Hockey management is a closed loop. Who will bust through?
Anyone who wanders into Major League Baseball can't help but notice the stark contrast between the field of play and the uneasy space just off it, where the executives and the scouts make their livings. The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you're very good, you don't survive in it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won't be tolerated. There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that baseball has structured itself less as a business than as a social club. The Club includes not only the people who manage the team but also, in a kind of Women's Auxiliary, many of the writers and the commentators who follow it, and purport to explain it. The Club is selective, but the criteria for admission and retention are nebulous. There are many ways to embarrass the Club, but being bad at your job isn't one of them. The greatest offense a Club member can commit is not ineptitude but disloyalty. Had he not been an indiscreet writer, Jim Bouton might have made a second career scouting and coaching big league prospects. But because he wrote Ball Four he was as good as banished from the Club.
That's not to say that there are not good baseball executives and bad baseball executives, or good baseball scouts and bad baseball scouts. It's just that they aren't very well sorted out. Baseball doesn't subject its executives to anything like the pressures of playing baseball, or even of running a business. When a big league baseball team spends huge sums of money and loses, heads may roll, but they don't roll very far. Club insiders have a remarkable talent for hanging around, scouting young players, opining on the game, until some other high-level job opens up. Whereupon, with genuine hope in their hearts, they go for their interview with all the other Club members who were fired the last time around. There are no real standards, because no one wants to put too fine a point on the question: what qualifies these people for this job? Taking into account any quality other than clubability would make everyone's membership a little less secure.
--Michael Lewis, "Moneyball"
There exist five tried and true routes to becoming a part of a professional or major junior hockey management team. There are small exceptions to the rule, but an astounding percentage of management types have followed one of these five paths:
- NHL Stardom - NHL stars essentially write their tickets after their careers are over. If they'd like to remain in hockey as a coach or in management, all they have to do is make a phone call. Regardless of background, education, acumen or ability, their stardom puts them in immediate positions of power. Examples include Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk, Steve Yzerman, Doug Wilson, Ken Dryden, Tony Esposito, Phil Esposito, Bob Gainey and Milt Schmidt.
- NHL Career -While they aren't able to pre-select the job they'd like to hold, they can latch on as an Assistant Coach or Assistant GM, or the ever-popular Director of Player Development and hang around earning promotions and waiting for an opportunity. Examples include Doug Gilmour, Garth Snow, Paul Holmgren, Steve Tambellini, Rich Preston, and Kelly Kisio.
- Professional hockey career - Spend a couple of seasons in professional hockey making friends and building contacts and if you'd like to stick around, it's not difficult to find someone willing to give you a shot at a lower-level position in the front office. Brian Burke, Kevin Cheveldayoff, and Scott Howson all took this route to the NHL penthouse.
- Major Junior Stardom - These guys use their reign of terror during their CHL days to get into the field, typically arm-in-arm with their CHL team, and if not, almost always with another team in their league. Guys like Craig Bonner and Dallas Thompson have done this.
- Legacy - Make sure your father was a famous hockey institution and you're guaranteed a job by an owner hoping that genes carry hockey knowledge and experience. Sometimes it's a gold mine, other times things turn out very poorly. Examples include Stan Bowman, Chuck Fletcher, John Ferguson, Jr., Brian Poile, and anyone with a surname "Patrick".
Let's get this out of the way first: I'm not writing this article to pass judgement or be critical of all of these men and the path they used to gain access to their field of work. I'm writing this to show how hockey management is essentially a closed loop.
This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin: whereas it is more than probable that, could we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace them to their first rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners of pre-eminence in subtlety obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.
--Thomas Paine, "Common Sense"
NHL General Managers are held in high regard regardless of qualifications, past or current performance. The worst of them are considered experts and their decisions, even the terrible decisions, are discussed with reverence by intermission panels as if each decision was passed down from god himself. The mainstream media, as has been demonstrated by a number of other writers, aren't the people with the nerve to question the very people who grant them the keys to the kingdom. Nowhere is this more evident than on those very intermission panels. It seems as if each one of those panels employs an expert who was a miserable failure at his job. So when we in the 'sphere talk about making intelligent moves, we're often directly at odds with the primary source of sports news for the average fan.
