Putting the ‘M’ Back in GM

 

 

(Another day, another submission in the FN contributor search. Keep things tough but fair in the comments, as per usual folks)

By: Graham Wiswell**

Welcome to August. The initial excitement and anticipation of the offseason is over, and we’re left only to evaluate. The shocking events and head-scratchers (Carter, Richards, Varlamov etc.) of late June and early July have become old news. August is the time to peel back layers, and take a look beneath the surface.

There are components of management in any profession that are essential. For whatever reason, this foundation can be overlooked in the hockey business. Here, we’ll take a look at the fundamental roles of a manager, especially as it pertains to the Calgary Flames.

Doom and Gloom

A spike of success at the outset of Darryl Sutter’s tenure allowed him a free pass. From an outsider’s perspective, the ownership group allowed Darryl to run the hockey team in isolation, while they opted for a “hands off” approach. The team experienced a sudden resurgence under his watch, so while it is easy to make judgments in hindsight, this approach didn’t seem nonsensical at the time.

How would you describe Darryl Sutter to someone unfamiliar? Is he an Assistant Coach? A Head Coach? A General Manager? Or is he simply a former NHL player? Based on the roles he’s filled at the NHL level, you could describe him any which way, but was Darryl Sutter ever qualified to be an NHL General Manager? Perhaps a General in the “yes, sir” form, but by no means is he a manager.

A manager is a leader; creates a vision, empowers people, communicates effectively, hogs the blame and shares the success. A manager hunts down resources and aligns them in specialized roles, to ensure the group reaches its targets. A manager is not the most skilled or knowledgeable specialist, but has the ability to identify the strengths in others, and get all parts moving in one direction in order to achieve success. So, what did that Darryl Sutter guy do again?

Sutter was a knowledgeable hockey specialist, who forced a *win now, forget tomorrow* mentality, which ultimately created a toxic environment for players and executives alike. Regardless of compensation, no one can perform in a toxic environment. Darryl’s hockey moves were made through impulsive decision making and “deficit spending” (a term used by Feaster to describe the previous regime). Once he acquired the assets he wanted, he got the most out of his employees through pressure: succeed now, or leave. Fear of trade or demotion is effective in short stints, but not a mindset conducive to winning. Why can’t any of these “star” players score in Calgary? You try holding onto the puck longer and being creative in a *we’re contenders, don’t screw it up* setting. I would opt to dump-and-chase, too.

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in an NHL organization at any capacity, but tell me this: if you’re a scout, and your GM trades the 1st and/or 2nd rd picks every year, are you not forced to make a safer selection with those 3-7th rd draft picks? What is this constant “deficit spending” telling you about your role within the organization, other than inconsequential? If you’re a coach, how can you run the bench your way, knowing you’re the 3rd coach in 4 years? Results from October to September 2010 would illustrate it is a significant struggle.

It is not far-fetched to suggest this type of environment would damage relationships and create unrest. Not until 6 months before Darryl’s “resignation” did the Flames add an Assistant GM under Sutter’s watch. Until then, there was no one to co-ordinate with or lean on for hockey decisions – just Darryl. The cup champion Boston Bruins were operating with 5 AGMs one year ago. When asked why an AGM wasn’t added before, Ken King responded “Darryl didn’t feel he needed one.” That’s autonomy at its finest. What King should have said is “Darryl doesn’t play well with others.” Could you imagine if all organizational decisions were made this way? “We didn’t sign a back-up goaltender because Kipper felt he didn’t need one.” Yikes.

Feaster’s Participative Democracy

There was a growing sentiment that this team needed a new direction, but it seems unless the Flames employed Jim Nill or Ron Hextall in the GM chair, the hire would be met with harsh criticism. For one, I don’t understand the Ron Hextall chatter. Is it his NHL playing career that draws us to Hextall? If so, have we really done enough homework to suggest he was the best suited AGM for a promotion? As for Nill, that transaction is much easier said than done. We can expect he’s been offered a full-time GM gig in the past. Was he holding out for a job in Calgary all these years? Not likely.

