When he joined the Maple Leafs organization in 2014, Kyle Dubas had already made a name for himself as a groundbreaking young hockey executive with the Ontario League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds – and since then, the 30-year-old has continued to build his bank of expertise, serving as the Leafs’ assistant GM, as well as the GM of the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Dubas recently spoke to MapleLeafs.com for an extended look into the Marlies organization and his personal journey to the upper echelons of the hockey management world. Here is the condensed and edited conversation:
MapleLeafs.com: In recently speaking to coach Sheldon Keefe and Frederik Gauthier for a story on Gauthier’s first pro season with the Marlies, it was clear the franchise is coming together in different ways to help young players improve - in his case, through changes to his equipment that will benefit his skating. Is that when you feel most fulfilled in your role – seeing the entire organization collaborate – and having players willing to work with them to make improvements?
Kyle Dubas: In Frederik’s case – and this applies to every player – we try to use all the expertise we have as a development staff. How that came about with the changes to his equipment was, in sitting and talking with Sheldon, myself, (Leafs director of player development) Scott Pellerin, (Leafs skills development consultant) Darryl Belfry, (player development consultant) Mike Ellis and (Leafs skating coach) Barb Underhill – so really our entire development staff. Barb had some great insights and so did Darryl and they conveyed that, by making a few alterations to his equipment, it would significantly change his posture and thus the power he could generate from his skating.
And so Chris McKeage, our equipment manager – who I also consider part of our development staff, because he’s the one who has to make the changes; he’s sort of the mechanic behind it all, even though people may not always think of that role that way, but we do – made the changes. Frederik was open to it, and not a lot of players are, especially not rookie pros who’re trying to get their feet under them and get started in the league. Frederik embraced the change, and it was explained to him in a way by our staff that “here’s how we believe it can help you, here are the direct improvements we can see these equipment changes making”. Frederik has put in a spectacular amount of work every day, but notably with Barb Underhill and Darryl, to improve his game.
When we’re scouting, some will say, “well, he didn’t have great numbers in the Quebec League and he’s a first-round pick,” a lot of that, especially in hockey, is still so subjective. But are there things we can do as a staff that will improve him? How does he retain teaching? Is he an intelligent young man? And Frederik is – before he chose the Quebec League, he was accepted to Harvard, and he’s a very intelligent 20-year-old, one of the most intelligent I’ve been around. He embraced it, and we try to provide all of our players with these types of insights to improve. And it’s paid dividends so far for Frederik.
MapleLeafs.com: Is that intangible of acceptance or flexibility in working on your game something that does matter to the organization? Do you look for players who believe in themselves and doing the things that got them to this level, but who also have to be willing to be open to change?
Kyle Dubas: The way I look at it is that intelligent players are open to doing things that are conveyed to them in a way that can benefit them. If you try to go to a player who’s a really smart person – which is something our organization really values in the players we draft – and give them a bunch of babble and basic stuff, they’re going to see through it. So in order to go to a really intelligent player, you have to explain things well so that the player understands the lesson and sees the benefit.
So the challenge to our staff here has been to better explain things, to better define them, and that involves using everything – objective and subjective information that we have and our expertise – to try to best explain things to a player in a way they can quickly apply to their games. An intelligent player is best equipped to do that.
MapleLeafs.com: In terms of the mental health angle and doing things like reporting injuries – particularly, head injuries – do you think that will be a growing concern for teams as the years go on? Obviously, you want players to push through a certain level of pain if it’s a knee or elbow during the game, but do you want that honesty and openness to extend to how they’re feeling, not only in terms of concussions, but in regard to their lives away from the rink?
Kyle Dubas: I’m here with the Marlies now every day, and we have our performance coach Rich Rotenberg, who Sheldon and I had in The Soo, and every day here we do what we call a wellness report. The main objective of that report is to always have a grasp on how our players are doing, but the most important part of it that we want to convey to the players is that, yes, we’re here to try to maximize their potential as players and as athletes, but players aren’t going to be able to maximize their potential if the person is not at their best, whether it’s because of relationship issues or mental health issues.
