July 22nd 2014, a date that will live in infamy. The Toronto Maple Leafs hired Kyle Dubas, formerly the General Manager for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, former scout, agent, and fancy stats pioneer as assistant general manager.
While he rankles at the comparison to famed Moneyball GM Billy Beane, Dubas does have the statistical bona fides to change the way game is being played in Toronto.
Here are five key points from the hire:
The Leafs will use their analytics budget this year
Dave Nonis nearly broke twitter last season when he indicated that the Maple Leafs have had money allocated for use in advanced statistics over the years and have chosen not to use it. What was most offensive about this statement – in the eyes of stats gurus and knowledgeable fans in general – was the cavalier approach to asset management displayed by Nonis.
The Maple Leafs are the richest team in the sport, and one of the 50 richest sports franchises in the world. The team paid Darcy Tucker $6-million not to play for them, and will do the same over the next four years for Tim Gleason. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition to spend millions on buyouts and then nothing on this potential avenue to help improve the team.
The advanced stats present today are not the Rosetta stone to make a team fluent in on-ice success. Dubas admitted that they are still in primitive stages right now during his inaugural press conference.
They are a tool, and like any tool they have both limitations and uses. When all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. The Leafs just added to the toolbox.
The old boys club is (almost) gone
Perhaps overshadowed in yesterday’s events, Dave Poulin (hired by Brian Burke in 2009) and Claude Loiselle (hired by Burke in 2010) were relieved of their duties. It was a sudden – though perhaps not surprising – move, seeing as Poulin was on TSN 1050 hours before being let go.
For Loiselle, partial architect of the buyout-proof David Clarkson contract (that sees the Mimico native receive 75% of his $36.75-million contract in signing bonuses), the departure is long overdue.
As to Poulin, he’s an affable guy who has done good things with a patchwork Marlies squad the last three seasons (he served as the baby buds’ GM among other duties). He also strongly advocated for the signing of Brett Lebda, and did media rounds towing the company line. He was a loyal foot soldier for both Burke and Nonis, but ultimately he represented the cloistered, smartest-guys-in-the-room mentality that has plagued the club over the past decade. If I had to guess, he won’t be unemployed for long. If not Calgary in an executive capacity, he could get back into coaching.
Enter the fledgling Dubas, a few months younger than Tyler Bozak, with no NHL experience. He doesn’t wear the same school ties, he’s not indebted to or enamoured with Lou Lamoriello. He’s not going to advocate for a trade with Anaheim just because.
This is a merit-based hire, something that is both rare and needed in this nepotistic industry. This new voice will beget more new voices as the Leafs seek to revitalize its beleaguered image and place in the NHL.
Brendan Shanahan puts his stamp on the team
Though he probably flubbed his first chance to improve the team by retaining Randy Carlyle, it’s become clear that Shanny has a clear direction for what he wants in this team. He’s removed subordinates sympathetic to Carlyle and promoted two guys in Spott and Horachek who might be better suited to coaching in the modern NHL. He’s been quiet, methodical; and ultimately this departure from braggadocio-filled, hollow statements will stand him in good stead.
Along with the hire of Dubas, Shanahan has subtly reshaped the team in his image. It’s also provided Shanahan with a loyal guy, his hire. He’s removed Carlyle’s support base, he’s removed Nonis’ support base, and added to his own. A very prudent move that shouldn’t be forgotten.
The Leafs (probably) won’t be that much better in the short term
Dubas, despite his accolades, is not a miracle worker. There’s still plenty of room for improvement (the signing of David Booth notwithstanding) and piles of evidence to suggest that the Leafs are one Jonathan Bernier injury away from being a lottery team.
Dubas should be a boon to the pro and amateur scouting divisions, but the results won’t be instantaneous. There’s a lot that needs improvement in Toronto, and he’s not skating a shift or deploying the forward units. There are still a lot of problem areas on the team, and the acquisition of talented coaches and players can be a slow and arduous process.
This is quite a promotion for him, but Dubas might need a lot of seasoning before he’s a mover and shaker. Even Dubas said during yesterday’s press conference, “there’s no quick fix.”
This changes everything… maybe.
