The more things change, the more they stay the same. And with little to no turnover in key positions of influence on both the league and player sides, the names at the top of this year’s edition of the Power 25 will look familiar to many.
The focus of this year’s list is opportunities for improvement and growth. Which owners are positioned to make change and improve their place in their market and in the league? Which players have a chance to set new bars on the ice and in contract negotiations? Who has a chance to change the course of a franchise, or even change how the game is played? As the NHL finishes its first 100 years and embarks on the next, these are the names who will have impact in 2018 and beyond.
It’s a fun exercise to create the list. I can only hope you enjoy reading it.
Read, Digest, Argue, Enjoy.
Walsh is Octagon’s most vocal agent, and the most active, outspoken hockey agent on Twitter. His clients include Marc-André Fleury and Jonathan Drouin, both of whom appear to be key members of their respective teams. He’s not afraid to push back against front offices on behalf of his clients but also has a softer side, and his loyalty to his players is unwavering. He’s taken on the NHL’s head office in defence of players’ rights and has been one of Donald Fehr’s biggest backers. If and when the NHLPA executive director departs, you’d expect Walsh to be part of the conversation as a potential successor.
The Devils general manager has shown patience and creativity in rebuilding New Jersey into a force in the Metro Division. His ability to adapt to the changing NHL has shown he has many of the qualities that made his father one of the smartest hockey men in the game. No longer playing low-key, defence-first hockey, Shero’s Devils have become a must-watch speed group on any night of the week. And his patience and vision in keeping John Hynes behind the bench has proven to be a wise non-move. With a few lingering fingerprints on the Penguins’ back-to-back Stanley Cups, Shero can also take pride in the fact that he could be on the way to building another championship-calibre team.
Is it any coincidence that two of most experienced managers in the NHL, both unafraid to make changes to their rosters, got to last season’s Stanley Cup Final? I think not. While they’ll tell you it helps to have a bit of luck, both David and Jim have the confidence to move core players in order to improve in the short term. Rutherford now has three Cups to his credit; Poile’s longevity in Washington and Nashville are testaments to his ability to build winning programs. The salary cap forces teams to constantly change rosters without making glaring mistakes through trades or the draft. These two gentlemen understand that balancing act better than most. Would a Nashville-Pittsburgh rematch in the Cup Final really surprise anyone?
Many thought appointing a former enforcer to lead the Department of Player Safety was a classic case of putting the fox in the henhouse. But Parros has proved consistent in his rulings and has been a big part of the crackdown on stick violations that — along with Stephen Walkom’s referees enforcements — has truly opened up the middle of the ice, increasing power plays, scoring and the ability of even the smallest players to perform in front of the net. The Princeton-educated Parros’s knowledge of the game, and his appreciation of the need to protect skill players has made him a huge asset to the New York office.
The frustration around the Oilers’ performance does not diminish what McDavid has accomplished, and what he now represents. On July 1, No. 97 will become the game’s highest-paid player, and as predicted in last year’s Power 25, his contract has already had a huge influence throughout the league. McDavid’s deal has already helped Jack Eichel and Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl, and both Auston Matthews and John Tavares are guaranteed to enjoy the residue of McDavid’s financial success. He continues to astound on the ice, where his acceleration appears to be improving — as hard as that is to believe. His pure natural ability is now combined with a body that looks to be filling out more every game. His pass-first mentality is worth keeping an eye on — the crowds at Rogers Place imploring him to shoot may be right — but at this point his recipe for success and point-production seems to be working. Now if only his teammates could keep up with the game’s next great player.
Both Senators’ owner Melnyk and Islanders’ co-owner Malkin are in need of new home arenas to help guarantee their franchises’ long-term stability and viability, but that seems to be where the similarities end. Melnyk’s candid comments about the Sens and his frustration about not selling out Canadian Tire Centre haven’t endeared him to Ottawa fans. Meanwhile, Malkin has always let his partner, Jon Ledecky, be the face of ownership in Brooklyn, and I’m not sure Islanders fans could pick the real estate magnate out of a lineup. Malkin hopes moving to the new arena and rolling out a winning product on the ice will restore the Islanders to their former glory. Melnyk’s ongoing negotiations with the National Capital Commission, aimed at a new arena on reclaimed land downtown, are finally starting to show signs of progress. However, as his team flounders the owner’s frustration is only matched by that of a fan base that doesn’t believe Melnyk shares their interests.
