Reviewing the Tenure of Kyle Dubas with the Toronto Maple Leafs So Far: Part 1

Kyle Dubas

On May 11th, 2018, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Kyle Dubas would be replacing Lou Lamoriello as general manager of the team. This was announced to be the plan from day one of hiring Lamoriello. Since then, the Leafs have remained a top regular-season team in the NHL. Dubas has made a number of big splashes since being put in charge of the Leafs. Today, we will review all of his unrestricted free agent signings and extensions of upcoming unrestricted free agents.

Reviewing Kyle Dubas’ Time With the Toronto Maple Leafs So Far

Note: I will only be reviewing the deals I deem “significant enough” to discuss. I will not be breaking down minor moves.

July 1st, 2018: John Tavares

Alright, this is the big one. The first big UFA signing Kyle Dubas did was, at the time, likely one of the biggest, most shocking UFA deals in the salary cap era. The all-star, John Tavares, captain of the New York Islanders, signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kyle Dubas signed Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract. He got him for less than other teams offered, and he acquired a star player without giving up any assets other than money. This was a massive win for the Leafs. Tavares even had said he wasn’t considering leaving New York until his agent convinced him to at least listen to other teams, and he eventually decided to come home after seeing Dubas’ presentation.

Tavares has been fantastic for the Leafs, posting 47 goals in his first season and constantly generating high-quality chances. When there’s an opportunity to sign a UFA of Tavares’ calibre, you have to pounce on the opportunity. While the Tavares signing has been great so far, there is one knock you could discuss about the signing. The Leafs signed a player for $11 million that will be 34 by the end of the contract. While this was mandatory for just about any team looking to acquire a player of this calibre in unrestricted free agency (see Artemi Panarin), it is still something to consider when making these signings.

Grade: A-

July 6th, 2018: Tyler Ennis

The Leafs signed Ennis to help the team in a depth role. This was following a buyout from the Minnesota Wild. The Leafs signed Ennis to an inexpensive one-year deal to provide a scoring touch to the bottom-six and a veteran presence (something that would become a theme in Dubas’ tenure so far). Ennis wound up putting up 12 goals and six assists through 51 games that season, helping out the Leafs’ depth players.

While Tyler Ennis was never a game-breaker, destroying worlds or changing the flow of the game based solely on his willpower alone, he was still an effective player. He provided the Leafs with exactly what they had hoped for when Dubas had signed him, and at such a cheap, one-year deal, it’s a very low-risk/medium reward kind of deal. It’s this exact philosophy that makes this such a good signing for the Leafs. This is exactly the kind of signings the Leafs need with their top players making as much as they do.

Grade: B

May 6th, 2019: Ilya Mikheyev

While CapFriendly doesn’t define this signing as a UFA signing, I will. Mikheyev had the choice to go to any of the 31 NHL teams (or even stay in Russia). This signing was great in his first year (we’ll discuss his performances this year in the RFA article). While he was sidelined halfway through the year, Mikheyev posted seven goals and 23 points in 39 games. None of his points came on the powerplay either. They were all even-strength or shorthanded.

I think his first season with the Leafs was fantastic (his second is a different story), and it was another low-risk contract that paid off in 2019-20, especially given the randomness of European free agents coming to the NHL.

Grade: A-

July 1st, 2019: Jason Spezza

The first Jason Spezza deal was very similar to the Tyler Ennis one, except with a better performance. After a relatively disappointing final year with the Dallas Stars, Spezza became a UFA. Kyle Dubas saw this as an opportunity to do something similar with Tyler Ennis. A player that had a disappointing year based on what they were making, yet would still be an effective player for the right price. Dubas pounced and brought Jason Spezza home for $700,000 on a one-year contract.

Spezza provided great depth in 2019-20 by being able to play on the third and fourth lines at both wing and centre when needed. He posted nine goals and 16 assists in 58 games. This was similar production as his final years with Dallas, but down in the lineup and at a fraction of the price.

Grade: A

July 1st – 24th: Kenny Agostino, Nick Shore, Pontus Aberg

I know I said I wouldn’t be talking about depth signings, but these three signings were announced around the same time (though were official at different points).  All depth forward signings that I really liked to give the Leafs options on the fourth line. I thought Kenny Agostino even deserved to make the opening day roster based on his training camp. While none ended up playing a lot of impactful games for the Leafs, I thought these were all solid choices for depth signings. The fact that they didn’t even hit 30 games between the three of them hurts the signings grade, despite my liking of the signings.

Grade: C+

December 31st, 2019: Justin Holl

This signing seemed odd to most at the time. $2 million per year for three years for a guy with 50 something games in his career at that point? He was 28 years old and it seemed like the only reason he was in the top-four with Jake Muzzin was that the Leafs had no better right-handed options. He was fine, but not a guy you’d think to give term to. It seemed Kyle Dubas was maybe overvaluing a guy he liked and developed.

Nope. It seems Dubas saw something we missed. This season Holl has been incredible, save for a few rough games of late. Holl has seemed like a legitimate top-four player and has been a very effective penalty killer. The Leafs have him cost-controlled for another two years after this one.

