Mark Hunter leaves the London Knights to join the Toronto Maple Leafs and oversee their scouting and player development. In doing so, the Leafs achieve balance between analytics and old-school thinking.
The Toronto Maple Leafs went so nuts with their hiring spree – from Brendan Shanahan to Kyle Dubas to Darryl Metcalf of Extra Skater – that they couldn’t stop shopping for executives by the time the season started.
Tuesday, they unveiled Mark Hunter as their new director of player personnel, taking over Dave Poulin’s old role. Hunter should be a familiar name to you. He was a 628-game NHL veteran and he’s Dale’s brother. More importantly, he’s masterminded the London Knights juggernaut in the Ontario League as the team’s owner, vice-president and GM for 12 years. Under his watch, the Knights won three OHL crowns and, of course, the 2005 Memorial Cup with an absolutely stacked squad that went 79-9-2 over the entire year.
Hunter will oversee the Leafs’ pro and amateur scouting, plus player evaluation. It should inspire confidence knowing Corey Perry, Dave Bolland, Brandon Prust, Steve Mason, Sam Gagner, Patrick Kane, Nazem Kadri, John Tavares and Olli Maatta, just to cherrypick a few names, filtered through London and the Hunter brothers, some for a lot longer than others, before reaching the NHL.
The hire also gives the Leafs’ new brain trust three former OHL GMs: Hunter, Dubas and assistant coach Steve Spott. Does adding Hunter mean Shananan is simply fulfilling his promise to improve the Leafs’ scouting and development? Or does it also mean current GM Dave Nonis should start sweating just a little bit more? In the last year, he’s been surrounded by a Hall of Famer czar and two former junior GMs. Is Nonis being nudged toward milk-carton status a la Greg Sherman in Colorado?
The most intriguing element to adding Hunter, however, is that it doesn’t appear to jive with the Toronto’s new analytics mantra. The Hunter brothers come across as old-school. Dale once made headlines during his brief NHL tenure when he benched Mike Knuble for bad plus-minus. My colleague Ryan Kennedy said he once had trouble tracking Mark down for an interview because Hunter was at his farm. The only analytics tool you’ll find out there is an abacus.
Hunter, like Dale, is known for being a video guy who relies on film sessions as a teaching tactic. He uses what the traditional thinkers believe is the best evaluation tool of all: the eyes. That suggests Shanahan is hedging his bets as opposed to going all-in on analytics, which is still a very young science. When I spoke with Dubas in the summer, even he admitted advanced stats were two decades behind baseball.
On one hand, it’s natural to assume Mark is at least open to thinking about analytics, by virtue of getting the job. Even Dale came around once he returned to the Knights and began looking at scoring chances to grade player performance. Even if turns out Mark remains old-school, however, it’s still a smart hiring. Oil and water can coexist in one organization. Who said analytics and old-fashioned thinking have to be mutually exclusive? By mixing Hunter in with the edgy new hires, the Leafs are casting a larger net and guaranteeing the largest amount of information possible.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin