The Toronto Maple Leafs can be called many things: Soft, pedantic, playoff chokers.
But you can’t call them disorganized.
For all their faults, this organization is run like the navy, with every single punctuation mark accenting every single word spoken by every single employee – player or staff – within the general vicinity of a microphone trimmed and tweaked into its most palatable version possible.
This team doesn’t make waves. They go about their business while those paid to cover them generate them themselves.
That is, until now.
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This has been the most chaotic week in recent Maple Leafs history. In the span of four days, the organization known for its methodical planning strategy pivoted its blueprint for the future entirely – at the precise moment that stability is needed the most.
Let’s take a look at the timeline of events that team president Brendan Shanahan provided to the media on Friday following Kyle Dubas’ dismissal.
And it was a dismissal, to be clear. Despite Dubas’ insistence that he would need to speak to his family before making a decision to come back, thereby suggesting the ball was in his court, it was Shanahan who made the call to move forward without him.
So, at the end of last season, Shanahan told Dubas, who was entering the final year of his contract, that he would not be extended ahead of the 2022-23 campaign. Dubas said both publicly and privately that he respected that decision, and Shanahan echoed that sentiment on Friday. Happiness reigned supreme.
Fast forward to the trade deadline, Shanahan said he had seen enough to be comfortable moving forward with Dubas as GM and approached him about an extension.
As the regular season came to a close, Shanahan continued to have discussions with Dubas’ agent about an extension that he hoped would be finalized midway through the playoffs. Dubas, while this was going on, opted to take a hands-off approach to the negotiation in order to keep his focus on the task at hand, with the team entering the playoffs.
Shortly thereafter, Shanahan said he and Dubas’ agent had arrived at a framework that was suitable for both sides and intended to present Dubas with it following the second round. When the Leafs were eliminated in the second round, Shanahan said he still told Dubas he wanted him back, and Dubas echoed that sentiment.
When locker clean-out day arrived on Monday, Shanahan told Dubas he didn’t intend to speak to the media until this situation was cleared up and suggested Dubas shouldn’t either. Dubas, according to Shanahan, said he felt an onus to address reporters given that the team’s players were doing so as well. Shanahan said he respected Dubas’ wishes.
That’s when Dubas held his infamous post-season press conference, telling reporters this season had taken a toll on his family and that he’d have to talk with them before deciding whether he wanted to come back. To Shanahan, this was new information and set into motion the events that would ultimately end with Dubas’ dismissal four days later.
According to Shanahan, Dubas’ non-commital attitude to the public caused a dramatic shift in his thinking and led to him envisioning a future with someone else in the GM’s chair. Shanahan said the two spoke on Tuesday and seemed fine. Wednesday featured no conversations. Then, on Thursday, Dubas’ agent presented Shanahan with a new financial structure for an extension that was different from the one the two sides had been hammering out since late March. Dubas then emailed Shanahan later that night to express his desire to remain GM of the Leafs once again.
That email, according to Shanahan, cemented his thinking that Dubas should not return. And, on Friday morning, Shanahan met with Dubas in his office at Ford Performance Centre to let him go.
This brings us now to the present day.
Given that Dubas was not on hand to offer his side of the story, we are only operating with the information presented through Shanahan’s eyes. But, boy, is this a doozy.
For an organization that preaches decision-making based on logic over emotion, the biggest decision of this era of Maple Leafs hockey, one that will define the future of this club, sounded pretty darn emotional.
Sure, Dubas presented Shanahan with a new, higher contract demand at the 11th hour, which is a gutsy move that some might categorize as underhanded. But Shanahan stated during his remarks that he didn’t believe this situation fell apart over the money.
Based on everything Shanahan said on Friday, Dubas is no longer the GM because Shanahan decided over the course of this past week that Dubas didn’t really want the job.
“I certainly didn’t think he was going to go and put that out to the public,” explained Shanahan of Dubas’ hesitation over his return during locker clean-out, emphasizing that last word with an almost acidic undertone.
“There are a lot of people who are shocked and saddened today…But we also have a lot of people who are coming back to work to do what they’re paid to do,” he continued.
Shanahan insisted that he and Dubas had a healthy working relationship with each other in their respective roles, which may be the case in general terms. But rumors of tension between the two had been brewing all season. And this, in one way or another, may shed some light on how, in less than a week, the president of the Maple Leafs pulled a complete 180-degree on who he thought was the right person to guide this club into the future – especially when he had worked with that person for the better part of a decade.
That one email from Dubas, sent on Thursday night, apparently cemented Shanahan’s desire to dismiss him the next morning. And such a snap decision goes against every mandate this organization has operated under since the “Shanaplan” began.
There are hurt feelings here – likely on both sides.
Shanahan seems hurt that Dubas chose to air his wavering desire to be GM of the Maple Leafs, a job Shanahan described as an honor for anyone to have, in public without telling him. He seems hurt that Dubas came in at the last second to ask for more money after months of work on an extension between himself and Dubas’ agent. He seems hurt that Dubas continued to insist upon a desire to return despite these other actions, creating a climate in which Shanahan likely felt he couldn’t trust him.
Dubas, on the other hand, is likely hurt over being trotted into this season as a lame-duck GM despite building and bolstering a roster that had every tool necessary to achieve playoff success, all while maintaining the club’s prospect pipeline and draft capital in a way that didn’t hinder their future. After a discussion with his family, perhaps this last-minute financial demand was the manifestation of some lingering resentment over the organization’s refusal to commit to him the year prior.
Unless Dubas speaks his truth, we may never know.
What is apparent, though, is that this is perhaps the worst possible time for such a dramatic upheaval to occur within the Maple Leafs’ brain trust.
Another playoff disappointment means big decisions are coming. Auston Matthews is a free agent in 14 months, and his GM, with whom he’s reportedly very close, just lost what seemed to be a power struggle and is out of a job. If that dissuades Matthews from re-signing, the Leafs will need to trade him before his no-move clause kicks in on July 1 to retain some value.
Right now, they don’t have a GM to make such a move.
Mitch Marner also has a no-move clause set to kick in on Canada Day. And while he seems like a goner regardless of who happens to be at the helm, someone will still need to execute what will undoubtedly be the most impactful Leafs trade in 20 years.
And, of course, there’s the coach.
Dubas has hired Sheldon Keefe at all three levels of hockey he’s worked. That’s Dubas’ guy. What happens to him now that his biggest advocate is gone? In fact, the entire Leafs organization has been hand-picked by Dubas, with everyone from the scouts, to the AGMs, to the health and nutrition staff having been placed in their roles under Dubas’ purview. Will Dubas’ successor view them as necessary to their new plan? What happens if they don’t?
These are the types of questions that the Maple Leafs as an organization have made a concerted effort throughout the Shanaplan era to avoid – either by maintaining personnel consistency or getting ahead of the narrative. They used to dictate that narrative. Now, they’re scrambling to react to it.
So, heading into a crucial off-season, the Maple Leafs find themselves as disorganized as they’ve been in recent memory.