This last week was a great one for the Leafs. In an otherwise slow news week for the NHL, the Leafs made three outstanding moves that are all sure to help the team in the upcoming season: They hired Kyle Dubas, they signed James Reimer to a contract extension and they acquired David Booth for peanuts.
While I like – actually love – all three moves, the most intriguing is the hiring of Dubas. This article will attempt to analyze that move without resorting to the extreme narratives seen in the press upon his hiring.
On Tuesday, the Leafs announced the firing of Claude Loiselle and Dave Poulin and the hiring of 28 year old Kyle Dubas.
This was a surprise move since it would have made more sense to have made personnel decisions during the Playoffs when the Leafs were inactive, in preparation for the draft and free agency. Because this move arrives after those events, the timing is surprising, however, I am not surprised the Leafs hired Dubas.
Dubas has been the GM of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the last three years and has oft been mentioned as an up and coming executive that some lucky NHL team should scoop up. So, it’s good that it happened to be the Leafs, but the narrative surrounding Dubas’ hire has been interesting and predictable.
To wit: The Leafs are/were an anachronistic organization with no time for statistics, much of the senior management were old school hockey guys and ex-players who the game has passed by, Dubas is a statistical guru, Brendan Shanahan has usurped Nonis’ authority and forced him to fire his friends and work with a guy who will revolutionize the game, etc.
Now, while that is the basic narrative being repeated throughout the last week, I believe that, like most media driven narratives that it’s generally accurate while also lacking nuance and being extremely over simplified.
Let’s see if we can’t break down the narrative and get a better handle of what went on and whether it’s a good move by the organization.
First, Loiselle and Poulin: Yes, they are old, at least in comparison to Dubas, and have been with Nonis running the Leafs since the Burke days. I think, from listening to them on the radio, that they are among the kind of people who feel threatened by the overwhelming popularity of “Advanced Stats” and their seemingly unstoppable application to today’s NHL.
Now, even that is probably that is an over simplification. These guys aren’t idiots and they do know a lot about hockey. They probably do even know and care about stats, but they do seem resistant. The fact is though, the Leafs have not been a successful team for the last few years and while I am sure they are more than yes-men, any group that has been together for a while needs a fresh voice and fresh ideas. Throw out the idea that they are Nonis’ henchmen, symbols of a bygone era who have been passed by, that Shanahan is “putting his stamp on the team” etc. Sure, all of that has to play a bit of a part, but the ease of which the media (mainstream and bloggers) have factualzied these assumptive narratives makes me uncomfortable. I would guess that while Loiselle and Poulin aren’t cutting edge by any means, they are probably more progressive than their reputations suggest and that their dismissal had just as much to do with the Leafs wanting Dubas (for a variety of reasons) and that getting a new voice as it did with their being ‘old-school hockey guys who’ve been passed by.’
No doubt there is a part of the truth in each of the narratives being posited this week, but the most likely reality is that a fresh voice was needed, which brings me to the next part of the situation: Dubas himself. Hailed as a sort of “stats guru”, it seems to me that Dubas went to great lengths to point out that he is more than that. If you go back to Shanahan’s press conference when he was first hired, what impressed me was that he had an openness to new information. Not just to advanced stats,but to anything and any ideas he might come across. I am paraphrasing, but he basically said that it would be nonsensical to ignore any kind of new information, and Dubas seems to have that same attitude. If you are threatened by how the game is changing, you are more likely to ignore information that doesn’t fit with your world view – it’s called ‘confirmation bias’ and it can be challenging to overcome. By making a more varied in their thinking front office, the Leafs can’t really go wrong. It’s not so much stats vs old-school thinking, as it is varying the thought process.
I hope Dubas is a stats guru, and I hope he helps make the Leafs front office more progressive, but it must be noted that Dave Nonis is not ignorant of advanced stats. There is no way an intelligent hockey person could be, and no one doubts that Nonis is intelligent. If nothing else, Nonis has to be credited with being smart enough to know which way the wind is blowing, and, no matter what the Leafs have said or done publicly, I can guarantee you that the Leafs have been at least factoring stats into their decision making for a while. Maybe they haven’t been using them as much as they can or should, but the idea (which remains prevalent) that they have been standing obstinate in the face of this revolution is a little extreme and polemic to actually represent reality. Sure, with Carlyle, Poulin, having Colton Orr in the lineup, singing Clarkson etc, the Leafs have not looked very progressive, but this doesn’t mean they have entirely ignored the stats revolution; what it means is that people have been cherry picking moves that don’t jive with their view of how things should be done in order to create a convenient narrative. It’s not that it’s wrong either,or entirely unjustified, it’s just a little too extreme to be reality.
I am not arguing that the Leafs have been secretly progressive here. I am just saying that the whole thing is not as polemic and extreme as people would have you think. Yes, Dubas represents a step in the direction of being a more stats based decision making team, but the whole thing is more complicated and nuanced and less extreme than people make it out to be: Dubas is not just a stats guy. Nonis is not just old school. The Leafs didn’t just wake up Tuesday and become a stats-team etc.
The bottom line, to me, is that Shanahan saw a weakness in his management group – three people too close to each other, to the team, who have a similar view and outlook on the game – and decided that a new voice was needed. He chose Dubas not because of his acumen with stats,although I am sure that played a part, but because he has that and combines it with intelligence and creative thinking.
Look, I don’t pretend to have any connections or insight into anyone’s thought process. I am just trying to analyze this decision in a more nuanced way than what has been basically ‘Leafs replace outdated losers with stats whiz kid.”
From listening to Shanahan’s introductory press conference, he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would make moves just to put his mark on the club. He seems like a guy who collects information and does the best he can with it. The Leafs – without question – were lacking in using stats and analytics to make decisions, but it doesn’t mean they were completely ignorant, just as it doesn’t mean that is Dubas’ only skill.
My belief is that, more than anything, the Leafs needed to put a new voice in the group and they decided to give the opportunity to a guy universally acknowledged as one of the leading up-and-coming hockey minds. I think the fact he was never a player is great – playing the game doesn’t give you great insight into it, just read a few Joffrey Lupul Tweets and interviews to confirm it.
By only hiring ex-players, teams and broadcasters shut themselves out from so many bright, creative, analytical people. I think Dubas being young is even better than any stat’s based abilities he may or may not posses- age doesn’t make you smarter and while experience is great, it often closes one out to new ideas. From what I have seen in my life, if intelligence is equal, I would rather have the creativity and open-mindedness of youth over experience every time.
This is a great move for the Leafs. Not because Dubas is a stats guy (although if true, that’s great) but because he’s young, open-minded, not stuck in his ways and a new voice.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.