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Kyle Dubas, AHL goons, and the long, slow journey to a modern development system

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One of the legacies of Kyle Dubas, Marlies GM, was a very slow march away from an AHL tradition of fighters, goons, and guys who are good in the room.

Team USA v Team Ontario
Long before he made a pro career with truculence, Daniel Maggio was in the U17 tournament.
Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Originally posted in 2018, this story was republished on May 11, 2018 as part of our Retro May look back at our work over the years.

In July of 2014, Kyle Dubas was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was named an Assistant General Manager and became the General Manager of the Toronto Marlies, taking over for Dave Poulin, a responsibility Dubas has held since that date. While he briefly served as co-interim GM with Mark Hunter between the Dave Nonis and Lou Lamoriello regimes, he was always overseeing the Marlies at the same time.

From 2014 to today, as the Marlies are about to play the Crunch in round two of the Calder Cup playoffs, Kyle Dubas has transformed the Leafs AHL team from one steeped in the oldest traditions of minor pro hockey into one of the premiere modern development teams in the world. But it didn’t happen overnight.

The year before Dubas arrived in Toronto, the Marlies were eighth in the AHL in points, a playoff team that went deep, and they had 1,644 penalty minutes, fourth in the league. Jamie Devane (eight points, 146 PIM) played 55 games, David Broll (16 points, 120 PIM) played 63, and partway through the year, the Leafs acquired Brad Staubitz to add four points and 116 PIM.

The line between the points getters and the face punchers was clear, intentional and seemed to be working, given the team’s place in the standings. The only players on that Marlies team who are still in the organization are Josh Leivo and Garret Sparks. The closest thing to a successful NHLer in the crew is the now-retired John-Michael Liles and Korbinian Holzer or Greg McKegg.

That was a typical AHL team of the day. Development happened by accident, and the fights made the highlight reels, not the goals. Except, the Texas Stars, the least penalized team in the league, won the Calder Cup that year. One of their rookies was Chris Mueller, a man who filled his season with nearly a point per game and not much tough stuff. The AHL had already changed, but Toronto hadn’t noticed.

In 2014, with Dubas at the helm, some changes to the roster happened. Connor Brown arrived to lead the team in points. The Leafs acquired Brendan Leipsic midway through the year, and William Nylander showed up in the spring along with the daffodils.

But David Broll still played 21 games, the penalty-machine Sam Carrick, who had only 27 points but 112 PIM, played 59 games. Frazer McLaren suited up 22 times. Brad Ross and Jamie Devane each played over 30 games. Tyler Biggs and his five points played 56 games.

Revolutions don’t happen overnight, and it’s tempting to see all that as Dubas biding his time before setting the stage for his second season in charge where that all went by the wayside. Which would be a fine interpretation if only it weren’t for Justin Johnson and Rich Clune.

Prior to the 2015-2016 Marlies season, the Marlies signed noted fighter-who-can-play Rich Clune to an AHL deal. Dubas didn’t stop there. He also added Justin Johnson, a career minor leaguer and brawler who had put up 147 PIM and five points for the Alaska Aces in the ECHL the year before.

Both of these players have been talked about as good influences off the ice — Clune speaks openly about his sobriety, and sure seems like a dedicated worker who will tell you to do more reps in the weight room rather than to go out and party. He had experience as a leader in the Los Angeles Kings system, and it shows. Johnson was given a contract laden with unusual bonuses in a new move that seemed clever at the time to some:

Johnson gets:

*$5,000 (these are in Canadian dollars) for every Marlie who scores 20 goals

*$5,000 for every Marlie who reaches 50 points

*$2,500 based on the success of the power play and penalty kill

*$2,500 for everyone who plays 10 games with the Marlies and 15 with the Maple Leafs

Johnson played in eight games and had one assist. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to calculate how much he “earned” by being good in the room.

