Leafs hire boy wonder Kyle Dubas in front office 0
Brendan Shanahan figured two hours would be ample time for his first get-to-know-you chat with Kyle Dubas.
Seven hours later, with darkness descending on the MasterCard Centre, the Leafs president was still bantering with the 28-year-old wunderkind from The Soo — about to faint from hunger. But he had found his new assistant general manager, one that will put Shanahan’s stamp on the Maple Leafs this season and for years to come.
If Dubas can win the hearts and minds of the rest of the hockey department — which thinned out when Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle were let go to make room for his Tuesday morning arrival — then the work environment will improve, even if the team does not right away.
“After polling the hockey world pretty much the entire time I’ve been hired, about who are the great minds out there, the innovators, the rising stars, one name that kept coming up was Kyle,” Shanahan said.
Dubas, who champions analytics in his player evaluations, becomes the youngest assistant GM in the National Hockey League. But if he can influence a team with a Stanley Cup drought more than twice his years with some 21st-century methods, then Shanahan and an impatient fan base aren’t going to argue.
“I don’t really care about someone’s age,” Shanahan, 45, said. “He’s been working at this level a long time (three years as GM of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, after being a player agent). He has a work ethic and one thing I’ve learned since retiring as a player, it’s a whole different ethic you need to be an executive.”
Shanahan said another NHL team would have lured Dubas from The Soo if he hadn’t acted first. His reference list included OHL commissioner Dave Branch, who gave a glowing account, so Shanahan sought permission from the Greyhounds, where Kyle’s grandfather Walter coached in the 1960s and where father Mark also worked. He then e-mailed Dubas for a one-on-one meeting, not knowing he was in Mexico at his wedding rehearsal.
The new groom came off the plane at Pearson into a day-long free-for-all at the MCC, covering everything from analytics — still seen as voodoo by many in the game — to dressing-room dynamics.
“He was challenging some of my ideas, and I challenged his,” Hall of Famer Shanahan said. “That was encouraging, that’s what I wanted. I value a (hockey office) that has different opinions and perspectives. That’s not to reflect on the past regime, but he just brings a fresh perspective. What’s important to me is that he’s not just talking it, he’s living it. He’s not tied to old ideas, but at the same time he’s a respectful and open person.”
The two also found common ground on accepting new and difficult jobs the past few years.
“The Greyhounds gave him a chance to be GM at age 25 and we talked about was how rocky it was (in Dubas’ first year). I drew similar parallels when I first took over NHL player safety, of being attacked, of being in the storm and sticking to what you believe in.”
A potential hurdle avoided by Shanahan on Tuesday was mention of how Dubas and GM Dave Nonis will function. The latter did not attend the news conference in the Leafs dressing room because of a family function.
But Dubas said he, Nonis and Shanahan had a productive dinner on Monday and certain job descriptions were laid out. At least one more hiring is expected with hockey operations boss and Marlies GM Poulin gone, as well as Loiselle, who held the assistant’s title and did salary cap and contract work.
“I was a player agent, so knowing the CBA and the salary cap, it won’t take long to get readjusted,” Dubas said. “I got the impression Dave and Brendan are certainly open to all ideas, and that’s one of the things that was most enticing for me to come here. I’ve been lucky to have opportunities open up and try and make the most of them every day.”
While assuring there are “no quick fixes” he can suggest for Nonis and a team in the Leafs’ situation, he’s not writing the current roster off for 2014-15.
“The term people use is culture change but that’s just a buzzword,” Dubsa said. “When a team hasn’t done very well they say it needs a culture change and when it wins they’ll say it’s got a great culture. People can’t say what that really means, other than one team is winning.
“There are some great young players that really excite me with the team and I think it will be a lot of fun over the next number of years. Look at teams that are successful. It’s a slow, steady one-day-at-a-time pace to get better. That’s all I’m trying to help do.”
