Personnel Still Matters Most

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (July 22) – As Hall-of-Fame executive Cliff Fletcher might say: “Analytics Shmanalytics.”

Time of course will tell, but the hiring of Kyle Dubas as assistant general manager would seem to be a progressive move by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Dubas is young (28) and was highly touted as a junior hockey management whiz in Sault Ste. Marie. A red flag, however – in my view – is the overwhelming chatter about Dubas’ affinity for and dependence on the flavor-of-the-year in professional sport: Analytics. This isn’t to suggest all the nouveau number-crunching and Corsi this-and-that hasn’t earned a place in hockey. Clearly it is becoming a factor in the theory of team building. But, I contend that some in the media are obsessed by it to the exclusion of more basic elements. To wit:

Without superb goaltending; depth and particularly size at center, and at least one Norris Trophy candidate on defense, you have no chance of being anywhere near contention for the Stanley Cup. Numbers can be crunched into fine, sandy particles and it won’t mean a thing. The current model, of course, is the Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings. Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards provide unparalleled strength up the middle. Drew Doughty may be the best hockey player on the planet. And, there is no better “money” goaltender right now than Jonathan Quick. Building a championship contender is still determined by keen scouting, solid drafting and development, and the ability to make a shrewd “hockey” deal in the salary cap universe. Nine out of ten trades today are financially driven. It’s that one in ten – compelled by strategy – that can make the real difference.

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KYLE DUBAS – THE LEAFS NEW ASSISTANT G.M. MAPLELEAFS.COM

I think the Maple Leafs are well on their way to constructing such a model. Administration of the team is in apparent flux, as one might expect with the hiring of a new president (Brendan Shanahan). But, the club has a much-respected amateur scouting contingent under Dave Morrison that’s been allowed to evolve through changes in upper management – from John Ferguson to Cliff Fletcher to Brian Burke and now Dave Nonis. Such an example of continuity has hardly been a Leaf staple. Rather than seeking the perennial (and futile) quick-fix, the current administration is hanging on to draft picks and prospects. With a sharp eye – and some luck – this team could finally turn the corner.

Perhaps analytics will play a role in that development.

But, number-crunching will never supplant the essential requirements of a premier goalie; a legitimate stalwart on the blue-line and dominance at center-ice. If you don’t believe me, check with Dean Lombardi.

BE CAREFUL WITH FRANSON: There’s a lot of flippant chatter about how the Maple Leafs have signed Cody Franson to a one-year contract as a matter of convenience. As if the club is so indisputably deep on the blue line it can afford to play games with a 6-foot-5 inch defenseman still just 26 years of age. Let’s pause and take stock for a moment.

We should primarily consider that we’re talking here about the Leafs – among the worst defensive teams in the National Hockey League for many of the past 35 years. A startling decline in performance by Dion Phaneuf personified another collapse in the final three weeks of last season. At his best, Phaneuf is an average-to-middling presence in the area of the Toronto goal. That isn’t likely to change. Veterans Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak have been added this summer. Should both remain healthy – and don’t put a lot of money on that – they could provide the Leafs some stability, but nothing more. Petter Granberg is being talked up in this city, but he has one whole game of NHL experience. That leaves Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner – both keepers – and Franson, whom management seems to no longer value.

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LEAFS SHOULD THINK TWICE BEFORE UNLOADING CODY FRANSON.

My sense is that Nonis should be very careful before writing off a young and stout figure from this run-of-the-mill collection. Franson may have regressed last season under Randy Carlyle, but he had lots of company. He also has 62 points in the past two NHL seasons – one of which encompassed 48 games. That is three more points than the $7-million captain and 27 more than the team’s most offensively-gifted blue-liner: Gardiner. In the lockout-abbreviated schedule of 2012-13 – and again during the seven-game playoff with Boston – Franson appeared to be making legitimate strides. He fell off last season, as did the entire club. Suddenly, the Salmon Arm, B.C. native was slow and indecisive rather than quick and aggressive. Can the Maple Leafs afford to randomly dismiss him without another look? Not from this chair.

And certainly not without an adequate back-up plan, such as the rumored trade of Franson to Montreal for Josh Gorges (hardly a Norris candidate himself). As with pitching in baseball, you can never have too many defensemen in hockey. Even with Franson, the Maple Leafs have too few quality blue-liners. If I’m Dave Nonis, I hang on to the big fellow.

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