When it comes to the Leafs’ general manager situation, count me as someone who isn’t firmly in the camp of either Kyle Dubas or Mark Hunter. I mean, from the impression I get of each of them, I’ll always lean toward Dubas based on simply more exposure to what he’s all about, but there’s zero evidence to suggest Hunter is a polar opposite of him and wants to fill the roster with Roman Polaks.
Regardless, the audition for each of these guys has gone on for nearly four years, and there’s no way Brendan Shanahan doesn’t know exactly what he has in them. For that reason, I think he needs to get this decision done soon, pick one, and let the other move on.
The Leafs are in a place right now where they’re good, but still a bit of a mixed bag, and that likely comes from having too many cooks in the kitchen over the last few years. From the perspective of someone who follows the team closely, it becomes difficult to figure out what’s going on, and if it feels that way on the outside, there must be some semblance of that on the inside of the organization at times too.
This whole scenario makes questions about management’s decision-making difficult to get a grasp on.
Who runs the draft? Who pushed hardest for the moves that didn’t turn out well? What is Mike Babcock’s role in the whole management process? And some questions are more specific: Why didn’t Toronto target some pretty obvious expansion vulnerabilities last summer like Nate Schmidt and Colin Miller when they so desperately needed blue-line help?
Surely Lamoriello’s cone of silence over the last few seasons adds to the mystery here, but Shanahan assembling a group of now relatively high-profile executives has folks wondering about the inner workings of the team a lot of the time as well. In the next iteration of the management group, it probably would serve the Leafs nicely to let whoever they pick for the top chair to grab the reins a little more and secure control of the goings-on, and be clearer about it to the public. Y’know, maybe do a radio hit or something every now and then. Lou was great in the time he held things down, but the team has matured pretty quickly and doesn’t need that type of sheltering he provided as much anymore.
And as for the roster itself, something has to give with where things are currently. Toronto has a boatload of free agents leaving and cap space opening this summer, but also has contracts coming up for their Marner-Matthews-Nylander three-headed monster, as well as a decision to make on Jake Gardiner in the coming year. Then we have the Zaitsev contract looking like trash, and the other options down the right side defence being 37-year-old Hainsey and Connor Carrick going into next season (assuming Polak doesn’t come back yet again, which he probably will). The team simply isn’t fast, skilled, smart or physical enough on the back-end to really take their ceiling up a notch, and they’ve a ton of flexibility to do things up front on top of that.
I didn’t want to hit on the Vegas thing too much, and I hate words like “gel”, but the Knights are a team that really gels. No matter how good you think the Leafs were this past season (and they were good), their overall structure still seemed piecemeal. They’ve actually looked like a team built by five different guys pulling in five somewhat different directions. That isn’t to say it’s all bad; A few strong voices at the table seemed to be a strength for a while. It’s just that a situation like that can’t go on forever, it was always transitional, and now seems to be the prime time to leave that all behind.
Another summer of half-measures and a tweak here or there isn’t going to move the needle for the Leafs. I know it seems like we’ve seen a nice smooth ascent since the Matthews draft, because, well, we have…at least in the standings. But there’s a substantial transformation that needs to happen for this team to enter its next phase, and someone needs to have a clear handle on it. Hunter or Dubas, whoever is picked, needs to be given the authority to re-shape the roster in a major way around that MNM core, something they’ve obviously been held back from doing to this point.