TORONTO – Change was on the mind, but Brendan Shanahan wasn't looking explicitly for a new assistant general manager.
The Maple Leafs president was combing the hockey world, trying to pick out the innovative thinkers, the rising stars, the great minds. One name kept coming up: Kyle Dubas, formerly the 28-year-old general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and now assistant general manager to Dave Nonis in Toronto.
Such was the latest shift in direction of the newly minted Shanahan era, one that has seen a coaching staff plundered, a roster reconstructed, a July 1st pass quietly (and prudently) by, and now a management team altered – Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle fired Tuesday.
“I like to surround myself with people that challenge ideas, that think differently,” Shanahan said. “The more I got to know Kyle the more I realized that this was somebody that obviously was an extreme talent.”
Through extensive conversations with Dubas over the past few weeks, Shanahan, who accumulated nearly 700 goals and three Stanley Cups as a player, kept coming away with fresh thoughts and perspectives about the game. In Dubas, he appears to have found someone willing to think differently, a rising front office prodigy known for his openness to new ideas, including analytics.
“I just found him intriguing,” said Shanahan, standing alongside Dubas at an introductory press conference from the Air Canada Centre. “I was learning things I didn't know and just wanted to learn more.”
“I've got the impression in talking to Brendan and talking to Dave that they're certainly open to any and all ideas. That was one of the things that was most enticing about the situation here for me,” said Dubas, particularly enthused to work alongside Nonis, himself once a young assistant general manager in Vancouver.
In just three short years in Sault Ste. Marie, Dubas – hired at age 25, mind you – helped steer the Greyhounds from the playoff wilderness to a West division title. He was once a teenage scout for his hometown junior team and later the youngest player agent to be certified by the NHLPA.
Rising fast through the hockey ranks, he is known to be thoughtful, respectful and innovative in his thinking, a breath of fresh air to a game that's often remained engrained in old habits. Though not an all-out stats guru as portrayed in some corners, he's shown a willingness to consider the merits of analytics, employing them where suitable to help his team in the Sault.
The Maple Leafs, previously led by noted analytics opponent Brian Burke, have been slow to adjust to the “Money-Puck revolution,” which has crept louder and louder into the game in recent years. And if not a voice for that community, Dubas should, at the very least, open up Nonis, Randy Carlyle and the entire group in Toronto to some different ideas.
“It's really about learning as much as I can and getting as much information as I can,” Dubas said. “I haven't run the team in Sault St. Marie based solely on statistics, 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.”
“Information is power,” Shanahan added. “It's about eliminating some of the noise and seeing what information works best for you, your team, and the direction you and your team want to go with.
“He's obviously got a great appreciation and understanding of analytics, but he's also married that to the complexities and instincts you have to have when you're putting a product on the ice. He's not just talked about it, but he's done it.”
Todd Reynolds, formerly a colleague in the agent business, says Dubas is not some analytics guru, but rather a well-rounded hockey mind on the rise.
“I don't think it's all about analytics like people have wanted to make it out to be today,” he told TSN.ca. “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.”
Reynolds' firm, Uptown Sports Management, hired Dubas fresh out of the Brock University sports management program. They had known him to be “mature beyond his years” from past dealings with the Greyhounds organization.
Dubas, they believed, was sensible, trustworthy and related well to people senior to him.
“It really wasn't as much of a stretch or a leap of faith on our part as people thought it was at the time,” Reynolds said. “He held his own. [His age] was used against him at times – as you can imagine our business is competitive, the industry is – and people would say ‘Really, you're thinking about going with him? The kid's 20-year-old'. So it was used against him successfully at times, at other times he overcame it.
“We encouraged him ‘just continue doing what you're doing and people won't talk about your age they'll talk about your track record'.”
And so they weren't surprised at the Burlington headquarters of Uptown Sports to learn a few years down the road that Dubas had earned the GM job in hockey-mad Sault Ste. Marie – as one of the youngest GMs in OHL history – nor taken aback on this day when he rose to the NHL.
“We all knew this was coming,” Reynolds said.
Shanahan claims he never set out to hire an assistant general manager, but planned on assessing the various levels of the organization over the offseason and instilling change from there. He expected more hires to the management team, likely needing a replacement for Loiselle as it pertained to contract negotiations, the CBA, and the cap, and someone to assume Poulin's duties, which included management of the Marlies.
Tuesday's proceedings were ultimately another step in the remaking of the Leafs in Shanahan's vision. That vision started to take shape with the early May firings of the coaching staff and the retaining of Carlyle. It continued with the selection of William Nylander at the draft, varied roster pursuits in and around July 1st – quiet for Toronto standards – and a pair of new hires (and voices) to surround Carlyle, including the youthful Steve Spott.
In Dubas meanwhile, Shahanan will look for a different voice, a fresher perspective that may have been lacking.
“I'm just an assistant GM,” said Dubas. “I'll do what I'm asked and go from there.”