This relationship is glaringly obvious in Edmonton. Buffeted by a media message about how bright the future in Edmonton should be, an avalanche of high-end draft choices has slowly turned public opinion in favor of Edmonton's management team. Though the management team still has more bad moves than good, Steve Tambellini is now being partially-credited with the bright future because he's listening to his scouts and allowing them to make draft choices. The media has led the narrative that one of Tambellini's skills is listening to his highly-paid experts. Consider that if it were public knowledge that Tambellini were not doing this, he'd be run out of town on a rail, but because he is, it's praise-worthy. On the other side of the spectrum, the same media sources have sold a narrative to the fans that Tambellini isn't to blame for all of the terrible trades and signings during his reign - his pro scouts are. Even though the General Manager watches a minimum of 82 games per year, has a wealth of data and terabytes of video at his disposal and actually can make an impact on the professional decisions, he's absolved because he's only listening to his experts, experts that serve at his leisure. This is what we, as fans and consumers of traditional media, have been fed - listening is now a high-end skill that only a nuanced man like an NHL General Manager can possess.
mc79hockey talked about the conventional moves that poor-to-average General Managers make. In this case, he was talking about signing a "proven cup-winning goaltender", regardless of circumstance, hiring a proven old cur of a head coach and picking up retread first round picks. Toss in signing rotted out defensemen, overpaying checking forwards, overpaying players with a single playoff hot streak, trading for or signing players who perform well against his team and burning entry-level contracts and you've got the recipe for your prototypical poor-to-average GM.
Speaking of conventional moves, Behind The Net Hockey looked at the terribly conventional, or just plain terrible, depending on the take, manner in which Dale Tallon added salary to move the Florida Panthers above the salary floor. Tallon committed $112.3 million in cash and $112.3 million in salary cap to 7 players, none of them stars, over 28 seasons. That enormous long-term commitment added just $26.715 million per year to the salary cap. An unconventional GM might have looked at the situation and taken the article's prescribed route of solving other teams' cap problems through trades as well as claiming Sheldon Souray and Mike Commodore from the waiver wire. The unconventional strategy commits $69.85 million in cash and $88.4 million in cap hit in only 18 seasons. That's a long-term savings of $42.45 million in cash and 10 fewer contract seasons to the same end -- adding salary to make the cap floor while waiting on a bunch of prospects to develop. The article is titled with "...lack of imagination", but I see it as a standard play by a standard guy with standard management skills.
The strategy laid out by BTN in that article is one of acquiring cap-only dollars, an unconventional move for sure, at least in the NHL. In the NBA, it's commonplace. For a rebuilding team or a cash-poor team, it's an excellent strategy. Sign or trade for a player carrying a larger cap hit than cash owed and freeroll on the cash already spent by some other team. With Souray and Commodore, the freeroll is easy to acquire - simply take them from waivers. As for the other names on the BTN list - it's as simple as chasing bad money and being paid to do so.
In many of these situations, take that of Daniel Briere for instance, the team with the bad contract is also pressed against the cap by other commitments. A shrewd GM on a cash-poor team like Nashville or a rebuilding team like Florida might acquire Philadelphia's cap problem and take payment for doing so. Because Philly is the team ridding themselves of the bad asset, they should be willing to pay, even a pittance like a mid-round draft pick, to have the problem removed. Brian Burke has used this strategy twice so far during his tenure in Toronto.
In some cases, the team taking on the bad asset doesn't need to acquire cap-only dollars, as long as the cash hit of the bad contract is within the budget, is short-term and the payment to take the contract is large enough.
The flip side of that strategy holds and is also considered unconventional. A cash-rich team like the Rangers or the Sharks should be willing to pay a price to get rid of a bad contract or cap-only dollars for players no longer providing value near their contract number, especially if those cap dollars can be used to find better value elsewhere. Back to Daniel Briere, for example. He's certainly not worth his $6.5 million cap hit over the next four years, but he's probably worth the $4 million in average annual salary he's set to earn over that time. The Flyers could use that extra $2.5 million to find better value for the team and should be willing to pay a mid-round pick to get rid of the contract. Remember, even a third-round pick only turns into a top player 7% of the time. That third round pick carries about $600,000 in value - trading that pick in order to get rid of the contract and add the cap space is an enormous victory.
These are the obvious unconventional moves an NHL GM could steal from other sports. There are a multitude of others, from rigging the Vezina voting to spite a division rival, to legally circumventing the CBA, to trading into the top 15 whenever the opportunity presents itself. There is also the use of Hockeymetrics, the analysis of on-ice advanced stats, to gain a competitive edge on rivals. We know some teams are using them to varying degrees and others are exploring them, and eventually Hockeymetrics will be an everyday part of the hockey nomenclature. Like in baseball, hockey traditionalists will hate it, but the first few teams to find the big competitive advantages will benefit the most as the edges become more and more minute.