Of course, I wasn’t thrilled with Feaster’s promotion to General Manager, either. I share the same concerns as many of my peers: lack of playing experience, poor drafting record, the Brad Richards deal and so on. Once the job was his, JayFe began to shed light on the type of culture he wanted to create: a consensus-driven, participative democracy. He has since beefed up his hockey operations department in a number of areas, from AGM John Weisbrod to Chris Snow, a former journalist who specializes in statistical analysis and the PUCKS system. The hiring of a resource like Chris Snow is a new direction in and of itself. Feaster never played the game, but continues to add experienced hockey people to what he calls his participative democracy. Is it not more useful to have an effective manager co-ordinate hockey minds, rather than one hockey mind control his old buddies and family members?

Engage and Empower

What makes Ken Holland a world-class NHL GM? If you look at the success of the Detroit Red Wings, it has primarily come from drafting and developing. Scouts are responsible for evaluating young NHL hopefuls and making these selections at the draft, and Holland’s staff in Grand Rapids (AHL) does most of the heavy lifting in terms of day-to-day prospect development. Holland is a bright man, who has the ability to empower key people to carry out these responsibilities. His biggest challenge comes in recruiting personalities that share his vision, and can mesh with his Red Wing culture. Of course, the game is played on the ice, yet the Detroit Red Wings continue to operate as a model of consistency in the NHL. There is no shortage of respect for Ken Holland around the league, but hockey aside, Holland is a world-class manager of people.

So what model would you follow as an NHL GM? If you truly respect the Ken Holland regime, you’ll appreciate Feaster’s aim to direct and empower key people. We’ve already heard “this is Brent’s hiring” and “this is Todd’s draft” from the Flames GM. If knowledgeable professionals are utilized effectively in their own areas of expertise, from pro/amateur scouts to goaltending coaches, a manager’s playing experience will not affect the win column.

Success is a Process

How exactly did Jamie McLennan get the job as Goalie Coach back in June of 2009? His fun personality, and experience as an average NHL back-up? The Flames covered it up with an “Associate Coach” title, but Jamie wasn’t running the power-play or matching lines.

Successful organizations follow an extensive process in order to fill specific roles. It would have been easy for Feaster to hire his former AGM Bill Barber to fill that void in Calgary, or to hire Marc Denis as the goaltending coach. He could have hired his entire staff from Tampa to run the Flames, but resisted the temptation to fill the gaps with familiar faces and old buddies. There was a process carried out in order to find the *right* people to assume these roles. The day Feaster was appointed GM, Ken King noted they were “close” to naming an AGM, and “would have liked to package that announcement with today’s news.” It took nearly two additional months for the hiring to take place. You could argue this was a result of the playoffs, but did anyone have John Weisbrod on their radar? What about Clint Malarchuk to work with the goalies? There were no personal ties or old friendships attributed to these hires. A formal interview process was held, a course of action carried out, and these gentlemen were not only deemed the best fit, but the right fit.

The same is true with the on-ice product. You can criticize the number of depth signings on defence, the Regehr trade or the signing of a 37-year old Brendan Morrison, but you can’t argue that all of these decisions were made with a timeline in mind, an eye on the big picture. Winning is not as simple as big names on the free agent market and a season of puck luck. Winning is a process, a culture. Evidently, there’s an interest in being competitive today, but most of all, a priority to create flexibility in the not-so-distant future. Any sustained success follows a process, and aims to develop in a perpetual state of re-building. Scorched earth, full-scale rebuilds in the NHL do not happen by choice. Successful teams evolve and develop on the go, by gradually replacing veterans with younger alternatives. This summer in Calgary, we’ve seen baby steps in that transition.

While the Flames were not stealing headlines this summer, I would argue there have been significant shifts below the surface. Tangible change won’t take shape within weeks, or perhaps even years, but at least now the wheels are in motion.

