‘A certain brand of hockey’: How Ryan Hardy fits with Kyle Dubas and the Maple Leafs management team
By Joshua Kloke Jul 6, 2021
Those even remotely familiar with Ryan Hardy’s Twitter persona know he looks at hockey differently than others.“The draft itself is a bunch of nonsense,” the then-general manager of the USHL’s Chicago Steel wrote on his since-deleted account in 2020. “Players arbitrarily ranked before the season based on hype/public perception and rarely move off that spot.”
“The bumper guy! I hate the 1-3-1 with the bumper guy,” he wrote of the common power play setup. “Somebody uses it, it’s mildly effective (but no more so than what they were doing before), then everybody does it. In hockey circles, we then call that progress!”
And if there is one thing Kyle Dubas has shown comfort doing throughout his seven years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s thinking differently than his peers.
Which is why Dubas was likely eager to hire Hardy as senior director of minor league operations, as he did on June 25. Hardy will act as general manager of the organization’s AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, and ECHL affiliate, the Newfoundland Growlers.
“As we evaluate how best to maximize the potential of all our prospects, we felt that adding Ryan to our management team and tasking him with managing the Marlies and the hockey side of our relationship with the Newfoundland Growlers would be a great benefit to the organization,” Dubas said.
While Hardy’s move back into the NHL has been rumoured for some time, formal discussions about joining the Leafs picked up 10 days before his hire. Dubas presented Hardy with the opportunity, and Hardy jumped at the chance.
The Hardy hire is an example of Dubas not backing away from his belief that building a team based heavily on skill and prioritizing player development will eventually lead to a Stanley Cup.
“It’s a great fit for me in terms of presenting a lot of things that I like to do, and it’s a good fit for the Leafs in the way of me fitting inside their vision,” Hardy told The Athletic.
Despite having never worked in NHL management, Hardy is not an upstart in hockey. He spent parts of four seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, including as director of player personnel. He moved to the Boston Bruins as an amateur scout, before spending three seasons as general manager of the Steel. The Steel became a force in the USHL, winning the Clark Cup in 2021. Hardy won the USHL’s General Manager of the Year award twice.
And of course, there was his Twitter account.
“There was some strategy in the way that he used Twitter to get our brand noticed and our players noticed that weren’t being noticed,” said Steel head coach Brock Sheahan.
During Hardy’s successful run with the Steel, Dubas took notice.
“It’s pretty well documented that Kyle and I developed a good relationship over the last few years,” said Hardy.
They grew close as both Dubas and Hardy share a vision of a skill-based team that prioritizes hockey IQ and also share a belief in prioritizing player development.
“We are unified in this mindset of believing that investing in development of our players and our people is what will ultimately lead to success on the ice,” said Hardy.
The connections between the Steel and the Leafs don’t end there. Dubas drafted one Steel player in 2019, Nick Abruzzese, and another who was committed to the Steel, Joe Miller, in 2020. Both are smallish, skilled forwards with the potential for high upside, but remain years away from an NHL career.
Dubas hired Greg Moore from the Steel to take over the Marlies head coaching vacancy in December 2019 because “there was going to be alignment there.”
Former Leafs scout Noelle Needham also moved to the Steel to take over the assistant general manager job in 2020.
The synergy between the Leafs and the Steel hardly made Hardy’s hiring a surprise to Needham.
“Probably their greatest similarity is their passion for learning,” Needham said of Dubas and Hardy. “And then they’re also I feel like very confident in who they are and how they view the game. And that allows them to do things differently.”
For Hardy that starts with a hallmark of his time at the Steel: “eliminating silos between departments.”
“That’s why we’ve had consistent success over the last three years,” said Sheahan.
It’s reasonable to expect that there will be increased integration between various hockey departments, including scouting, development, coaching and management with the Marlies and Growlers.
With the Steel, Hardy emphasized constant communication between departments in the hopes of a clear and unified vision for how the team should perform on the ice. Management laid out their plan for a team, scouts understood that skill-first players with high hockey IQs were a priority for recruitment and coaches and development staff worked together to create development plans for each player that would benefit a skill-first team.
“I think that there’s times that, and I’m just talking about teams in general, where scouts value a certain type of player, and then the development staff gets their hands on them and they see deficiencies but their opinions weren’t valued or what they were looking at wasn’t valued. Whereas if there is collaboration between those two departments, they might be recruiting players that the development staff and the coaching staff want or fit their style of play. We value hockey sense, skill and competitiveness and we make plays,” added Sheahan.
And so under Hardy, it’s likely there will be even more focus on skill and development as well as drafting and recruiting free agent prospects who can bring Dubas and Hardy’s vision to life.
“We like to play a certain brand of hockey,” said Hardy of his similarities with Dubas. “I think that aligned as well. A lot of synergies in that way.”