As an organization you don’t think you’re ever quite good enough at it, just because of how difficult it is. For me, anyway, I’m always afraid that we’re not doing enough and that it’s not good enough. But we try to convey to the players in every way possible that, if they are having any type of issue that has nothing to do with hockey, that we’re open and we’re here to treat them as people, not as hockey players. I hope that’s conveyed to the players, and based on the feedback we get, I think we’re on the right track there, but it’s an area that, no matter how good you are, you can always get better.
But it’s of vital importance to us. We’re in the development business here, and if the player is not right off the ice mentally or emotionally, they’re not going to be able to maximize their development as a player. So the person is more important than the player.
MapleLeafs.com: How does building a team at the AHL level – where you have players in vastly different stages of their careers – differ from building a junior hockey team? Are there parallels there?
Kyle Dubas: I’ve found it very similar, especially this season, to my time in The Soo. The players don’t have a set expiration date like they have in junior, but I think they realize once they get to that age where they’re past that entry-level deal, and then they get a second contract and get past that and they’re not in the NHL, they’re wondering where they might fit, much in the same way we dealt with overage players in Sault Ste. Marie.
In terms of building a team here, obviously we know what we’re going to have in terms of players who are signed, drafted and contracted. So it’s about ensuring we have depth that our players in (ECHL) Orlando are developing, that we’re doing a good job and are prepared for when players are recalled. If a player is recalled or injured with the Leafs, that influences us and it influences Orlando. We’re in the middle of it – we’re trying to get everyone to the Leafs as quickly as we can, and to make sure the players coming in here are developing and that we’ve done a good job of identifying players that can come in here and develop with the team.
MapleLeafs.com: So when it comes to someone like Marlies goalie Ray Emery – by the way, he was in The Soo when you were just a young guy, right?
Kyle Dubas: (laughs) Yes, that would’ve been in my time working on the bench and in the room on game days and in the office on non-game days working with the coaches. So when Ray was there, I would’ve been 13-16 years old. He’s an (19)82 and I’m an (19)85. The thing with Ray – all four goalies we have under contract are all on the Leafs roster, and you’re one injury away from not having any contracted guy able to go up – so we wanted someone with NHL experience, and Ray was available, and so we brought him in, and he’s been great, especially off the ice, mentoring the guys. He’s been great.
MapleLeafs.com: So when you look at those veteran players you want to surround your younger players with like Ray, is there a typical type of person like him who has that love for the game and a willingness to never quit when other older players might?
Kyle Dubas: When I think of our veteran group here, I think of Andrew Campbell, Rich Clune and Justin Johnson. Those three, Clune especially, with everything he’s been through as a person and an NHL player, have been absolutely amazing.
Rich has taken young players under his wing; he can talk from experience about dealing with the vices that can present themselves in athletics. He knows about those all too well, and he’s been able to pull himself through that, and he’s been unbelievable. Our team is one of the youngest teams in the league, and Rich is only 28 – and most of our veteran guys aren’t overly old. They’ve got experience, and Rich has been up and down with the Leafs a few times and has ambition to still play in the NHL. He has been excellent, in the room, in the weight room, on the ice and off the ice. Same for Andrew Campbell, in terms of how he plays, his commitment to the team, his sacrifices on the ice and his mentorship.
The one thing we wanted to ensure is that guys like that, if they were going to be here, wouldn’t be sulking because they weren’t in the NHL. Although they’re disappointed when they come down here, within minutes, they’re back in their role of mentoring younger players. So it was hugely important to Sheldon and I, as we signed players in the summer that we knew might be in veteran positions, that they’d be good enough to help us on the ice, but although they still had NHL ambition, that weren’t going to be envious or jealous of younger players and that would help them get to the NHL. And all of them have been fantastic so far, especially Campbell and Clune,
MapleLeafs.com: You mentioned players can see through the cliches, and when you look at a player like Byron Froese, does the fact the team has embraced him at the NHL level drive home the idea that this is a meritocracy and that people can work their way up the ranks regardless of how they came into the organization? Is a story like that a real positive for motivating players at the AHL level?
