By Jonas Siegel and James Mirtle
May 7, 2020
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Mirtle and Siegel: What if the Leafs had kept Lou Lamoriello as GM?
Kyle Dubas will celebrate his two-year anniversary as Leafs general manager next week. One of the questions that has popped up in the market in that time: Would the Leafs be in a better position if they had kept Lou Lamoriello instead of his much younger counterpart?
Or would they be worse? Maybe, far worse?
As part of The Athletic’s “do-over” series, we decided to imagine and discuss such an alternate reality.
What if Lamoriello was still in charge (and Dubas was presumably running a different NHL team)?
Let’s map it out.
Jonas Siegel: One thing is for sure: The famous Auston Matthews mustache wouldn’t exist. And, undoubtedly, the roster and coach would look a lot different.
James Mirtle: Hah. I love how you get the mustache in as one of the first things we talk about. We’re digging deep.
So, just to set the stage a little bit: Dubas almost left the Leafs before he became the GM. The Avalanche (and I believe other teams) had interest, and it was only when Brendan Shanahan blocked Colorado from hiring him that Toronto kept him in the fold.
At that point, when the Dubas-to-Denver move was prevented back in 2017, it was effectively “promised” that the succession plan would take place, with Dubas taking over for Lamoriello in 2018.
At the time, that part of the Shanaplan was controversial among the fan base. The Leafs were still a rising club, with a lot of talented young players and some good contracts (Morgan Rielly, Frederik Andersen) that Lamoriello had signed. He had his supporters, to be sure. And there was a third faction of folks who wanted to see Mark Hunter get promoted to the top hockey-ops job.
If the Leafs had let Dubas go to Colorado, it’s plausible that Lamoriello would still be GM. He’s obviously not thinking about retirement, given his role with the Islanders, and I don’t think it was realistic that Hunter would get that role in Toronto.
What if Lamoriello was the GM today? Well, would Patrick Marleau have stayed on the roster? What about Nikita Zaitsev? Would Mike Babcock have been fired? How would he have handled the contracts to the big three young stars? Would the Leafs have gotten John Tavares?
I’m giving you first choice at those topics — or you can go off the board.
Siegel: Let’s start with the big three contracts — to William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
There’s an idea out there that had Lamoriello remained as GM — instead of Dubas — these three crucial deals would have turned out differently for the Leafs, better even.
I really wonder about that notion, though.
Take Nylander, for instance.
The thinking goes that Nylander and his agent, Lewis Gross, wouldn’t have pushed Lamoriello, with his three decades of NHL experience, like they did Dubas, who was just months into his first NHL GM job.
They would have agreed to whatever he wanted!
And if they didn’t, Lamoriello wouldn’t have tolerated their insolence. If Nylander didn’t report for training camp, say, or missed even a month’s worth of games, Lamoriello as Leafs GM would have sent him packing in a trade.
Are we sure about all that?
)Lamoriello has built up this tough-guy reputation and, perhaps, it’s earned in some respects. But there are many examples — particularly in contract negotiations — of Lamoriello being, well, not so tough.
Example: Zaitsev fetching a seven-year contract from Lamoriello’s Leafs after one NHL season. Example: Jean-Gabriel Pageau netting a six-year extension from Lamoriello’s Islanders, with a $5 million cap hit, after a deadline trade from Ottawa. Example: Leo Komarov getting a four-year, $12 million deal from New York before that. Or, how about Anders Lee getting a teensy bit more than Nylander eventually did ($7 million cap hit) on a seven-year contract from the Isles last summer?
But OK, I’ll buy into the possibility that maybe Lamoriello doesn’t put up with the standoff and swiftly deals Nylander.
Would that have been a good thing? Seeing Nylander take a real leap this season, were they really likely to come out ahead by dealing him just to take a stand?
To quote Kevin McAllister from Home Alone: “I don’t think so.”
How about the other two stars, Mirtle? See anything different playing out?
Mirtle: Honestly, you know what I think would have happened? I bet some of them would have been pushed into bridge deals.
And that would have given the Leafs enough space to keep, say, Zaitsev around longer and maybe push some more money into the blue line. Maybe they re-sign Ron Hainsey? Mike Babcock certainly would have maintained a bigger say in the roster decisions — and may even have still been the coach right now.
The problem with bridging your young stars is you push the decision down the line. If Nylander signed a two-year bridge then explodes for a huge 35-goal season, all of a sudden he’s going to cost a lot more than $7 million in 2022, or whatever.
But, if you bridge Nylander and get that done sooner, is there less pressure to capitulate to Marner threatening to sit out some games? Do you get him on a bridge deal, too? It’s an interesting thought experiment on how the different GMs would handle different negotiations. I tend to think that Lamoriello would have saved them some money in the near term at the cost of cap space in four or five years.
A lot of why I think Dubas was a better choice for the organization was some of that long-range planning. I think his drafts have been better than the two Lamoriello presided over. I think the organization puts a lot more emphasis on development and finding hidden gems under Dubas. That groundwork will be more evident as a benefit of his tenure two or three years from now.
Let’s face it — no matter who was going to be the GM, the Leafs were in a pretty good position, with so many young star players already on the roster. The question was: Who would be better equipped to turn that contender potential into an actual title run over the next few years? Answering it right now is difficult, given we’re not even two years in, but I lean toward the GM who is more focused on extending this window out a few years instead of signing players like Marleau and trading for Tomas Plekanec. The Leafs are going to win or lose in the coming years based on how good a supporting cast they can build around Matthews, Marner and Co. And if Dubas continues to draft well and find hidden gems in free agency, my money is on him.
