Anger. Confusion. Shock. Disappointment.
Those are some of the feelings reverberating around the Maple Leafs right now in the aftermath of Kyle Dubas’ firing as general manager last week.
The Athletic reached out to several people who work for the Leafs this week. Anonymity was granted to them as they were not permitted by the team to speak to the media.
This story reflects their feelings at the moment and speaks to a level of disillusionment that team president Brendan Shanahan and the next GM of the Leafs will have to work to unwind.
“I’m in mourning right now,” one person who worked in the front office with Dubas during his time with the Leafs said.
There’s a real sense of loss for staff members. Dubas was their leader and the one who hired many of them. Suddenly, he was gone a week after the season came to an end – and without, in their minds, a satisfactory explanation as to why.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” a Leafs front office member said of the way Dubas was let go. “That’s why it’s disappointing.”
Shanahan went from wanting to bring Dubas back to firing him in a matter of days. And then offered his version of events in a press conference that left people inside the organization confused and upset.
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Jason Spezza resigned before that press conference even began. The popular former Leaf who retired into a role with the front office after the 2021-22 season has declined to address the matter any further than that. That was intentional. Spezza wanted his actions to do the talking.
Read between the lines and it’s obvious he was unhappy with what transpired and was willing to sacrifice the beginnings of his own post-playing career for it.
Spezza was working for his hometown team. He had his family here. He had every reason to stick with the Leafs, where he could pursue his future in hockey further but left anyway in support of his boss.
After a 19-year playing career in the NHL, in which he earned an estimated $90 million, according to CapFriendly, Spezza could afford to walk away. Others who felt the same, who were inclined to follow their leader out the door, couldn’t given they lacked that same sense of financial security.
It’s security they have because of Dubas.
Though he wasn’t offered an extension himself, not until after the trade deadline, Dubas fought to extend staff members who entered last season with expiring contracts. He got them extended with one, two, and three-year deals.
At least one staff member was inclined to ride things out with Dubas for an uncertain year. Dubas insisted — take the security, protect your family.
“Don’t worry about me,” he told his people. “I’ll be OK.”
Those close to Dubas insist they liked working for him. Dubas put them first and had clearly grown into his leadership role.
It was early last season, when the team was stumbling badly out of the gate in October, that Dubas gathered the entire Leafs operation together for a meeting.
He calmed a tense group down. “Be the best you can be,” he told them all. “Just do what you do.”
The overriding message: Everything was fine. The team would be OK. And indeed, the Leafs finished with the second-best record in the league from Nov. 1 onward.
To at least one person who works for the Leafs, this past season felt like the first time when everybody in the organization was pulling in the same direction. It was about their shared mission, of course, of trying to win the Stanley Cup.
But it was also about Dubas. Everyone knew he was in the last year of his deal. And though everything appeared the same on the outside with Dubas, that he was treating the job exactly as he had before, they knew as well as he did that his job was literally on the line (even if they assumed he would be back after the Leafs’ first-round win over Tampa).
Many in the organization had worked with Dubas before he became GM of the Leafs, when he was toiling under then-GM Lou Lamoriello, leading the Marlies to the Calder Cup in 2018. Over the last five years, they saw firsthand how he built the Leafs into a finely tuned, sprawling machine that sought to maximize everything it possibly could in the organization.
“People don’t understand how much work he put in,” the Leafs front office member said. “They had it made with this guy.”
This explains why Dubas seems to have vaulted to the top of the Penguins’ GM search this week.
It was Dubas, then the assistant GM to Lamoriello, who oversaw the addition of Jeremy Bettle and the creation of a sports science department. It was Dubas, with the support of head coach Sheldon Keefe, who oversaw the expansion of a skill development program that allowed players to hone their abilities throughout the season.
Auston Matthews and John Tavares, in particular, have raved about the operation. Players like Conor Timmins spent morning after morning with skating coach Paul Matheson while skill development consultants like Denver Manderson joined the team for skill sessions on the road. The Leafs even brought their practice goalie, Andrew D’Agostini, on road trips, even the long ones, to spare their regular goaltenders some wear and tear.
That didn’t exist in the pre-Dubas era. There was no “process” in place, an organization-wide way of doing things that trickled down from the top into every corner of the organization. Information was more siloed in the Lamoriello days. After Dubas became GM that changed. Staff members from the research and development departments started attending practice regularly. The dress code was relaxed. Players and staff were free to sport facial hair and felt more comfortable being themselves.
They saw Dubas pouring everything he had into the organization. They saw that he watched as much or more video than many of his own scouts. That he pursued relationships and information from people in other sports and businesses, anything to push the Leafs forward.
Staff were encouraged to do the same.
That’s what made the way Dubas was dismissed so unnerving to them. They believe it wasn’t about money or power for Dubas, and they were skeptical he would insist on changes at the last minute. That wasn’t the way Dubas did business.
If he was insisting on changes to the chain of command, as has been reported by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, it would have been so he could operate more efficiently and effectively, in their estimation. As for the family concerns that Dubas alluded to in his season-ending press conference, the belief is he simply wanted to take a beat, look inward, and figure out how to make everything work better for himself, his family, and the Leafs.
There is a sense of disbelief in the organization that Shanahan would be willing to change course from someone who had grown so much over the years and who was so committed to the Leafs and who, in Shanahan’s own telling, performed well last season.
It was “unfathomable” to Leafs staff that it would end like it did.
For the first time in nine years, Brendan Shanahan’s team feels like the old Leafs
And now, some staff wonder, how will the Leafs find someone better? Someone prepared to execute a series of franchise-changing decisions in a matter of weeks? Someone who will foster a similar work culture. And what will that mean for the Leafs?
Shanahan’s explanation only left staff more confused and upset, that Dubas would be maligned like that, with an odd play-by-play of negotiations and inference that more money was insisted upon at the last minute, on the way out. It irked them that this was how Dubas was being portrayed.
He deserved better, they said.
Dubas wasn’t the type to defend himself either, one of the staff members said, so those suggestions would go undefended.
And indeed, in his only public comments, Dubas has declined to address any specifics.
(Top photo: Lance McMillan / Toronto Star via Getty Images)