Top Shelf: Fancy stats come to Toronto

Philadelphia, PA ( - It's a rare occasion when the hiring of an assistant general manager can cause so much fanfare, but such is life in the so-called "Centre of the Hockey Universe."

Brendan Shanahan, the recently-installed president and alternate governor of the Maple Leafs, made a big first step towards changing the culture in Toronto by hiring 28-year-old advanced stats wunderkind Kyle Dubas to serve as his club's assistant GM.

Prior to hiring Dubas on Monday the Maple Leafs were widely believed to be trapped in the dark ages when it came to concepts like Corsi, Fenwick and the various other new stats that are slowly gaining traction with NHL franchises. Simply by hiring Dubas, a prodigy in the realm of hockey analytics, Shanahan changed the long-held notion that Toronto is living in the past.

And the front office changes didn't end with the hiring of Dubas. Shanahan also announced the departures of vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle, Dubas' predecessor as Leafs' assistant GM. The exodus of Loiselle and Poulin signals a clear break with Toronto's recent past and the franchise's ignorance of what it takes to build a team in the possession-crazy landscape of the current NHL.

Hired in April to help shake up a stagnant franchise that has missed the playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons, Shanahan said he found out about Dubas while doing homework for his new job. His previous role as the NHL's director of player safety kept Shanahan plenty busy, but he experienced "a learning curve" when it came to running the personnel operations of an NHL franchise.

So, Shanahan began polling his hockey contacts about who are the up and coming great thinkers destined to change the sport. His fact-finding mission kept landing on Dubas as the rising star of advanced stats.

"I got several names but the one name that kept coming up was Kyle."

If the Leafs had hired anybody with a background in analytics for the assistant GM post it would have drawn a great deal of attention, but bringing in a prodigy like Dubas makes it a much bigger deal. In fact, Shanahan was so impressed by what he heard about Dubas that he felt he needed to make a move immediately before the kid was snatched up by another NHL team.

Dubas, who is leaving his post as GM of the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, reminds people of baseball's sabermetric gurus Theo Epstein and Billy Beane, but he downplayed those comparisons while speaking to the media on Monday.

While stereotypes tell us anybody involved heavily with hockey analytics is a bespectacled nerd with the inability to communicate with most of humanity, Dubas, however, proved to be media savvy during his introduction on Monday, and even downplayed the notion of himself as a stats guru.

"Stats guru?" said Dubas. "That gets lumped in because people know I have an affinity for that stuff. But it's really about learning as much as I can," Dubas said. "I haven't run the team in Sault Ste. Marie based solely on statistics. It's been a good-sized part of what we've integrated, but the rest is just hockey."

Flying in the face of preconceived notions about hockey stats aficionados, Dubas isn't single-minded in his approach to the sport and doesn't rely solely on numbers to help him make decisions. Family ties to the Greyhounds (his grandfather, Walter, coached Sault Ste. Marie in the 1960s) allowed Dubas to immerse himself in the overall day-to-day operations of a hockey club.

He started as a stick boy with the Soo at the age of 11, and by 14 was a hockey operations assistant. After earning a degree in sports management from the University of Brock, Dubas spent some time as a player agent, becoming the youngest person ever to be certified by the NHLPA as an agent.

Dubas was 25 year old when he took over as GM of the Greyhounds. The Soo went from basement dwellers to a first-place finish in 2013-14 under Dubas all while working under tight budgetary constraints. Of course, money won't be an issue in Toronto, but the lessons learned about paying attention to the most important details while in Sault Ste. Marie should serve Dubas well wherever his hockey management career takes him.

The topic of advanced stats is still a hot-button issue in the NHL, but with the hiring of Dubas it's clear Shanahan believes his team needs to pay closer attention to the numbers. Dubas is still only an assistant to GM Dave Nonis, but allowing an advanced stats proponent a place at the table shows Shanny is open to anything that could help Toronto break its current cycle of disappointment.

There is still a debate to be had amongst fans and hockey media as to how big a role advanced stats should play in analyzing the sport, but ignoring analytics is no longer an option for NHL front offices. Shanahan saw his franchise falling behind in the numbers' race and decided to do something about it.

It's quite the leap for an organization that saw former GM Brian Burke say in November of 2012 that he didn't feel advanced stats offered "any value at all."

With his latest hiring, to say Shanahan is not in agreement with Burke is an understatement. Toronto's president alluded to some folks still in his organization who fear advanced stats and it's apparent that type of attitude isn't going to fly with Shanahan.

"I believe we have people in our organization who have maybe been afraid of certain words and certain information," said Shanahan.

Toronto made a bold hire by bringing in Shanahan to turn the franchise in a new direction. Inviting Dubas into the fold marks a 180-degree turnaround for the club, and if embracing analytics leads to success for the Leafs it won't be long until the rest of the league's holdouts follow suit.