Not long after Kyle Dubas became general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in May, he was asked what he was looking for in this year's draft. Defensemen? Forwards? Perhaps a goaltender? What's the game plan?
"I like good players," Dubas said. "So we'll try to find those. That'll be priority one."
Good players? Check out this nerd with his nerd ideas!
Wait, can it really be that obvious?
That's what makes signing John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million free-agent contract on Sunday surprising and yet so simple—everyone with a working web browser and access to CapFriendly will tell you the Leafs need at least one, maybe two or even three upgrades along their raggedy blue line. It's clearly their weakness and must be addressed. But if it can't be addressed in the way Dubas would like, why force it?
There are general managers in this league willing to trade an elite forward for an above-average defenseman when facing this situation (Taylor Hall and his Hart Trophy say hello, Edmonton) because the common thinking is to fill a need by trading from a strength, and few have a stronger, deeper group of young forwards than the Leafs. Dubas clearly understands what should be obvious to anyone running an NHL team—if there aren't elite defensemen available, do not accept 60 cents on the dollar for a game-breaking forward.
The Leafs had cap space and since Drew Doughty isn't interested in returning to Ontario next summer, Dubas did the thing that's considered outside-the-box in the backward NHL—he added an elite player to his roster despite that player not filling a need. He didn't dump money on Jack Johnson or pull a Peter Chiarelli, which represents revolutionary thinking in this sport.
When Brendan Shanahan hired Dubas four years ago as an assistant general manager, he was hailed as a new breed of front-office person who would use his calculator and abacus to math his way past the outdated thinkers that go after grit and toughness and leadership and all the crap guys like that love. Your GM is a retired NHL player? Well, the Leafs have a guy that's got a mathematical formula that's gonna change the game forever! He even wears glasses!
Well, what if Dubas' plan all along wasn't to mesmerize old people with equations but to do the plainly obvious thing of having as many good hockey players as he can on his roster? Yeah, analytics can be part of that and make a team more attractive to someone like Tavares, but what if the market inefficiency Dubas always planned to exploit is signing really good players?
Sure, the blue line still needs to be improved but slight upgrades in a few spots along with the addition of Tavares is a far better plan than any of the available alternatives. Dealing a forward for, say, Jacob Trouba, is also far more palatable with Tavares on board for the next seven years. And having Tavares on the ice for 20 minutes a night will ensure the puck is in the Leafs' end a lot less.
"Signing good players" isn't quite as flashy as "Moneyball" but in hockey it's already setting Dubas apart from his peers.