When it comes to developing minor league prospects into NHL players, the next three seasons will be pivotal to the success of this franchise. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander are all locked up until 2024 and will continue to eat up a large portion of the team’s salary cap. Management is committed to winning with these four forwards in place.
But what the Leafs don’t have is multiple NHL-ready prospects ready to contribute on ELCs.
Part of that is due to some poor drafting in Shanahan’s tenure. Yet Hardy appears comfortable being patient with player development, viewing development in a “holistic way,” and tries to marry on and off-ice development with an emphasis on developing players as well-rounded people as well.
“There’s an old saying,” said Hardy, “turning up the temperature of the oven doesn’t make the cake bake any faster. It just ruins it. For players, I think there’s a right timeline that they should go on. And then there’s certain things that we can look at in developing them in that holistic way that I think can help expedite that process in some ways. But I think that a lot of players maybe are done a disservice by getting thrown into the fire before they’re ready.”
Emphasizing individual and small group development sessions have become a mainstay with the Leafs and Marlies.
“That’s another reason why his move to the Leafs right now is crucial,” said Needham. “His ability to be patient and his confidence, and what he does, is a calming factor. He’s going be able to absorb a lot of the pressure that maybe everybody else feels around him so that they can function at an elite rate that they’re capable of.”
What’s notable, however, is Hardy’s lack of experience at the NHL management level. He is another recent Dubas hire, along with Hayley Wickenheiser and Danielle Goyette, who does not have much in the way of NHL management experience.
Dubas, of course, did not have NHL experience when he was hired by the Leafs to be their assistant general manager in 2014. He was tabbed after Shanahan polled hockey voices for “the innovators” and “rising stars.”
It’s possible Dubas sees Hardy in the same light.
Needham believes a lack of NHL management experience won’t be a hindrance for Hardy. He could bring his innovative attitude, free of much baggage, to the Leafs.
“I think it’s an advantage for him because he’s going to go in and do things his way,” said Needham. “His ability to make decisions based off of what he believes is going to be a huge asset. Not having that experience and not having any scars from a past experience is going to allow him to take this on with a really clear vision of what he thinks will be successful.”
It was a challenging year for the Marlies as they finished second-last in their division for the second straight season. Their lineups rotated frequently, which often created a lack of synergy between linemates on the ice. The upside was that, despite the continued poor results, prospects such as Mikko Kokkonen and William Villeneuve saw AHL playing time ahead of schedule via ATOs and PTOs.
The season raised a question: how could the Marlies strike a balance between getting results and providing valuable minutes to young players?
Under Hardy, fans should expect to see more young prospects with the Marlies, and perhaps less seasoned veterans filling out AHL spots.
“The primary responsibility is to be developing players for the Maple Leafs so that they can put the best product on the ice,” said Hardy of the Marlies, “and the secondary responsibility is that a lot of people have a tremendous passion for the Marlies and you want to build a culture of winning.”
Hardy’s challenge will be turning Leafs prospects who have potential but look far away from the Leafs into bona fide NHL players.
Rodion Amirov will log time with the Marlies next season but has struggled with his 200-foot game in the KHL. Mikhail Abramov was an elite offensive producer in the QMJHL but has yet to be tested at the pro level. Filip Hallander has looked effective in the SHL but needs to adapt to smaller ice surfaces. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev adapted well in his first North American pro games but needs to learn to play with more size and strength. Mac Hollowell is an excellent skater and puck mover but has serious defensive strides to make.
The organization sees these players as eventual Maple Leafs players, and Hardy will likely give them plenty of runway.
Needham recalled early last season when she and Hardy had differing opinions about an underperforming Steel player.
“His patience was something that I revelled in, because I am generally more cutthroat,” said Needham.
Yet Hardy stressed an organizational need to care about players. Hardy wanted her to believe in the player’s future and have confidence that the team’s development model would allow this player time to buy in and improve.
“’This was an opportunity to change his life, and to be patient and showcase that grace and to take a chance and to maybe even put yourself in a vulnerable position,’” Needham remembers Hardy telling him. “The player could make you look bad if you were wrong.”
The player ended up having a successful season.
“That was outstanding to me,” said Needham of Hardy’s approach.
And so in Hardy, Dubas has found an innovative voice who will help bring his vision for the Leafs to life. There are some elements of Dubas’s time with the Leafs that have showcased some evolution in his thought process. But Hardy’s hire reinforces one of Dubas’s core beliefs in this Leafs team: that going heavy on skill and player development can lead to success.
“I believe that winning is a byproduct of development of people and players. I know people are starving to win and everybody loves to win,” said Hardy, before adding that in the next five years, he hopes that “we’ve done a lot of (winning), and we’ve had a lot of players and families come through that felt like it was an extremely beneficial time in their career and their life and their development, and hope that we left a mark on the people that have come through.”