One hire was one thing.
A whole department is quite another.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ new assistant general manager, Kyle Dubas, has been busy this summer. He’s had to be, given that his hiring was announced in late July. And there was a lot of work to be done for an organization that had previously dedicated almost no resources to data collection or analysis.
On Tuesday afternoon, Yahoo Sports broke the news that Dubas and the Leafs were amassing an analytics team unlike any in the NHL. It’s a trio that features a mathematician, a sportswriter and a chemical engineer-turned-IT-professional who created one of the most popular hockey data sites out there.
Almost overnight, the Leafs will go from one of the league’s least progressive teams in this area to one of the most, dedicating considerable time and energy to numbers-based analysis of the team’s roster, acquisitions and style of play.
How that will mesh with the more old-school staff – led by head coach Randy Carlyle – and how it will affect the team’s fortunes on the ice will be a storyline to follow all season.
What’s intriguing about the Leafs trip down this path is just how unusual some of the additions are. Bringing in Dubas, the 28-year-old Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds general manager, was unique, but the backgrounds of the newcomers are even further afield from typical NHL hires.
All three, for example, are in their 20s, and none have held a management role in the sport at any level.
The closest to that has been Rob Pettapiece, who worked in relative secrecy as Dubas’s right-hand stats man in the Soo the past year.
With a degree in combinatorics and optimization, Pettapiece has experience everywhere from StatsCan to the City of Kitchener as an economic analyst, and is more widely known for his work in baseball analytics than hockey.
Pettapiece will team up with Darryl Metcalf, who built analytics hub ExtraSkater.com from scratch by scraping data from the NHL’s website, and Cam Charron, a data journalist who wrote some of the most scathing critiques of the Leafs last season for various media sites.
The Leafs’ sudden transformation on this front started with the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as team president back in April, right at the tail end of a franchise face-plant that included losing 13 of their final 16 games en route to missing the playoffs.
Toronto had been a hot-button team in terms of analytics from the start of the season, as the Leafs won games while being heavily outshot and often outplayed. It was something that analysts such as Charron noted was highly unlikely to continue over 82 games.
Leafs’ GM Dave Nonis had also added fuel to the debate last November when he noted during an appearance at a sports business conference that he hadn’t found a use for any of the team’s available analytics budget.
A neophyte when it came to terms like Corsi and Fenwick, Shanahan was barraged with questions about analytics right from his first press conference, and he made learning more a key off-season priority.
“It is something that I’m going to use,” Shanahan told The Globe and Mail a month after he was hired. “I do have some thoughts, and I have some meetings with some people about that.”
Those led to the hiring of Dubas, which in turn led to these latest hires, which are expected to be officially announced later this week.
One of the major advantages the Leafs have in this area is a nearly unlimited budget to pursue leads. With franchise revenues at roughly $200-million a season and the salary cap set at $69-million, Toronto has no excuse not to spend extensively on personnel – including in analytics – and innovation.
Part of what Dubas’s new team will do is track data not available from the league. Pettapiece and Metcalf’s computer backgrounds will assist in developing software that can analyze their findings.
It’s also likely they’ll be able to create a more complex, in-house version of ExtraSkater.com to refer back to, giving the Leafs another resource not available elsewhere.
Then there is the possibility of introducing new optical-tracking technology – like the SportVU cameras being used in the NBA – although that likely remains a year or two down the road.
Regardless, the culture change Shanahan wanted is certainly well under way in this particular area. No one can claim the Leafs aren’t at least pursuing some new ideas, which is a welcome change from what’s gone on for years in the organization.