TORONTO – A job title may not tell you much about a person, but it tends to say a fair bit about the company he or she works for.
So even if Mark Hunter’s promotion to assistant general manager was viewed as nothing more than a “formality” by the Toronto Maple Leafs, that in itself provided a pretty strong statement about his place in an ever-evolving front office.
This is a world seldom even glimpsed from the outside. Beyond a general division of roles, it is largely unknown how things function with 73-year-old GM Lou Lamoriello at the head of a table which includes Hunter, 30-year-old AGM Kyle Dubas and salary cap expert Brandon Pridham.
Observers have essentially been left to interpret what each personnel decision might say about how the sphere of influence is shifting or changing. Only those on the inside truly know.
From afar, it’s been clear for some time that Hunter’s stock was high – it was he, not Lamoriello, that called Auston Matthews to the podium with the first pick at June’s draft – but in changing his title from director of player personnel we got an even stronger sense of just how valued he is.
Lamoriello was effusive in his praise. During a Monday night appearance on “Prime Time Sports,” he indicated that he can’t remember a day going by all season where the two didn’t talk.
“He’s become more important each and every day,” said Lamoriello. “I have tremendous respect for him. There’s no one in our organization that doesn’t look at him – with his experience, his eye for talent – and for me his most important quality is he can read players and has an opinion and doesn’t mind if that opinion turns one way or the other. Certainly always want it to be right, but he gives his opinion – and that’s what you need from everyone.
“Not everyone is going to agree in anything that is done, but you need strong people and he’s strong; character, I can’t say enough about him.”
Hunter’s work ethic, in particular, has made a strong impression on colleagues. Few executives get on the road and watch more games. He also boasts an impressive network of contacts throughout the industry.
What can’t be ignored with any shift at the top levels of the Leafs organization is the assumption Lamoriello isn’t long for the GM’s job. He’s early in the second year of a three-year contract and is due to turn 74 in October.
Dubas has long been viewed as his eventual successor – “I think he’s a young fellow who has tremendous abilities,” Lamoriello said after being hired in July 2015. “I know him, his background. If he doesn’t become a GM here, I’m not going to be here for a lifetime, it’s going to be his fault” – and there’s no reason to believe that’s changed.
But it’s an unknown, like so much else in a Lamoriello-run operation.
He now has an equal in terms of how the organization is structured – with Hunter continuing to oversee the scouting and player evaluation departments, while Dubas focuses on development by serving as GM of the Toronto Marlies and heading up the analytics research group.
Even though the Leafs have arguably the largest front office setup in the NHL, this structure isn’t entirely unique. Almost one-third of teams feature two assistant general managers, which is why too much can’t be read into Hunter’s promotion.
It is, however, a public statement about his current standing with the franchise and represented the biggest news from the team on a busy day where it signed backup goalie Jhonas Enroth to a $750,000, one-year contract and finalized tryout agreements with veteran NHL forward Brandon Prust and undrafted defenceman Raman Hrabarenka.
By bumping Hunter up to AGM the Leafs also ensured that the only way he can be poached by a rival team while still under contract is if someone comes knocking with a promotion to GM or a president-type role. Otherwise, he’ll be staying in Toronto for the foreseeable future.
“I think it was a formality and a recognition at the same time of who Mark Hunter is and what he brings to the organization and how important he is,” said Lamoriello.
That part has never been more clear.