Kyle Dubas: I think in Byron’s case, it’s a great story. We brought him in last year when we were having trouble scoring here. I’ve known him for a long time; know what he’s about as a person and what his ability was. We’re fortunate – he was in Chicago’s system, which is loaded with excellent players and you can get lost a little bit – to bring him in here from the ECHL, and he was excellent for us last year with the Marlies and then got off to a great start.
I think what it shows the players is that, even though he’s not a draft pick of the organization and he didn’t get a huge look in training camp and exhibition, he comes here and he plays well. And then when the Leafs need a player, Mike and Lou call and say, “who’s playing the best right now?”, and the answer, at centre, was Byron Froese. Unfortunately, he’s got an injury right now, but he’s playing every night, playing a key role, and Mike trusts him, uses him for a ton of defensive zone draws.
It should serve to our players as the hammering home of all those cliches and stock answers that you speak of, which is: if you come here and you play your best, you’re going to get up and you’re going to be able to go. It doesn’t matter where you came from – once you’re in here, you’re going to have an opportunity to work your way up. It eliminates some of the excuses as well, from players and agents – “Well, he’s not getting a look because he’s not a high draft pick”. When you have Byron up and playing in the NHL, it certainly eliminates the ability for them to use those types of excuses.
MapleLeafs.com: How do you feel about Sheldon’s work with the team?
Kyle Dubas: I’m thrilled with the work of Sheldon and the entire coaching staff. Sheldon has been trying to accomplish three things: he’s trying to maximize the individual development of every player, first and foremost, he’s trying to master the system of Coach Babcock, and thirdly, he’s trying to accomplish those first two things while winning games.
I think that, if we go player-by-player through our team, we’re thrilled with the development of 80 percent of the guys, and the rest we’re either OK with, and maybe some, we’re unhappy with, but I would say that’s par for the course in athletics. How are we doing within the system of Mike? I think we’re doing very well, based on the conversations I have with Mike and with Lou. And then, the team has been fortunate to have some good success early. So all of the three things I look at as important when evaluating Sheldon, he’s accomplished.
He’ll coach at the AHL All-Star game this year, and Sheldon and I have been together as a pair for a few years now – with the hiatus of last year, when I was here and he was in The Soo – and for me, it’s the most fun I’ve had working with anybody in hockey. We challenge each other, we can argue – sometimes passionately, without it ever being personal and without anyone getting their feelings hurt – knowing that we’re just trying to improve one another and improve the team. So I’m thrilled for him, and I think his success here, a large amount of that credit also needs to go to (assistant coaches) Gord Dineen and A.J. MacLean and (goalie coach) Piero Greco and (video coach) Justin Bourne. They’ve been outstanding, and I couldn’t be happier with the job the coaches are doing so far.
MapleLeafs.com: You and Sheldon are obviously connected to your time in Sault Ste. Marie, and in many ways, you’re both young men in positions that have often been occupied by much older men. Do you ever get the sense you have a little extra to prove to some of the older hockey types and the establishment?
Kyle Dubas: A lot of people ask that question in some form or variation. I think it’d be crazy to deny that’s part of it; I also think the establishment is right to question people who are different at first.
It’s something that we embrace, trying to show people we are capable in our own way of having success in pro hockey, but we have to prove that. We’re only halfway through a year here together. But I think first and foremost, our goal is to challenge each other to make each other better in order to help the team and the players, and if we can do that, any doubts people have will be forgotten and we’ll move on. But being younger and going through it together in the same parts of our career, there’s certainly a synergy that forms trying to have success together.
MapleLeafs.com: With the evolution of advanced stats at a point where teams have hired experts and made the industry more secretive and proprietary, are there any trends or tendencies you can talk about in the abstract in terms of where advanced stats are headed?
Kyle Dubas: Oh man, a year ago, I would’ve said it’s player tracking and in-game tracking, and they tried that at the all-star game last year and it’s kind of gone silent ever since. I really think that it’s so far in its infancy in hockey, and right now it seems, to me anyway, there’s still some very good people in the public domain doing work, but because a lot of teams – us, certainly included – have hired the best people from the public domain, it’s kind of hindered everything that’s being advanced publicly.