The Tampa Bay Lightning owner has turned his team into a model franchise, and hosting All-Star Weekend is another reward for that success. When the league courts new owners, I fully expect Vinik is one of their favourite case studies. He is also now part of the ultra-exclusive executive committee, the group of owners Gary Bettman relies on for information and influence. Hiring Steve Yzerman as GM, certainly hasn’t hurt, but it may not have paid the dividends it did if Vinik had been unable to avoid meddling in Yzerman’s world — another lesson potential owners would do well to learn.
Unlike the men, the world’s best female players will go head-to-head for Olympic Gold. When the Games begin in February, the battle between Canada and the U.S. in women’s hockey will be one of the best storylines. Poulin, Canada’s captain, is probably the best player in the world today, and was a huge part of Canada’s gold medals in Vancouver and Sochi. Duggan, as American captain, was hugely involved in the potential players’ boycott at the 2017 world championship. A Canada-USA gold medal game is almost guaranteed next month, and so is a head-to-head matchup between Poulin and Duggan.
In addition to the three teams that play at MSG (the Rangers, Knicks and Liberty), Dolan owns a cable sports network that covers four NHL teams as well as his own sports properties. He is also an investor in Oak View Group, which is in the middle of the arena projects being designed and constructed in Seattle and Elmont, New York. While he’s not nearly as visible on the Rangers beat as he is with the Knicks, his passion for building a championship hockey team still burns.
CAA’s top hockey agent has a busy summer ahead of him. John Tavares and Auston Matthews are clients and both are destined to push the NHL’s salary envelope. Like McDavid’s last year, those deals will help set the bar for future negotiations. With the star power outside of hockey that CAA offers worldwide, Brisson has a prestigious, influential base from which to work. The Summer of ’18 could easily be seen as his shining moment.
The NHL’s director of officiating has always wanted to create a team of officials, just like any NHL GM selects players and coaches. Working toward that goal, he has built a deep, far-reaching farm system that recruits former players into the striped ranks — complete with an annual combine to find the best and the brightest. Walkom has also helped institute new rule interpretations that have allowed for more power plays, more scoring chances, more slashing penalties and a lot less fear for any player headed to the front of the net. He fought for, and won, the right for referees and linesmen to be involved in video review challenges. A calm and relaxed manager, he brings a great understanding of both the rules in the book and what the players go through to play the game.
If they don’t sign with their respective teams after July 1, Doughty and Erik Karlsson will be the two biggest free agents available in the summer of 2019. Even though he loves playing in SoCal, Doughty has talked about signing elsewhere, and Toronto has been on his list. The L.A. defenceman is not afraid to make waves, and has been transparent about his desire to sign for as much money as the system will allow him. Remember his last contract negotiation? It wasn’t resolved until days, even hours, before the regular season began, and the Kings gave him almost everything he needed. Doughty likes to win. And I suspect he will win again with his next contract. In the meantime, he won’t shy away from talking about it.
While no one will admit it, the success of the Vegas Golden Knights has accelerated the NHL’s thinking about adding a 32nd team. When it does — at an increase of $150 million over the $500 million Foley paid — McPhee’s approach to last year’s expansion draft will be the blueprint the next team follows, though his results will be difficult to duplicate. The GM’s ability to leverage his potential draft list into greater assets (players and picks) has put the Golden Knights in an enviable position for years to come, all while still icing a team that plays upbeat, entertaining, winning hockey. Las Vegas was always a top travel destination, now it’s on the verge of being considered a top-notch hockey town.
One of those owners with both hockey and basketball franchises, Tanenbaum has the ability to share best practices between the court and the rink for the betterment of all. A member of the executive committee, he could probably drive a much more pro-Leafs agenda on many issues, but his league-first mentality has been instrumental in assuring that all 31 clubs share in the growth of the game across the continent. Tanenbaum’s gentle demeanour hides a burning desire for his team to win the Stanley Cup, while simultaneously growing the business for MLSE and his NHL partners.
