Unless you're a hardcore follower of major junior hockey the name Kyle Dubas probably doesn't ring a bell. But for long-suffering fans of the Maple Leafs, he's the harbinger of a bold new era.
Toronto made sweeping front office changes on Tuesday, sacking assistant general manager Claude Loiselle and vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin and replacing them with Dubas, who will be the assistant to GM Dave Nonis. Dubas is a 28-year-old whiz kid who comes to the Leafs after three seasons as the GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. The Greyhounds were one of the OHL's sorrier teams when he arrived, but he turned things around quickly. Sault Ste. Marie finished last season with a 44-17-2-5 record, tops in the Western Conference.
Part of the Greyhounds' success can be attributed to Dubas' early interest in the use of advanced statistics. He's no zealot. He doesn't find all of his answers in numbers. But he is willing to explore and share analytics as a means to improving on-ice performance.
"What the analytics was most helpful with [in Sault Ste. Marie] was identifying where to put the players in the best position to succeed," he told Toronto's TSN 590 Tuesday afternoon. "Once you get past the broad term of analytics and you explain the theory behind it and the numbers part of it I find the door swings wide open...with hockey people who were skeptical about this. I think if you aren't abrasive about it and communicate it properly then people can see good value in the things that are tracked. "
What does that mean for the Maple Leafs? Maybe not much over the short term. Dubas comes to Toronto with a chance to share ideas, not a mandate to clean house. But his hiring indicates that team president Brendan Shanahan is committed to a progressive approach to changing the culture of the club.
If nothing else, the Dubas hiring is a tacit endorsement of an analytical approach to the game ... or at least an acknowledgment that it deserves some consideration.
That's something Nonis never seemed willing to do. It was just last season that he revealed that while the team had funds budgeted for analytics, he could never figure out a way to spend them. He's also expressed doubts about the value of Corsi, the ground zero of statistical analysis in the game. Nonis is certainly not alone in his skepticism of Corsi, but there are other ways of crunching numbers that can give context to a player's, or a team's, performance. And now, like it or not, the Leafs are going to do their share of crunching.
What they'll discover won't come as a shock to anyone who has seen the team play. Toronto consistently came out on the short end of the possession battle, and when you spend more time chasing the puck than pushing the play there are going to be consequences.
Of course, you can't just tell players to “possess it more.” You need to identify and acquire a different type of player ... or maybe even implement a different system. Those decisions will come down the road, but by taking this first step the Leafs can at least say they're on the right road.
Shanny's decision to retain both Nonis and coach Randy Carlyle has drawn fire from some quarters, but he obviously respects them as hockey men. He has nevertheless put them on notice by getting rid of their trusted aides and forcing them to look at the game in a new way. Nonis and Carlyle may still be leading the conversations, but new voices are going to be heard. New approaches will be considered.
What happens next is up to them.