Whether it’s Tim Barnes, Gabriel Desjardins, Tyler Dellow, Eric Tulsky and Tore Purdy, and now you’ve got Travis Yost and Matt Cane and others doing work that’s well done and debated. But there’s really a lack of that now. And every one of those people mentioned is deserving of working with an NHL team. But I think everything right now is so internal, and everyone is trying to do their own proprietary thing, that there’s a real lack of people still doing great work in the public domain.
We have a lot going on internally, and we’re trying to find our own edges and things we can identify – and not just in the game, either. It’s off the ice, and with our sports science department. We’re trying to challenge ourselves to think about not just to think what’s going on in the game and evaluating players and teams, but in what we can do to put our players in the best position and arm them with information, including information related to their nutrition, sleep and workouts. So we’ve got a long, long way to go in hockey, we’re just trying to catch up to the teams that are ahead of us and try to level the playing field. I still think we’re behind, but we’re getting there. We’ve got a great staff here with Darryl Metcalf, Cam Charron, Rob Pettapiece and now Bruce Peter, who spends a lot of his time on the Marlies. So we’re excited about the way things are going.
MapleLeafs.com: You get to sit at the feet, so to speak, of arguably the greatest GM in NHL history, and work alongside arguably the best coach in the game today and a Hall-of-Fame player and highly-regarded executive in Brendan Shanahan. Can any human being be that big of a sponge to soak in all that knowledge that you have around you? And can you speak about what you’ve learned from each of those men thus far?
Kyle Dubas: There’s so much information and so much for me to learn in general, and I would put (Leafs director of player personnel) Mark Hunter in that group as well, in terms of people who’ve had great success in hockey identifying talent and players and learning from them.
Since Babs arrived in May, I don’t know that I’ve ever learned as much from anyone as I have from him. He’s always on the go, always talking, always searching for new ideas, always willing to share, always willing to value your idea. He has a very unique way of going about it – what you see with him is what you get. What he says in public is what he says privately as well. He challenges you, he wants your opinion, he seeks it out, he’s very collaborative, and I’ve learned a lot from how he thinks about the game, how he explains and teaches it, how he thinks about different players and systems.
I have a daily interaction with Lou, and my tasks now have been the Marlies, our development system and our analytics side. Lou will check in with me every day, I’m able to bounce stuff off Lou, talk about it and so forth.
One guy that doesn’t get a whole lot of things said about him is (Leafs assistant to the GM) Brandon Pridham. I’ve learned so much from Brandon so far, in terms of his knowledge of the CBA and contracts, rulings and the intricacies of it. He kind of flies under the radar, but he really shouldn’t, because he’s great at what he does, not only with the CBA but with scouting and player identification and so forth.
Because I see a lot of AHL games, I’m able to talk to Mark and get his opinion about different players on different teams. And going into the draft last year, it was great working with Mark as we were trying to acquire more (draft) picks for the staff. And last year at the end of the year, I did a lot of amateur scouting – we kind of asked Mark, “Where do you want me to go and who do you want me to see?” He’d give me his insights, and it’s great to talk in meetings with him, it’s very interesting to see how he evaluates players.
My relationship with Brendan has been changing in a good way: when we went through that stretch of four months when there was no GM and we were sharing duties, we’d talk everyday. And he’s around the Marlies quite a bit, and it’s always great to get his insights on the way the team plays from his experience as a player, and as an executive in the NHL and how different things work.
I learn a lot of different things from everybody, and for me, to be able to draw on the unique experiences of those people, it’s amazing. It’s an excellent staff, and Brendan’s done a great job of putting it together. It’s exciting for me to learn from those kind of people. I’m very fortunate and happy to be here, and to just try to pull my weight and do the very best I can with the tasks assigned. I’ve learned a lot and still have so much to learn, but I’m in a great place to do that.
You can find our MapleLeafs.com Q&A with head coach Mike Babcock here.