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Kyle Dubas is not your Mary Sue

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And Mike Babcock is not the moustache twirling villain who disrespects Kyle and his process.

2015 NHL Draft - Round One
I should photshop in a rip in the image there, really sell this rift idea.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

This article was originally posted in 2019, and was reposted in May, 2020 as part of the Retro May look back at our work over the years.

There is so much gossip about Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock right now, you’d think they were fronting some K-pop sensation. The result is the inevitable group-narrative about their relationship that essentializes their characters into simpler and simpler archetypes so the trope of the story can play out while the popcorn is popped and much entertainment is had by the consumers of all this gossip.

Because as we all know: where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

I think there is some fire, and it’s right in the hearts and minds of people who don’t like one of the two archetypes this narrative employs. We have the eager young Dubas, who is innovative and not at all a hockey man (don’t factcheck this, whatever you do!) and he thinks numbers are all that matters. In the other corner, we have the hidebound old man who just plays the game exactly how he did 20 years ago and all he wants is bad, old players (still no on the factchecking, here).

It’s a familiar story, a bit faded and not very innovative, just like this kind of thing has read for many years. To me it has a bit of a late sixties or seventies flair to it. And no matter how hard anyone tries to dress it up with the word “rumblings” — that sounds so much more serious, and vital and deep voiced — it is still guys sitting around gossiping.

It seems to me that what a lot of these stories have in common is a willingness to declare what our two characters in the drama absolutely believe to be true deep in their private thoughts. You get short declarative sentences, devoid of supporting evidence, and said in a tone of absolute certainty. Dubas wants Holl in the lineup, for example.

The slight problem is, while Babcock regularly meets the press and discusses roster assignments and usage, Dubas doesn’t, and he’s a slippery character at times who doesn’t tell you precisely what he thinks. Player usage is also not his job.

This lets people project onto Dubas all their feelings and beliefs, and he gets to act out their passions on the stage. He is, for many people, their Mary Sue. And because we live in a world of discourse where any criticism, no matter how mild, is considered to be total and utter condemnation, the standard for TeamDubas is to never say a bad word about him. He’s teflon.

This gets flipped around of course, and there is a TeamBabcock who are sure he does no wrong, although Babcock provides a lot more canonical evidence for his actual thoughts on player usage and sometimes acquisition. He is the Mary Sue for some in this epic tale, but we’ve not yet heard from his fans in the media.

Player acquisition is not Babcock’s job. And yet, he always went to Europe and scouted with Jim Paliafito at the World Championships, something I hope he never does again, so it’s been the case that he had a lot of say in who the team signed. Lou Lamoriello described their process once as a lot of yelling, and he was amused at the recollection.

This situation creates the ideal conditions to project yourself onto Dubas, but Babcock is a tougher character to warp into the shape needed for the trope to play out. If you’re unfamiliar with it, go watch A Star is Born for the romance and singing version.

I want to play too. I gathered all these burning issues that are cited as causing this rift and laid out my opinion vs theirs to see if I can warp someone’s real character into acting out my part for me. (Sorry, this looks pretty bad on AMP, but okay on regular mobile.)

Me vs Them

Issue Me Babcock Dubas
Issue Me Babcock Dubas
Justin Holl Looks good in the press box and better on the Marlies Plays him when there's no other choice Didn't even send him down on a conditioning stint he likely needs, but it's unknown if he thinks Holl was just an emergency replacement or a roster player.
Morgan Rielly on the right side It's not some weird fetish; it's good player management to not knock any defensive effectiveness off of Rielly's probable results. Tells the media the story about what Nik Lidstrom said, and expects them to get the point. A large number failed the test. Unknown.
Jake Muzzin as a member of the team I like this guy, but his D-to-D passing is so easy to exploit. Plays him bellow Rielly and Gardiner in minutes, and uses him about like a 3D. He traded for him, but that doesn't mean he thinks he's perfect.
Nic Petan I thought he was the only member of the 4th line who was good in Vancouver, and he sure looked great against Buffalo. He's fine. Didn't like the 4th line getting rolled by Jay Beagle. Has played all three of them sometimes and not others. Signed him for the kind of contract you give to disposable players.
Martin Marincin I'd rather have him as the 7 D than just about anyone on the team right now, pending a look at Calle Rosen. Played him in extremely low-leverage minutes. Doesn't trust him not to do those things he does sometimes. Put him through waivers, and Sheldon Keefe made a very arch comment about how he doesn't belong in the AHL.
Connor Carrick Happy he's found a home on a team that isn't the Leafs. Gave him a longer, more serious trial than any of the borderline D in the system. Then stopped playing him. Paid him almost double Petan money and then traded him.
Auston Matthews with Mitch Marner Anyone who thinks breaking up Marner and Tavares is a good idea has missed the forest for the trees here. Tried it out a couple of times, said they have to prove they deserve more starts. Unknown.
Auston Matthews ice time Rolling three lines fairly evenly can't be done with the injuries and the poor wingers on Kadri's line. Rollling the top two about even is simply logical. Plays them one-two in forward ice time at 5on5 with 22 seconds per game difference from Tavares to Matthews. And he has claimed he doesn't try all that hard to hit specific targets in game situations. Unknown.
Ron Hainsey's ice time and usage I wrote a whole article explaining how Ron Hainsey has not been played like a top pairing D. I would have reduced his ice time a little faster than it actually was and played Dermott more and sooner. Reduced Hainsey's ice time at 5on5 and PK until Gardiner's symptoms showed up. Now he's third, with Zaitsev fourth. Unknown.
Nikita Zaitsev Fans have big mistaked this guy to the point they don't even see him anymore, just the charicature of a bad defenceman that lives in their minds. He's not having a very even year, however, but is better lately. Plays him much less than all the other top four most of the time. Even now. He didn't trade him like some media claimed he would.
Andreas Johnsson not played enough I think it's okay to ease a guy in after a concussion or when he's new. I thought he was absolutely horrible at first. Moved him up the lineup when there was no possible reason not to. Unknown, but there's no extension right now, and it is alleged that Kasperi Kapanen has more team-friendly leanings, so maybe it's all about money in the end.
Patrick Marleau played too much. I would never move him from the third line. He's good on the PP, and can play a Carl Grundstrom garbage goal role with Kadri. Was, at one point, playing the third highest minutes per game for forwards, but not anymore, and he gets put back on the third line with alacrity as soon as any injured winger is back. Unknown.
Garret Sparks He should have been played in a significant trial last season to reveal what we can now see for ourselves. That said, the backup on this team must be cheap, and he's cheap. Shrug. Plays him in the exact regimented system he used last season with the backup. Expressed a desire to see Sparks prove he deserved more starts. Signed him for a cheap extension, but not long enough to have him still be on the team when the next expansion draft comes along, a deal several other low-end backups got.
Frederik Andersen's usage I don't claim to know how much rest he needs or when. It's pure narrative building to ascribe recent bad play to lack of rest, when his traditional bad season is October. Plays him in the exact regimented system he used last season. Says he wants to play him less, hasn't done it. Unknown.
The other Freddie Not an NHL player. (Super great guy) Plays him at an ice time per game that makes him the 23rd least used player in the NHL for those who have over 100 minutes. Unknown.

