Kyle Dubas' Most Impactful Offseason Addition is not Erik Karlsson

Pro players
min - read
By Gary Mok
Pro players
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Obvious or not, Kyle Dubas is the most impactful addition he's made to the Pittsburgh Penguins thus far.
He is a front-office executive focused on much more than just numbers on a spreadsheet; he sees his players as humans and his staff as people with ambitions beyond hockey.
Dubas' actions and ideals will have a more lasting impact on the Penguins than any single player transaction he makes.

The Drive

I was driving north for the long weekend in May, when Brendan Shanahan’s press conference dominated my social media feeds.

Unbeknownst to my four-month-old sleeping in the backseat, the president and alternate governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs had just rocked the hockey world by severing ties with its long-serving general manager, Kyle Dubas.

The decision freed Dubas to leave one nest and hatch into another, taking on the role of President of Hockey Operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins less than a month later.

I was reminded of that day recently, during another weekend excursion with my daughter — this time, we were out having sushi for lunch — when I learned that Dubas had secured Erik Karlsson’s services from the San Jose Sharks.

Much of the commentary in the aftermath of the transaction was laudatory of Dubas, who successfully acquired the reigning Norris Trophy winner while moving on from certain players left over from the previous regime.

But picking up Karlsson is not Dubas’ most impactful addition to the Penguins organization this summer.

Obvious or not, his most impactful addition to the team is himself — along with all the progressive ideals of how to run a modern professional sports organization he brings with him.

Kyle Dubas during his tenure with the Maple Leafs

The Driver

Dubas attended the 2015 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference one year after being named Assistant GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, appearing on a panel about the state of advanced analytics in the NHL and presenting on “How Analytics has Limited the Impact of Cognitive Bias on Personnel Decisions.”

It helped him build a reputation as an analytics-driven executive — for better or worse.

But since he ascended to the top GM job in Toronto, he has proven to be a front-office executive focused on much more than just numbers on a spreadsheet; he saw his players as humans and his staff as people with ambitions beyond hockey.

When a New Jersey Devils player’s skate blade cut into Ilya Mikheyev’s wrist in 2020, it was Dubas who “cancelled a scouting trip, cleared his calendar and joined assistant athletic John Geler at the New Jersey hospital two nights after Christmas.

”Mikheyev’s agent Dan Milstein told Sportsnet at the time that “Kyle went above and beyond his duty,” keeping the player company while the Russian-born winger recovered post-surgery.

Later in his Maple Leafs tenure, Dubas’ human-centered approach to management did not waver.

From calling out “disgusting” depictions of his players in the Toronto media to ensuring his staff had financial security beyond his own expiring contract this past year, Dubas continually stood behind those he was charged to lead.

Now he leads a new crew in Pittsburgh.

It’s a group he’s been eager to build upon, with a number of front office hires that reflect the large, specialized, and inclusive group he built and fostered in Toronto.

Jason Spezza and Cam Charron were both members of Dubas’ staff in Toronto who have since joined him in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, former professional players Amanda Kessel and Trevor Daley have been promoted to Special Assistant to the President of Hockey Operations and General Manager after previously serving in other capacities within the Penguins organization.

In the press conference introducing him to the organization, Dubas noted a two-pronged approach he planned to use with his new NHL franchise. The first prong was a short-term goal: to deliver proper support to the team’s existing core of stars. Then he spoke of the second prong, an arguably more complex task: he hoped to transform the Penguins long-term into a “hockey organization that will be the class of the NHL.

Adding the reigning Norris Trophy winner undoubtedly speaks to that first prong.

But it’s his actions and ideals driving the second prong that will have the most lasting impact on the Penguins and professional hockey at large.

Pittsburgh Penguins
Kyle Dubas during his first press conference as the Pittsburgh Penguins' President of Hockey Operations

The Penguin

August is often the calmest month on the NHL calendar, but Dubas’ tireless work mirrors how this month often manifests itself for most emperor penguin chicks.

After two months of incubation, emperor penguin eggs hatch and begin their lives in this month, trying to find purpose and a shared community.

They start the process of learning to feed, mate, and survive in an unforgiving world.August has been transformative for my baby daughter as well; she’s miraculously learned to crawl.

When she eventually learns to communicate, I’ll get to tell her about the random animal facts I know, the sports articles I read, and how unforgiving professional hockey, much like most of the world, often is.

If Dubas is still running the Penguins when that day comes, I’ll hopefully be able to share with her one of the more progressive parts of the professional hockey world too.

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