Opinions about the Maple Leafs’ hiring of Lou Lamoriello range from “Hockey Hall of Fame genius,” to “yesterday’s man.”
Actually, “yesterday’s man” might be a kind way of framing it and “genius” has been attached to a few who can’t claim three Stanley Cups championships.
That opinions vary so extremely is to be expected—when you last three decades on a job, through good times and lean ones, people are going to attach themselves to aspects of your legacy that they prefer and ignore everything else. Especially anything that contradicts what they choose to believe going in.
With regard to Lamoriello’s New Jersey Devils teams, the unavoidable fact is that the lean times have been the more recent times. Some will say that Lamoriello never adjusted to the imposition of the salary cap.
They’ll point to the Devils record since 2005: six playoff appearances in 10 seasons, an unlikely trip to the Cup finals from a low seed in 2012, but only two other series wins in that stretch. Okay, granted, Leaf fans would gladly trade that level of mediocrity for the decade they’ve suffered through, but the record looks mediocre at face value.
Some will claim that Lamoriello’s and the Devils’ fall were the effect of Lamoriello failing to adapt to the new rules laid out in the collective agreement. Really, though, it just seems to be a matter of timing and coincidence.
In fact, you would have thought that Lamoriello should have had no trouble adjusting to the salary-cap era simply because he had lived with a hard ceiling imposed by owner John McMullen for years. When his Devils won their first Cup in 1995, their payroll was in the bottom third of the league. And Lamoriello didn’t push McMullen to loosen the purse strings. No, the GM fully embraced the idea of economy victory—I’m pretty sure that any champagne spilled in the Devils’ dressing room was pulled out of discount bins.
After that first Cup, Lamoriello played contract hardball with Claude Lemieux, the Conn Smythe winner, before trading him to Colorado rather than feel squeezed in negotiations. By the Devils’ third Stanley Cup victory in 2003, their payroll was the league’s eighth highest ($20-million or so behind the Rangers), though probably only that high due to big tickets due Martin Brodeur and Scott Stevens.
Again, when the salary cap came in ‘05, it wasn’t really Lamoriello making a big adjustment so much as the pillars of the league establishment having to learn to live with the rules that Lamoriello had worked under for years.
Yet there did seem to be a change in Lamoriello’s and the Devils’ fortunes in the wake of the lockout.
Instead of playing hardball like he had with Lemieux and countless others, Lamoriello threw big numbers at players who provided no value to the cause: the perpetual enigma Vladimir Malakhov; the fading Alexander Mogilny; and Dan McGillis, erstwhile journeyman coming off his last, best season. Malakhov wound up in some sort of limbo between leave of absence and retirement, while Mogilny and McGillis became the highest priced members of the Albany River Rats.
Yeah, there were a few awful contracts in those early days in the then new salary cap era but it would be hard to come up with a cluster as painful as those three. The Devils made it into the second round of the playoffs that spring but how much better would they have been if the money committed to those three had been better spent?
The GM who seemed the least likely to be a trail-blazer in burying salaries in the AHL would have been Lamoriello, but that’s part of the legacy that those who side with “genius” will ignore. To an even greater extent, Lamoriello went all in on Ilya Kovalchuk.
Again, if anyone had asked you at the start of the salary-cap era which spendthrift GM would devise a method for cap circumvention Lamoriello’s name would never have come up. When Lamoriello got a little too cute with the original 17-year deal he submitted to the league, he wound up fined and penalized with a loss of draft picks.
Lamoriello wound up getting a modified deal through and the league in time mitigated the penalties but still, when Kovalchuk “retired” from the NHL to jump to the KHL, you had to wonder if the entire exercise had been worthwhile, a trip to the final notwithstanding.
Kovalchuk didn’t represent an error in talent evaluation in the way that Malakhov, Mogilny and McGillis did. Kovalchuk was and probably is one of the 10 most gifted players in the game. He definitely had gas in the tank when Lamoriello brought him over from Atlanta (at seemingly a pretty decent price in trade).
Still, Lamoriello had to have misread Kovalchuk’s commitment. The GM had gone out to get a franchise player, made the playoffs in one out of three seasons with the big ticket in the lineup and was back at square one awaiting postcards from St Petersburg.
Lamoriello made some shrewd judgments over time. He saw value in Russian players back when they were considered poison. His selection of coaches in the ’90s and 2000s was inspired—three Cups came with three different coaches (Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Pat Burns).
And if anyone thought the firing of Robbie Ftorek on the eve of the 2000 playoffs was reckless and unwarranted, it seemed prescient when Robinson raised the Cup a few weeks later. Yet the turnover in the last decade hasn’t produced much in the way of success and it seemed to hit its nadir in the spring of ’07 when Lamoriello gassed Claude Julien with three games to go and took his place behind the bench.
Not that the selection of a head coach will be a concern with Mike Babcock under contract, but still, does any of this really befit a genius?
I’m sure that Lou Lamoriello would bristle at being labeled a genius. Likewise, he’d hate being thought of as yesterday’s man. He’s moving into an environment unlike any he had worked in with the Devils. In Toronto there seem to be a lot of voices in the executive suites and in Jersey there was only Lou’s.
There was never anything so secondary in hockey as being Lamoriello’s second banana.
How he’ll do as the head of the management committee, well, that required another type of genius that he’s never had to display and has absolutely nothing to draw on from yesterday.