Sky’s the limit for Dubas with big-money Leafs

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.

As Kyle Dubas calmly handled his first press conference in the cool, wooded confines of the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room, his can’t-stop smile and baby face told all — but he said it anyway: “Obviously coming here, it’s apparent: it’s a lot different than Sault Ste. Marie,” said Dubas, who has made the jump from being one of the brightest minds in the OHL to being the NHL’s most famous Money Puck advocate, whether the label fits perfectly or not. “They’re at opposite ends of the spectrum.”

The differences are vast. The Greyhounds, who Dubas took over as a boy-wonder 25-year-old general manager, are small market even in the context of the OHL’s Western Conference, where they have to butt heads against the big-money London Knights, Windsor Spitfires and Kitchener Rangers.

The need to be financially efficient was one of the reasons he was attracted to using data more aggressively than other teams. Advanced analytics was one way Dubas used to make his player evaluation methods more efficient and more cost effective. Now Dubas’s job is to use whatever piles of Leafs money needed to find any advantage at all.

Even though his recruitment to Toronto was a whirlwind that began when Brendan Shanahan sent him an email on July 6 and Dubas was at his rehearsal dinner for his wedding in Mexico, he was already almost sounding nostalgic about doing things the old-fashioned way.

“It was fun in the Soo not having the budget and just having to find a way,” said Dubas. “There were times when you’re immersed in it when you wished you had a couple of extra bucks here or there … but it was a challenge.”

Now he’s got anything he could possibly want at his fingers. At 28, newly employed and just back from his honeymoon Dubas is in that great life stage: acne long gone, but years away from worry lines.

Being with the Leafs means that can change fast.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “With the Leafs, the resources are aplenty and that’s what I’m most excited about the whole job: having the opportunity to learn from Brendan and (general manager Dave Nonis) and the whole staff, but also to take the resources that are available and try to further our knowledge on the stuff we’ve been collecting and uncover new trends and efficiencies.”

It’s an amazing turnaround.

While the Leafs were missing the playoffs for eight of the past nine years with the biggest front office budget in the sport, Dubas was running a skunkworks project on the cheap.

In his first year in the Soo he was the guy charting the games and entering the data that could make the spreadsheets worth reading. Since then he’s had the benefit of a couple of staff, but this is small market junior hockey, so his head of corporate partnerships and his ticket sales guy doubled as data trackers.

That’s the biggest difference between where he was and where’s he’s going. Now the only limits are his imagination and his willingness to ask for money.

“The worst they can say is ‘no’,” says Dubas. “That’s how I look at asking for things. If they say ‘no’, they say ‘no’ and we’ll just stick with the methods as they are.”

But it sounds like Shanahan is ready to green light anything that can kickstart the Leafs into the forefront of hockey thinking and in Dubas he sees a rare find: someone who has married the nuances of putting a team on the ice while using analytics, and who can educate the uninformed in a way that doesn’t make them feel silly for dressing Colton Orr.

“I believe we have people in our organization who maybe have been afraid of certain words and certain information,” said Shanahan. “Once you speak with Kyle he has a way of making it seem much more logical and easy to apply. So I think there are people even in our own organization he’s going to have a positive influence on.”

In other words, Dubas might even get along with Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.

At the very least Dubas understands why those with jobs on the line have been hesitant to dive into uncharted waters.

“In talking with a lot of NHL people, the hesitation they get is when they get different independent firms trying to sell them the black box or the magical potion: ‘this is how to project a player’s value. Everyone is trying to get to WAR – how to properly value the guys. In hockey we’re not there yet. You can try to force your way there, but in talking to the Leafs people and other teams in the league, that’s been the main hesitation with this stuff. We’re in a process here of trying to deduce what can make a successful team, but we’re a long way from there.”

Perhaps the most amazing element about hockey’s halting advance into analytics – or tracking data beyond what is available on a typical game sheet – is how much work has been done for free.

Take the Shot Quality Project by contributor Chris Boyle. A graphic designer by day, he combined his knowledge of goaltending and ability to mine available statistics into an evolving body of knowledge that assesses performances by goalies and teams alike at a much deeper level than simply save percentage. What is the expected outcome of a shot from the point? From the slot? On a deflection or a breakaway?

Cumulatively it’s a much more nuanced look at goalie performance, but he’s been doing it in his spare time, with a limited amount of data that has often been compiled (by others) erratically.

What could he do with some time and money? “If you have the budget, anything is possible,” said Boyle. “If he wanted to go back and amass 10 years of data to focus on the proper things and eliminate all the noise – it’s in his grasp.”

In one fell swoop Dubas has gone from a small-market OHL team to the most valuable franchise in hockey and one ranked 26th in all of sports by Forbes at $1.15 billion. The Leafs literally have money to burn and given the NHL’s rock hard salary cap, nowhere to spend it.

That’s Dubas’s challenge now. He’s not in the Soo anymore. He’s got a credit card with no limit in his hands and a brave new world to keep discovering.

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