When Kyle Dubas joined the Toronto Maple Leafs as an assistant general manager and took over the Toronto Marlies, he was heralded as the analytics wunderkind who had swiftly transformed the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds into contenders.
A couple of years later, Dubas has turned the Marlies into the AHL's premier franchise, a team that won a record 54 of 76 games while also icing one of the youngest teams (an average age of roughly 23 years old) in the league.
It started with a phone call to Rich Clune in July. Dubas wanted to build a team where youth and skill were central, but they were going to need the right people to insulate them.
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity," Clune said in his year-end locker clean-out interview. "We went from there and it couldn't have gone any better."
For the veterans like Clune, it was important that the Marlies developed them too. Dubas doesn't want to put an expiration date on development, despite knowing that production can trail off after age 25.
"I’m certain that the org from top down views the Marlies as a place where we’re going to develop players," the young Marlies general manager said. "But at the same time I think we had some older players that said to us that this is the most they’ve ever developed in a year of hockey."
Dubas knew that the Marlies could both succeed and develop their youth with the right people around them, according to Clune.
"I have the utmost respect for Kyle Dubas," Clune said. "I think before all the hockey stuff, and he obviously has an extremely high understanding of the game and putting together a team that has what it takes to win, I think he’s a good person, a good man, a family man. He’s been almost a bit of a mentor for me this year."
Above all else, Dubas says that he cares about the individuals.
"The management and coaches are excited to come in, you develop personal communication with the players, you get to know them and know that you care about them – which you genuinely do," he said. "When they know that every day you’re trying to maximize their abilities as hockey players I think they see that you mean it and it’s easy to be enthusiastic."
"I have nothing but a lot of respect for that guy. It has been a very positive experience working for him," Clune added. "From the day-to-day stuff I have never seen a guy who cares so much about his players -- and I really mean that."
The end result is a team that both dominated while also forming special, productive relationships.
"This is an unbelievable program and there’s nothing but good things to look forward to here," Clune said.
Dubas and Keefe met with each player individually on Monday to discuss their status with the organization and give mutual feedback. It was important for Dubas to get a sense of where the players are with their thoughts on the team, and look back at some of the positives that might be forgotten in the aftermath of a tough playoff exit.
The Marlies have a wealth of resources and tools they're trying to use and they're trying to be progressive with them and work to improve how the organization works with its players.
"We want our guys to learn as much as they can here and then let Mike Babcock decide where they’re going to fit in his lineup," Dubas said.
Keefe and the player development staff have been tasked with using all of the resources at their disposal to build an individual yearlong program for each player. They work on everything from adjusting a player's shot or stride to the skates and sticks they use.
"We believe here that a big part of the development is to continue to develop their skills," Keefe said. "We had some of the older players come in here today and talk about the fact that they feel as though even though they’ve played a long time in professional hockey that they’re still getting better and gaining confidence in their ability to improve through the skill development and the attention to detail, not just through a team structure but really honing in on what they need to do to get better as individuals."
The attention to the individual will continue to be a priority for Marlies. For Keefe, it was his first year working with so many resources. The Marlies work with players not only on the skills necessary to play in the NHL but also on the tools required to fit into Mike Babcock's team.
"The player development staff here is top-notch and did a wonderful job of blending in with our staff to make the players better both inside of our system and just fundamental skills that players can refine and improve," Keefe said. "We had some discussions with players today about what they liked about it. It’s a work in progress."
Dubas challenged them to set their sights high.
"Don’t put yourself in that box to think that that’s all you're going to be. Allow yourself to dream that you can do anything that you want because you’ve already shown what you can do here," he said.
And the veterans that were brought in allowed the Marlies' young stars to excel.
"This is all part of the bigger picture and there’s a lot to be positive about here," Clune said. "To see the development right before my eyes, some of the younger guys, it was a very special year."
"Everything is just such first class, from the way they treat you to the coaches, the management," Marlies captain Andrew Campbell, who came to Toronto specifically to play with the youth, echoed. "The staff wants to make you better every day it's got to be the best place to play in the American Hockey League for sure."
But skill came first.
"It was a very very skilled hockey team and we played a skilled game and it was a lot of fun to be a part of," Leafs prospect Connor Brown said.
"(The skill level) was very high, especially for this level," Ben Smith, another veteran, said. "And that’s what makes it frustrating that we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish."
"By far the most exciting and best group I’ve played with," Kasperi Kapanen said. When he was scratched in the first game of the playoffs, he understood because of how talented the rest of the forwards were.
The Marlies were so skilled that nearly the entirety of the playoff roster spent some time with the Leafs. While together in the AHL, the competition forced each player to be better.
"Everyone sees the talent and the skill but I think being able to push each other and get the best out of each other is really special for me," Colin Smith, who joined the team after the trade deadline, said. "It’s a great group of guys in there and a great group of staff. I know they made me better. To be a part of something like this is really positive. Any time you get to play with great players, you’re pushing each other and you’re coming to the rink saying, how can I evolve my game."
From top to bottom, the organization understood that it needed to teach skill. For the players, that meant a lot.
