One major decision is done. Now, we wait for another.
The Toronto Maple Leafs hired Kyle Dubas as general manager, giving him a five-year term at a critical point for the franchise. Playoff berths will no longer be good enough. Playoff victories are expected.
The good news for Dubas is, well, when was the last time a Maple Leafs GM was hired while the team was rising? Who in franchise history stepped in at such an opportune time? They’ve got great talent, and it will be his task to plug the holes.
Many of the questions at his introductory media conference (and the informal scrums that followed) were about Mark Hunter, who was runner-up for the job. Team President Brendan Shanahan made it clear that Hunter wanted the position, was told on Wednesday that it would be Dubas and then, on Friday, informed all of the “t”s were crossed.
“It was a difficult decision, but the right one,” Shanahan said.
“I’m hopeful that everyone here will want to remain a part of it,” Dubas added.
Later, asked if he would be adding to hockey operations regardless of who stays and who goes, Dubas replied it would be dependent on what happens with those already in place. He also said you always have a list of good people so you’re never caught flat-footed. Translation: we know it’s a possibility, and we’ve got to be ready.
Their financial resources are as big as anyone’s in hockey. They can’t give Hunter the power he wants, but they can make it worth his while in other ways. He will be tempted, though. Other teams are already wondering about any insight into his decision.
There will be plenty of applicants if the Maple Leafs need to fill an opening. One to keep an eye on: Ron Francis. He and Dubas are tight. It makes sense if Lou Lamoriello makes the expected departure, although the former Hurricanes GM might wish to take time off.
Dubas had a really thoughtful line to a reporter who asked how he’d describe himself, saying, “People will fill in what they want to, for a narrative” they wish to pursue. I think that’s very true. The tiresome battles are underway on social media, and there will be people in the mainstream who won’t budge on the idea a 32-year-old is horrible for the Maple Leafs.
He’s been very smart about limiting his accessibility in the last few years, but my impression of him is as an independent thinker who believes that you use every possible method to win. One person who knows him very well said, “He’s got big brass ones” and bet that Dubas made it very clear he wanted as much control he could possibly get.
“Kyle is the GM, he’s in charge,” Shanahan said. “I’m here to support. When I’m needed, I’m there. When I’m not needed I’ll be out the way.”
The true power rests with him, but the most interesting relationship will be between Dubas and Mike Babcock. The coach is as hard-driving as it gets, while the GM will be determined to stand his ground and prove his worth.
Both of them need to make it work. The fans are no longer just happy to be in the playoffs.
1. Watch how picks are called in the Western Conference Final. Immediately after Game 1 of the Vegas/San Jose series, the Golden Knights publicly and privately made it clear they felt the Sharks illegally interfered with defenders. Two games later, it started getting called. That was trouble for San Jose, which used the screens to create openings. The Knights play man-to-man defence, making one-on-one battles paramount.
2. One year ago, Joe Thornton was tempted by the Kings, Maple Leafs and Rangers, but returned to San Jose. There’s no question he loves being a Shark and wants to win there. Coming off a very serious knee injury, there was a comfort factor. He knew the doctors and they knew him. The organization understood his body and his situation. Thornton realized that a new team might not be able to handle it as well without that familiarity. (I’m told the teams pursuing him appreciated that, too.) One year later, we’re in the same position, except with the other knee. The man can still play, and it’s no surprise under these circumstances that his preference is to stay.
3. Nothing involving Lamoriello gets announced until he decides it does, but a move to the Islanders is the rumour that just won’t die. I do believe there have been talks and that it is a serious possibility. Assuming he does take over, that probably means a new pitch to keep John Tavares. The captain’s done a very good job of staying under the radar, keeping a lid on his future. Someone we do not expect is going to come out of nowhere to take a run at him. It’s purely a guess, but Penguins GM Jim Rutherford is the kind of guy I could see staying up at night figuring out how to do it.
4. Sounds like Edmonton checked in on Ilya Kovalchuk. Not a bad idea, actually. But it won’t happen.
5. Before deciding on Don Waddell as his general manager, Carolina owner Tom Dundon did a phone interview with the Oilers’ vice-president of player development, Scott Howson. Also: It appears that the number of teams contacting the Hurricanes about Jeff Skinner is growing.
