TORONTO — Change was on Brendan Shanahan’s mind when he took over as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After taking some time to assess the organization, he made his first major change to the front office Tuesday, firing assistant general manager Claude Loiselle and vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, and hiring 28-year-old Kyle Dubas as the team’s new assistant GM. The move represented a shift in philosophy to shape the Leafs more in Shanahan’s image.
“He’s not tied to any old ideas,” Shanahan said of Dubas. “I believe we have people in our organization who have maybe been afraid of certain words and certain information who, once you speak with Kyle, I think he makes it seem much more logical and easy to apply.”
For some time, the Leafs have been considered behind the times with advanced statistics and even the way NHL rosters are shaped. Truculence was and still is a Brian Burke buzzword, and long after his departure Toronto has remained under GM Dave Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle a team that prizes intangibles and toughness perhaps more than the rest of the league.
Hiring Dubas doesn’t immediately mean that will end, especially given that most of the off-season moving and shaking is over. But the former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM brings fresh ideas and could make the Leafs more willing to embrace different philosophies.
“I think every organization rightly or wrongly changes every day,” Dubas said during his introductory news conference at Air Canada Centre. “If you’re not changing, everything around you is and thus you’re going to change in not a great way. I’ve got the impression in talking to Brendan and talking to Dave that they’re certainly open to any and all ideas, and that was one of the things that was most enticing about the situation here for me.”
Shanahan said he began this process just “polling the hockey world” looking for rising stars and innovators to talk to, not specifically a person to hire as an assistant GM. A conversation with OHL commissioner David Branch and others led to Dubas emerging as the top name.
Over some time, Shanahan began to see Dubas as not just a source of knowledge but someone he’d like to apply that to the Leafs’ organization. An expected two-hour meeting became seven and became dinner as the two men not only bonded over the shared experiences of being criticized in new jobs but challenged each other’s preconceived notions about hockey.
Dubas, who served as a Greyhounds scout as a teenager before becoming the youngest NHLPA certified agent and the second youngest GM in OHL history, made a strong impression on Shanahan.
“I think our view on hockey and how it’s being played and how it should be played are very similar,” Shanahan said. “But immediately for a young guy to come in and have his first meeting with me and challenge thoughts and ideas, I thought that was maybe the most encouraging sign. That’s what I want, I always want our group to be a group where thoughts and ideas are challenged and you come out together as a team.”
Asked what changes he’d like to make to the Leafs, Dubas played the card that he’ll do what he’s asked. But what drew him away from his hometown Greyhounds — not a “slam dunk” — was an ability to make an impact.
“I was enthused with my talking to Brendan, then even more enthused with my discussions with Dave and where he sees the game going and the game evolving,” Dubas said. “That, to me, was one of the more exciting parts of the entire process: Knowing that I’d be able to come in and be heard and help out as much as possible.”
Shanahan also thinks Dubas will be able to teach older members of the organization a few things, lauding his personal skills to be able to communicate and convince without being overbearing. With the 50-year-old talking so much about changing the Leafs’ “culture,” Dubas is a step in that direction.
“I can certainly say that anybody in our organization, regardless of what they were asked in the past or past years, their opinions, a little bit of time with Kyle can change those opinions and change those views,” Shanahan said. “He is not an in-your-face kind of guy, he’s logical, he’s thoughtful.”
Asked if logic was something that was missing, Shanahan said it was “something that we obviously felt needed to be improved upon.”
Even amid his excitement about hiring Dubas, Shanahan said it was a difficult day to let good people go. Poulin had been around since 2009 and Loiselle since 2010.
Each originally hired by Burke, Poulin and Loiselle didn’t fit with the new regime of Shanahan, Nonis and now Dubas.
“I think that there would’ve been some redundancies there had they stayed and there would’ve been some changes to their role that I don’t think was necessarily going to be a proper fit for them,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan added that Dubas’s specific duties for the Leafs were ironed out at dinner with Nonis on Monday night. Though Dubas has salary-cap and CBA experience from his past career as an agent, the team is expected to hire another assistant GM for some of that day-to-day work as well as potentially someone else in the front office.
“We want to make sure that everybody’s in their most comfortable place and a place in which we’re as efficient as we can be as a club,” Shanahan said.
Even with another assistant GM around, Shanahan expects Dubas to influence the organization as a whole.
“Information is power and Kyle is great at gathering information,” he said. “It’s not just one specific job for him. I think he’s somebody that really wants to sort of be involved in a lot of things.”
Dubas spent the past three seasons as GM in Sault Ste. Marie, and the Greyhounds made the playoffs twice after a rocky start. Concerned with his own team, Dubas didn’t get a chance to watch the Leafs much but caught some replays recently once the possibility grew that he’d be moving to the NHL.
Living in Ontario, Dubas couldn’t avoid hearing about the Leafs. And though his only connection to the coaching staff is knowing assistant Steve Spott, he’ll have a chance to learn more in time.
“I know what a lot of the criticisms and a lot of the positives are surrounding the team and now it’s just going to be about really digging into it and breaking it down that I’m working here,” Dubas said.
Later Tuesday, the Leafs signed left-winger David Booth to a US$1.1-million one-year contract. They still need to figure out what to do with restricted-free-agent goaltender James Reimer and sign restricted-free-agent defenceman Jake Gardiner to a new contract, things that Shanahan said Nonis has under control.
As far as improving the rest of the on-ice product with the Leafs, Shanahan said: “We’re working on it.”