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Cullen: Leafs make a smart decision hiring Dubas

Scott Cullen
7/23/2014 4:08:44 PM
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The Toronto Maple Leafs made quite a splash with the hiring of an Assistant General Manager Tuesday. That might sound ludicrous, considering he's an Assistant General Manager, but it really is a pretty big deal.

By hiring Kyle Dubas, a 28-year-old who has been the GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the past three seasons, the Leafs are bringing in a new voice.

I don't know Dubas. I met him at this year's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, enjoyed talking hockey with him for a little while and we were both wowed by the advances in baseball tracking technology. I came away impressed and sure that he would be in the NHL before long.

That he landed an NHL job this summer comes as no surprise.

Landing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, however -- a franchise that has eschewed the use of analytics -- was a legitimate shock.

When the Maple Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan to be the club's new president this spring, there was a lot of talk of a culture change but, as the offseason progressed, it didn't appear that any grand change was taking place. They had fired three assistant coaches, but had the same GM, head coach and front office. If assistant coaches were dictating the culture of the franchise, that would be a first, so it didn't look like the culture change was forthcoming.

Enter Dubas, and exit veteran hockey execs Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin, who were let go. That is the start of a culture change and one of the best parts of it is that Dubas isn't one to get caught up in a buzz phrase like "culture change." He recognizes that winning does a lot to change a team's culture but, for fans and media, having a new voice in the board room -- one that has different ideas than those that have been in place for a while -- does mark a change in the Leafs' culture.

While teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have found value in using advanced statistics, the Maple Leafs have been resistant. If those teams, likely the two best teams in the league over the past five seasons, were using analytics, why would any team not at least ensure that they were up to speed on the latest concepts? Never mind any team, why would the most valuable franchise in the sport, not spend a relative pittance to make sure that they knew and could comprehend the data?

Upon hiring Dubas, Shanahan said that he perceived some problems in the Toronto front office. "I believe we have people in our organization who have maybe been afraid of certain words and certain information," said Shanahan. "Once you speak with Kyle, I think he makes it seem much more logical and easy to apply."

This, I agree with. Dubas helps crack through old-school hockey minds because he can speak their language. He's a bright guy with a hockey history and that allows him to communicate on the level of people who aren't necessarily inclined to look at some of the more modern statistical advances, whether that means Corsi, zone starts, zone entries, whatever. And, ultimately, it's not about the statistics, it's about using them to help make better organizational decisions.

"I'm not going to rush in tomorrow and try to tell everybody how it is," Dubas told the Globe and Mail's James Mirtle. "That's not really the way I am."

From my brief conversation with Dubas at the Sloan Conference, he noted that the Greyhounds' possession numbers skyrocketed under head coach Sheldon Keefe, going from 47% to 57%, using their own manually-calculated metrics (because, unlike the NHL, the OHL doesn't have a stats feed of every event that happens in every game). Getting the information, and applying it to how a team should play, is a textbook example of how to use statistics as part of a team's overall strategy. The Greyhounds valued puck possession, coached their players to value puck possession and became a much better team as a result.

On other topics, we talked about employing four forwards on the ice at times. He said the Greyhounds were experimenting with it, adding a top-line forward when the other team put their fourth line on the ice, figuring that there was a potential mismatch available, with minimal downside because other teams' fourth lines weren't necessarily a big threat. Merely thinking that little bit outside the box qualifies as creative in hockey circles and it's the open-minded approach to try it that makes Dubas such an intriguing hire. He's not stuck on the same old, same old because that's the way it has always been done.

While Dubas has been painted as a stats guy in some corners, there were soldiers at the ready to make sure the world knew he was not just some nerd (as if they could help a hockey team).

Player agent Todd Reynolds, whose firm, Uptown Sports Management, hired Dubas as a player agent when he was 21, told TSN's Jonas Siegel, "I don't think it's all about analytics like people have wanted to make it out to be today. He's not a computer nerd. He's not sitting there crunching numbers and bringing sheets of paper into the GM's office with recommendations. He's much more complete than that."

Some people are really concerned that you don't think too highly of Dubas' use of analytics.

These are deeply-held notions in the hockey world, that stats guys must sit in front of a computer and print out sheets of recommendations without watching the games and applying that analysis. Keep in mind, there may not be anyone doing more watching of the games than guys involved in analytics, who are constantly finding new ways to look at the sport. This isn't a bad thing, particularly in a sport that, relatively, has been in the statistical stone age.

So, why is Dubas considered a stats guy? Because that is a point of differentiation. He has scouted players, been an agent and a junior hockey GM, so he has made his hockey bones, but he's 28-years-old, so he hasn't necessarily seen as much hockey as veteran NHL executives. But, if you are looking for a difference -- beyond merely age -- that helps Dubas stand out, it is that he understands modern analytic concepts and there wasn't a lot of evidence, through many radio interviews last season, that Loiselle, Poulin or Nonis had a firm grasp on those matters.

Shanahan, describing the interview process with Dubas, said, "I was learning things I didn't know and just wanted to learn more."

This is a three-time Stanley Cup winner, a Hall of Famer who scored 656 career goals (ranking 13th all-time), who was not only learning about hockey from a 28-year-old who never played in the league but, much more importantly for the Maple Leafs, he was actually open to the idea!

That the Maple Leafs haven't seriously applied analytics to their management is one thing. It's another matter entirely to have effectively taken this approach without a real understanding of how analytics apply to the modern NHL game. Even Dubas acknowledged that this was an area in which Nonis was learning.

What does it mean for the future of the Maple Leafs?

Dubas is a 28-year-old Assistant GM, coming into a team that, barring trades, largely has its roster set for the 2014-2015 season, so it's not like immediate results can or should be pinned on his hiring, but this is about changing the long-term direction of the franchise and doing so in a progressive way. Dubas presents a voice that should be different and, for a team that has reached the playoffs once in the past nine seasons, new voices need to be heard.

Dubas has Shanahan's ear and that should have some influence in the decisions that the Maple Leafs make going forward. While that could make for some uncomfortable times for GM Dave Nonis, considering this franchise's track record, no one in the Leafs organization ought to feel too comfortable. Getting better is the goal, right?

"I haven't run the team in Sault St. Marie based solely on statistics," said Dubas. "It's been a good size part of what we've integrated in, but the rest of it is just hockey. It's evaluating players, scouting reports, dealing with the personalities on the team, trying to hire the best scouts and people. And certainly the analytics, I've found it to be a major help to me personally in the way that I view the game and just create a better level of certainty to decisions."

That's what any team should be striving to achieve in their use of statistics and analytics.

Stats aren't everything.

No one is suggesting to use statistics on their own, without anything else. You can still watch the games.

Use the stats as a tool for evaluation and make better decisions.

There probably aren't a lot of analytics about hiring a 28-year-old Assistant GM, small samples and all that, but this decision by the Maple Leafs was smart. If they're not careful, that could become a thing.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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