Rookie GM Kyle Dubas scored a coup in free agency, but it's his cutting-edge approach that has title-starved Toronto excited
THE CLOCK had just struck midnight when the first message pinged John Tavares's phone. It was June 24, less than one minute after NHL teams could officially start contacting potential free agents. As the biggest catch on last summer's market—heck, the biggest since Zdeno Chara a dozen years ago—the former Islanders captain was fully prepared to receive an Odyssean assembly of suitors over the coming interview period. Which made the very first one—in a 12:01 a.m. text to him, not his agent—stand out.
"Yeah," says Tavares, "Kyle was right on point."
That seems to be the consensus in Toronto these days about Kyle Dubas, the rookie Maple Leafs general manager who cannonballed into his new gig by signing Tavares—a childhood resident of nearby Oakville, Ont.—to a hometown discount of $77 million over seven years. But chasing after the biggest fish in the pond is actually the least noteworthy thing about him. The 32-year-old has become an avatar for the new age of NHL decision making: young and progressive, embracing analytics and seeking diversity ... right down to his usual pair of hipster specs.
Any stodgy skeptics around the hockey world need only follow Tavares's logical lead. "To be the GM of the Maple Leafs, what that position means in the game, you have to be pretty impressive," Tavares says. "I was like, There's no way he's fooling all these people and he doesn't know what he's doing."
Dubas's journey began at the dawn of the Moneyball era, working for his hometown Sault Ste. Marie (Ont.) Greyhounds as a stick boy in high school, a scout in college and finally, at 25—following a five-year stint as a certified player agent—the Ontario Hockey League franchise's general manager. After his first season he hired a full-time employee to manually track and collect on-ice data that was then used for player evaluation and scouting.
Toronto hired Dubas as an assistant GM in July 2014, and he apprenticed under team president Brendan Shanahan and former GM Lou Lamoriello, both Hall of Famers. (In 2015, Dubas delivered a presentation at the Sloan Conference titled "How Analytics Has Limited the Impact of Cognitive Bias on Personnel Decisions.") Now, with the signing of Tavares to go with Auston Matthews, the title-starved Leafs have the best 1-2 center punch in the league.
Already, Dubas has hired four-time gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser (assistant director of player development) and Noelle Needham (amateur scout) to full-time, glass-ceiling-shattering roles, as well as promoted an innovative thinker in Jack Han (hockey operations assistant), a Chinese immigrant who cut his teeth cutting video for the McGill women's program. "Always looking for an edge," says Matthews, noting that Dubas periodically emailed him food-for-thought articles over the summer. "We're lucky to have him."
For all that, Dubas can be surprisingly analog. Everywhere he goes, the millennial GM—the second-youngest in the NHL, behind Arizona's 29-year-old John Chayka—carries a black moleskine notebook in which he records details of every conversation, color-coded by importance. He tried using his phone or laptop, but those newfangled devices didn't do the trick. "I know it's not the most technological way of doing it," Dubas says, "but it works well for me."