Brendan Shanahan didn’t go to college. He never worked as an agent. He was never a general manager.
But the Hall of Fame forward is sharp enough to acknowledge his deficiencies. As Toronto’s president, one of Shanahan’s primary objectives is to identify other organizational shortcomings and address them by hiring personnel who know how to do things that others do not.
Which is why Kyle Dubas is a Toronto employee.
On Tuesday, the Maple Leafs hired Dubas as assistant general manager. Dubas was the GM of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Before that, Dubas was an agent for Uptown Sports Management. It was a position afforded to Dubas because of the degree he earned at Brock University.
In: a 28-year-old who never played the game. Out: ex-Bruin Dave Poulin (vice president of hockey operations) and Claude Loiselle (VP/assistant GM), whose 1,340 combined games of NHL experience accomplished little outside of front-office gear-grinding.
Also out: any concern that Shanahan is married to traditional thinking.
“He’s come up a different way than I have,” Shanahan said during Dubas’s introductory press conference at the Air Canada Centre. “I like to surround myself with people that challenge ideas and think differently.”
In the NHL, hiring an executive like Dubas is the definition of untraditional. Each June, decision-makers and scouts from 30 teams convene on the floor of an NHL rink for the annual draft. It is a sea of similarity: ex-players slapping each other’s backs, growling about character and compete levels.
It can be a dangerous example of groupthink. Players are rarely encouraged to freelance and think creatively. Coaches love structure and expect their charges to fall in line. Players know two things: when their next shift will be and when the bus leaves the rink. They know not to miss either one.
When they retire and shift to scouting or management, their preferences may lean toward the players who succeeded in their playing days: dump-and-chasers, defensive defensemen, enforcers, conservative bottom-six penalty killers.
This is why teams repeat mistakes at the draft table, in trades, and on the free market. There are too many people who think about hockey the same way and don’t challenge each other to see the game differently.
There are no women. There aren’t many people of color. There are few who’ve worked in different sports, to say nothing of other industries. There are even fewer who haven’t played in the NHL. On-ice experience is just about a requirement for clubhouse entry.
This is nonsense.
Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, didn’t sweat on the iPhone assembly line. Alan Mulally, a longtime Boeing employee, had zero automotive experience before climbing behind Ford’s wheel as CEO. Don Thompson didn’t work the fry machine before becoming president and CEO of McDonald’s.
Top executives aren’t necessarily down-and-dirty experts in the business segments they lead. Their strengths center on thinking globally. They recognize market trends. They hire the best people to work on their specific widgets, be they WiFi antennas, truck suspensions, or milkshake makers.
Above all else, they observe, listen, and ask questions. They act only when they’re prepared to do so.
“What interests me is learning and gathering more knowledge every day and getting better a little bit every day,” Dubas said. “Having Brendan and [GM Dave Nonis] here gives me a huge amount of resources to learn from and people to learn from. That’s what I’m most excited about.”
Shanahan has been methodical in his organizational review. He took over command of one of the NHL’s more disappointing and disjointed groups. They had a game-breaking stud in Phil Kessel. Jonathan Bernier supplied airtight goaltending. Those two stars, however, masked the deficiencies of the roster Nonis assembled.
With Randy Carlyle looking more confused by the game, the Leafs tripped over their own skates. They ran around in the defensive zone. They forechecked too aggressively and didn’t backcheck enough. Their defensemen maintained slack gaps.
The Leafs sacked assistant coaches Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin. They dismissed Poulin and Loiselle. Curiously, Shanahan approved a two-year extension for Carlyle before Toronto hired Steve Spott and Peter Horachek as new assistants.
Shanahan is thinking big picture. That’s good. Management should be working on a macro level. A team’s hockey operations department has to identify how the game is progressing — more controlled entries, less fighting, greater defensive mobility — and appropriately construct a roster so they don’t fall behind. They must monitor advancements in training and recovery to prevent injuries. They should be identifying and recruiting the top people in every department, from scouting to development to analytics.
