First Piece to the Puzzle :: Finding a GM — Part Two

Would you buy a used car from one of these men?

In Part One of this article we took a look at some candidates who I think would be bad choices for the General Manager post with our new Seattle team. Now we want to look at a few names that should be on the top of the list — to the degree that they can be. More on that in a jiffy.

With some exceptions, there are four types of people you are likely to hire as your new NHL General Manager: a current NHL GM, a current NHL Assistant GM, a current AHL GM, or a former NHL GM — whether not currently under contract, or in some cases working in a different capacity for an NHL or AHL team. Most of these follow more or less the same process as finding a highly qualified executive for any company: you get in touch, you talk about the job, and you make an offer. The only slight complication is that usually NHL and AHL executives are under contract, and so in the case of an AHL GM or an NHL Assistant GM, you need permission from their employer before initiating the conversation. And in those cases, permission is usually given.

Current NHL GM’s, however, not so much. While it’s not formally enshrined anywhere that I can locate, talking with a currently-employed team General Manager about a GM job with another team is considered tampering, and the league would have something to say about it. I would expect that the words “attorney” and “fuck” would be used.

So when we look at potential candidates in these categories, remember that three of them are realistic and one is more of a wish list: “If these guys get canned from their current job, we should take a serious look at them.” There are actually two people who fall into that category, and we’ll look at them first.

Marc Bergevin, GM — Montreal Canadiens. Any NHL executive in either Toronto or Montreal lives under a Sword of Damocles, and Bergevin may just be coming to the point where the blade falls. He has been at the reins since 2012, and in that time Montreal has missed the playoffs three times (all in the last four years) and been bounced in the first round twice. I expect that the patience of the fans and the media will run out should Les Habitants have a similar result in 2019-20, and if that’s the case then Seattle should pounce.

Bergevin is a competent executive; I’m not as big a fan of his drafting as I am his knack for pulling off shrewd trades. He tends to acquire and retain draft picks, something that will be important for Seattle as they form their identity. He also builds his teams in a balanced way, not relying on expensive superstars and a cheap and rotating cadre of also-rans. He would likely be able to accept the challenge of building a franchise from the ground up. Of the two current GM’s I think are worth considering, however, he’s in second place.

Kevin Cheveldayoff, GM — Winnipeg Jets. “Chevy” (all of his close friends call him Chevy…) spent two and a half years in Chicago more or less apprenticing under Dale Tallon as Assistant GM and Director of Hockey Operations, before he was named General Manager of the soon-to-be-moving Atlanta Thrashers. Shortly thereafter he made a couple of calls to the United Center and took advantage of the post-Stanley Cup cap squeeze the Blackhawks found themselves in. He welcomed Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, and Dustin Byfuglien to the fold, told everyone to get packed, and settled into his Winnipeg office in September of 2011. He has been there ever since.

His focus since then has been drafting, with his marquee picks including Nik Ehlers, Jacob Trouba, and Patrik Laine. He dipped into the free agent market in a big way at the 2018 trade deadline, but otherwise tends to shy away from blockbuster moves. Instead he finds, grooms, and retains talented players that fit into the medium-market budget he has to work with. He’d likely be given a thicker wallet and more freedom to build a contender in Seattle, something I think he’d be perfect for.

Do I think he might be available? Probably not. They love him there. I can’t see him getting let go unless there’s an ownership change. But hey, we can dream, right?

At any rate, onward with more realistic possibilities.

Tom Fitzgerald, Assistant GM — New Jersey Devils. The 3rd of 5 players-turned-NHL executives we will look at here, Fitzgerald played 17 seasons in the NHL. He was selected in the expansion draft as one of the original members of the Florida Panthers expansion team, then later selected to join the Nashville Predators in their inaugural lineup, where he served as captain for their first four years in the league.

Following his NHL career, Fitzgerald began his executive tenure with Pittsburgh as Director of Player Personnel, then as Assistant GM. He later was taken on by New Jersey in the same role. Those years yielded a lot of experience, but not a lot of highlights or low-lights. The two #1 overall draft picks he was involved in choosing (Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes) have yet to play a game in the NHL, so there’s no real track record there to be either impressed with or critical of.

As the search for a GM in Seattle proceeds, I’m sure you will see Fitzgerald’s name come up. I’m including him here for that reason. I can’t really say anything exceptional about the guy, but I don’t want to necessarily disqualify him — there’s nothing in his career to date that warrants that. So I’ll leave you to form your own opinion on Fitzgerald, because I don’t really have one. If you can form one, let me know.