6. Rod Brind’Amour says he is going into his new job as Carolina coach “with eyes wide open. (Tom) is the owner, this is his team, and the reports that he’s sticking his nose in everything are 100 per cent accurate. He’s involved, but he puts in the work. We just had our pro meetings, and he was there. He look at things differently, makes us think differently. I appreciate that, working for an owner wants to win.”
Is Brind’Amour, as competitive as it gets, really ready for that post-game phone call when the Hurricanes lose? “He said he wouldn’t do it, but I joked with him, ‘100 per cent you are going to do it.’ If we are 0-for-3 on the power play, you’re going to ask, ‘Why is that guy in that spot?’ And I’m going to have to show him why it won’t work.” He paused. “I get how this is going to go. I know how it ends, I’m not stupid. I want to win, I want the Hurricanes to win and I believe we will. But I just saw a good friend pushed out. It’s not easy, it could happen to me, but it’s worth the opportunity.”
Brind’Amour admitted he looked at social media after the news broke (“I don’t do that often”) and was aware of the criticism. But he got so many positive texts that it erased any doubts. If you’re going to regret passing up a challenge 20 years from now, you have to give it a shot. “That’s exactly how I feel,” he said. “I want to do this.”
7. Best note? Tough call, but he settled on this one: “When Doug Weight got the (Islanders) job, I texted him that ‘You’ve got to be yourself.’ He threw it right back at me.”
8. Brind’Amour said he spent some time with Dundon, showing the owner what the new coach likes about the way certain teams play. (He declined to name those clubs.) In both the media conference and our phone conversation, he said he and predecessor Bill Peters were total opposites, “but we were coached extremely well. That’s why Bill could leave one day, and get a job the next. The way we will be better is by getting a lot of guys to play up to their potential. Elias Lindholm, for example, can score more than 15 goals.”
Several times in our conversation, he discussed higher expectations. In 2006, we did a piece on the eventual Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes, and Brind’Amour — who finished 10th in Hart Trophy voting that year — enjoyed a bigger role, adding he was disappointed it didn’t happen earlier in his career. Asked if there was someone on the current roster who could be the 2018-19 version, he offered high praise for Jordan Staal, who scored 19 times. “In my opinion, he can be Patrice Bergeron. We know he can defend, but there is more offence to him.”
Another fix? Told the Hurricanes had a reputation for not being hard to play against, Brind’Amour agreed. “Some nights, it was painful.”
9. Asked if there was anything he’d borrow from one of his previous coaches, Brind’Amour said he went back through his pro career, including international competition — and counted 17 of them. He thought for a bit, then said, “Peter Laviolette. That’s the mould. He got the most out of us and it was pretty simple how he did it.” OK, how? “Make sure everybody feels important. Make sure everyone’s role feels equally important.” Brind’Amour paused. “That’s a team.”
10. Finally, I reminded him of an exhibition game in Buffalo a few years ago where he went out for warmups and got hit with a puck. I saw him after and asked how he was. (I should have asked how the puck was.) He said it was the one time he watched warmups and it was never happening again. Well, what about now? He didn’t even laugh. “Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.”
11. Whether a family vacation or not, the reaction to Toronto coach Mike Babcock’s visit with Auston Matthews last weekend in Arizona was nearly unanimous: “That was fast.” Normally, coach and player would take a breather, especially since there was an exit interview.
At Dubas’s introductory media conference, Brendan Shanahan was asked if he was worried about it. “No,” he replied with a bit of a laugh. “It’s all part of coaching.” Two calls after the meeting was reported stood out. One former Red Wing said there was “no way” Babcock would have done that years ago, giving him credit for recognizing it was something he needed to do. And, a GM added that he was worried about a potential problem on his own team two years ago, but decided to let coach and player settle for a couple months before arranging a meeting. “By then, it was too late,” he said. “It festered with the player and we couldn’t fix it. If there’s any chance of something being wrong, you have to address it right away.”
