This isn’t the time to fire Kyle Dubas.
This is the time for him to identify and repair what is wrong with the sliding Maple Leafs and to adjust his personal philosophy on playoff hockey — all at the same time.
Dubas is a bright man. Everyone says that. He’s also a stubborn man. He has his beliefs of what can win in today’s National Hockey League.
To date, those philosophies have been trampled on, as they were against the Columbus Blue Jackets this week and in previous years against the Boston Bruins. Individual players don’t win in the playoffs. Teams win.
That’s why Auston Matthews is out. That’s why Connor McDavid is out. There’s nothing wrong with them. Their teams just weren’t good enough. Their teams didn’t have an identity.
With lesser players, Columbus and the New York Islanders have advanced. Those teams have a purpose, a structure, a way they conduct business.
Dubas has to strengthen his team in a variety of ways after turning over almost half of the roster a year ago — and weakening the Leafs in the process. He was central to the demise of the club and their worst season in four years.
Certainly it’s their worst season in his two years on the job since taking over from Lou Lamoriello, who hasn’t missed the playoffs since leaving Toronto. Lamoriello has a deep sense of team-building and understanding, something that Dubas clearly lacks.
And maybe the great Pat Gillick said it best about general managers: Every one of them makes mistakes. The difference between the good ones and all the other ones is that top-flight GMs identify their errors and quickly correct them.
The other ones — and that’s where Dubas finds himself right now — are not so honest in identifying their mistakes and roster flaws. Nor are they strong enough and smart enough to find solutions for the apparent problems.
Alex Anthopoulos took over the Blue Jays believing in nothing but numbers. He left much smarter, much more successful, still believing in analytics, but believing that human quality is necessary to win.
That is the challenge for Dubas now with this top-heavy roster with top-heavy issues. The Leafs didn’t score in Game 5 against Columbus. They didn’t score in Game 1. They scored three five-on-five goals in the series.
A team completely based on offence, the highest-scoring since Sheldon Keefe took over as coach, couldn’t score when it mattered most.
A year ago, in the first round of real playoffs, they could have won the series against the Boston Bruins in Games 6 or 7. But they scored just one goal in Game 6, one goal in Game 7. With this top-heavy roster of elite talent and enormous paycheques for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, the Leafs have managed two goals in three clinching playoff games.
Dubas has to make sense of how that happened and why that happened. And make sure it doesn’t happen again.
The top of the roster hasn’t been productive enough. The bottom of the roster hasn’t been good enough. The team defence has been taken advantage of physically, especially on loose-puck battles in both ends of the ice, and battles for space on the inside — the dirty areas so to speak.
But, first, you start in goal, asking questions.
Frederik Andersen is a fine goaltender with a propensity to give up gut-wrenching goals — the anti-Grant Fuhr so to speak. He seems able to make great save after great save. But it happened on Sunday night, happened last year in Game 7 — the goal-against that takes your wind away. He let one in against the Bruins in the first period. He allowed Liam Foudy’s shot to find the net in Game 5 from a bad angle — a puck shot directly at him.
Can you come back with Andersen for a fifth year after four years of first-round eliminations? Or will Dubas look to someone like Matt Murray, whom he knows from junior hockey in the Soo, and who has fallen into disfavour in Pittsburgh?
There are a lot of desperate teams out there. Teams with salary-cap issues. Team with roster issues and disappointed owners. Teams like Nashville and Pittsburgh, who have somehow lost their way.
“There will be a lot of teams looking to make changes, a lot of aggressive teams, I believe,” said an NHL front-office executive. I think Kyle will be looking to make moves. There should be no shortage of trading partners.”
Dubas had a terrible off-season last year. He traded Nazem Kadri, never properly replaced him, brought in Tyson Barrie, who fit the Dubas-Shanahan definition of a puck-moving defenceman. The pickup failed. Barrie weakened the Leafs defence. Losing Kadri weakened their offence and physical approach to the game. And their nastiness.
The Leafs’ third line was basically invisible against Columbus. The Leafs couldn’t handle players like Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner, physical forces, whom they had no answer for.
Barrie and Cody Ceci, between average and below average, are free agents and likely gone. Morgan Rielly is a rock of sorts on defence, as is the returning Jake Muzzin. That’s two defencemen. The Leafs need six. Justin Holl and Travis Dermott were fine when protected, but were exposed against Columbus.
Dubas needs to be bold here — either through free agency, financial juggling or trading. But more than that, he can’t be wrong again, the way he was wrong on Barrie and Alex Kerfoot.
Winning is hard in the NHL. So is losing. It wears on you tremendously. Few teams in history have exited the post-season early four times in a row the way the Maple Leafs have.
Dubas likes to pedal that lose-before-you-win philosophy. Problem is, it’s not true. No team has had this kind of playoff futility four straight years and gone on to any kind of success.
Now the pressure is on more than ever before. Dubas needs to fix this mess — and soon. One more year like this one and he’ll be looking for a job.