Suddenly, after Kyle Dubas was let go as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the organization finds itself in the middle of several unresolved situations. Confusions and challenges abound.
With the resignation of Jason Spezza, suddenly a foreign concept – loyalty – has invaded the idea of professional sports. The common knowledge suggests that, within professional sports, players accept that they are indentured servants, although very rich ones.
In a bit of a history lesson, the practice of indentured servitude started in the early 17th century, specifically in the early colonial period of North America. As an indentured servant, an individual was bound by a contract to work for a specified period of time in exchange for their passage to the “new” country (or some other form of assistance). In the NHL’s case, players are bound to a team for a specified period of time – in fact, contracted.
Being Indentured Is Well and Good If You’re Where You Want to Be
Back to Spezza, with the removal of Dubas as general manager, what we don’t know is who else is loyal to Dubas. And, to what extent they are willing to act on that loyalty? The present Maple Leafs team contains a Core Four of players that Dubas not only brought in, but also negotiated contracts with.
Dubas also stood up for them to keep them together when much of the rest of the world wanted them disbanded. He stood up for them, even when they didn’t deliver. They never had a more loyal advocate or, until two days ago, a more powerful one.
Dubas was not a distant general manager, he knew the players well. He was close to them. And many we suspect were close to him. They knew his philosophy and what he stood for. He put his money where his mouth was – season after season. There was no nuance. He built a team around his core.
Now What Happens With Dubas Gone?
After the non-renewal of Dubas as the general manager, there is suddenly uncertainty about the team’s direction. No one knows what the team’s long-term strategy and culture will be. And, the concept of culture is what will hold players together.
For those who believe it’s all about winning, it isn’t. On the way to winning or losing, the team is a “band of brothers.” With 32 teams, if a different team won each season to make it even, given the average length of an NHL career, less that a third of all NHL players would ever win during their entire career. About 67 percent would not win the Stanley Cup – ever.
So, culture is at least as powerful as winning – probably more. Now do the Maple Leafs face a possible culture change? Suddenly, it’s uncertainty at the worst possible time. All three of the team’s Core Four that could be moved will either be moved soon. Or, the team will not be able to move them at all and they could and might walk into No-Move clauses (first) and, potentially, into free agency without compensation (second).
Three of the Core Four Could Decide to Walk to Free Agency
What does that mean? It means that, unless they are traded this offseason, two of the three could all play out their contracts and walk to free agency in July 2024. Contractually, the team could not trade them and they could leave free and clear. The Maple Leafs would get nothing in return.
Could that happen? Who knows, it probably hasn’t. But that’s not saying it could not.
Thinking specifically about Auston Matthews, there’s speculation that, if Dubas remained as the general manager, Matthews would have easily signed an extension by the summer. However, with a new manager coming in, it’s now uncertain if Matthews will feel comfortable committing to the team for a future he doesn’t know or trust.
When there is a new general manager, it will take time to establish trust with the players. The timeline is limited for that to happen. Can a new general manager sell a new vision and gain the trust of Matthews? With only 40 days until July 1st (when Matthews’ no-trade clause becomes eligible for extension), it becomes challenging for a new person to convince Matthews as well as implement any necessary changes or moves.
Other Time-sensitive Decisions Need to Be Made
Matthews is not the only player with an upcoming no-movement clause. Marner and Nylander also have clauses coming due. The team needs to make decisions involving those two other players – also before the clauses kick in on July 1st. This creates a sense of urgency to not only convince Matthews but also ensure there is enough time to execute any plans involving these players.
The need to hire a new general manager seems urgent. There is a possibility that the players could get together and engage in a sort of informal pact to not sign extensions. If that happened, the team would be on pins and needles.
Again, while it’s highly unlikely, the players could decide to unite – particularly if they didn’t like the direction the team was moving in – and either force a trade or decide to play out their individual contracts.
If that happend, can anyone imagine the almost immediate impact on the Maple Leafs? Without getting anything in return for these players, the Maple Leafs might find themselves in an almost immediate rebuild.
The Clock Is Ticking, But Just Hiring a New GM Isn’t Enough
The clock is already ticking for the team to find a replacement for Dubas. But, even if the new GM were hired, the job isn’t done. The new GM must convince Matthews, Marner, and Nylander of the value of the vision presented and bring them onboard.
I do not know how loyal the three are to Dubas, but he has (a) negotiated with each of them individually, (b) created a game plan that highlights their skills, (c) stood up for them even when they didn’t deliver, and (d) never waivered in his committment to them as key cogs of the Maple Leafs’ machine – even when much of the rest of the hockey world thought it was impossible and that he was crazy for trying.
What Will the Core Players Think of the New General Manager?
Do the three believe they can get that same level of support and commitment from a new general manager that they got from Dubas? Might they be loyal enough to Dubas as a person and as a hockey thinker to be passive aggressive – meaning they might not decide to follow him wherever he might go, but they might exercise their rights to NOT sign with the team that dumped him – because they can.
The Maple Leafs might be in a precarious position. The team needs to navigate the situation effectively to maintain stability and make strategic decisions for the team’s future. What that future might be is up in the air.
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