KYLE DUBAS FILE
BORN: Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
DID YOU KNOW: Was GM of the Soo Greyhounds the past three years (44-17-2-5 last season) ... Youngest assistant GM in the NHL ... Made the controverdsial move of hiring Sheldon Keefe as Soo’s head coach, which turned into great results ... Grandfather Walter coached the Hounds from 1960-67 ... Graduated with honours from Brock University’s sports management course ... Youngest-ever agent certified by the NHLPA ... A huge baseball fan (Seattle Mariners) and likely gets his passion of analytics from that sport.
THE NUMBERS CRUNCHER
In selling Leafs Nation on his strong belief in analytics, the toughest crowd Kyle Dubas will face could be his own hockey office.
“I believe we have people in our organization who are afraid of certain words and certain information,” team president Brendan Shanahan said on Tuesday as he introduced the 28-year-old assistant general manager. “But once you speak with Kyle, he makes it much more logical and easy to apply.”
It helped that Dubas did not come to the podium looking like a nerdy cast member of The Big Bang Theory, lecturing like Mr. Peabody or conveying the smugness of hockey’s many new number crunchers who think they have reinvented the wheel.
But in his three years as GM of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, Dubas found advanced stats to be quite useful, often having to compile the information and cross-reference it himself because of lack of resources. Not a problem in Toronto where MLSE can probably pick up the tab for manpower and computers.
“Some stats are better than others,” Dubas said. “We’re just opening the door. There are a lot out there. Right now it’s pretty primitive. Shots for and shots against isn’t really ground-breaking stuff. But it gets you to deduce the causes and that’s what I find interesting.
“Everyone knows I have an affinity for that stuff, but it’s really about learning and getting as much information as I can. I didn’t run the team in Soo solely on stats. It was a good-sized part, but the rest of it was just hockey: Evaluating, dealing with scouting reports, with the personalities on the team, hiring the best scouts we could.
“Analytics were a major help to me in getting a better level of certainty. But I think there are people who are far further advanced than me with it.”
Shanahan seemed wishy-washy to analytics the day he was hired away from the NHL, but warmed to them after Dubas broke it down for him in a seven-hour meeting in the interview process. During a Monday-night dinner, Dubas found to his delight that Nonis had begun applying them. But if old-school coach Randy Carlyle is a fan, he hasn’t yet dropped the terms Fenwick or Corsi into a post-game media scrum.
“In talking to a lot of NHL people, the hesitation is when different independent firms tell them it’s a black box, a magical potion to project a player’s value,” Dubas said. “They’re trying to get to baseball (a sport much better at lending itself to numbers and how they apply to individual performance). We’re not there yet.
“It took a long time to get through in Sault Ste. Marie and it’s not even close to perfect. You have to eliminate some of the noise and present the data that’s best going to help the team, whether it’s scouting, strategy or lineups. It’s trying to have everyone get on board and that takes a lot of time.
“A lot of theories that were uncovered, I rejected them at first, and some I’m not a huge believer in. But it’s taking what works and incorporating that into the structure and knowing you’re dealing with a number of subjective pieces to the puzzle as well.”
Some NHL teams have added “analytics” as a job title to people in their hockey departments, while many say the eye test of a player remains the best tool of evaluation.
“The ideas may be rejected, may be accepted or it might be somewhere in between,” Dubas said.
“People use that term ‘possession team’. A number of teams in the league play different styles and are all called the same thing. The L.A. Kings are a great possession team, yet they don’t play the same way as the Blackhawks. It’s not a bad label to have, but just because one team doesn’t play that way doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t. It has to do with slowly adapting.”
Dubas laughed at the memory of blank looks he received from Greyhounds coach Sheldon Keefe when he first started talking about analytics. Now the team is competitive and he says Keefe is a believer.
“Don’t be abrasive about (introducing theories),” Dubas said. “That was what my conversation with Dave and Brendan was about on Monday. Not the five things I think are most important to an organization or about leadership. It was just a conversation about hockey, how we see the game. It won’t be a thing where I rush in tomorrow and tell everyone how it is.
“It’s important to see how they view the game. They were saying things about players who were here before or here now and I was interested in the ‘why?’ That’s a positive way to go about it. We’re in the process of trying to deduce our way into what makes a successful team and we’re a long way from there.”