Overspending by a couple million on the kids to keep them locked in with some term isn’t as big an issue as some of the mistakes Lamoriello made in Toronto.
Siegel: You’re being very diplomatic, James.
Obviously, this is all hypothetical so we have no way of knowing what bridge deals would look like for Marner and Nylander, or how Lamoriello would have handled them each, otherwise. (I doubt a bridge was ever happening with a no-brainer like Matthews, but I do wonder what his contract would have looked like under Lamoriello).
One thing you’re circling but not digging into explicitly is how Lamoriello would have put that extra salary cap space to work. And that relates directly to the big question we’re asking here of whether the Leafs would be better off. We don’t have a ton of evidence that Lamoriello would have spent those cap dollars wisely. Look at what’s gone down on Long Island. Or even before that here in Toronto: Matt Martin, Roman Polak, Hainsey, Marleau. Aging veterans on pricey deals.
There was also, as you mentioned, the easy moving of valuable draft picks for marginal (veteran) upgrades at the trade deadline.
Lamoriello got some things right, certainly. The Andersen trade. Those long-term deals for Nazem Kadri, Rielly, and Zach Hyman. But we weren’t seeing him actively try to address problems of today and tomorrow creatively like Dubas has. Like making bets on Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Justin Holl, and Pierre Engvall that could reap rewards down the line. Or extending an unproven Trevor Moore for two years and then using him later to get a backup goalie. Dealing Kadri for Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot hasn’t exactly worked out, but you can see some extra layers in that deal (Barrie at half the money, Kerfoot signed an extra year for a million less) that speak to some creativity and innovation from the Dubas front office.
We don’t have the answer yet on whether Dubas can build a capable supporting cast around that core. But I’m not confident about Lamoriello’s ability to do so.
)You mentioned the draft, which Hunter would likely still be running for the Leafs had Lamoriello remained. That means, in all likelihood, no Nick Robertson or Rasmus Sandin. Maybe though, the Leafs, in that scenario, might not have spent first-round picks on Jake Muzzin and to deal Marleau’s contract away last year. And, whoa, mind blown — we’re deep into an alternate reality!
The coaching situation is interesting. There’s no doubt for me that Babcock is still the coach today if Lamoriello was still in charge.
Mirtle: Muzzin is a good point. And it leads me to another aspect of the Leafs team-building that would be different: The organization wouldn’t be nearly as analytically inclined, which is partly why players like Zaitsev and Hainsey may have struck around. Now, it’s pretty early in Dubas’ tenure to say that whatever their research department is up to is helping drive positive results, but if I’m making a bet on roster construction in this era, I want some new-school input into those decisions. Lamoriello wasn’t entirely against analytics — I had some interesting conversations with him about the topic when he was in Toronto — but it’s fair to say that Dubas, who built the department, is far more bought in.
If Dubas went elsewhere, my sense is some — or most — of those he hired to do that work would have gone with him.
You make some solid points about where the Islanders are at right now, too. Their cap situation is arguably worse than Toronto’s — at least until Lamoriello makes some moves — and they’ve locked in some so-so players on big contracts. I wonder if the folks who go ballistic about Nylander making $6.96 million are equally outraged at Pageau’s $5 million x 6 deal that he just signed after putting up 40 points?
If Dubas can be better at the draft, better in some of his trade acquisitions (Muzzin), and not sign any veterans to bloated UFA deals, that alone feels like it puts him in a good spot.
It’s funny: you know, we’ve been doing a lot of look-back type analysis lately with the games shut down in this period, and one question I was looking at was who has been the Leafs’ best GM since Pat Quinn was pushed out in 2003? I know you picked JFJ as the worst recently in a piece, but the fact there was such a fierce debate over that is proof how poorly run this franchise has been for so long.
Some of the trades and signings made by Dave Nonis, Brian Burke and even Cliff Fletcher in his second go-around were … well, woof.
If Dubas and his group can just be quasi-competent for a while and keep the roster around the 100-point mark for a stretch, that certainly beats what the Leafs have had for years before this.
Not that we’re setting a very high bar.
)Siegel: Actually, that’s been one of the more pleasant(?) surprises digging into the recent past of Leafs history. I had always had a big-picture sense that things had been mismanaged, but after sifting through so many of the decisions, one after another, I came to better understand how poorly managed the franchise was for a long time — in the years after Quinn departed and before Shanahan took over as team president.
I didn’t agree (and still don’t) with a lot of his rules — from grooming specifications to keeping rookies from doing in-game interviews — but the overarching strategy of team before individual did help to eliminate much of the chaos of previous years and make very clear that someone up top was in charge.
The Leafs needed that, and they got it with Lamoriello and Babcock.
It was more a feeling than anything concrete, but there were times this year — particularly after Babcock was fired — that the Leafs looked a little wobbly, as though they were missing that steady, been-there-done-that authority at the top.
I think that’s something Dubas will continue to grow into.
That said, some players (and various personnel throughout the organization) found Lamoriello to be intimidating, and it often felt like various departments were siloed off from one another.
Dubas has made a point of trying to blend everyone together. We’ve seen it at practice, when members of the analytics department are there chatting it up with scouts and members of the front office, including Shanahan.
It’s probably at least partly due to his age, but Dubas is also a more approachable figure than Lamoriello. That won’t hurt as far as building out the organization.
In summation, I think we both agree: Things would have been much different had Lamoriello remained as GM in the spring of 2018. But with Dubas, the organization is much better off.