After missing the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, the Toronto Maple Leafs think it's time for a different approach. And the success of the Oakland A's this season should give them hope.
The Leafs have fired assistant general managers Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle, replacing both with "boy wonder" Kyle Dubas. The 28-year-old stats guru -- dubbed the "Billy Beane of hockey," after the A's general manager -- is jumping to the big leagues after serving in the Ontario Hockey League. In just three seasons, Kubas turned around the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds from worst to first in the Western division, building a team around advanced statistics.
In addition to Beane, Kubas draws comparisons to Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein, who embodied the youth movement in baseball's front offices. While MLB has been out in front of the analytics game, the NHL community has slowly begun to embrace advanced metrics, a push largely driven by hockey writers themselves.
As in baseball, hockey analytics demonstrate value from nontraditional sources that aren't reflected in conventional statistics. Like average, runs and RBI, goals, assists, and shots are nice, but not as holistically informative as WAR and OPS, Corsi and Fenwick. Hockey metrics tout the importance of puck possession, and in doing so turn an age-old adage on its head: The best defense is a good offense.
The use -- and usefulness -- of advanced stats has been met with predictable resistance by executives, players and coaches alike. The Leafs' inertia in particular has been front-and-center in this debate. Last year, forward Joffrey Lupul tweeted his opposition to stats like Corsi, pleading, "Lets not look at this like Moneyball."
But as SB Nation's Adam Gretz details, a Moneyball approach to hockey might have prevented the Leafs' second-half collapse last season, which can be traced to some roster moves and a shift in coaching strategy that moved away from puck possession and ultimately caused the team to surrender the most shots in the league. Stats guys such as Gretz panned the front office in particular for allowing possession players Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur to get away from a team whose weakness in controlling the puck was exposed during the 2012-13 season.
In his biggest move to date, new Leafs president Brendan Shanahan is signaling the recognition of the team's past flaws, taking an Original Six franchise in a new, progressive direction with the hopes of ending its league-leading 47-year championship drought.
But the implications of Dubas' hiring extend beyond Toronto. He has the potential to bridge the divide between hockey traditionalists and progressives. If his stats-driven approach produces the same results in the NHL as it did in the OHL, rival executives will have no choice but to shift their philosophies as well.
Similarly, Dubas' success and youth could help convince more skeptical players such as Lupul to pay more attention to zone starts and PDO. The Leafs are among the youngest teams in the NHL, and save for a handful of players, might not be so resistant to the direction in which the sport is heading.
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