32 Thoughts: The real question facing new Maple Leafs GM Brad Treliving

Ryan Smith, part-owner of Real Salt Lake, speaks during a news conference announcing the return of the Utah Royals to the National Women's Soccer League. (Ryan Sun/AP)

Ryan Smith wants you to know something. 

“My message has been consistent to Gary (Bettman) and Bill (Daly). Look, we’re a willing partner. We’re here. We’re ready.” 

Smith, chairman of Smith Entertainment Group and owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz and MLS’s Real Salt Lake, met NHL commissioner Bettman for dinner in March in New York City. In an interview on the 32 Thoughts podcast, Smith made it very clear he lusts for an NHL team in the Beehive State. 

“When you get older, you say, ‘Hey, what are the things I’m really passionate about?’ I’m passionate about my family. I’m passionate about my faith. I’m passionate about golf. I’m passionate about my alma mater (Brigham Young University). And I’m passionate about my state,” Smith said. 

Would he prefer relocation (hint, hint) or expansion? 

Smith pointed to the Vegas Golden Knights, in their second Stanley Cup Final in their six-year existence, and the Seattle Kraken, who played 14 playoff games in only their second season. 

“Vegas, Seattle,” he said. “That’s a playbook to how to do (expansion). But we’re ready to go. We’ve already made that decision, we’re here to help.” 

In 2002, Smith co-founded the company Qualtrics with a group that included his father. In a 2021 Harvard Business Review article, he wrote Qualtrics “started as a single-product survey company used primarily by academics to conduct research. … But by the early 2010s, we had evolved into a multi-product company helping organizations manage customer experience, employee insights and market research.” 

Twenty-one years later, he’s playing with Rickie Fowler in the pro-am of the Jack Nicklaus-created Memorial PGA Tour stop — in front of 20,000 people. 

“Stephen Curry was right behind us, that might have had something to do with it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m a junkie. I love sports. I grew up playing everything.” 

A self-described “late bloomer,” Smith taught English in South Korea before attending BYU, where he met his wife, Ashley. She is very involved in his sports empire, listed as co-owner of the Jazz. They have five children, ages six to 15. 

“When I came into the NBA, that was probably one of the first questions I got: ‘What’s your style? Who you going to be?’” he said. “I’ve been a founder of a company, in leadership for a long time, and there’s only one style. That’s you. I’m not someone else. I’m Ryan. That’s who I am, good and bad, you get it all. We’re just trying to do the best that we can, with every decision that we make. I don’t know everything, just trying to surround myself with really smart people who are fun to work with and want to do big things. That’s how I view the world. 

“I always try to listen and be in learning mode,” Smith added. 

One of his MLS partners is David Blitzer, co-owner of the New Jersey Devils. (“I love Blitz,” he says.) He’s friendly with Wayne Gretzky, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper and Carolina owner Tom Dundon: “Most of it through golf.” 

Struggling through the Jazz’s decision to trade NBA All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert after back-to-back division titles, Smith told an awesome story about Gretzky, who said to him, “The organizations I wasn’t part of (after I was traded) survived.”  

The Jazz fell to 37-45 this season, 12th in the Western Conference and 11 spots lower than two seasons ago. Despite that, their sellout streak is at 251 consecutive games. The plan may have changed, but the fan loyalty hasn’t. 

“We’re the fastest-growing state with the No. 1 economy on the U.S., and we have been one of the fastest-growing states for a long time,” he said. “It’s really shined a light on who we are and what we’ve become. If you really take a look at what we offer as a state, you’ve got that growth and you also have what I would call the winter sports capital of the world.” 

Salt Lake City is expected to host the Winter Olympics in 2030 or 2034. A new arena is going to be a part of that, as the current hockey setup at Vivant Arena is limited to about 14,000 fans.  

But one thing Smith would not divulge: the potential team name.  

“I can’t give away all my secrets,” he said, laughing. 

“Basketball was the first part of (Smith Entertainment Group). We just see hockey fitting in perfectly. We think the market is going to be as receptive as you’ve seen in Seattle and Las Vegas. 

“That’s where the interest comes from and that’s where we’re at.” 

I’d recommend listening to the entire interview, as Smith discusses much more about himself, his plans for the NHL and desire to grow the game locally, as the Jazz have done for basketball through their successful Junior Jazz program. Smith wants to join the NHL and, to be perfectly blunt, the NHL wants him. When we first heard about the dinner meeting, the source was someone who made it very clear they wanted to build momentum for Smith “because the NHL needs people like him in the game.” 

“You’re getting someone who cares deeply, deeply, deeply about their state,” Smith said. “Almost to a fault. I care deeply about this community. I can easily see a world where my kids have grown up and look back: ‘Holy cow, Utah. This should have happened years ago.’” 