A GM and his assistants shouldn’t waste their time studying a player’s shot selection from the left side of the power-play box. That’s a scout’s job.
We are in an information age. This is no different in hockey. Data is everywhere. Video exists of every power play, every zone entry, every faceoff tendency. Background interviews of a player’s teammates, coaches, and families regularly take place. Advanced statistics — percentage of defensive-zone starts, number of scoring chances produced off clean breakouts, how a certain wing’s puck possession drops when he’s without his regular center — are more efficient metrics for teams to study when considering Player X over Player Y (and at what price).
Unlike his older peers, Dubas didn’t dismiss these tools in Sault Ste. Marie. He embraced them. The Greyhounds didn’t make the playoffs in Dubas’s first year. Last season, they finished first in the OHL’s West Division.
“I look at all that stuff as another piece of information,” Dubas said. “It eliminates some of the noise. You present the data or information in the best way to help the team as far as scouting, strategy, and lineups. Trying to get everybody on board takes a lot of time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Shanahan’s opening the windows and airing out the office. It’s a good first step. The league is a better place when the Maple Leafs are competitive.
Rebuilt Sharks bigger, but are they better?
On Oct. 8, when San Jose opens the 2014-15 season against Los Angeles, it’s possible John Scott, Mike Brown, and Micheal Haley could be in uniform. The Sharks re-signed Brown, acquired from Edmonton last season, to a two-year extension. They locked up Scott and Haley on the free market.
Scott is the most dangerous fighter in the league. Brown totaled 94 PIMs between San Jose and Edmonton. Haley, who once busted short-term Bruin Chris Clark’s nose in a preseason fight, recorded 131 PIMs in the AHL last season.
“As we integrate more younger players to our team, John’s presence alone can act as a deterrent and help keep teams and opposing players honest,” GM Doug Wilson said in a statement after signing Scott.
That’s a whole lot of toughness to fill a mythical position — the player who keeps his teammates safe.
In theory, Dustin Brown wouldn’t have wrecked Tomas Hertl’s knee last year had one of the musclemen been present. The fear of Scott caving in his face would have discouraged Brown from targeting Hertl.
The instigator penalty has played a part in preventing one-sided beatdowns. It’s too risky for a player to seek revenge and put his teammates on the kill for five minutes.
But the more preventative method is politeness. A player who runs around throwing questionable hits knows he’s safe from getting jumped by a strongman. Tough guys are too nice. They think it’s dishonest to fight outside their weight classes.
The Sharks started golf season early after blowing a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in the first round. San Jose’s offseason approach is setting up another round of early tee times.
Sign of weakness
Avalanche forced to take hit with O’Reilly
Had Ryan O’Reilly progressed normally through the Colorado organization, the Avalanche could have the dynamic forward under contract at a standard price for a 23-year-old of his skill — perhaps at a $4.5 million average annual value. Instead, Colorado signed O’Reilly to a two-year, $12 million extension Wednesday, moments before the sides initiated an arbitration hearing. O’Reilly’s $6 million AAV puts him equal with Matt Duchene and a tick above Gabriel Landeskog. It will help set the asking price for Nathan MacKinnon when his entry-level contract expires.
This is the jam the Flames put the Avalanche in by signing O’Reilly to a two-year, $10 million offer sheet on Feb. 28, 2013. To make it worse, the Flames gave O’Reilly $6.5 million in the second season of the contract.
Had the Avalanche qualified O’Reilly, he would have been guaranteed at least a $6.5 million annual score. Pricey, yes, but not an outrageous cost for a speedy, skilled, two-way forward who’s yet to play his best.
So while the Flames didn’t get their man when the Avalanche matched, they roiled the financial waters of a conference rival, potentially making them worse down the road. Philadelphia screwed up Nashville’s books by signing Shea Weber to an offer sheet. By signing Niklas Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet, San Jose forced Chicago to count its pennies in Antti Niemi’s arbitration case. When the Blackhawks walked away from Niemi’s number, the Sharks signed the goalie.