The special assistant to NHLPA executive director Don Fehr has a massive role in providing the players a voice at the table with the NHL and protecting their rights. For example, the five-day bye was instituted at his insistence, as was the mandatory four days off a month. Schneider played almost 1,300 games in the NHL for 10 different teams and that experience certainly influences his approach to the union and its day-to-day relationship with the league. He has done a masterful job helping Donald Fehr understand the realities of professional hockey. In turn, I’m sure Fehr has helped Schneider hone his negotiating skills as a sports labour executive.
While his role has changed somewhat in the past few years, Campbell continues to be the first call for all 31 general managers on hockey logistics and day-to-day game management, as well as an excellent sounding board for teams and league executives on topics too numerous to mention. His group, led by Mike Murphy, watches and reports on every one the NHL’s games. The knowledge that gives Campbell, coupled with his desire to be fair and transparent, makes him a tremendous resource. Every aspect of rules interpretations, coaches’ challenges and video review have Campbell’s thinking behind them. Still very much on the inside of Bettman’s core group of advisors, Campbell provides a strong non-New York voice in any conversation about growing the game and improving the on-ice product.
When Gretzky returned to the Oilers, many weren’t sure of the role he’d take on in Edmonton. But in recent weeks, as the team’s tailspin continued, it’s been clear that Gretzky (along with CEO Bob Nicholson) has calmed the waters in the eyes of owner Daryl Katz. Gretzky has unbelievable common sense when it comes to the game of hockey and how it should be played and managed. He was a voice of reason during the McDavid contract talks last summer, and has assumed many of the responsibilities of hockey royalty since the passing of Gordie Howe. In a business that has a tendency to repeat itself, his knowledge and passion are huge assets for the Oilers and the NHL.
Tavares will garner a ton of interest on both sides of the border if he hasn’t signed an extension with New York by July. The Islanders are the only team that can offer him eight years, but beyond that Tavares holds all the cards and it’s possible he could become the league’s highest paid player. It’s interesting that Tavares was part of the team’s announcement of its potential new arena on Long Island, because many assumed the new building was key to their chances of re-signing the captain. Tavares has recently told reporters of his desire to remain with the team, but here we are in January and the “will he, won’t he” storyline still dwarfs any about the arena, the team or its playoff possibilities.
With the passing of the great Mike Ilitch, his son, Chris, has assumed a larger role within the Red Wings organization. And while the on-ice product is still finding its way, the inaugural season at Little Caesars Arena can only be described as spectacular. Top of Ilitch’s to-do list has to be deciding whether or not to renew Ken Holland’s contract. If he chooses not to bring the GM back, Ilitch has to ensure any new hire has the passion and savvy Holland has shown since his first days on the job for the Wings in the 1980s. Returning the club to championship form, one befitting such a glorious new rink, has to keep Ilitch up at night.
Edwards has become a huge Canadian voice among NHL ownership. During the last CBA discussions, he could often be seen walking in stride with Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and outside counsel Bob Batterman, and he follows in the footsteps of the late, great Harley Hotchkiss, whose share of the Flames he purchased to gain control of the team. Edwards is presently embroiled in a public dispute over a new arena with the City of Calgary and its mayor. No one doubts the Flames have outgrown the 34-year-old Saddledome, but who should pay for a new home is up for discussion — or would be if both sides weren’t refusing to discuss the process right now. Edwards is said to be angry enough to consider moving the team, and could do so with the commissioner’s blessing. Make no mistake, Edwards is the major player for the Flames and has a vital role in the NHL as a whole.
Already well-known to Canadian sports fans, Leiweke is now the CEO of Oak View Group, an all-encompassing arena sports and entertainment company. He and his partners have fostered a renovated arena in Seattle and been identified as the preferred partner on the new Long Island arena. Leiweke’s ingenuity, aggressive public relations style and pure sports business knowledge have put him in a position to create new opportunities, like the one in Seattle, and help existing venues grow and prosper all over North America. His work with the L.A. Kings helped put two Stanley Cup banners in Staples Center, and his aggressive style in Toronto put the Maple Leafs back among playoff-bound teams.
