On its face, the Toronto Maple Leafs appointing Eric Joyce to a role as director of hockey strategy looks like another of the organization’s data-driven hires. Joyce (no relation to the reporter here) has impeccable, maybe even unmatched analytical bona fides: an undergrad degree in systems engineering from West Point and a master’s in public policy from Harvard, the latter being heavier on analytics than politics.
On its face, it seems like GM Kyle Dubas has recruited a like-minded young(-ish) lion or at least passed over candidates from the old-boys network. At 42, Joyce has a few years on Dubas and likely a few grey hairs from his six years with the Florida Panthers, so he might be a whiz if not a whiz kid. No matter, he’s no stand-in for, say, Mark Hunter, who had been on the scene and passed over when team president Brendan Shanahan anointed Dubas as successor to Lou Lamoriello.
While Joyce’s alumni events surely contrast sharply with Dubas’s, a review of their profiles show they have a couple of things in common.
First there are the meteoric rises.
Dubas’s climb through the Leafs organization has been oft-told, but Joyce’s less so. He entered the Panthers organization with no NHL experience and in six years rose from Assistant to the GM to Assistant GM, a bigger leap than it might seem on the screen. Then-GM Dale Tallon might not have even brought Joyce in for an interview if owner Vincent Viola hadn’t pushed hard. Viola’s ties to West Point — he was a Major in the 101st Airborne — made Joyce the guy most likely to land the corner office at some point and given Florida’s struggles that might not have been very far off in the future.
Then there’s the minor-league connection. When Dubas was earning his bones with the Marlies, Joyce was overseeing the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio. The AHL is the development league not just for players but also coaches and executives.
All this is to say that when Dubas and Joyce go into a confab they will be speaking to each other as peers. This wouldn’t have been true for Dubas with many and probably most in the league’s management class.
Temperamentally and stylistically, though, they are almost certainly different species. Joyce grew up in very working-class circumstances in Dorchester, Mass. When he was on a hockey scholarship to West Point, he was Army’s tough guy, the one who sparked a line brawl against RMC. You might say that he’s a take-no-prisoners type of guy … except that he has taken prisoners, detaining 100 terrorists with the unit that he commanded in Iraq. He definitely has walked miles in different boots than Dubas.
It wouldn’t be fair, however, to categorize this as an out-of-the-box hiring. Joyce wasn’t on anybody’s radar when he signed on with the Panthers, but that was six years ago. At some point you reach the rank of an industry regular. Joyce has to be in the range now. If the old boys have a network, so too will the whiz kids as they wizen.
Citing a corporate policy to only put forward the GM and the coach for media requests, the Leafs didn’t make Joyce available for interviews. It’s not quite like when he had top-secret security clearance as a point man in the U.S. Department of the Army’s computer-network ops, but it might be as close as you’d get with a NHL organization.
When Joyce spoke to (this Joyce at) Sportsnet in 2014, he not only spoke the mantra of analytics but had been immersed in it, just in entirely different arenas. “We did heavy quantitative work [at Harvard] using statistical measurements to gauge the success of policy,” he says. “You can use that same methodology to study players. Scouts have certain biases [in their evaluations] but the numbers are what they are.”
Doubtless, Joyce scouted the Leafs organization and recognized an opportunity not without issues: some elite talent albeit with salary-cap pressures; seemingly unlimited operational wherewithal albeit with public pressures with few if any equals around the league; a lot of history albeit a lot of the most recent history being hugely disappointing.
Many executives with less distinguished academic pedigrees would see it just as clearly.