with some important people, get a few drinks in him and see if his table manners hold up. And then when he’s feeling relaxed and thinking it’s his job to lose, hit him with one of those classic questions and gauge his response. “So, Kyle, can you tell us what really happened?” 

Dubas is one of those hipsters of a certain age who thinks he’s got the world figured out, but as his actions have demonstrated, he’s still got a lot to learn. In short, he’s a punk. He’s been involved in hockey his entire working life and obviously has some gaps in knowledge about the ways of the world. Here’s a hint, Dubas: if they ask you that question, offer a bland, diplomatic, anodyne dodge and that’s it. If you give them the real dirt, then they immediately wonder what you’ll say about them when they’re not around. Got it?

Almost certainly, Fenway will want to probe Dubas about that now-famous media availability. Though they probably won’t phrase it so directly, what they really want to know is: “Could you one day do the same thing to us as you pulled with MLSE (negotiating through the media, using the pity card etc.)?” As mentioned, there well may have been aspects of Dubas’s performance that appealed to Fenway. Shamelessly manipulating the fan base and doing whatever necessary to save your own skin is one thing. But when it was apparent Dubas was playing games with the people who paid his salary and tolerated the team’s lack of success under his watch, then Fenway’s ears likely pricked up. It’ll be a tough one, but they’re likely looking for a ‘What have you learned?’ type of response.

It would have been fascinating to sit in on that final meeting with Shanahan and Dubas. When Shanahan stood, swung the metaphorical ball-peen hammer and landed the blow directly between Dubas’s eyes with the news that Dubas would not be returning as Leafs’ GM, how did Dubas react? Did he cry out? Slump into his chair, defeated? Stare, uncomprehending? If his past actions are any guide, my guess is he lashed out with a temper tantrum for the ages.

Whatever happened, it’s almost certain that waves of life-altering regret are currently washing over Dubas. He’s a bit too young now. But in ten years or so, depending of course on what comes next in his career, when the mortal bell is tolling not as far off in the distance as it once was, the true horror of what Dubas did to himself, and yes, his family, too, will come down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks. But at the moment, perhaps he's so monstrously arrogant that he's now driven on by rage that he couldn’t finagle things to a situation he felt he deserved. 

One thing is certain, employers and employees never get exactly what they expect. Dubas may find that, if he’s hired by Fenway in some management capacity with the Penguins, he might walk into a situation where he has less autonomy than he had with the Leafs. And Fenway may soon realize that Dubas isn’t the genius they thought he was.