12. Glen Gulutzan was mulling over assistant coaching offers from Buffalo and Edmonton last weekend. There were teams who wanted him to run their AHL clubs, but I’m not sure that’s his choice. Think there are also a couple of teams with interest in WHL Swift Current’s Manny Viveiros, also as an assistant. The Broncos lead Everett 3-1 in the league championship. And, after watching several AHL Hershey graduates perform so well for Washington in its victory over Pittsburgh, you have to think Troy Mann ends up on his feet, too. Mann led the Bears bench the last four seasons, but his contract was not renewed.
13. After seven years of working with Sergei Bobrovsky, helping turn a raw talent into one of the best in the NHL, Ian Clark will leave the Columbus Blue Jackets when his contract expires at the end of June. “This is not a negative story,” he said this week. “I’m ready to move on, take on some new challenges. It’s time. Sometimes change is good.”
In the meantime, he will help the organization put together its scouting list for the draft. “There is going to be evolution. There are so many aspects to such a unique position. Sooner or later, teams will have a director of player personnel and a director of goaltending. They are kind of doing it now, but will make it more formal.” Washington did something similar last summer with longtime goalie guru Mitch Korn, and Clark has spoken to him about that.
14. Clark said he was proud of what Bobrovsky accomplished. He would not discuss the conversation where he told the 2013 and 2017 Vezina winner he wasn’t coming back. “That’s private,” he said. “But he will always be able to lean on me. This is just the next chapter.”
Asked about the playoff defeat to Washington, Clark replied, “Everyone has to step forward, including Bob. I expect nothing other than he will continue to climb. He wants to do it. He’s such a competitor. When things aren’t good around him, he tries to do too much, with good intent. He wants to anchor the team, but will work to become more more compact, calmer and trusting of what is going around him. There is no doubt he will still be one of the best.”
On backup Joonas Korpisalo: “He had some really important wins for us, and some really erratic games. He will continue to grow. His raw talent is really high.” Clark added that the Blue Jackets have some prospects to watch, including a couple of Latvians and a Russian. (Columbus doesn’t scrimp on its scouting budget.) “It’s a journey. But all these guys have high ability.”
15. Finally, Clark on the next “big thing” for the position: “In North America and Sweden, there is so much emphasis on technical play that there’s not enough development of competitiveness, or instinct to discover what you can do when your technique breaks down. The Finns, Russians and Czechs have a more athletic way of the game. You have to be creative, not just butterfly and nothing else. This generation of shooters knows to go up and away, they’ve all seen the butterfly and know how to beat it. You need a more effective reaction. Not leaning just on structure, not just athletics. A blend.”
16. Adam Francilia, who has gained positive publicity through his off-season goalie-specific training with Devan Dubnyk and Connor Hellebuyck, is adding two new clients this summer. Michal Neuvirth already told Philadelphia reporters that he’s hired the British Columbia native. Meanwhile, Thomas Greiss, who split with Francilia two years ago, is re-uniting with him. Greiss had a very difficult 2017-18.
17. One NHL executive said his team has done a lot of analytic work on drafting goaltenders. They’ve been warned that the probability of success for goalies from the CHL significantly drops if their save percentage in juniors is below .910. (Some adjustments are made for the QMJHL.) Two outliers? Braden Holtby (.908 when drafted from WHL Saskatoon) and Matt Murray (.876 when selected from OHL Sault Ste. Marie).
18. It’s not a secret that Dallas moved quickly on Jim Montgomery knowing the Rangers were interested, too. But why did Montgomery pick Texas over New York? “Out of respect for the Rangers, I’m going to be careful with that,” he said Thursday. “I enjoyed interviewing with Glen Sather, Jeff Gorton and Chris Drury.”
Would it be fair to say that Dallas is closer to winning? “I would say that the No. 1 reason was Jim Nill,” he answered. “In our two interviews, he was very confident how to build, how to continue, what he has and where they are going. That was my first question, what are your expectations? He said they want to win, are at the peak of our window for next two-to-five years. It was matter-of-fact, not selling, but what he believes. He’s elite at what he does, no BS, here’s what we are doing and where we are going. That’s the way I am wired, not cliché lines. If we lose a game, I’m going to explain why. Everybody deserves to know why we lose.”