That season was also the great tank year on the parent club, and while the Leafs were playing every rookie who could look exciting while making defensive blunders to keep the goals against up, the Marlies did something no team had ever done: They added so many young players on tryouts that they genuinely had an entire second team that worked as a development club while the Marlies roared through the playoffs.

The Marlies ended up slamming headlong into the Hershey Bears in the semifinals and losing badly. The sea of tryouts produced one player who has stuck with the organization: Mason Marchment. He was the tough guy who could play for various OHL teams, and at that time was most famous as the guy who’d knocked Mitch Marner headlong out of his first run at the Memorial Cup.

At that point, for all the youth, enthusiasm, money being spent, and regular season points, the Marlies had switched from all the goons in the world to the cream of the goon crop, but they were succeeding largely on the strength of Leafs draft picks.

2016-2017 was the year it all changed for real. Except that’s the year Dubas signed Daniel Maggio in the summer. Maggio is a classic OHL tough guy. He played forward and defence over the years because his hockey skills were secondary to the rest of his 200 lb 6’2” game.

Maggio, however, took to the changing Marlies culture like a duck to water. He scored a goal, a big one in a big game, and then he went to the ECHL and held his penalty minutes down while producing workhorse play on a team sometimes totally bereft of defenders. This was a man who’d been hitting the double century mark in penalty minutes, and he changed almost instantly into the player he was way back when he was an OHL rookie. He has kept up his new ways this season as well, producing a pro career high in points for the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL and a career low in PIM.

The tide had turned, not just on the Marlies, but in the AHL and in hockey in general. Daniel Maggio is the bellwether player who showed the way. The Marlies would never be the same again. When Steve Yzerman tossed in the infamous enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond into the Byron Froese for Brian Boyle deal, the Marlies played him in one game only. They’d lost their taste for anyone who wasn’t there to play the game.

However, the success wasn’t automatic. The Marlies started to drift down the ranks of penalized teams while stuck in a rut in terms of points. William Nylander was gone, and the replacements weren’t quite as exciting as he had been.

The next season, this season, the Marlies seemed to settle into the sweet spot of having AHL vets score points while adding young free agents around the developing the draft picks. (Chris Mueller is not quite a point per game all these years later, but he’s back on the cutting edge of AHL cultural progression again.)

The Marlies are the third least penalized team, and without Andrew Nielsen’s frustration-laden season of sitting down once per game for two minutes or less, they’d have the least. Rich Clune hardly bothers to fight anymore. Mason Marchment concerns himself with scoring, and the fourth line often features Adam Brooks and Jeremy Bracco.

The Marlies, with Kyle Dubas watching over every game, are heading into the second round against the Crunch as the team in the AHL to emulate if you want to fine-tune your prospects, not just storehouse them. They made Kasperi Kapanen into an all-around utility player with offensive upside. They found Andreas Johnsson a five-on-five game that works in the NHL. They’re working on Andreas Borgman, Miro Aaltonen, Bracco, Brooks and now Pierre Engvall while developing the still teenage Timothy Liljegren.

Dubas added a more modest crop of players on tryouts this season, and has them working hard on development. The organization also started actually using the ECHL to develop young players instead of just saying they would, sending some rookies to Orlando and giving that team one of the youngest rosters in their league.

It’s been a revolution for sure Not one Toronto started, definitely one they are perfecting, but it didn’t happen instantly. At times, it was hard to tell if the change was real. In retrospect it looks like a very clever trick, with an illusion cast by letting better and better players dress up as the traditional goon until Maggio tossed the costume aside for good.

It’s hard to know if Dubas led this revolution or just rode a wave that was beginning in the OHL, where he springs from, via restrictions on fighting. What is cause and what is effect? What was planned to comfort the traditional hockey minds and what just looks clever in retrospect?

Someone once said that history is written by the victors, so I guess, if Kyle Dubas ends up as the GM of the Leafs in a few weeks, it will be his story to tell how he likes.