Dave Nonis should be looking over his shoulder. Randy Carlyle should be looking over his shoulder. Steve Simmons should be looking in the mirror. Change, both culturally and executively, has come to the Toronto Maple Leafs and it will be felt in many ways.
The biggest change may not be in Toronto but throughout the league. Generally speaking, it is cash-strapped teams that look to exploit market inefficiencies as they do not have the financial clout to compete with the big money teams.
With Dubas, the richest franchise in the NHL has accepted that there’s merit to a blended approach to analyzing hockey success individually and as a team. What this doesn’t do is make the Leafs a playoff contender. The games still must be played.
But there’s a new architect in Toronto, armed with infinite resources at his finger tips, who might just help build something magical.
Nice writing Michael.
Would like to underline Alec's point made yesterday. Any decent rebound in possession in 1st half of season will most likely be due to Horachek/Spott impact on systems and I hope they would get most credit for that and not everything splashed on Dubas. Dubas will pay off longer term for a decade+ with the development & evaluation systems.
Nice article Michael. The "old boys club" definitely took a hit today.
It's going to be interesting in seeing someone as young as Kyle develop and being groomed in the next few years. Shanny seems (obviously) excited by this hire and what Kyle can bring to the table. Just like Nylander, Reilly etc. are the future on the ice, Dubas seems the heir apparent in the front office.
Besides Shanahan's endorsement, I can't help but feel a tad excited and hopeful. As a hiring is not the norm for the Leafs or most teams for that matter (Stellick doesn't count). Good on Shanahan and MLSE, for looking outside for talent and not limiting their search. For grabbing a person they feel is a bright, knowledgable yet still hungry to learn more (only mentioned it about six times in the interview), before anyone else. It gives a sense of a long term plan.
At the very least the embattled and staunch Corsi supporters should calm down, they may even buy a jersey with his name on it ;)
Great Article, a few things.......expectations for this year should be low, at the same time the Leafs have done a great job at signing a lot of guys who still have the potential to have a solid impact with the Leafs
We have the looks of a team that will roll 4 lines
The hiring of Dubas was a great move imo, I wouldn't be surprised to see Sheldon Keefe making the jump to the NHL in the not so distant future
Lastly, Carlyle and Nonis are definitely going to be looking over their shoulder.......I think Nonis will survive this overhaul.......Carlyle doesn't seem like a guy who will make it out of this season
My nephew is the same age as Dubas and took the same course as he did at Brock University in St. Catharines. Wondering if he knows him.
An insightful analysis. Thank you.
Re: "...and piles of evidence to suggest that the Leafs are one Jonathan Bernier injury away from being a lottery team."
I've been thinking the same thing myself. I'm glad we have a resilient fan base that's capable of optimism, but if we lost any one of Bernier, Kessel, JVR, Kadri, Phaneuf or Rielly for any length of time it could spell curtains. Last year we faltered without Bozak!
So much for our supposed depth...
Absolutely LOVE this move, sad to see Poulin go thought he was doing a great job, Loieslle not so much...
I think this move also explains the recent Baily rumours. He like Booth are aggressive forechecking players whom excel with Corsi numbers.
Attached is an interesting article on Zone Exits
I wonder though if the d corps will be doing fronting coverage this year which more aggressively pressures the puck carrier and blocks shooting lanes
Just a thought here....remember the apparent argument at the Leafs table at the draft? Wonder if this had anything to do with it. Not totally, but in a last nail in the coffin kind of way.
Architect? He's not the one running the team. Some of the narratives coming out of today are ridiculous. I like the hire, but people are getting much to ahead of themselves.
I was under the impression that Poulin assumed the Marlies GM duties when Burke was fired and Nonis took over. It had been Nonis prior to that.
I like the hire. It is a little risky, due to his lack of experience, but the Leafs need some fresh thinking.
In conjunction with their other off season moves, I wonder if they're going to change their approach to getting better.
Over the last few years, they've let some pretty good players just walk away from the team when they could have been used to improve the team. They've also given some players a look for a low price who played above what they hoped.
This makes me wonder if they'll start trading some of these assets in the future. I can see them approaching free agents who have been passed over and telling them that if they play well and sign a decent contract, the Leafs will find a way of trading them to a playoff team. The same might go for Europeans.
Players would go for it because it might be seen as a way to improve their careers.