"They wanted to use our strengths and it’s really refreshing to see a mindset and a game plan like that," Colin Smith added.
"Everything from my first day here really has been awesome. I love the people here. Everyone was phenomenal. I was put in a position to succeed," defensemen Connor Carrick, also acquired at the trade deadline, said. "I’m just looking forward to what’s coming next."
Even from the outside looking in, the Marlies had a formula worth emulating.
"I wasn’t really familiar with the Marlies but I mean they were an absolute powerhouse this year," Connor Carrick said. "I’m very fortunate to be a part of something that should be something special."
And they're built for continuity. Every AHL franchise tries to play like its NHL affiliate but the Marlies are succeeding. Connor Carrick, who didn't join the Marlies until the Leafs season finished, saw it first-hand. And he wasn't alone.
"I think they were very in sync and that’s always a plus when you’re with an AHL club. You want to be working towards the NHL always," he said. "Just how things are run, the more similar things are the easier the mesh is. A lot of players benefited from that and a lot of guys that played in the NHL had success and I think it’s due to that process."
There was a constant line of dialogue. Not just between the coaching staff and management, but from Dubas to the players.
"I feel I can talk to anybody and say what’s on my mind," Kapanen said.
Connor Carrick intends on talking to management in the offseason to continue to discuss how he can improve.
"It was really easy for me, he leaned on me which I was appreciative of because I've played in this league for a long time," Campbell added of his relationship with Keefe.
Dubas' hiring of Keefe (his longtime coach with the Greyhounds) as the Marlies' head coach helped facilitate the fluidity of the relationship with the Leafs.
"I thought he was a very very smart coach," Brown said. "His systems and the way he coaches the game was very eye opening to me."
"I learned a lot of things in all three zones and learned a lot in the last nine months," Stuart Percy said of his first year under Keefe. "He brought certain areas that I would have never thought of and to make certain little plays to test the opposition in little areas that made us successful. It was a very special year from day one."
The players, under Dubas' guidance, feel the young talent developed well enough that a bright future awaits.
"Just playing against certain guys in the OHL, the growth in certain guys games was very cool to see and it’s just a testament to letting players grow and mature and come into their own," Connor Carrick said.
There was real, tangible growth.
"To see them develop from the beginning of the year, get called up and excel there, the future is definitely bright here and it's just fun for me to be a part of it," Sam Carrick, who considers himself a young player but was a veteran due to his four years of professional experience reinforced. "Definitely the most talented group that I've been a part of on a level of skill."
"The future is bright for this group, we had a lot of young talent here. I’ve seen a lot of guys getting better and better," winger Mark Arcobello said. "Guys have made some really big strides this year and I think you’re going to see a few if not more in the NHL next year."
"But definitely a great crop of prospects. It’s very exciting," Ben Smith added. "It’s a place where you want to be as a hockey player, they’re doing whatever it takes to get to a point where they’re contending for a championship every year."
For defensemen T.J. Brennan, now in his second stint with the Marlies after being reacquired, there has been a transformation in the organization.
"If you’re surrounded by positive people and in a positive atmosphere you’ll become better naturally. I think a lot of people have caught on," he said. "It’s an understatement, how hard of a thing that is to provide a good healthy environment. It’s important."
"There’s a lot of reasons to believe this organization is moving forward in a positive state of mind," he added, pointing to improvements he made this year in particular in his defensive game despite being past the traditional 'developmental' years as one of the team's older players.
And it's only the beginning for many of them. The Leafs used 47 players this season.
For the young players, a brief stint in the NHL was intentional, meant to get them a taste of the next step and some work with the Leafs' staff. Dubas expects next year's Marlies team to be even younger and plans on drafting enough players to have a constant influx of youth in the AHL.
The sheer number of good young players made the Marlies special. Late in the season, they were icing an entire reserve roster composed of capable AHL players, including some of the team's top prospects, for their practices. It made them different.
"I think what’s different about this organization is how young our team was, the depth of our AHL team this year was remarkable,' Arcobello said.
"There was a ton of improvement from everybody and that's what you look for at this level," Campbell said of the way the organization is building through the Marlies. "They're all great young kids and they all want to get better and that's what you want to see as a veteran guy."
Moving forward, Dubas wants to continue to use the Marlies as a place where players can learn to play anywhere in the lineup. Gone are the days of pushing players into fourth line roles. He credits the veterans they assembled for setting a high standard.
It starts with that dialogue.
"The more feedback that we can get is a positive thing for everybody going forward," Keefe said.
It ends with the resources, strong relationships, youth (the youngest team in the playoffs) and skill.
"The resources are put into place to remove excuses and provide the guidance for anything the players need. It’s a positive environment. I was very lucky to coach so much talent. It was a privilege for me. I took a lot from it and I’ll be better for it. We were very young and we had some veteran players that were a big part of our team and were important people."
At the centre of all of it? That 29-year-old wunderkind, proving he can be as innovative in the professional ranks as he was while manually tracking zone entries in a rink in Northern Ontario.