Why Dubas' terrible draft track record has been quietly killing the Leafs

May 9 2023, 4:00 pm

If it already feels like the offseason in the Toronto Maple Leafs world, we’re not quite there yet.

Before Toronto can officially say goodbye to a once-promising season, the team still has to, well, get eliminated from the playoffs.

Toronto, trailing 3-0 against the Florida Panthers in the second round, has lost nearly all the good vibes from a little over a week ago, when the team exorcised some form of playoff demons and won their first postseason series in 19 years.

Should the Leafs lose one more game, it’s almost certainly going to signify some big changes in some capacity for the team, although the exact nature of the coming moves isn’t quite clear.

There’s trade talk around the Leafs’ core four forwards of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares, all of whom have yet to hit the back of the net in the second round. There are question marks asked of Toronto’s head coach Sheldon Keefe, and whether he’s the right man for the job.

But there’s an under-discussed, underlying factor that’s led to Toronto’s sinking ship: general manager Kyle Dubas (and the rest of his staff) have a pretty terrible record when it comes to the NHL Entry Draft, and it’s been costing the Leafs that extra edge they’ve been searching for for years.

Leafs’ draft history under Dubas is far from inspiring

Dubas was hired into the Leafs organization some nine years ago now, and was named the general manager back in 2018.

Since he took charge of the team, Toronto is fifth in the NHL league-wide in points, consistently making the postseason every year. Dubas has done wonders in many ways for the team (and we’ll get into some of his positives later).

But drafting impact depth players isn’t exactly Dubas’ strong suit — or anyone associated with the team, really.

Toronto has traded its first-round pick four times under Dubas: in 2019 (as part of the Muzzin deal), in 2021 (as part of the Nick Foligno deal), in 2022 (to get off the books of Petr Mrazek’s contract), and this past year to acquire Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari.

Trivia question: how many players have been taken outside of the first round by the Leafs and are set to play in tomorrow’s Game 4?

The answer, right now, is zero.

Matthew Knies — he of three NHL regular season and seven playoff games before getting a concussion — looks like the best bet to become Toronto’s next key depth piece. But he’s currently sidelined with a concussion… and there aren’t exactly a ton of inspiring options to look around to.

Not a single player the Leafs have taken outside of the first round since Dubas has worked for the team has managed to make any sort of sizeable long-term impact on the roster. Not one, coming up on nine years since his hiring.

Travis Dermott, a 2015 second-round selection, was traded to Vancouver for a third-round pick. 2016 and 2018 second-round picks Carl Grundstrom and Sean Durzi exited to Los Angeles for Jake Muzzin before either suited up for the Leafs. Both trades made sense for the Leafs — Dermott was an odd man out, while Muzzin was a much-needed veteran presence on Toronto’s blueline.

But outside of those three, no other Leafs draft pick past the first round since 2014’s Dakota Joshua and Pierre Engvall — neither of whom remain with Toronto — have even hit 100 NHL games.

There’s hope for Nick Robertson, sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury. But a quick peak at Toronto’s draft history shows a whole lot of blank columns under the “NHL games played” category, and dreaming of players hitting their stride one day doesn’t particularly help come playoff time.

The Leafs have hit on the big talent, and they’ve been able to find a decent collection of supplementary pieces via the trade market and free agency. But in the last eight drafts, Toronto is few and far between from landing true impact players.

And when Toronto’s big guns can’t get it going come postseason time, there’s been a complete lack of homegrown skill in order to supplement the team.

Dubas’ savvy moves haven’t quite counteracted the draft failures

Dubas’ fingerprints are, of course, all over the roster. Either by necessity or by design, he’s never been afraid to tinker with the team’s roster while still keeping his preferred core around.

Of the Leafs’ 18 skaters in Game 3 against Florida — save for Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Morgan Rielly, and Justin Holl — 13 were either signed or traded for by Dubas while he was GM.

The free agent signing of Michael Bunting is one of Dubas’ bigger wins over his tenure, turning a player with under 25 NHL games by age 25 into a back-to-back 20-goal scorer and legitimate top-six forward for under $1 million a season.

While he has struggled in the playoffs, Mark Giordano was a high-pedigree player wanted throughout the league that Dubas was able to acquire.

Dubas landed the 2019 Selke and Conn Smythe Trophy winner in O’Reilly via a creative three-team trade, and seemed to miraculously make Luke Schenn 10 years younger by trading for him and placing him alongside Morgan Rielly on the team’s top pair.

Then, of course, there are the signings of John Tavares and TJ Brodie— not to mention the pedigree of players like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau on past rosters that solidified Toronto as a top free-agent destination for veteran players. Having the cojones to make a big or creative move has never been a shortfall of Dubas’.

He’s iced an extremely competitive roster and one that’s deservedly had Stanley Cup aspirations year-in and year-out.

But where would the Leafs be if his drafting history just had a few hits?

We’ll never know, and Toronto seems to be paying the price for it right now.

Adam LaskarisAdam Laskaris

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