While he’s maintained a much lower profile in the past year for personal reasons, the NHLPA’s executive director is still a key voice in the relationship between the NHL and its players. With the next round of collective bargaining potentially starting as early as the fall of 2020, Fehr continues to work closely with PA staff and the players’ executive committee to grow the business side of the game. And while he was most assuredly disappointed with the NHL’s final Olympic decision, you can only imagine Fehr will continue to be aggressive on behalf of the players’ on the international stage.
The IIHF president had a frustrating 2017, but Fasel continues to be the face of the game internationally. His ability to manage the egos and philosophies of the most powerful hockey countries in the world can only be described as brilliant, and the strategic alliances he’s created to grow the game and maintain his position within it could be used as case studies in leadership and survival at any businesss school. The upcoming Olympics just might become a positive story for Fasel. His role in finding a way around the Russian sanctions may have saved the men’s tournament — not just for Russian born athletes, but also for KHLers from other countries. And if China is seen as a growing market and tremendously valuable for the NHL, the governing body of the sport worldwide, and its head, have a crucial place in the future of the game.
As has been the case for years, Daly is the NHL’s lead on relations with the players’ union and on the international file. He also has a great deal of influence in the Department of Player Safety. Daly is approachable and calm in times of trouble; he has an analytical mind and unsurpassed attention to detail. He also appears to be comfortable in a position that won’t be changing for the foreseeable future — a key to his success.
Man, this is getting boring: For the third year in a row, the NHL commissioner tops this list. And (no insult to others on the list) the gap between No. 1 and the rest is widening. The Centennial, Vegas, potential future expansion, revenue growth — all the signs are positive for the commissioner as 2018 begins. Bettman faces challenges in Calgary and Ottawa, but he’s played a role in mediating between governments and teams before. There is no doubt that support for Bettman at the board level is at an all-time high. Even the controversial decision not to participate in the Olympics hasn’t shaken the support of NHL ownership. And by the way, he appears to be enjoying himself more than ever. Bettman is visible. He is available. And he certainly creates the impression that he’s up for the challenge of a new CBA and a new TV deal in the United States at the turn of the next decade.
There are plenty of people who play a crucial role in moulding the game we watch and enjoy, but who didn’t make the top 25. The Watchlist features current and future power brokers who will make some noise in 2018.
Luukko, who helped build Comcast Spectacor into a great company to work for and reconstructed the Panthers’ arena deal, is quietly using his influence for the Oak View Group. He might be the best fixer of all time.
The man behind Seattle’s expansion bid has been hovering around the NHL for more than 20 years. He and his partners are well on their way to owning the NHL’s 32nd team.
Not too long ago, Karlsson was being discussed alongside McDavid and Crosby. After surgery in the summer, he’s been slow to bounce back, but you have to know in the next 18 months he is expected to make tons of noise — and get the money he deserves.
MLSE’s chief commercial officer has built the brand beyond the ice in a way advertisers can’t ignore. The $800-million arena naming-rights deal with Scotiabank speaks to that. In many ways, Hopkinson and his group have been winning far longer than the teams they market.
The challenges of a world juniors on the West Coast in 2018, an Olympic Games with non-NHLers and a need to grow participation rates in the sport will keep the president and COO of Hockey Canada hopping. His low-key, analytical approach will be an asset for the governing body.
You have to wonder how the new owner of the Carolina Hurricanes will make his mark in Raleigh with a team Ron Francis has done a very good job constructing. Sometimes the best move a new owner can make is no move at all.
White, the NHL’s group vice president of international strategy, now executes a great deal of her own plans, rather than those of others. Her strong organizational skills and positive demeanour have made her a huge NHL asset.
The Golden Knights assistant GM, who has great junior hockey insights and has just been through the expansion process, will have to be at the top of any list of potential GMs.
The head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic team is a former college and NHL goalie who has been patient homing his craft behind the bench. Will South Korea launch his career the way Sochi did for Kevin Dineen?
The son of broadcaster Joe Micheletti is charged with putting a USHL team in suburban St Louis. He’s already been the league’s director of hockey operations and president of the Lincoln Stars. When will he make the jump from the juniors to the show? Probably sooner than later.
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