The Toronto Maple Leafs shocked the hockey world last week with their progressive hiring of Kyle Dubas, 28, as assistant GM. Diehards were familiar with Dubas already, as he’d been GM of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds since he was 25. Advanced stat heads also danced jigs upon hearing the news, as Dubas is known as a major proponent of metrics like Corsi and Fenwick.
By now, though, you’ve likely read all that about Dubas already. Who is he? And what is it like being an NHL executive before his 30th birthday? I tracked him down for a Q&A.
The Hockey News: You were close to your grandfather, Walter, and he coached the Greyhounds when you were young. Learning from him, did you know from a young age you wanted to be in the management side of hockey?
Kyle Dubas: I grew up probably like everybody else in Canada. I wanted to be a hockey player, and when I was 14 that came to a close. Being around hockey my whole life and around my grandfather, Walter, certainly lent itself to me in learning a lot about the game and the way that it was coached and operated. Once my playing days were forced out of me, it was just a natural for me to want to learn as much as I could about the hockey operations side of it, and I fortunately had that ingrained in me from a young age.
THN: What was it like being a player agent at Uptown Sports in your early 20s? Did your age make it difficult? Was it frustrating to lose clients?
Dubas: Personally, I can only think of one player, maybe in my third year, that we lost. It was a good lesson in loyalty, but I wasn’t disappointed by it. I learned a lot from that, and you weren’t really judged by how good of a job you were doing. It’s a very cutthroat business, and a lot of the times when you’re doing as good a job as you can in guiding a player, their parents don’t like to hear the reality of the situation and what they need to do to improve. I’d much rather be judged on wins and losses and how we do as a team. Life’s just a little simpler that way.
THN: What blew you away more: being named GM of an OHL team at 25 or being named assistant GM of the Leafs at 28?
Dubas: Frankly, the ‘Soo’ job. There was a lot more negativity I could feel – and I certainly still have to prove myself now – but I could feel it, coming into the Soo, and being 25 and the team had struggled a little bit, even though they had some really good people. And I’m local there, so I know people. So it was more rabid in the response to me coming in there. In Toronto the last week – anybody that gets hired or traded for or signed, there’s always negativity, but it’s been overwhelming how many people have reached out to welcome me to Toronto, from the fans to the players to the media. It’s all been, to my face, very positive, and it’s been a totally different experience.
THN: What do you take with you from the Ontario League that prepares you for the new job? Getting to the playoffs and hiring Sheldon Keefe as coach, which at the time was viewed as a controversial move – did that set the tone for you as a progressive thinker?
Dubas: I learned from the people who run the league: David Branch, Ted Baker, Joe Birch, Kyle Raftis, and the other great managers in the league. The OHL has a number of strong franchises, and I was able to watch and learn from franchises like Plymouth and Mike Vellucci, Guelph and Mike Kelly, and Scott Walker and Windsor, and Kitchener and London in particular – those are teams that are all on our side (Western Conference) – and Owen Sound. There are a lot of real strong operators, and it made it very competitive, but also enabled us to learn a lot about how to properly operate a team. And then of course there was unbelievable support from the league staff, and what I most learned there was the benefit to making everything about the players, and putting all the resources into trying to make the players better and improve their experience. That comes down from the league and what the league is trying to do everyday, and that’s to provide the most they can for the players and maximize player development.
THN: Let’s switch gears to analytics. I’m sure you’ve been hearing a lot about that lately.
Dubas: Nah. (laughs)
THN: When did you fascination with them start?
Dubas: It started in baseball. As a young person I went with my grandfather every Tuesday to pick up Baseball Weekly and scour through the back pages, which were all the stats of all the Major League teams, and they even had minor league teams in there. I started to become interested in that and just grew and developed and started reading some of the great work that was being done in hockey. I guess it started about nine or 10 years ago, but it was probably five or six years ago when I really started reading about it and really began to draw some definitive conclusions between what the theory was, what the numbers were saying and what was actually happening on the ice, and how that could best allow you to be more certain when constructing a team.
