Leafs’ Dubas still has to prove ‘whiz kid’ label

New assistant general manager Kyle Dubas joins Prime Time Sports to discuss the process of being hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs and how using analytics could be useful for improving the hockey club.

The only thing worse than the label of “whiz kid” might be “former whiz kid.”

Okay, sometimes a whiz kid actually delivers on original promise off the hop time and again.

Most of the time though, those so anointed, especially on arrival, realize that the handle becomes an albatross. And fast.

(I say “most of the time” strictly on an empirical basis. I’m still combing the database to calculate a percentage accurate down to the decimal point.)

All this comes to mind with the Leafs’ hiring of Kyle Dubas as an assistant general manager. The GM of the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL the last three seasons, Dubas is probably the slickest 28-year-old you’ll ever come across in a working day. He’s certainly the slickest one that Brendan Shanahan has encountered in his brief term as the Maple Leafs president.

Normally the excitement with the announcement of a new assistant GM is a brief news item. If it’s a former player of note, then it’s worth a story, something along the lines of a gauzy retelling of his playing days and lessons learned

An assistant GM as big story? This might be a first.

Excitement in the Toronto fan base was palpable yesterday. In the media probably was even measurable. If you floated through the presser where Shanahan introduced Dubas and you hooked members of the media throng to heart monitors, sure to show an average spike of forty beats a minute. Not that it would take much to move the needle with so little action around the Leafs this summer.

At this point the team has achieved something approaching inertia: utterly and despairingly no movement on the top half of the roster. The biggest recent news was probably the fact that Josh Gorges ruled out a trade to the Leafs but signed off on a deal sending him to Buffalo. Commentary on the franchise doesn’t get sadder than that.

Something, the left side of the MSM (mainstream media) pleaded.

Anything, the right side begged.

Shanahan accommodated them with the hiring of Dubas. It was a blessing and a miracle, given the circumstances. Leafs’ management had no free agent there to sign, no paradigm-shifting trade to finalize. What they did have was a kid who had single-handedly taken a moribund franchise, permanent resident of the OHL’s second division, and elevated it to the status of contender in the powerful Western Conference.

Even more than that, they had someone in management with an avowed embrace of advanced analytics, what used to be called statistics before rebranding.

The analytics crowd has used the Leafs as a punching bag and proof of their metrics’ infallibility. Thus did Shanahan’s hiring of Dubas seemingly constitute a change of direction in management. In fact, not just a change so much as a reversal, given that Dubas’s arrival coincided with the departures of Poulin and Loiselle. These two hockey men unfortunately had decades worth of useless old-school hockey knowledge holding them back. The Royal Ontario Museum will briefly put out a press release announcing their assignment to the dinosaur room.

So the narrative goes.

To all, to Leaf fans, to the MSM, to champions of Corsi and all the rest, I can only say this: Take a breath and look at Dubas’s record. And for the love of God, drop the whiz kid stuff.

I’m not going ad hominem here. I don’t doubt that Dubas has a sharp mind, that he would be a quick study in any field he entered. But here the narrative has overtaken fact.

Yeah, the Greyhounds had a nice little bounce under Dubas’s three seasons there. Did analytics enable the turnaround? Dubas was talking about puck possession stats and all the rest yesterday, but let’s face it: In major junior, teams turn things around when they acquire high draft picks. It’s really not anymore complicated than that.

In his first two midget drafts Dubas had a third-overall pick in Darnell Nurse and a fourth-overall pick in centre Jared McCann. Both went on to be NHL first-rounders. That both panned out so well, you might want to put down to Dubas’s genius but go back to the lists from those OHL drafts. In selecting McCann, Dubas passed over Sam Bennett, Michael Dal Colle, Brendan Perlini and Rob Fabbri, four players who were selected ahead of McCann in the NHL draft.

Okay, attach an asterisk. I’ll even play a let. In major junior, you can call a kid’s name and if it’s not to the kid’s liking he can refuse to report. The Soo is one of those markets where that stuff comes up. That Dubas managed to get real value from those two first-rounders is to his credit — not that analytics, advanced or even introductory, had anything to do with their evaluations.

Keep another asterisk handy: Dubas had to feel unlucky when Daniel Catenacci, a point-a-game scorer and first-liner, asked to get traded out of the Soo. Again, those things happen. Dubas might not have been in an ideal position to make a trade, given that other teams in the loop knew about Catenacci’s request for a one-way ticket. Still, he had real value in the market. Contending teams tabled offers. Dubas signed off on a deal that sent Catenacci to Owen Sound in return for Andrew Fritsch and a 2014 second-rounder. Fritisch has proven to be a decent player, a 24-goal scoring right winger, a plus-10, but still a step down from Catenacci. How much did analytics figure in the identification of Fritsch? I can’t say “not all” but I’ll go out on the limb with “not much.”

The Greyhounds might have started a statistical work-up on Fritsch when the Attack expressed interest in Catenacci. I suspect Dubas had other reasons for liking and the fact that he had been Fritsch’s agent prior to taking the job with Soo is just one of life’s happy coincidences.

Said an OHL insider: “That more than anything [in advanced analytics] has been behind the moves that Dubas has made. He likes players he knew before, players his friends have coached or worked with.”

It can be said of many that the best deal is the one that was not made. So it is with Dubas. On his arrival in the Soo, Dubas shopped defenceman Ryan Sproul. Just not a player to his liking. Trades were discussed but fell through, luckily for Dubas, as Sproul became the Soo’s best player in the GM’s first two seasons with the Greyhounds. In fact, in 2012-13 he was named the OHL’s best defenceman.

Some will attribute the Greyhounds’ turn-around to Dubas’s hiring of Sheldon Keefe as coach, a controversial choice because of the latter’s previous association with David Frost, the OHL’s ultimate persona non grata. Keefe has won wherever he’s gone and he had good character references. Dubas took a risk to do what he believed in — although it played out somewhat differently behind the scenes. In fact, Keefe wasn’t Dubas’s first choice to coach. No, he wanted Jim Hulton, someone who would have constituted a safe pick, given his eight years of head coaching experience in the OHL. Talks with Hulton broke off and Dubas had to look for Plan B.

Dubas was talking about analytics at his press conference in Toronto, something that represents an evolution not just in the team culture but in fact in the young man himself. When he made his first big move in the Soo, sending a hatful of draft picks to Windsor for goaltender Jack Campbell, a first-rounder of the Dallas Stars. It was a bold move, to be sure. It was ultimately a failed one. The Greyhounds were out of the playoffs when they made the in-season trade and they missed out on the post-season despite a roster that featured nine NHL draft picks. In the wake of what turned out to be a failed short-term rental of Campbell, Dubas explained his trade for the goaltender not through analytics but rather through a brief history lesson. In short, he checked the prices that GMs had previously paid and went with the going rate.

Like I say, I’m all for the Leafs’ hiring of Dubas. In another position, announced by a press release, unaccompanied by a press conference and a round of the MSM, I’d be all good with that. Instead Dubas, age 28, is a vertiginous berth in the management of a troubled franchise. And three years is an awfully small sample size to measure his kid wizardry.

Dubas should best enjoy whiz kid status before he learns to hate it.

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