This was actually pretty instructive. First of all, Dubas really is the blank page for you to write on. Second, a lot of the disagreement with Babcock — most of mine falls in this category — is that he is slow to make player moves. The other common complaint is that he won’t give [insert name here] a chance.

The first one is difficult to parse out for any objective truth because everyone is doing analysis in hindsight here. “I totally said he should move up Johnsson sooner, OMG, why didn’t he?” The trouble is that if you only look at the ones that worked out, you can easily declare yourself correct in hindsight, and the coach a hidebound old man who doesn’t like to admit he’s wrong.

The second one is a thing that makes my jaw clench. No one “deserves” a chance, particularly not in the middle of the season. Players really do have to prove themselves with more than their AHL stats. They have to make it impossible to not move them up. Why? Because hockey is full of luck, and one or two good games might get followed by 10 more, or 10 full of horrors. Fans always want snap decisions on adding new players in big minute roles, and again they judge this with hindsight and a selective memory.

There is a great deal of resistance from people who aren’t elite in their field (I’m not) to the idea that you have to put your head down and really work hard to justify your position, and to earn a promotion. I don’t think the idea that a player needs to force the coach to play him more is as weird to a player as it is upsetting to people who really don’t have the drive (I don’t) to do that in every aspect of their lives.

A glowing scouting report on a player isn’t enough, so when fans project onto Dubas the belief that he wants Holl in the lineup every night, or that Muzzin should play the most minutes or that Auston Matthews should play 25 minutes a night like it’s 10 years ago (and they never see the irony in this), they’re really saying they want someone in power to think just like them.

The reality of the coaching-GM divide is that the GM has to take a more nuanced view that mixes long- and short-term goals on the ice with salary cap concerns, the minor leagues and all the other things that go into running a team. A coach has more immediate concerns.

But the thing about this story that’s being written across the internet and that misses the mark the most for me is the idea that Dubas and Babcock are philosophically miles apart. This is not borne out by the evidence of how Babcock talks about hockey in a general way, and how the Process Man, Kyle Dubas, talks about everything.

Babcock doesn’t use college boy words, but he talks about mental preparation, physical readiness, routines, healthy lifestyles, which is all process talk. He talks about players needing to execute well over and over and how that’s the path to success. Process talk. He also does not punish players for bad shooting percentages. Process over results. He does move players to the fourth line sometimes, which does not at all upset me. And he says it’s to give them a chance to just play and stop thinking. Process talk.

But, and here’s a thing I’m spending a lot of time thinking seriously about: At some point you have to measure the effectiveness of the process. You have to get some results. Where is the point, and how do you measure? That is Babcock’s job to figure out at the on-ice level. And that will inevitably cause conflict with Kyle Dubas.

I hope they disagree about a lot of things, personally. I want someone to yell at Dubas over Justin Holl if he does believe he should be playing. He’s wrong. I want someone to force them both to hash out how to best use Patrick Marleau, and to face up to his decline. I want someone to yell at Babcock that his desire to have a perfect backup goalie is unreasonable, and, more importantly, they’ll never develop a new starter if he won’t at least play an unproven goalie in a serious way sooner. I want them to yell about Jake Gardiner and the salary cap until Dubas gets him re-signed, but that is just me projecting now.

Oh, and one more thing:

I totally took this as aimed at all those TV and radio panels who know exactly what’s wrong with the Leafs, they just need to …

You’re so not vain enough, I bet you didn’t even think this was about you.