Ranking new Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas’ offseason priorities

After marked improvement over the last two seasons, the next stage of the “Shanaplan” is upon the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Friday’s official hiring of Kyle Dubas as the club’s general manager signifies a new era and direction for the organization. Lou Lamoriello’s three-year stint as head honcho is over, and it appears there may be a new project for him elsewhere.

The Maple Leafs had the luxury of choosing between two in-house replacement candidates in Dubas and former co-assistant GM Mark Hunter. Team president Brendan Shanahan said it was a difficult decision, but since prying Dubas out of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds organization in 2014, there was an overwhelming sense that he’d be the next guy in charge.

After marinating behind the scenes under Lamoriello’s Fort Knox-esque operation, focusing primarily on player development and running the Toronto Marlies, the reins are now firmly in the 32-year-old’s hands.

Dubas will be tasked with transforming a good roster into a great one, as simply qualifying for the playoffs again won’t be enough for a market with grand expectations.

So, what does he have to do to ensure that happens? Here are some ideas on where to start:

1. Relationship with Babcock

It’s paramount Dubas and Mike Babcock are on the same page in terms of how they want the team to play. Babcock has a reputation for being stubborn when it comes to his personnel, and certain lineup decisions over the course of the 2017-18 season certainly drew ire from media and fans alike.

Dubas doesn’t necessarily see things that way, though.

“He’s very open to ideas. He’s very open to change. We’ll sit and discuss the way we play. We have a lot of work to do,” he said of his head coach Friday, according to The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler.

Dubas has been characterized as a numbers-driven executive, but he’s reached the point of running the biggest hockey team in the world, so he must be on to something other than simply understanding and utilizing data. He leans on analytics, to be sure, and based on his work over the years with the Marlies, it’s clear he prefers skill and speed over safe and reliable on the ice.

The Leafs saw a stark improvement midseason when Babcock optimized the team’s lines to fit that mold, and it’s safe to assume that will be the mandate going forward.

2. Upgrade defense

Everybody knows the Leafs’ weakness is their defensive corps, particularly the right side. It got heavily exposed in the postseason and was one of the main reasons they couldn’t move past the Boston Bruins in Round 1.

Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Travis Dermott make up a solid, highly mobile left side, but Toronto can’t move forward with Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev operating the opposite flank.

Whether it’s in free agency or a trade, Dubas has to find some reinforcements for the back end this summer.

3. Matthews extension

All the talk surrounding Auston Matthews lately has been regarding his alleged rift with Babcock, but whether it’s true or not, there’s a more pressing issue at hand: he’s eligible for a contract extension July 1.

It’s not mandatory he puts pen to paper right away, but considering fellow young stars Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel played the final year of their entry-level contracts with long-term security, the precedent has been set for the Leafs and their franchise cornerstone to work out a megadeal.

It’s in Dubas’ and the Maple Leafs’ best interest to not only keep their best player happy but also avoid the inevitable incendiary speculation from the Toronto market on each day that passes without Matthews being locked down.

4. Draft

The Maple Leafs have one more season before serious salary cap restrictions hit, so it’s of the utmost importance they find future NHLers in the draft.

Toronto will have to hit on several picks in all rounds over the next few years in order to fill out their future rosters with players they can afford. It’s the key to staying competitive for years to come.

5. Nylander contract

While Matthews’ next contract will garner more attention, his most dynamic linemate, William Nylander, needs a new deal before next season starts.

Nylander’s been scrutinized for an apparent lack of commitment on defense, but 22-year-olds with two 60-plus point seasons aren’t very common, so it’s up to Dubas to find an appropriate contract for a key contributor. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s a bridge or a long-term deal.

It’s also worth mentioning Mitch Marner is eligible for an extension this summer as well. Nylander didn’t negotiate in the final year of his ELC, which may have been a Lamoriello-enforced rule, but the prospect of having each of the big three under contract for the future as soon as possible is intriguing for Dubas.

6. Supplement roster

Blue-line upgrades are the primary focus, but the Maple Leafs could lose multiple centers, as Tyler Bozak, Tomas Plekanec, and Dominic Moore are set to become unrestricted free agents.

Dubas will need to find some external replacements down the middle of the ice, and the potential loss of James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov will create some holes on the wing as well (Toronto has a plethora of internal options to fill those in, though).

With several key departures on deck, and a small window before potentially being pushed to the brink of salary cap restrictions, Dubas and the Leafs have one summer to do some serious spending on supplementing (or maximizing) their roster.

7. Establishing his culture

Lamoriello was brought in in 2015 to help implement a culture of winning for a team that hadn’t done so in a long, long time. Along with his veteran expertise came a range of strictly enforced rules: no beards, no high jersey numbers, and limited media availability for young players and assistant coaches.

Whether Dubas holds onto the guidelines established by his mentor is largely inconsequential to the success of the Maple Leafs’ season, but it’s his team now, and he can do what he pleases. Though he may want to take care of the other items on this list first.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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May 13, 2018

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