This year, they're signing a lot of players which means that they have more ways of maneuvering and they have the ability to trade guys away without having to get someone back right away to fill it.
For the Leafs, they could make a yearly habit of it in the hopes of always getting a few extra pics or prospects at the trade deadline. Picks and prospects can then be used in trades to improve (including moving up in drafts).
great read, I'm glad someone else picked up on the Moneyball similarities. Only time will tell if Dubas is as successful.
@Mattmark so the team might struggle if one of their best players go down. How is this different from any other team? Of course the leafs, like other teams, don't have a 30-40 goal scorer in the bottom 6 to move up and replace Kessel if he gets injured.
@Hifi75 They did fronting with Wilson and it was a disaster.
Something also tells me the Leafs aren't done looking for another top 6 player that is aggressive on the puck
@Bon Scott was a Leaf fan You were surprised but you can't say that you're surprised? Vaping at work today?
@Bon Scott was a Leaf fan Wait, so you were, or weren't surprised?
@Bon Scott was a Leaf fan In terms of team makeup, its really, really hard to turn a team around on the year, but the biggest improvement where he can help is in the coaching.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had their awful system that conceded point shots (which lead to rebounds and 2nd chance opportunities) and scrambles in the d-zone. I think by have a traditional system with a better man-on-man coverage (vs the zone shit they were doing before) and looking at things like how to structure defensive zone faceoffs from a personnel standpoint, who you deploy on your PP#1 and PP#2 using stats based on clean zone entries, as well as providing stats for the PK to show the coaches that their "gut" is not really cutting it, will make the leafs an infinitely better team.
@The_Polish_Cannon @Mattmark From any other team? If the Hawks lose Toews they have Kane, Hossa and Sharp. If the Kings lose Kopitar, they've got Carter, Gaborik, Richards and Dustin Brown. If the Pens lose Crosby they have Malkin, Kunitz and Sutter. If the Bruins lose Bergeron they have Krejci, Lucic and Marchand. And before you turn up your nose at Marchand he had 53 points last year. Reilly Smith had 51 and Soderberg 48. Leafs would be thrilled if their lesser lights had numbers like that! What the Bruins, Kings, Hawks and other upper-tier teams have is known as depth, and it's futile to pretend we have it when we're relying on Matt Frattin to be a second- or third-line winger. (This isn't even taking into account the imposter we continue to masquerade as a first-line centre!)
@Bon Scott was a Leaf fan @rockydundas I went back and watched....didn't see what I remember. Hmmm....I'm not sure what I was remembering. For what it's worth though, it did look like Nonis, shanny and Poulin were deep in discussion and were told about three times by the NHL floor guy to get up there and make the pick.
It's dead easy if they would just look at it, BB. I'd really love to see this stuff tied in with video to contextualize it, providing an almost 3D look to the stats.
E.G: Here's a carry in and here's what the result is. Here's a dump in and the result. Tally it up and show the coaching staff who insist on making players like Kessel and Kadri dump and chase.
Same thing for line changes: Leafs dump and change and then other teams attack the opposite site of the ice to expose slow, clumsy changes—STL is the master at curl ups, pass backs, d-to-d passes that buy a little time and they make sure to never give up the puck, reload and carry on. It will all come out in video and stats—the coaches just need to be shown it. If they continue making poor tactical choices in the face of good data, than that's on them.
@Mattmark @Burtonboy @DeclanK @Bon Scott was a Leaf fan Kessel, Bozak, JVR, Lupul, Kadri, Santorelli, Dion (on a good day), Rielly, Gardiner—all players that can carry the puck in with the best of them in the league. I just named 50% of the forwards and 50% of the D. More than enough.
That's a weak argument.
@DeclanK @Mattmark @Burtonboy @Bon Scott was a Leaf fan Er, speaking of weak arguments, all but one of the players you list were on the team last year. If you think this group carries the puck with the best in the league I can only infer that you somehow managed not to catch a single playoff series this past spring.
The argument of mine you should have inferred is that Dubas is an analyst: he can only record what happens. He can't influence it in any way, whatever his preferences happen to be.
There was some serious discussion that the cameras latched on to, but on a rewatch it was just talking. Somebody online posted " look, they're arguing" and it grew from there.