He made so many calls to learn about Nill and the Stars that it led to the leaks about his hiring. What did he learn? “The most important relationship you have is with your GM … you’ve got to be on the same page. They told me I wouldn’t find a better person. Every organization has warts, but if you have good ownership and a good GM, you will do well. Dallas has that.”
19. Who did he call? Montgomery is tight with Los Angeles’ John Stevens. He also spoke to Edmonton’s Todd McLellan and Babcock.
“Todd never told me what I should do. He always said, ‘This is what I would ask or I would do if I was in your position.’ Mike said to get ready for the grind. It’s time to come to the big leagues and everybody works as hard as you do, or harder.”
20. Montgomery has a very interesting seven-step “process” that he pushed to be successful at the University of Denver. (More information here.) They are: 50 hits in a game; win 60 per cent of faceoffs; give up three or less odd-man rushes; commit to blocking shots; win the special-teams battle; win the net-front battle; take zero undisciplined penalties.
“A couple of those won’t be necessary. I will probably have four mainstays and rotate the others. If you’re not committed to blocking shots, you shouldn’t be in the league. Fifty hits? That’s crazy, never in the NHL. Besides, it’s more about being in the right position, making sure your opponent can’t go through you to get to the net. But three or less odd-man rushes, win the special teams and win net-front? Those matter.” (The regular-season high for hits this season was 45, by Montreal against Carolina.)
21. How much video of the Stars had he watched before getting hired? “I was making calls more than watching games. People I respect, I was asking them, ‘What do they have and what are they are missing?’ The answer was, ‘What they have you can’t coach, what they are missing, you can.’ I’m confident we can have a successful run.”
So, what does it mean to say, “What they are missing, you can (coach)?”
“It’s not Xs and Os,” Montgomery answered. “You look at the structure Ken Hitchcock put in. They were (tied for sixth) in goals against. They have that. Every coach has ways of creating a culture, an awareness of how to become an elite team.”
What are some of his? “The most important part of coaching is that the homework starts right after a game. The next day, when we review the game … I’ve never had a problem admitting mistakes I’ve made, whether it is game planning, bench management, controlling emotions with refs, analyzing how I might have done better. When coaches are not going right at you, ‘You did this, you did that,’ it helps a group understands they are in it together.”
That’s not to say Montgomery will be a soft touch. He had lunch last week with captain Jamie Benn. “I told him to be himself, not do things because I say so, but because he is compelled to buy in. Great captains think team first, and that’s why they are captains. If your best players are the hardest on themselves, the most accountable, everybody else falls in line. If I can be hard on Benn in the first, I can be hard on everyone the rest of the game. The right leaders want to be held accountable.”
22. Who paid for lunch? “I did,” Montgomery laughed. “But that’s the last time, because I know what he makes.”
23. Among the other Stars he’s met with: Ben Bishop, Martin Hanzal, Tyler Pitlick and Jason Spezza. He’s spoken with Dan Hamhuis and Tyler Seguin, and will see them face-to-face when they get back to Dallas. “I’m not bothering the guys at the worlds, they are trying to win medals.” I was curious about Spezza, who went through a hard year. “I told him, ‘I like to play with the puck, and you like to play with the puck. Whatever happened last year or the last two years, you’ve had a great career, and I expect you to be at that level.’ Fire in someone’s belly is an incredible motivator, and we’ll see the best version of Jason Spezza we’ve seen in awhile.”
24. Sounds like one of Dallas’ other interviewees was its AHL coach, Derek Laxdal.
25. The Rangers were interested in Montgomery, which is why Dallas snapped him up quickly. Do not be surprised if New York’s next bench boss has never coached in the NHL before. You are always looking for connections, which is why Boston University’s David Quinn is a prominent mention. Here’s another: In 2015, the Oshawa Generals won the Memorial Cup. Adam Graves, who works for the Rangers in hockey and business operations, has an ownership stake in that team. The coach was D.J. Smith, now an assistant in Toronto.