**Graham is a 4th year student at Mount Royal University. He currently blogs on his own site Dome Ice Advantage.

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  • everton fc

    Aside from the fact that we are rehashing the Darryl Sutter regime, I have some concerns about some of the assertions made in this article that I think are made without any supporting information.

    -“Sutter was a knowledgeable hockey specialist, who forced a *win now, forget tomorrow* mentality, which ultimately created a toxic environment for players and executives alike.”
    Aside from a couple of off hand comments made by Rhett Warrener and some insider reporter bravado (which I am somewhat skeptical of since the reporting of it when Sutter’s firing was imminent or announced) who exactly, in particular which executives, have said they were working in a toxic win now environment?

    ” your GM trades the 1st and/or 2nd rd picks every year”
    -Sutter managed the Flames draft for 8 seasons. He traded the 1st round pick once and the 2nd round pick 6 times. He took 9 of 16 draft picks. That is a far slide from “every year”. See hockeydb.com under the Flames drafts by year.

    “Holland is a bright man, who has the ability to empower key people to carry out these responsibilities. His biggest challenge comes in recruiting personalities that share his vision, and can mesh with his Red Wing culture.”
    -I’m sorry, but was there some interview with someone that said this to be the case? What is the vision, and who has not bought in with it, or has bought in with it, and why was that a challenge? Who has he hired that demonstrated that? Seems puffery to me.

    -“Successful organizations follow an extensive process in order to fill specific roles.”
    -Is there some study that shows “an extensive process” is inherently preferable to a shorter one?

    “How exactly did Jamie McLennan get the job as Goalie Coach back in June of 2009?” and “There was a process carried out in order to find the *right* people to assume these roles.”
    -I don’t know, how did Jamie McLennan get the job? What process was carried out. These statements (or rhetorical question in place of assertion to insinuate there was no process) are made but there is no description of the process. Was a set of qualifications decided upon? Was an advertisement requesting applications? A search committee put together? To just say “there was a process” because it took a long time is a big stretch. I mean, what process was there in selecting Craig Conroy? I don’t know, but without the facts I wouldn’t assert the process was faulty.

    • Fair point, thanks for the feedback. I could be reaching in some of my assessments, but I wouldn’t say I’m pulling it out of nowhere.

      1 – I would say a toxic environment is one where the Head Coach & GM don’t speak, for instance:

      2 – that’s where the and/or comes in. I would argue trading 2nd rd picks 6/8 times isn’t the way one should do business, but I see your point.

      3 – I guess I’m operating under the assumption that Detroit’s drafting & developing has more to do with AHL mgmt roles and scouting staff than the GM first-hand. Diamond in the rough 6th rounders like Pavel Datsyuk, 7th rounders like Zetterberg & 3rd rounders like Franzen aren’t evaluated from the press box in Detroit. If you read “The Art of Scouting” it will discuss Holland’s vision that the scouts carry out, first-hand comments from Holland and a few of his scouts. It talks about how the org focuses on raw-skill set & patience above other factors such as size, “heart,” attitude, maturity, physical play, etc. I would consider that a component of *vision.*

      4 – An extensive process doesn’t need to be long. You can follow an extensive process when car-shopping, and still buy a car within a few days. The point I’m trying to make is they had interviewed candidates and were “close” to naming an AGM in May, but needed permission to talk to other alternatives after the draft. You don’t have to believe what Ken King says, but that’s the conversation between King & Fan960 that took place when Jay was named full-time GM.

      5 – When Jay hired Conroy as Special Assistant, he explained why he still needed an AGM and why Conroy wasn’t ready for that role – in comes John Weisbrod. I would say back-up goaltender to full-time goaltending coach in the NHL is a significant jump, but Darryl felt McLennan was the best fit. I consider Conroy being utilized as an *additional* resource to Weisbrod & Feaster not as risky. Firing an experienced goaltending coach in favour of a back-up goaltender, one season removed, is risky. So, I guess I feel pretty comfortable criticizing the McLennan hiring, especially considering he has since been let go.

