The Toronto Maple Leafs have shaken up their front office in a sweeping move that may represent a culture change within the organization. Gone are assistant general manager Claude Loiselle and vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, general manager Dave Nonis' right-hand men in the organization. Coming in to replace them is a 28-year-old hockey whiz who has been on a fast track in his career in hockey since before he graduated college.
Kyle Dubas was named the Maple Leafs new assistant general manager after a three-season stint as the general manager of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. Before that he was the youngest NHLPA certified agent working with Uptown Sports Management.
While studying at Brock University, Dubas served as a scout for the Greyhounds and got his start in hockey at 14 years old when he was a hockey operations assistant for the OHL club. His grandfather was the Greyhounds' head coach from 1960-67, so the team was kind of like the family business.
"Kyle is a young executive that has made a strong name for himself in hockey with a progressive style, work ethic and maturation beyond his years," said Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. "He has a fresh approach that we feel will benefit our club for years to come."
Dubas came to notoriety when he was hired by the Greyhounds at just 25 years of age, leaving his career as a player agent. All anyone really knew about him at the time at was that he was a highly-motivated "kid." It could have been more of a gamble than anything else for a struggling junior hockey franchise. Then he showed that the club had made the right call.
In three years, Dubas helped take the Greyhounds from OHL also-ran organization to first place in the Western Conference last season with a 44-17-2-5 record, using out-of-the-box principles including heavy use of advanced statistics and focusing on the importance of zone exits and entries in concert with traditional evaluation. Those practices are infiltrating NHL clubs at a higher rate, but the Greyhounds' turnaround is a good example of how they can work towards successful results in a hockey operations setting.
Dubas also showed a fearlessness in his personnel decisions. He hired Sheldon Keefe as the head coach, which many viewed as a risky move because of Keefe's checkered past dating back to his playing days. He had been exiled a bit in the Junior A ranks as a coach, but Dubas broke down the barrier for Keefe, who ended up helping turn the team around.
It was the decisions like that from Dubas that helped earn him more respect as not just a young executive, but a good one.
The hiring of Dubas signifies a culture change within the Maple Leafs front office, or as Shanahan notes a "fresh approach." The club's practices in the Dave Nonis-Randy Carlyle Era suggest an aversion to the innovations that are bringing other teams more success.
If Maple Leafs fans were wondering whether Shanahan was going to let the same-old, same-old happen under his watch, this maneuvering within the front office suggests not.
Though the Maple Leafs have retained Nonis and Carlyle as general manager and head coach, respectively, the removal of Loiselle and Poulin, both prominent public figures within the organization and key decision makers shows that the team is looking to move in a different direction.
What the Maple Leafs have been doing is not working right now. The team routinely loses in the possession battle, which showed up more in the standings as the season wore on. Sometimes a team can get away with it, but last season when the Leafs tumbled precipitously down the standings, they obviously couldn't get away with it for long.
Coming out of last season it seemed obvious that the Maple Leafs needed a fresh perspective, but with few moves leading up to now, it didn't seem like it would come.
It doesn't get much fresher than Dubas, a 28-year-old with executive experience and a keen perspective that doesn't outright fly in the face of traditional hockey philosophies.
Dubas has actually been a reasoned ambassador in an increasingly contentious debate about the use of advanced stats. Last year, he explained his position on the use of analytics in the decision-making process in a radio interview on TSN 1050 (via Buzzing the Net):
I look at advanced… analytics as just another avenue to broaden the way that we look at the game in a way that maybe we can find some inefficiencies with the way that teams evaluate players. I don't look at it as the be-all and end-all, I don't look at it as being right 100% of the time, and in our level what we have to do is we have to collect all the information and the statistics ourselves.
…So what we're trying to do is we're trying to build a team that always has the puck, and I think that's what every hockey team in the end is trying to do and that's what I think the most… the analytics categories that have proven to be the most accurate are measuring, right? They're measuring which players have the puck the most when they're on the ice and which teams have the puck the most and throughout a season and over a given season.
And that's all we're truly trying to do is continue to advance that and try to find a way for us to improve the way we look at the game and the way that we look at players on our own team.
Another thing that made Dubas interesting was the transparency with which he operated with the Greyhounds. He was out front about the club's use of metrics and was always willing to share what the data told him about certain players. He's on Twitter (@kyledubas) and engaged with fans and media alike. Those practices may fall off when he's working for a billion-dollar organization in a league that is renowned for secrecy, but that doesn't mean the outside-the-box kind of thinking will go away with it.
What makes the Soo Greyhounds and Dubas' success with the club interesting is that competing in the OHL can be incredibly imbalanced. As a small-market team, the Greyhounds have a harder time attracting top American and European players who would rather play for one of the bigger clubs like the Windsor Spitfires and London Knights.
They needed to find ways to get themselves on equal footing with those clubs and that was by drafting well and finding players other teams missed.
The Soo has had players in the last two NHL Entry Drafts go in the first round including Edmonton Oilers' 2013 top pick Darnell Nurse and 2014 Vancouver Canucks pick Jared McCann.
It will be interesting to see how the dynamic of the organization changes and how comfortable this kind of shakeup makes Nonis or Carlyle feel in their current jobs. But if Dubas can bring a fresh perspective, it might help each do their jobs better.
"We're excited about the addition of an up-and-coming hockey executive in Kyle," said Nonis as part of the team's announcement. "He is an innovative thinker that will bring enthusiasm and impressive abilities to our club. His work ethic, character and demonstrated leadership in Sault Ste. Marie make for a valuable combination that will certainly have a positive impact on our organization in many ways."
The Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They're the richest team in the league and have missed the playoffs eight out of the last nine seasons. What they've been doing for years and years now hasn't worked.
Hiring Dubas, an outsider who never played professionally, while letting two former NHLers and longtime executives walk is a dramatic move and one that suggests that the Maple Leafs organization is no longer content with the status quo.
The new changes may not be franchise-altering at this point, but it is at the very least a signal that there is something being done to do things differently, to think differently and perhaps even to play differently. After the roller coaster of the last few seasons, these moves couldn't have come soon enough.