TORONTO — If there was any need for reinforcement, Brendan Shanahan made it abundantly clear that he’s taken over the controls at Toronto Maple Leafs headquarters and the future of the franchise will be a direct reflection of the 54-year-old’s vision, which can evidently change on a whim.
Shanahan made a unilateral decision to fire general manager Kyle Dubas after contract negotiations broke down in the span of four days. It was revealed twice on Friday afternoon that Shanahan lost confidence in Dubas after the 37-year-old revealed he may need to take some time to reflect on whether he’d return to the Maple Leafs, or take a year off from hockey, citing concerns during Monday’s end-of-year media availability about his family’s privacy and safety.
“I didn't expect he was going to go out and put that to the public, but nevertheless it made it all the more real and all the more serious," Shanahan said. "It certainly presented lots of questions. I have no issues with Kyle's honesty, Kyle's emotions. Kyle is an honest person.”
Shanahan operated Friday with the same cunning precision and bile that was befitting of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, rather than a hockey comparable. And with the Maple Leafs facing their most important offseason of the 21st century, Shanahan is now tasked with shaping a roster that could look seismically different entering training camp.
This is no country for old men, but that may soon change. Shanahan said that he wanted someone with proven general manager experience before backtracking to state that he wanted to be wide-open in his search. Based on his approach to the past four days, Shanahan appears bound to run the Maple Leafs like an old boys’ club rather than the progressive, analytically-driven team that thrived during the regular season, only to smash into a proverbial wall time and again during the postseason, defying the predictive data.
Hurricanes assistant general manager Eric Tulsky is the hot candidate on this year’s market, but despite spending eight years in his current role with the Metropolitan Division power, his lack of experience in the big seat may become eminently disqualifying. This isn’t a good thing. Tulsky is relatively young, he’s proven to be a salary cap wizard and he’s burgeoning his reputation for what may be the eventual Stanley Cup champion. Although most hockey fans are going to balk at this, the Maple Leafs have financial and institutional resources other teams do not have, so it’s time to use those assets to mold the team in a forward-thinking direction.
Toronto has three internal candidates and though Shanahan said he’s working with assistant general manager Brandon Pridham to bridge the gap created by Dubas’s dismissal, he did not name Pridham as the successor. Jason Spezza, who operated as the special assistant to the GM, would be disqualified from Shanahan’s narrow search and announced his resignation, per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.
This rules out a top candidate for the Maple Leafs GM search but Shanahan also effectively said the new management regime is disqualifying anyone without prior GM experience. https://t.co/63f3yK4xQf
— Arun Srinivasan (@Arunthings) May 19, 2023
This should be the most attractive job on the market — unless, of course, you factor in the unparalleled pressure that Dubas admitted to, which Shanahan viewed as a fatal weakness. The new general manager will need to make paradigm-shifting decisions imminently. Auston Matthews and William Nylander are both eligible for extensions on July 1, with a no-movement clause kicking in for the former, a 10-team no-movement clause for the latter. Matthews, Nylander, John Tavares and Mitch Marner have all stated their desire to remain with the Maple Leafs, with Nylander correctly pointing out he still has a year remaining on his existing deal.
If the idea is to make a change for the sake of change, because seven years of crashing prematurely is an untenable fate, then the new general manager will also have to trade a star player unwilling to move, while somehow extracting fair value. There’s no point in even building a club if you like the idea of moving Matthews, a 25-year-old who won the 2022 Hart Trophy, in the peak of his prime. Matthews loves playing in Toronto — he, Nylander and Marner are of a cosmopolitan generation where they enjoy the trappings of modern celebrity, knowing they wouldn’t be A-listers in any other major market city. That certainly matters.
“We all have years on our contracts," Marner said following the Game 5 second-round loss to the Florida Panthers. "It's not up to us but we've got a lot of belief in this group and a lot of belief in that core. But, yeah it sucks right now, but we've got belief."
Marner, who has two years remaining on his deal, grew up idolizing the Maple Leafs and would balk at a deal that sends him anywhere he wouldn’t approve. His no-move clause starts on Canada Day, five years after Tavares signed what appeared to be a generation-changing, seven-year pact with the Maple Leafs. And herein lies the problem.
The idea that the Maple Leafs need to deconstruct a roster where 49 percent of the team’s salary is tied to four players probably dictates that the Maple Leafs are looking for someone who was the antithesis of Dubas. Dubas was scrutinized for his poor negotiation tactics, or if you view his approach as ensuring his star players were rewarded commensurate with their talents, then the next general manager is going to approach these delicate negotiations with a sledgehammer. It doesn’t bode well for the future.
Ryan O’Reilly, Michael Bunting, Noel Acciari, Luke Schenn, Alexander Kerfoot, David Kampf, Justin Holl, Erik Gustafsson, Zach Aston-Reese and Wayne Simmonds are all unrestricted free agents, all of whom joined the Maple Leafs under Dubas’s supervision. CapFriendly projects the Maple Leafs to have $8.3 million in cap space this summer and it’ll be next to impossible to bring back the majority of their free agents. Will Shanahan’s new general manager build enough good will to get one or more of the Maple Leafs’ existing core to take a hometown discount with the nebulous promise that better days are ahead?
Shanahan is at the wheel again and head coach Sheldon Keefe’s days appear numbered. If Keefe is retained while Dubas was shown the door in brutal, unceremonious terms, it would display a comical misunderstanding of the team’s problems. Keefe was outcoached by Paul Maurice, operating with a passiveness during home games with final line change. Despite his tremendous regular-season results, he did not maximize the talents of one of the NHL’s most gifted rosters.
Shanahan is working as a one-man oracle now, firing Dubas — one of the best eight general managers in the league, by my count — for being human and showing signs of vulnerability. The road ahead is no country for old men and now the Maple Leafs’ future is left up to them, trusted with unmatched institutional resources that need to be used in short order during a genuine crossroads for the NHL’s most visible team.