The hiring of an analytics-focused 28-year-old assistant GM could signal a significant shift in thinking for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The NHL club on Tuesday announced Kyle Dubas, a fast-rising hockey executive with a penchant for stats-based analysis, as the latest addition to the management staff. He replaces Claude Loiselle in a front-office shakeup that has also seen vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin leave the team.
Dubas served as GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the past three years. He was the youngest GM in the OHL and has been dubbed a "Billy Beane type" of executive, following the style of the Oakland A's GM made famous in the book (and later movie) Moneyball.
Dubas grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and was the third person in his family to work for the Greyhounds:
- His grandfather Walter coached the team from 1960 to 1967.
- His sister Meghan is the director of community relations and game-day operations.
Dubas seemed destined for a hockey front-office job for a few reasons:
- He's a dean's list graduate from Brock University's sport management program.
- He served as the youngest ever NHLPA certified agent with Uptown Management.
- In his three seasons as GM of the Greyhounds, he presided over a dramatic turnaround, taking a team that failed to make the playoffs in his first year to tops in the OHL West Division and a record of 44-17-2-5 last season.
A cerebral, stats-based approach that emphasized puck possession was key to the Greyhounds' success, he insisted.
"It's not any secret if you watch our team you'll begin to see it clearly — we don't really dump the puck in," Dubas told ESPN the Magazine in May. "We want our players to solve problems and make plays with the puck. ... 100 years of history will show you that the best way [to score goals] is to outshoot teams and get more shot attempts."
Leafs' puck possession a concern
Toronto struggled in this department in the 2013-2014 season. They consistently allowed opponents to attempt more shots than the Leafs fired the other way in close games.
For analytics geeks, the Leafs' poor Fenwick Close and Corsi numbers — stats that use shots-attempted differential to measure a team's skill at puck possession — were red flags.
By Fenwick numbers, the Leafs allowed an average of 15 more shot attempts at their goal than they fired the other way in close game situations. Their Corsi differential, which includes blocked shots, was slightly worse at minus-18.6 per game.
Another concern was the Leafs' high PDO — a measure of a team's luck in shooting and save percentages, which are considered mostly out of a team's control. When the Leafs were winning games, their PDO, a reflection of their overall puck luck, was high. They were still getting outshot on a routine basis, but they were getting the bounces that led them to win close games.
Expect to hear these terms from Dubas more often than you would from current Leafs GM Dave Nonis or his predecessor Brian Burke. While Burke says it would be foolish to avoid statistics, he doesn't believe the Moneyball approach works in hockey.
"I have yet to see anything that has value in terms of an alternative way of evaluating players," Burke said in 2012 at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Statistics vary from rink to rink, he claims, and nothing beats the old-fashioned system of watching players on the ice and getting a qualitative view of how they handle various situations.
Player evaluation and how it relates to contracts is especially valuable in the salary cap system as teams aren't allowed to spend freely. The teams that find the most efficient players are often the most successful.
No matter which view you hold, the Maple Leafs' decision to bring in Dubas indicates a desire to embrace the analytics-based approach. It's likely a decision that came directly from team president Brendan Shanahan, since Nonis falls closer to Burke's side of the spectrum.
"The chance to work for the Toronto Maple Leafs is like a dream come true," said Dubas. “I’m truly excited to begin helping this team win and learn from men like Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis. I’m very thankful for this opportunity, but equally grateful to the Greyhounds organization and the city of Sault Ste. Marie for helping put me in this position."