THN: We hockey media talk a lot about Corsi and Fenwick, but our understanding of advanced stats is still rudimentary. What advanced stat do you value most, or what’s an advanced stat the mainstream doesn’t know much about?
Dubas: They all have value. You say that you guys are at a pretty rudimentary level – I think everybody still is. Hockey is where baseball was more than two decades ago, where you had a few guys doing really good work and everyone trying to play catch up. In terms of which stats are most valuable – we’re still getting there. The team possession metrics have proven over the last number of years to pretty closely predict who the best teams are going to be in the long run. In the short run, you’re going to have aberrations. You’re going to have games where guys who you think are bad players are strong possession players. But we’re just getting rolling on this thing here. We’re a long way from the finish line.
THN: How much of an impact did advanced stats have on your success in Sault Ste. Marie?
Dubas: They’re part of what we do. I think everyone in the past week has tried to make it all about that, but they were a part of what we did there and a lot of it is still hockey stuff. It’s not what people make it out to be, that it was run only using analytics. It was a part of our process, and I’m not going to change how I am or expect everyone else to change as well.
THN: What about things like cognitive studies, psychological biases, and other scientific approaches? Have you been examining that type of research?
Dubas: There are a lot of good books people can read. Whether it’s Fooled By Randomness or Thinking Fast and Slow or The Signal and the Noise, they have a lot to do with probability and data, but they’re more to do with how we think, how our mind can fool us and how what we’re watching may not be exactly what we believe it to be. I’m fascinated by those things, not really to do with hockey, but to do with living and life in general. That stuff is of general interest to me in improving the way I think and we think.
THN: Have you begun evaluating the Leafs in terms of their schemes, zone entries, Randy Carlyle’s system, anything like that? Have you pinpointed anything you think is broken?
Dubas: Not yet, and I’m not sure that that’s going to be my role. Randy Carlyle is a Stanley Cup-winning coach, and he’s a Norris Trophy winner as a player. He has a much longer track record than I do, so I’m looking forward to learning stuff from Randy.
THN: How is your rapport with team president Brendan Shanahan? He’s raved publicly about how you’ve clicked.
Dubas: He reached out to me at the beginning, early in July, and we just had a conversation about hockey. We just sat there. It wasn’t like an interview. He phrased it saying it was just to get to know me a little bit, and he’d heard good things, and we just started talking about hockey. He’s obviously had some great experiences from being the director of the player safety department, to being a Hall of Fame player, and I was just trying to learn some things from him. He was asking me some questions about what we had been doing in the Soo. We talked for a long time the first night, and then I was able to meet Dave Nonis. I really enjoyed meeting with Dave and began talking with both of them in earnest. I’ve really enjoyed building my relationship with both and only think we’re just getting started here. It’s been a lot of fun.
THN: Have you still been able to live a normal life? You’re only 28, you have a lot of expectations for your age, and you were a GM at 25. Can you ever live day-to-day like a normal person in his 20s?
Dubas: It’s normal to me. This has been my life for a while, so to me it seems normal. To me it’s a lot of fun. I get to wake up every day and work in hockey. If that’s not a normal life, then I’ll take it. It’s a lot fun. I get to learn a lot and have had the chance to work with a wonderful group of people in Sault Ste. Marie. And, one week in from starting in Toronto, it seems as though the group of people there is equally great. So I’m looking forward to it, for sure.
THN: When you do get a break from hockey, what are you typically doing?
Dubas: Reading, spending time with my wife and dog, which is important. Golfing. But the majority of my time not in hockey is spent in baseball, watching baseball and going to games, learning different things in baseball.
THN: So are you a Jays fan?
Dubas: I’m a Seattle Mariners fan. But Andrew Tinnish, assistant GM of the Jays, and I are friends, and he’s slowly trying to covert me to a Jays fan. I want the Jays to do well, because I know some of the people there, and I want them to have success, and obviously I’m able to go to more Jays games than I am to anyone else’s games.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin