Few knew what to expect when Brendan Shanahan took over as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs three months ago.
He hadn’t worked for a team, was only five years removed from being on the ice and didn’t have any tangible connection to – or intimate knowledge of – the franchise and its people.
But here’s where Shanahan has succeeded already: He isn’t afraid to admit what he doesn’t know.
And to do something about it.
For too long – years and years, really – the Leafs front office has been built on cronyism. It was – and still in many ways is, if you look at the scouting department – a group of older former pro players, two of whom were let go on Tuesday to make way for 28-year-old assistant GM Kyle Dubas.
Not only has this group been reluctant to change in the face of failure, they’ve displayed thinly veiled disdain for the analytics movement for two seasons now, publicly denouncing the kind of innovation that has helped teams like the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks build Stanley Cup contenders while the Leafs imploded late in the year.
It also helped Dubas become a successful GM in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who’ve been a small market success story in his three years in charge.
Rather than analytics, however, the real story of the day was the reveal that Shanahan had seen the Leafs for what they were: An organization that had become diseased from the top and that was in need of new blood and new ideas.
This hire was the first step.
“I believe we have people in our organization who maybe have been afraid of certain words and certain information," Shanahan said at one point on Tuesday, a diplomatic and damning statement all at once.
As for meeting and talking with Dubas during what became a seven-hour introduction at the Leafs practice facility a few weeks ago, Shanahan added that “I was learning things I didn't know and just wanted to learn more.”
Dubas won’t be able to transform the Leafs overnight. He has a lot to learn about being an NHL executive and Shanahan’s next hires in the front office will be vital. They need a capologist, for one, and someone who can handle the complex relationship with the Toronto Marlies and the 50-man reserve list limit, two things Dubas can learn over time.
But what he will be right off the bat is a champion of “different,” someone who can push the envelope and use the Leafs ridiculous resources to give the front office intel that other teams lack.
A $150,000 smart-camera system installed at the Air Canada Centre to provide exclusive, never-before available video and data on everything from pass completions to zone entries?
Not a problem.
An entire analytics department with people tracking new and compelling info, as other NHL teams are currently doing and as Dubas had created on a shoestring budget – with a ticket sales rep, an intern and a business manager doing the tracking – in the Soo?
Easily doable here, on a whole different level.
The possibilities are really endless, and that’s part of what drew Dubas to the opportunity and the Leafs to him. He’ll be in charge of creating something entirely new here, a foreign concept in an organization that has relied on old-school notions of team-building for decades, even as the league has rapidly evolved around them.
You don’t have to listen to Dubas very long to pick out what intrigued Shanahan, who did months of due diligence by canvassing the hockey world before settling on his unexpected new hire.
“He’s not tied to any old ideas,” Shanahan explained.
“It’s the Leafs,” Dubas said of what he can bring to the table. “The resources are plenty and that’s the part I’m most excited about the whole job… To take the resources that are available and try to continue to further our knowledge and the stuff that we’re collecting and trying to uncover new trends or inefficiencies and so forth.
“You have to find a way [despite budget limitations] in the Soo. I don’t envision that’s going to be a problem here.”
Dubas has already begun introducing those ideas to the Leafs staff, meeting at length with GM Dave Nonis on the weekend to talk about analytics specifically.
Those who know the young executive well, meanwhile, point out he wouldn’t have taken the job without assurances he would be given some sway in decisions, something assured by the fact he is the first of the new president’s hand-picked staff.
“It was just a conversation about hockey,” Dubas said of his lengthy chats with Shanahan and Nonis in recent weeks. “How I see the game played and things that I think are important. I’m not going to rush in tomorrow and try to tell everybody how it is. That’s not really the way I am…
“I think in talking to a lot of NHL people, the hesitation that they get is when different independent [analytics] firms try to sell them a black box or magical potion for ‘this is how to measure a players’ value.’ Everyone’s trying to get to, to use baseball, WAR – wins above replacement – and how to properly value guys. Right now in hockey, we’re not there yet.
“That’s been their main hesitation with this stuff. We’re in a process here of trying to deduce our way to what can make a successful team. And we’re a long way from there.”
It’s true – hockey’s nowhere close to where baseball is in this department.
But NHL teams have been making serious strides in recent years, with this off-season’s hiring of statisticians like Sunny Mehta (in New Jersey) and Eric Tulsky (to an undisclosed team) two perfect examples of where the game is going.
The good news is the Leafs have at least now started that journey, turning a page on what they were to become something new.
And it’s about time.