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And now, some other thoughts. 

1. In a similar vein, it wouldn’t be a shocker if the NHL wants an Ottawa sale announcement before Bettman delivers his annual Stanley Cup state-of-the-union address before Game 1 on Saturday. It would be a positive development. A couple of banking sources wondered about the possibility the announced purchase price could be above $1 billion. We’ll see. Predicting this process is a fool’s game. After “Succession” ended, stats man supreme Stan Nieradka wondered if Kendall Roy would make a bid. “He’s got money, and nothing to do.” 

2. On Alex DeBrincat and the idea of “cut-rate” arbitration: If a team elects to go through this process, it can argue for a salary reduction — which can’t be lower than 85 per cent of the previous season’s salary. When New Jersey traded for Timo Meier, multiple sources said they believed that’s exactly what the Devils would do if: a) they kept the winger in 2023-24 and b) he hadn’t signed an extension. So, in theory, Meier could drop from $10 million in 2022-23 to $8.5 million, and DeBrincat from $9 million to $7.65 million. Colorado went down this road with Ryan O’Reilly in 2014, before agreeing on a two-year extension. (The first season of that contract actually saw a drop from $6.5 million to $5.8 million.) It’s rare, but it happens. But does it happen with someone you want to keep? 

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3. This has been a superb spring for NHL conspiracy theories. The latest: that this is what Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan, Brad Treliving, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs wanted for months. Dubas made the decision on Tuesday night / Wednesday morning to accept the Penguins job, and there were immediate changes in the organization as the transition began. He made it clear that he will keep the GM job into July, but make no mistake, he will not be ceding the role even if someone else gets the title. Dubas could have taken a slight step back, as there were several teams who reached out about joining them in advisory positions — either short-term or with the idea of an eventual bigger position. But he dove into deep waters. The most interesting reaction to his move is how many people thought it was very “personal,” how other execs think he is driven to immediately prove Toronto made a mistake.  

4. Dubas talked about a “progressive” hire as GM. The Penguins discussed using these titles strategically, knowing that if they want to hire someone from another organization, a promotion will be mandatory. Could “progressive” mean the first female GM in NHL history? The Maple Leafs would not discuss what agreements they made with Dubas in regards to taking anyone to Pennsylvania with him. Toronto will do what it can to keep assistant GM Brandon Pridham. One to watch: director of amateur scouting Wes Clark. 

5. Treliving did the most important thing during his Southern Ontario introduction: not pouring gasoline on any fires. Priority No. 1 is a face-to-face conversation with Auston Matthews. On the coaching front, he said that Sheldon Keefe “has done a lot of really, really good things.” Unless Keefe does not wish to return for some reason, Treliving is not averse to keeping inherited coaches. He did just that with Bob Hartley in Calgary in 2015. However, Keefe is entering the last season of his contract, a tricky thing to manage in a Canadian market in general, and Toronto in particular. If there are any hard feelings in Calgary, it’s that Darryl Sutter was extended, then fired before the extension actually took effect. Does that experience shape Treliving’s approach in Toronto? 

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6. One Toronto source said something very interesting on Thursday: the true tell to whether the Maple Leafs core stays together is more about their contract wishes than anything else. As I’ve said many times, I believe Matthews will extend, but not at maximum term (could be anywhere from three to six years, I’d guess). Treliving’s true challenge is trying to get it done before July 1, when his no-trade clause kicks in. It’s going to be a big number, likely the highest AAV in the NHL. So, the question then becomes: what does that mean for Mitch Marner and William Nylander? I think that’s the real question. 

7. Boston is exploring what it needs to do to keep Tyler Bertuzzi, who is slated to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. 

8. I think Tampa Bay made Alex Killorn a looooong-term, lower-AAV contract offer, but he’s in demand and that will be tough to do. 

9. Coaching stuff: Peter Laviolette was not in Manhattan earlier this week, but I believe he’s there now.  

10. Pascal Vincent, waiting on Columbus, will apparently interview in Calgary. I’d expect the Flames to cut down their coaching candidate list next week. 

11. Anaheim GM Pat Verbeek will be doing interviews next week at the NHL Draft combine. 

12. Coaches weren’t thrilled about Barry Trotz — who was one of them for a long time — taking his time making a coaching decision in Nashville. I was reminded that Bill Zito did the same thing last season in Florida, waiting a few weeks before replacing Andrew Brunette with Paul Maurice. Zito was as unapologetic as Trotz, saying he had to make sure he did what was best for his franchise. I’m not crazy about it, but at the very least I can see a trend. Another reason for coaches to make sure they wade into the waters with eyes wide open. 

13. Vegas in 7. 

Looking for more 32 Thoughts? Check Sportsnet.ca for more later in the week, when Elliotte Friedman shares the latest.

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