It was a few weeks ago when Kyle Dubas was in Mexico – getting married – that he first heard from Brendan Shanahan. The president of the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted to talk to him as Dubas, the GM of the Soo Greyhounds, had been identified as a bright young hockey mind.
On Tuesday afternoon, Dubas and his sharp hockey mind was hired as the Leafs’ new assistant general manager.
A lot of people in the hockey world have written, in print and on social media, about how this 28-year-old wunderkind embraced analytics to quickly turn around the fortunes of the Greyhounds. The team was in trouble when Dubas left his job as a player agent to go home and fix the OHL team his grandfather had once coached.
It’s a nice narrative for July, when there isn’t much in the way of hockey news.
The reality is rebuilding the Greyhounds was arduous and there were missteps for Dubas. It took three seasons just for them to get to the second round of the OHL playoffs. After his first year in Sault Ste. Marie, many fans wanted him fired. The team’s poor performance meant he had to fire head coach Mike Stapleton in 2012. The learning curve was not very forgiving.
“The first year in the Soo was a massive failure,” said Dubas, an hour after appearing beside Shanahan at a news conference Tuesday. “There’s no other way to put it. We made a huge trade for (star goalie) Jack Campbell and we missed the playoffs. We were rated top 10 in the country, we made the trade and we kind of pushed in all our chips and not only did we not contend, we didn’t even make the playoffs. It wasn’t really until last year when (coach Sheldon Keefe) came in that it all started to really get back on track.
“It took a year and a half to get there. People want to focus on the most recent past and we had a good season – we won one playoff round - but it wasn’t easy.”
Dubas has been dubbed a "stats guru" and is often compared to baseball's Billy Beane and Theo Epstein. He'll be the first to tell you he's not. Sorry, but Dubas is not the math messiah who will lead the Maple Leafs to glory.
What you will get in Dubas is a very astute, hard-working man, who is loyal and open to new ideas. That he isn’t afraid to fail trying new things could be his greatest asset. In fact, he believes it was his shortcomings in the Soo that helped him become a better general manager.
“There were things I was definitely wrong about,” said Dubas. “But without being wrong – we learned so much from when we were not good and from when we made mistakes. Whether that was through different trades or different hirings or not acting soon enough on making changes – when I was in the moment I regretted them, but taking a step back I don’t think I would have evolved and grown as a manager.”
Just as there was no quick fix for the Soo, the idea that Dubas is going to come in and change the Leafs with some grand paradigm shift is absurd. He's just a new piece in a very large, dysfunctional puzzle.
Dubas says he’s excited to work with and learn from both Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis. Hopefully they’ll listen to him. In his three-year tenure with the Soo, Dubas was a big proponent of using analytics to help him in the decision-making process as a general manager. It’s one area in which the Leafs have been sorely lacking, though Dubas wants to temper expectations.
“I’m not coming in here to change anything really,” he said. “I’m only here to help and to assist. I know (analytics) is a really hot-button topic in hockey and I know people are going to look at that with any team – the Leafs or whomever – and think it’s going to cure any ills that afflict the organization. But that’s a long road and a difficult road and it’s going to take a lot of time.”
One of the first moves Dubas made as GM of the Greyhounds was to strike a deal with Sarnia for Brandon Alderson. At the time Dubas was 25 and only a few years older than the forward he was bringing to the Soo. To make his newest acquisition feel welcome and to put the Aldersons at ease, Dubas drove all the way from Sault Ste. Marie to Mississauga to meet with the family.
“I always felt it wasn’t up to people to accept (my age),” said Dubas. “It was up to me to prove myself that I was capable. I wanted to let them know that coming to Sault Ste. Marie their sons would be in good hands. I thought that stuff was important.”
After two successful seasons with the Greyhounds, Alderson, who had been undrafted, signed a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers. The 22-year-old credits Dubas with helping him grow as a player and giving him the opportunity to catch the eye of an NHL team.
“He talked me into my game and gave me more confidence,” said the winger with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms. “On a daily basis he would remind you of the kind of player that you were and what you could be.”
Alderson remembers having to pick his new number with the Greyhounds and not being thrilled with the choice. There weren’t very many left to choose, so he was stuck with No. 21.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of it, but right away Kyle said, ‘Good, I want you to be like Peter Forsberg,’” said Alderson, speaking from Philadelphia. “That always stuck with me. He always found a way to make you believe more in yourself.”
Dubas’ own self-confidence will have to serve him just as well in Toronto with the fervent fan base and exhaustive media coverage. It is, on a much smaller scale, a little bit like the Soo, where the Greyhounds are the big news in town. If that’s the case, Dubas already has experience juggling the knives after his rookie season as GM.
“It was vicious and rabid,” said Dubas. “People wanted me fired. As days go by and teams are adapting and changing all those mistakes seem to be forgotten.
“I’ve had to bring up all the mistakes I’ve made today to try to say, ‘Hey, it’s not easy’.”