That’s why Montreal (P.K. Subban) and Columbus (Ryan Johansen) are nervous. They’d match to lock up their franchise players, but their books would take a hit. This is a method of weakening opponents that more teams should explore.
On the links
Can Donato follow in his father’s footsteps?
If Ryan Donato is fortunate enough to follow father Ted Donato’s development trajectory, the 18-year-old will make his NHL debut when he’s 22. If that happens, Ryan Donato could put Patrice Bergeron — Ted’s teammate in 2003-04, the old man’s last season in the NHL — in exclusive company. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 10 players in NHL history have played first with a father, then with his son: Joe Sakic (Peter and Paul Stastny), Doug Lidster (Jiri Bubla and Jiri Slegr), Jim Sandlak (Bubla and Slegr), Mario Lemieux (Gilles and Eric Meloche), Jean Beliveau (Butch and Pierre Bouchard), Henri Richard (Bouchards), Gordie Howe (Sid and Gerry Abel/Jimmy Peters Sr. and Jimmy Peters Jr.), Alex Delvecchio (Abels/Peters), Ted Lindsay (Peters), and Marcel Pronovost (Peters). Ted Donato jumped directly to the NHL after four years at Harvard. He didn’t appear in the AHL until 2001-02, when he dressed for Bridgeport for one game. It’s unlikely Ryan Donato’s career path will be similar. But it’s not out of the question that in 2018-19, when Bergeron will be 33, Ryan Donato could pull on a Black-and-Gold jersey. By then, even the perpetually youthful Bergeron might have some gray in his beard.
Blues opened the door with exit of Sobotka
Ex-Bruin Vladimir Sobotka, now a former Blue, did just about everything for St. Louis. The pain-in-the-neck center, who signed a three-year contract with Omsk of the KHL, scored nine goals and had 24 assists in 61 games last season while averaging 16:44 of ice time per appearance. He won 61.9 percent of his faceoffs, the best mark in the league among regular draw men. He averaged 1:52 of ice time per game on the penalty kill and 1:36 on the power play. The left-shot center possessed the puck more than he didn’t. He started 34 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, the third-highest mark on the team, indicating his dependability in dangerous situations. The Blues took Sobotka to arbitration and received a one-year, $2.725 million number, which is what he’ll earn if and when he returns to the NHL. The award — it was in line with the Blues’ one-year, $2.7 million offer, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — is of little consolation to his former employer. Sobotka was one of coach Ken Hitchcock’s more valuable pieces because of his versatility and abrasive play.
The Bruins had a second buyout window because Matt Bartkowski filed for arbitration. The window closed without activity on Monday, or 48 hours after the third day of Bartkowski’s agreement to a one-year, $1.2 million extension. Glen Murray, Peter Schaefer, and Patrick Eaves are the only players the Bruins have bought out under GM Peter Chiarelli’s watch . . . It’s been a rotten offseason for the Senators, with the worst news being GM Bryan Murray’s diagnosis of an unspecified type of cancer. Murray may require departures from his position because of his treatment, according to the organization. Throughout his time in the league, Murray’s touched the game in many areas, from the front office to the bench to the draft . . . I once thought Torey Krug and David Warsofsky couldn’t be on the same defensive unit. They’re both small, offensive-minded, left-shot defensemen who work the point on the power play. I’ve changed my mind. You can’t have enough offensive skill and pace-pushing touch on the back end. They’re both good at getting pucks out and up to the forwards. The coaching staff is sharp enough to play to their strengths and shield them from shutdown situations . . . The second season of Bruins defenseman Zach Trotman’s two-year extension is a one-way deal. By 2015-16, the right-shot Trotman should be ready to assume some of Johnny Boychuk’s shifts. This summer’s market indicates Boychuk will make a killing as a UFA. The early money is on Calgary.