There are no easy fixes available to the team who fails to retain a worthy player and there are no take-backs available to the team who hands a large contract to an unworthy one. For better or worse, this is a fair game. If a team is going to dominate in this league, it can do so only by getting value from every player under contract.
But where will the man willing to use unconventional tactics and strategies and employ the edges found in Hockeymetrics come from? The question brings us back to the closed loop found in hockey management.
Any type of major change in management style isn't going to happen overnight. Most of the men currently employed in the role of General Manager have common roots. They've all played for and worked for the same group of old boys previously employed in those positions. They all have a common upbringing, they've all been taught many of the same standard plays by many of the same standard guys. What's especially evident is that few of the old boys have figured out how to operate in a cap world. The best and brightest invention they've come up with has been the long-term contract intended to circumvent the CBA.
The next wave of invention or re-invention is most likely to come from an outsider. Whether that outsider will be an adviser to one of the old boys or will crash the party himself is to be seen. Teams employ scouts to tracking scoring chances, software developers and statisticians, and consultants in a number of different areas. The influence these people hold on their employers is undetermined, but the longer they work in the game, the more likely it is they'll gain influence and bring about change. The downside is that adhering to the existing standards may be the only way they work in the game for any length of time.
The other option for bringing about change is an outsider. Outsiders are rare in the NHL -- of the current crop of General Managers, only Jay Feaster and Lou Lamoriello came to the game as true outsiders. However, hockey isn't so special that managing an NHL organization is such a niche skill that it requires a hockey career or an extended apprenticeship for a long-time General Manager. The budget is set either internally by spending limits or externally by the Salary Cap and is currently set at $64.3 million plus ~ 2 million in minor league salaries and a bit more in staff salaries. I can walk into any large corporation and find Director-level executives responsible for similar-sized and larger yearly budgets. A General Manager is responsible for up to 50 players plus occasional contact with drafted but unsigned players, a few assistants, scouts and the coaching staff, usually nor more than 65 people. Again, there are thousands of directors in North America with the same responsibilities.
I'm not advocating that Daryl Katz run out and grab the first D or C-level executive he finds at Suncor or Mario Lemieux replace Ray Shero with the nearest Westinghouse executive, but it's not a stretch to suggest that there are some extremely talented people outside of the bubble that surrounds hockey. Quietly powerful men and women negotiate multi-million dollar deals each day, participate in industry groups to discuss and shape the future of their markets, manage large groups of highly-paid and specially-talented people, and hold bottom-line responsibility for hundreds of people and billions of dollars.
Detractors will argue that these people haven't cultivated the relationships necessary to manage in such a small, previously-closed club. Counter to that argument is the fact that many men have cultivated those relationships and have failed miserably at managing in the club. The NHL does not stand alone as the only organization that requires tight-knit relationships between decision-makers -- if an outsider needed someone to press the flesh, there are a wealth of candidates available to fill the role. If the outsider is already an excellent relationship-builder, but requires expertise in the art of negotiation, thousands of lawyers around the globe sit waiting for the call. Good managers will surround themselves with the right people, people who will help to make them a success. It's the ideas, the techniques and the strategies that will set the top-level candidates apart from their peers and the existing old-boys club.
Is all of this worth the risk? Does it make sense to seek out superior managers without a hockey background, when there is seemingly so much downside and there are so many qualified Assistant General Managers in the NHL and General Managers in the AHL who have grown up in the old boys' club? If a team is willing to suffer bad management with no hope, what can possibly be worse?
What that says about ownership that stays with bottom-of-the-barrel management, I have no idea. Don Waddell survived for ten years in Atlanta and delivered only one playoff appearance. Doug MacLean survived for seven years in Columbus and the Blue Jackets never topped eighty points. Mike Milbury survived for eleven years on Long Island despite only three playoff appearances for a franchise that had missed the playoffs six times in the previous twenty-three seasons.
Would a bright manager with a keen business sense and a keen strategic awareness have been worse than Waddell or Milbury? Could a bright manager have been worse than Waddell or Milbury?
The way "Moneyball" tells it, after a decade Bill James gave up hope that the work he'd done, the numbers he'd produced, the ideas he'd launched would ever be used by baseball's insiders. It took another decade before he was proven wrong. I still hold out hope for the NHL and don't believe it will take 20 years for ideas like those mentioned above and so many more commonly discussed in the 'sphere to take hold in the league.