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How Long Should A Team Stick With Average Management?

Beginning with "Darryl Sutter - Decidedly Average" and continuing through "Marginal Playoff Efficiency - Marginal Spending Where The Playoffs Matter", I spent the month of October attempting to measure management efficiency using cap expenditure as a constant. Each new metric came at the behest of commenters or an e-mailers, both of which were eager to suggest new and improved methodologies to measure management performance. No matter which spending-based methodology I applied to post-lockout performance, Darryl Sutter was always within an arm's length of league average. Only four teams have spent more against the cap than Darryl Sutter's Flames. At the same time, the Flames never finished higher than 7th or lower than 15th in points in the NHL.

In wrapping up the first Sutter article, I wrote:

Since 2005, Sutter has traded 2 first round picks, 6 second round picks, 3 third round picks, 2 fourth round picks, 1 fifth round pick, and 1 seventh round pick. He's traded for 1 first round pick, 2 second round picks, 2 third round picks, 2 fourth round picks, 1 fifth round pick, and 1 seventh round pick. His net loss in five years has been 1 first round pick, 4 second round picks, and 1 third round pick.

Sutter also traded away a young soft-minutes center in Matthew Lombardi for an older, more-expensive soft-minutes center in Olli Jokinen. He dealt for aging defenseman Steve Staios and his $2,700,000 million contract in 2010. He attempted to fix the Jokinen mistake by trading him to New York for fourth line winger and power play specialist Ales Kotalik's two remaining years at $3,000,000 each.

Eventually Sutter's attempts to give away cheap contracts and draft picks will catch up with the Flames. He'll be forced to dump a contract in Abbotsford to get under the cap or sell off Flame forever Jarome Iginla to restock the system. Until then, however, Darryl Sutter and the Calgary Flames will remain decidedly average.

Of course, the Flames have not remained decidedly average - through the first three months of the season, the Flames are twenty-third in points earned per game. They're currently on pace to finish the season with eighty points, a low not seen since 2002-03. Even though the Flames' goal differential hovers near even (nineteenth in the league) and their even strength goal differential is positive (fifteenth in the league), the cold start was enough for the Flames ownership and Sutter was dispatched back to the family compound in Red Deer. Six years years of average management and team performance was fine with management, but three months of a cold streak was unacceptable.

One argument against dispatching Sutter earlier than this year goes something like this: "Ostensibly, these 30 men are the best general managers NHL team's can find, of course some are going to be at the top, some average, some at the bottom. But firing them doesn't guarantee improvement - these are the best."

The argument strikes me as rather insane. First, assuming the thirty men in charge of NHL franchises are currently the most capable for those jobs is foolish. Each year, general managers are hired and fired, and though most of them are in a pre-set pool of long-time hockey men, like Theo Epstein in baseball, there are men outside of the inner circle of the NHL old boys network who are capable of running an NHL team.

Second, staying with an average management staff strictly because there is a chance the next management staff might be below average is the hallmark of an ownership group either fat and happy, making money hand over fist regardless of on-ice performance (Oilers, Leafs) or an ownership group managing not to lose, rather than managing to win. 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. These are edge cases though, to call the ownership situations in those three cities "poor" is an understatement. However, given this context, it's no surprise that Darryl Sutter survived for half of a decade.

The question remains though: how long should an NHL owner stick with an average general manager? If sample size is an issue, what is the minimum time period owners should use to measure management effectiveness? Is the risk of hiring an even worse general manager worth holding onto a management team that gives your team no shot to win?