26. The Kings posted a job for a senior analyst in the hockey operations department. “In our organization, we have different pockets from where our information comes from,” GM Rob Blake said. “Some of it comes from companies we hire as consultants. Some it from coaches. We do a lot of manual tracking. When a goal is scored, how did it originate? Now, we are studying that with other teams. What we want is to have someone streamline all of that, make it easier to read and define, more user-friendly. Can you take information from 10 different sources and put it together? Do you have the background to help us with new ideas?”
The new hire will work under executive vice-president of hockey operations and legal affairs Jeff Solomon, who told Blake there is already plenty of interest. The new employee will also come under the purvey of the Kings’ business department, because similar information will be incorporated into ticket sales and marketing. “Dean (Lombardi) was very good with me on this. Come up with your vision, check the analytics. If it matches … great. If not, do more work.”
27. Blake said the Kings are also getting deeper into individual players. Their staff is very interested in looking at things like, “How much time does Anze Kopitar have his puck on the stick in the offensive zone? And, how does that compare to Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon? The more he has it on his stick, we’d be better off.”
28. Blake on what he learned in his first season as a GM: “About the GM’s schedule. When calls take place, what window of time they decide to make the moves they do, but especially how to manage the amateur and pro aspect. I was with the big club 90 per cent of the time, 10 per cent with the amateurs. I asked a lot of other GMs their structure in that. It’s impossible to do 50/50 with our travel, but I’ve been around the big club here the last 20 years, so I’m more comfortable with it.”
He laughed. “It’s not so easy to make a deal. When we played, we’d sit around after practice and make trades all the time. It’s a lot of work, but doing this job everyday, working to get better, there’s no better feeling.”
29. Finally, there were some rumblings the Kings were moving along with Drew Doughty. Blake said the heavy lifting will come in June. “This won’t surprise anyone, but I sat down with him 1-on-1 after the season and outlined our plan for the next four to five years. We want him here, and he knows how much.”
30. At this week’s AHL meetings, league president Dave Andrews extended his stay another year, through June 2020. Queen Elizabeth II is approaching 66 years. Andrews might make a run at that.
31. Last week, the WHL held its bantam draft in Red Deer, Alta. Edmonton had the first pick, and the Oil Kings selected forward Dylan Guenther. What stood out was the organization asked one of its scouts, Scott Thomas, to make the selection. Scott’s son, Evan, was a victim in the Humboldt bus tragedy.
“Pretty emotional in the room,” another executive said. Small things are big things, and that was good of the Oil Kings to do.
32. One of our NHL producers at Sportsnet is Winnipeg-born Josh Wilder. Two months after the Jets departed for Arizona in 1996, he left for Toronto. He still loves his Blue Bombers, and, like most Manitobans, dreamed of the day his Jets would return. Several years ago, he was selling his downtown Toronto condo. A buyer from Edmonton showed up to take a look. Wilder jokingly mentioned how much he hated the Alberta capital, because the Oilers tortured the Jets so many times in the old Smythe Division. The man’s hat was pulled down, temporarily preventing Josh from realizing that he was speaking to Kevin Lowe.
Friday morning, Wilder and all Winnipeggers woke up in an unfamiliar position. They were in the Western Conference Final for the first time ever. I called Josh and asked him for a quote. “I don’t even know what to say,” he answered. “I can’t process this right now.”
Congratulations, Jets fans. You earned it.
33. My big break into the business was as a Fan 590 radio reporter covering the Raptors as they entered the NBA. It was not unusual for my media row seat to be next to advance scouts from other teams. I never bothered these people. I always admired how good they were at catching every tiny detail of each play, plotting all movement on a small diagram of half the floor.
One night, Seattle’s sleuth plopped down next to me. He introduced himself and asked what I did. He then asked if wanted to learn a little more about the game. As a big basketball fan, I knew Dwane Casey because of the Kentucky scandal. He had to work, so he only spent about five minutes explaining things he was looking for, but what an education it was. Very sorry to see the greatest coach in franchise history let go.