Grade: A

February 24th, 2020: Jake Muzzin

The world seemed to turn sideways immediately following the Jake Muzzin extension. Coincidence? Yeah, probably because this contract was what I would consider “fair-value”. Kyle Dubas had dealt for Jake Muzzin the season prior, and to get the most out of that trade, he extended him. Jake Muzzin had been (and still is) a fantastic defenceman for the Leafs up until that point. Signing him ensured the Leafs would remain competent on the blueline.

Muzzin got exactly what he should have gotten, in my opinion. A solid defender, and a clear #2 defenceman on the majority of teams. This wasn’t a massive win for the Leafs, but letting him go would have been a loss. It’s a respectable contract with little to no surplus-value. Again, there’s a similar issue with Tavares. It’s a contract with term for a player that is ageing. However, with that said, Muzzin has been effective and it would have hurt the Leafs not to keep him.

Grade: B

October 5th, 2020: Jason Spezza, Again

This is one that impressed me. After seeing success in a depth role with the Leafs, Spezza could have gone out and made a bit more money elsewhere, but Dubas locked him up for another year at $700,000. Though I won’t credit it all to Dubas, as it seems like there were external factors at play. Spezza is older with a wife and four daughters. He likely did not want to relocate them after just one year. It also came out when the Leafs placed him on waivers that Spezza would just retire if someone claimed him. It seems, by all indications, Spezza wanted to stay in Toronto.

With that said, Dubas took advantage of the circumstances. Usually, in the case of the cheap, experienced players filling in depth roles, they only remain with the team for one year. Spezza was likely the most effective player the Leafs have had in this “experienced, cheap, depth role”, but they were also able to retain him for another year at $700,000.

Grade: A-

October 9th, 2020: Wayne Simmonds

Again, with this theme of a veteran depth player (and this won’t be the last). The Leafs signed Wayne Simmonds to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. This felt rich for this player archetype. He’s making more than double that Jason Spezza is. Simmonds was looking good on the power play pre-injury, but that production has since dried up. It was a worthwhile bet to think Simmonds could be effective on the powerplay given his history performing in that area and the Leafs firepower, but $1.5 million felt rich for this test.

With his scoring dried up, his flaws have become even more apparent and likely isn’t even among the Leafs’ 12 best forwards at this point in the season. While he seems like a great guy that is very active in the community, looking at this from a purely on-ice perspective, this signing has not turned out well.

Grade: C-

October 9th, 2020: T.J. Brodie

This is one of my favourite UFA signings that Kyle Dubas has made. I have written about T.J. Brodie’s talents already this season, but he’s done even better since then. I cited his 5v5 offence as something to work on, and this is an area that has improved in the second half of the season. I thought he was the perfect fit for the Leafs defence. Obviously, Kyle Dubas did too.

Dubas clearly had been a fan of T.J. Brodie’s for some time now. He had wanted to acquire him in a trade for Nazem Kadri before Kadri blocked it and went to the Colorado Avalanche instead (which we’ll get to later in the series). But signing Brodie to solidify the Leafs defence was an excellent move. The deal itself is very similar to that of the Muzzin deal, in my opinion. Fair value, but a slight caveat because he’s ageing. But it’s the fit of this signing that I believe is the best part, and what pushes the grade up for me. Brodie is an excellent defender, and one of the best players in the league at defending odd-man rushes, in my opinion. An excellent UFA signing by Dubas.

Grade: A

October 10th, 2020: Zach Bogosian

Look, I’ll preface this with one thing: Zach Bogosian has been better than I thought. I was outraged initially that the Leafs would go out and sign Bogosian for $1 million. The Leafs had finally ridden themselves of all their anchor defencemen (Roman Polak, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Cody Ceci, and Matt Hunwick) only to go out and just sign, what I classified as, another.

Bogosian, however, has actually been good for Toronto this season. It has been a pleasant surprise. He is an effective bottom pairing defenceman and is certainly a part of their six best based on this season’s performance.

Grade: B+

October 16th, 2020: Joe Thornton

Joe Thornton has been an interesting signing. He looked fantastic when playing on the top line, but has not looked great with his play of late on the third line. Signing him for one year at $700,000 was again, a low-risk/medium reward kind of deal. I believe Thornton isn’t as bad as he’s been playing of late, and could just benefit from getting scratched for a few games. Given some nights off, I believe Thornton could provide value again for the Leafs.

I think the signing was worthwhile for the Leafs to take, and that he was a good choice for Kyle Dubas to select to fill this archetype we’ve seen time and time again. If he didn’t play every single game, I think he could provide some value for the Leafs again, and this signing could look great again.

Grade: B-

Overall

Overall, I think Kyle Dubas’ unrestricted free agent signings have been a strength of his. While not the best area of his GM abilities, he has yet to sign a truly bad contract. The deals he signs long-term have been for good to great players, and are arguably worth the risk in the later years, and the ones that don’t pan out have been low-risk deals for little money only for a year.

Special thanks to CapFriendly for providing all data on the contracts and signings.

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