Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kyle Dubas Hiring a Ray of Hope for Toronto

The Boston Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series drought after hiring a 28-year-old executive named Theo Epstein, and after the Maple Leafs hired 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as assistant GM on Tuesday there is hope a similar miracle might work in Toronto.

Dubas leaves the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, whom he led as GM for the past three years, and will enter a Maple Leafs front office that also sees capologist Claude Loiselle and vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin fired.

Unlike some of the financial powerhouses of the OHL, like London, the Greyhounds didn't have a large budget to work with. That meant Dubas was required to squeeze the most value out of every transaction—one reason why he bought everyone in the office a copy of The Extra 2% by Jonah Keri upon his hire—and also meant he was required to be open to any sort of idea that might help his team win. There were setbacks along the way (some fans wanted Dubas fired after his first year), but he eventually guided the team to a first-place finish in the West after taking over a team that finished among the depths of the OHL.

He's a fast-rising star in the hockey world for a reason.

The move represents a major shake-up of the Leafs organization, one which has already purged assistant coaches this summer. The hiring also means the same ideas of the past aren't acceptable moving forward, and for the Leafs—and more importantly, the men in charge—to succeed, there will need to be innovation.

Unlike some of the old guard in Toronto, who Brendan Shanahan described as "afraid of certain words and certain information", Dubas comes with an open mind, especially to some of the newer ideas becoming more prominent in the game. Dubas' open embrace of analytics and an appreciation of puck possession many him much like Epstein before him.

And with a background as both a scout and a player agent (to say nothing of his former role as GM), Dubas is much more than a stats geek looking to give his calculator a workout. But despite a legitimate hockey background, Dubas' most obvious asset to the Leafs organization is his knowledge of and willingess to use analytics, something the Leafs have essentially mocked for the last number of years.

“I like to surround myself with people that challenge ideas, that think differently,” Shanahan said after the hire.

The Maple Leafs upper management has become a hive mind over the past few years, with a never-ending stream of executives preaching the same stale ideas. Since Lockout I, the Leafs managed only three playoff wins in nearly a decade of hockey. The failure didn't prompt many radical changes, rather a doubling down of the mistakes of the past. At least now Dubas represents a dissenting opinion, which can only lead to healthier decision making. 

“Information is power,” Shanahan said. “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.

Previously, Dave Nonis said the Leafs were unable to spend their analytics budget because they didn't believe there was anything worthy of spending it on. Shanahan's hiring of Dubas shows the Leafs are willing to at least pretend they don't have the answers to everything—and if years of David Clarksons and Mike Komisareks, dead money on the books, and a lack of playoff games are any indication it's clear the Leafs don't just lack the answers, but they lack any clue whatsoever as how to solve them.

Now the gobs of money at MLSE's disposal can hire an army of interns to track literally everything that goes on during a game to find new efficiencies and new ways to get an upper hand on the competition. As Michael Grange put it: The sky's the limit.

The hiring is a major step forward for the Leafs, but expectations should be tempered. Although Dubas has stated a preference for controlled zone entries verses dump-and-chase tactics (largely because the former produces more chances) and skill on all four lines, the man still running the bench is Randy Carlyle, someone who by the end of year could say nothing other than "compete level" as a reason the Leafs were consistently dominated. Above Carlyle is Nonis, a man who catered the entire 2013 off-season to creating the dream Carlyle roster, bringing in various levels of uselessness and shipping out quality pieces, ending up with a team barely above the lottery.

With Dubas' hiring, however, combined with the dismissal of two executives with ideas that have long since passed, Shanahan is sending a clear message to the old guard: change is coming, get on board or get out.

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