      • I was looking for was some sources and this is a thorough and well thought out response, which can be rare in this type of forum and I want you to know it is appreciated. Thanks.

        In particular, I have not read “The Art of Scouting” before but it is now on my reading list.

        Also, on the draft pick trades that look stinky now, the 2004 2nd was traded for Marcus Nilson and the pick was used to draft David Booth.

        • Gange

          Your criticisms are fair. I realize that blogging about the inner workings of management can be a leap, especially when none of us are actually behind the scenes. Most of my assertions come from King & Feaster, which many will scoff at. When one of them come out and say “moving forward, we want to ___” it processes in my head to mean “In the past, we were not ___.” Of course, that means taking comments from NHL executives at face value, which can be foolish at times.

        • My one word review of “Art of Scouting” – meh.

          “Future Greats and Heartbreaks” is far more interesting, although Joyce romanticizes the NHL scouting fraternity rather than turn a skeptical eye to their practices. That said, it’s in-depth and well written.

          • RexLibris

            I kind of agree with Art of Scouting. It wasn’t as in-depth as I thought and frankly I skipped large chapters because what kind of revelation am I going to have reading about how scouts look for hockey sense and the difference between speed and quickness. That being said his romanticization and anecdotal chapters of the scouting fraternity were entertaining. Although I guess we can’t really expect scouts to start spilling their guts about trade secrets and favourite haunting grounds in a book, it’s an arcane art and they do everything they can to keep it that way otherwise they’d all be unemployed. I think I was also disappointed with AOS because Joyce did such a great job on When The Lights Went Out.

            A better read regarding scouting is Leafs Abomination, although inadvertently, because it takes a critical look at the Leafs utter lack of drafting and developing talent over the last 40 years in their pursuit of free agents and instantly remaking their team.

          • I have read “Future Greats and Heartbreaks”. Agree it is interesting, although I think alot of that turns on the fact the players are so much in the spotlight right now. I think of that book everytime I hear Brassard, Voracek, Aliu.

            Sounds like “Art of Scouting” may be a library pick up.

  • On Sutter’s focus on win now…I think it was a defensible strategy for a time, particularly when he had Regehr, Kipper, Iginla and Langkow at or near their prime a few years ago. His true failing was his inability to transition from win now after he failed to get the team over the hump, leaving the team in budget crisis with few future assets to speak of.

    That, and his various shark jumping activities over the last year or so of his tenure. The Staios trade and the nonsense around the trading and re-acquisition of Jokinen made it clear he’d lost the plot, for example.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      I supported the *win now* mentality for the first few years, and agree that it was appropriate for the time being. The last two years of Darryl’s tenure, however, was frightening. It was as though he was desperately trying to make up for lost time by making unusual moves in panic-mode. A handful of poor decisions will hurt this team for a long time, which tends to overshadow the positives from his time at the helm.

      Thanks for the opportunity, Kent!

  • Very nicely written, Graham.

    You wrote so nicely that you almost convinced me Jay Feaster is doing a great job. We were so blinded by what the actual job was by Darryl Sutter that when someone comes in and attempts to go at it properly, we heap praise all over him. But, I suppose, to go against myself, we should probably at least be happy he’s making a go at it.

    And, even though he doesn’t hire all his old mistakes from Tampa, that certainly doesn’t stop him from acquiring (or attempting to acquire) all his old players from those failed days. As far as Malarchuk goes; that hire boggles me. But, I find it funny that he’s hired when his kids live in Okotoks. That’s quite a coincidence… or, maybe he’s the only one who wanted to come?

    I will never give him credit for the Regehr trade. It accomplished nothing but an overly publicized swing-and-a-miss at Brad Richards. Really, he has to go to the media to tell everyone the Flames were the runner up? Give me a break. If he was looking further than this year he would have just let Kotalik’s contract run out instead of using Regehr as the sacrificial lamb.

