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Tim Leiweke on the Leafs: ‘Analytics make us smarter’

Tim Leiweke, President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (MLSE) is pictured  before  having ice water dropped on him in support of ALS,  outside Toronto's  Air Canada Centre, on Wednesday August 20,  2014.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Leave it to Tim Leiweke to say something interesting and stir the pot a little, just in time for training camp.

This time the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment president was speaking as part of a lengthy chat he did at Ryerson University this week, and one of the questions he fielded from a student was about the use of analytics with MLSE's teams.

At first, Leiweke outlined how they had used them with the Toronto Raptors, but the interesting part of his answer came when he discussed the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made a few high profile analytics hires this summer, including Kyle Dubas as assistant GM.

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For that, Leiweke credited Brendan Shanahan, the team's new president that he brought in back in April as the Leafs tumbled to eighth last in the NHL in losing 12 of their last 14 games of the season.

"Shanny comes in and decides we're going to be smart from now on out," Leiweke said. "We're going to not only take the game stats and begin to analyze them and figure out what's wrong with this team, but every guy we draft from this point on, every guy we trade for, every guy we sign as a free agent, we're going to begin to analytically take a look at how he fits into our team and use those same numbers to figure out the holes we're trying to fill and whether or not he fills them well.

"So we hired this 27-year-old kid. Kyle is like, you've got to meet Kyle, he's unbelievable."

Leiweke also made it clear he wasn't a fan of how the team had previously been doing business in this department.

Leafs GM Dave Nonis had controversially said at sports business conference last November that the Leafs often didn't use their analytics budget, something that appeared to play out in their poor personnel decisions the last few seasons.

The Leafs then became one of the league's weakest puck possession teams, often spending long stretches of games in their own end in a direct contrast to how the NHL's best teams play.

That is expected to change with the hiring of Dubas, Darryl Metcalfe and others as part of a new analytics department that the team is trying to keep under the radar.

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"We've gone from very little analytical information to we have two guys we just hired that are considered two of the smartest analytical guys in the game of hockey today," Leiweke said, likely referencing Dubas and Metcalfe, an engineer who built wildly popular analytics hub extraskater.com.

"Including one that owned his own website that every general manager used and we bought the website. When he came, that website came with us and we took it down. We don't want anyone else seeing it. It's called a monopoly. It's good."

Leiweke also made the point that the Leafs will continue to pursue "character" as well as players with good analytics, noting that "there are players we have in our organization today whose numbers are off the chart good and whose character is just terrible. I don't care how good your numbers are, if you have bad character, you are doomed for failure.

"We are very convinced analytics make us smarter," he added. "We are very convinced that analytics will reduce our mistakes. We are convinced that analytics at the end of the day will be key to getting this team back on track. But that said they will never ever replace our ability to determine one's character and passion for the game of hockey. You have to be good at both, not just one."

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