Rookie GM Kyle Dubas brings analytical approach to the Toronto Maple Leafs ... but it doesn't hurt going out and signing John Tavares as well.
A version of this story appears in the Oct. 8, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
The clock had just struck midnight when the first message pinged John Tavares’s phone. It was June 24, less than one minute after NHL teams could officially start contacting potential free agents. As the biggest catch on last summer’s market—heck, the biggest since Zdeno Chara a dozen years ago—the former Islanders captain was fully prepared to receive an Odyssean assembly of suitors over the coming interview period. Which made the very first one—in a 12:01 a.m. text to him, not his agent—stand out.
“Yeah,” says Tavares, “Kyle was right on point.”
That seems to be the consensus in Toronto these days about Kyle Dubas, the rookie Maple Leafs general manager who cannonballed into his new gig by signing Tavares—a childhood resident of nearby Oakville, Ont.—to a hometown discount of $77 million over seven years. But chasing after the biggest fish in the pond is actually the least revolutionary thing about him. The 32-year-old has become an avatar for the new age of NHL decision making: young and progressive, embracing analytics and seeking diversity … right down to his usual pair of hipster specs and occasional knit tie. Any stodgy skeptics remaining around the hockey world need only follow Tavares’s sound logical calculus.
“To be the GM of the Maple Leafs, what that position means in the game, you have to be pretty impressive,” Tavares says. “I was like, ‘There's no way he’s fooling all these people and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’”
Dubas’s journey began at the dawn of the Moneyball era, reading Michael Lewis and learning how exploiting market inefficiencies could unearth hidden gems. He worked for his hometown Sault Ste. Marie (Ont.) Greyhounds as a stick boy in high school, a scout in college and finally, at 25—following a five-year stint as a certified player agent—the Ontario Hockey League franchise’s general manager. After his first season he hired a full-time employee to manually track and collect on-ice data that was then used for coaching and scouting.
“I’ve found just a huge value in what it really adds to your evaluation process for teams and players since then,” says Dubas, citing the Leafs’ six-person research and development staff led by Darryl Metcalf.
From there he was hired by Toronto as an assistant GM in July 2014, apprenticing under team president Brendan Shanahan and former GM Lou Lamoriello, both Hall of Famers. (And the people Tavares was positive Dubas hadn’t fooled.) Now it is Dubas’ show. Already he has brought aboard four-time gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser (assistant director of player development) and Noelle Needham (amateur scout) to full-time, glass-ceiling-shattering roles, as well as promoted an innovative thinker in Jack Han (hockey operations assistant), a Chinese immigrant who cut his teeth cutting video for the McGill women’s program.
“Always looking for an edge,” says center Auston Matthews, noting that Dubas periodically emailed him food-for-thought articles over the summer; one featured a memorable quote from Gregg Popovich about creativity and the coach’s hatred for safe plays. “We’re lucky to have him.”
Like another famously forward-thinking (albeit former) pro sports GM, Dubas is known for invoking a certain P word among Toronto’s players and coaches. “He uses 'process' a lot,” Tavares says. Unlike Sam Hinkie, though, Dubas is not preaching some grand, uppercase Process to be faithfully Trusted. “I know it’s a word that gets used a lot in sports,” Dubas says. “But I think it’s more to do with the fact that methodology has worked for people in all types of business, not just athletics. It’s just to keep us focused on what we can do to better ourselves.”
As such, Dubas can be surprisingly analog. He prefers print books to ereaders, highlighting passages and carving out multiple blocks each day for what he calls “learning time.” Everywhere he goes, the millennial GM—the second-youngest in the NHL, behind Arizona’s 29-year-old John Chayka—also carries a black moleskine notebook in which he logs details of every conversation and color-codes actionable items. He fills roughly one notebook each month and has saved all of them since working for Sault St. Marie, revisiting them anytime he starts a new job to learn from past mistakes. He tried experimenting with apps his phone or laptop, but those newfangled devices didn’t do the trick.
“I know it’s not the most technological way of doing it,” Dubas says, “but it works well for me.”