TORONTO — Let this be a reminder about how fast things can change in the world of professional sports: Just four months ago the Toronto Maple Leafs were in the midst of a spectacular collapse that followers of advanced hockey metrics had spent a season predicting.
The organization had yet to bring in Brendan Shanahan as president. Shanahan had never even heard of an up-and-coming hockey executive named Kyle Dubas.
On Tuesday afternoon, those two men stood side-by-side in the Maple Leafs dressing room at Air Canada Centre and alluded to concepts that have rarely, if ever, been discussed within these walls.
Zone entries, shot attempts, quality of competition. These terms — and many others — have immediately become part of the Leafs lexicon.
That, in itself, is hardly a revolutionary development for a NHL organization. The shift towards advanced statistics is well underway across the hockey industry and will soon reshape it entirely. What is most significant here is that Shanahan recognized the Leafs were on the wrong side of history and sought to change the course.
“It’s my job to sort of assess where we are, what we need, where the game is going and how best to get there,” he said.
While there had been growing whispers in the hockey world that Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin might be removed in a front-office shakeup, no one could have predicted that Toronto would name the 28-year-old Dubas as its next assistant general manager. The managerial restructuring is a tacit acknowledgement that new methods must be used to evaluate talent and build this team.
After the way last season unfolded, anything less would have been irresponsible.
There was no better test case for the usefulness of advanced metrics — the core principles of which aren’t actually all that advanced — than the 2013-14 Maple Leafs. This was a team that got off to a hot start despite being woefully outshot game after game. This was a management group and coaching staff that believed it could continue to win in that manner because of great goaltending and dangerous offensive players.
That line of thinking flew directly in the face of the growing analytics community, which forecasted the teams demise long before it lost 12 of 14 games down the stretch to plummet out of playoff position.
It must be noted that hockey is still a sport working its way through the ever-evolving data currently being generated. There is no magic formula. Dubas doesn’t profess to have all of the answers, but he clearly brings a different approach than his predecessors.
In fact, it was only last November that general manager Dave Nonis participated in a sports conference and revealed that the Leafs had budgeted “significant money” for analytics but never found a way to spend it. He seemed intrigued by the concept, but was unsure how best to proceed.
Toronto has tasked Dubas to apply what he learned during the three years he ran the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, a team he helped turn around while relying heavily on internally-generated metrics.
“I think in talking to a lot of NHL people the hesitation that they get (with advanced stats) is when different independent firms try to sell them a black box or the magical potion: ‘This is how to project a player’s value,”‘ said Dubas. “Everyone’s trying to get to — to use the baseball (term) — they’re trying to get to WAR, wins above replacement, how to properly value the guys. I think in hockey we’re not there yet; you can try to force your way there. …
“Talking not only to the Leafs people, but to to other teams in the league, that’s been their main hesitation with the stuff. I kind of just basically said ‘We’re in a process here of trying to deduce our way to what can make a successful team and we’re a long way from there.”‘
Even if there is much still to be discovered, that doesn’t lessen the importance of the pursuit. Nonis is obviously on board with Toronto’s shift in focus towards metrics and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if experienced hockey men like Loiselle and Poulin ended up landing with organizations that are doing the same thing.
After all, the winds of change are blowing in cities around the league. Some teams are just more willing to talk publicly about it than others.
The immediate goal for the Leafs is finding a way to play with the puck more next season — a notion that is much easier to write about than execute on the ice. Dubas pointed out that “puck possession” has become a buzzy phrase that doesn’t really explain what L.A. and Chicago each do so effectively, not to mention differently, but he remains optimistic that a heavier reliance on analytics will help turn things around in Toronto.
“Just because it’s viewed that this team didn’t play that way doesn’t mean that it won’t or it can’t or that that’s not in the cards for the future,” said Dubas. “A lot of it has to do with slowly adapting and getting to that point.”
This hiring, of course, is merely the first baby step. Another body or two still needs to be added to the front office this summer, according to Shanahan, and significant roster changes will obviously take time.
However, that doesn’t make Tuesday’s organizational shakeup any less progressive. To go from openly doubting the effectiveness of possession stats to embracing them overnight represents a massive change in direction.
It would certainly have been tough to imagine when the Leafs season ended with a loss in Ottawa on April 12.
Interestingly, Shanahan told Sportsnet that he was completely unaware of who Dubas was until a recent conversation with CHL president David Branch. The first meeting between the pair occurred less than two weeks ago — it lasted so long that it stretched into dinner — and it immediately became clear that there was a fit.
Even though Dubas is joining an organization that hasn’t traditionally embraced analytics, Shanahan is confident that it won’t be met with resistance behind the scenes.
“A little bit of time with Kyle can change those opinions and change those views,” he said. “He is not an in-your-face kind of guy. He’s logical, he’s thoughtful (and) he’s applied it on the ice. He’s a rare combination.
“If you were to ask me a couple of years ago some of the questions that he and I have (discussed) I wouldn’t have really known what you were talking about.”
Times change. So do people and the organizations that employ them.
Not long ago it would have been considered a gamble for a NHL team to hire someone like Dubas for such an important position; but given the direction the industry is now headed it seems to make a whole lot of sense.