    As long as Ken King controls the strings of the Flames management, we won’t see significant change. The non-stealing of headlines isn’t the wheels being in motion underneath the surface… that’s the sound of things staying the same.

    Having said all of that… I really enjoyed the read. Good job, Graham.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Thanks for reading. In terms of Malarchuk, I suppose you could make the Okotoks connection. I would argue there are likely a number of viable candidates for the job throughout Alberta, so the Okotoks factor doesn’t stick out to me. Not to mention, Malarchuk is far from a convenient or safe move. If you haven’t already, have a look at the article on Malarchuk by Scott Cruickshank!

  • Michael

    Sutter was a knowledgeable hockey specialist, who forced a *win now, forget tomorrow* mentality

    Was it Sutter that forced the ‘win now, forget tomorrow’ mentality, or did this direction come from higher up?…(King or the Owners)

    Feaster has made several moves that might suggest
    ‘win now, forget tomorrow’ is still in play; the Kotalik salary dump (vs Sutters Primeau dump), the re signing of older vets like Morrision (vs a spot for a prospect), and the attempted signing of Smyth and Richards.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Thanks for the comment.

      I would agree there’s still an element to it, but like I say, I would argue there’s a manageable timeline attributed to some of these risks. He signed Morrison, which I don’t necessarily agree with, but the deal was one year 800,000 with 400,000 in performance bonuses. So, I would suggest it’s less risky than bringing on an ever-inconsistent Ales Kotalik for at 3mill for 2.5 seasons, or trading for Steve Staios at too much money (2.7) at the trade deadline – not as a rental, but for an additional full season.

      We can agree that the Richards/Smyth deals would have been catastrophic, but they were never consummated. I think we’d be pretty disgusted at some of the “almost” deals Darryl had in play.

      By the way: I’m not a big fan of Feaster or anything, but I was desperate for a change in philosophy, and I think he brings that

    • everton fc

      Good point – how much sway do KIng and the owners have, and have had, in some of these moves, even w/Sutter in charge?

      @mslepp

      “I will never give him credit for the Regehr trade. It accomplished nothing but an overly publicized swing-and-a-miss at Brad Richards. Really, he has to go to the media to tell everyone the Flames were the runner up? Give me a break. If he was looking further than this year he would have just let Kotalik’s contract run out instead of using Regehr as the sacrificial lamb.

      People seem to forget this… To me, is why Reggie was moved. And I have always posted here that picking up Richards for anything but bargain price is madness; he could be one concussion away from Marc Savard (not trying to be insensitive). Richards isn’t worth the deal Feaster proposed; first Modin, then Richards – this wanting old Bolts from days-gone-by has to make one wonder. Also, even remotely considering Ryan Smyth (who I have always liked and respected as a player, regardless of the Battle of Alberta – class guy all the way through)… this shows me Feaster is questionable, if he was the one who came up with the concept.

      “As long as Ken King controls the strings of the Flames management, we won’t see significant change. The non-stealing of headlines isn’t the wheels being in motion underneath the surface… that’s the sound of things staying the same.”

      Spot-on. If we had a different president, someone more progressive and savvy, we’d have also had ourselves a more progressive and savvy GM. No question.

      I am not in the doom and gloom camp. I think our roster is competitive “as is”, if Langkow can come back at all, if Stajan can somehow rebound, if Moss can stay healthy, if Jokinen can produce another 55 pt. season, if Glencross can increase his goal output to 25… If Jackman can play the same as last season If Bourque can stay healthy and consistent… If our defence holds up…

      Lots of ‘ifs’, the biggest on defence… But I still think we can challenge for a playoff spot and, if healthy and consistent, could win a round…

      But no one will convince me King/Feaster and company will get us near the Cup.

      Graham: good job here. May not agree w/all your points… but you did well. Good work!