Ron Francis, former GM — Carolina Hurricanes. This one is going to be controversial. On paper it looks like a slam-dunk: 21 years in the league, 12 years in the front office, including 4 as the Hurricanes’ GM. However he was unceremoniously “kicked upstairs” to President of Hockey Operations by team president Don Waddell near the end of the 2017-18 season, let go altogether in 2018, and his tenure as GM is generally regarded as “meh.” But there’s something not readily visible here.

There were genius trades (Teravainen from Chicago), and complete flops (Wisniewski from Anaheim). There were genius draft picks (Sebastian Aho at #35!), and idiotic ones (choosing Haydn Fleury at #7, passing up William Nylander, Nik Ehlers, Kevin Fiala, Dylan Larkin, and David Pasternak who were all still on the board). There were some good signings, some bad, and some that were just middle-of-the-road. Overall I don’t think that anyone would necessarily disagree with the statement that Francis’ tenure as GM was “ordinary”. Competent. Boring. Nothing earth-shaking, no dumpster fires, just… plain.

But what is not seen is the afore-mentioned Waddell. It has been suggested, not infrequently and by people who are in a position to know, that Francis was never free to make his own moves as GM. Everything had to be approved through Waddell, and in many cases it was Waddell’s hand up Francis’ skirt making the moves himself. These rumors persisted through the entire 4 years Francis served as GM. And when the ax fell and Francis assumed his new title with the organ-eye-zation, who stepped in as GM? I’ll give you 3 guesses…

So I will submit to you that Ron Francis’ abilities as GM have not yet been fully realized. I think he has a good hockey mind, he has mountains of experience, and given the freedom and resources that will hopefully be given to whoever takes the GM role, he can put together a solid hockey team. He would not necessarily be my first choice, but we could do much worse.

Bill Guerin, Assistant GM — Pittsburgh Penguins. Guerin’s history is similar to Francis’ in some ways, but very different in one specific detail. Both Francis and Guerin hoisted the Stanley Cup twice as players, but Guerin did so twice more as a member of Pittsburgh’s front office. That’s a winning pedigree that Seattle would be wise to consider.

After 18 years in the league — posting 20-goal seasons with 7 different teams, a league record that still stands — Guerin took a year off before being brought into the Pittsburgh fold as the Player Development Coach. The following year he was promoted to Assistant GM, and his duties later expanded again to include GM of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins AHL club.

Would somebody please tell me how the fuck you pronounce the name of that city? wilks-BARR? wilks-BERRY? wilks-BERET? Just shorten the whole thing to “Whocaresville” and be done with it.

“Oh, wait just a minute,” you say. “Of course Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup twice, they have Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin on their team! An eight-year-old with a calculator could do that!” Well if that’s the case, ask Peter Chiarelli how easy it was to win the Cup in Edmonton with Leon Draisatl and Connor McDavid. Ask Dave Nonis and Mike Gillis with the Sedin Twins for eleven seasons. The truth is, it’s not easy. And Guerin helped do it.

Guerin would be a first-time GM, and that would be a risk, no question — but he’s a strong candidate. However, there is somebody I think is stronger.

Laurence Gilman, GM — Toronto Marlies. The Leafs are so high on Gilman that they just might not give Seattle permission to talk to him about their GM position. He is officially both the Assistant GM for the Leafs and the GM of the AHL club. Toronto is plainly grooming him for the Leafs’ GM job, and if Seattle was somehow able to snatch him away, that would be a huge boost for the team.

You’re running off to look this guy up, aren’t you. Never heard of him? Neither had I. Gilman has always been an under-the-radar guy, and not “a hockey person,” which in most circles very much counts against him. He never played in the NHL — never mind that; in reading up on him it’s still not fully clear if the man can even skate. So what’s the big deal?

Gilman started with the Winnipeg Phoenix Arizona club, serving as both Assistant GM for the Coyotes and General Manager to the AHL San Antonio Rampage. Then it was off to Vancouver, where he was the Assistant GM for the Canucks and General Manager of the AHL Utica Comets. His role with Vancouver was primarily contract negotiations and cap management. He was later picked up by Toronto. Gilman has a law degree; he is well-versed in math, metrics, and analytics, but knows they are incapable of telling the whole story; and reading just a few articles about the man shows that he is as sharp as a scalpel.

But the kicker is this: following his ouster from the Canucks’ front office (along with everyone else from the Mike Gillis executive team) Gilman was hired by the NHL. His task was to help the league design the expansion draft system that brought the Las Vegas Golden Knights into existence. Since he helped design it, he knows how best to take advantage of it. That would be a head-and-shoulders advantage for Seattle going into what is likely to be a chess match of an expansion draft in the spring of 2021.

This would be Gilman’s first NHL GM job, which I’ve made clear is a risk. But in this case I’m going to suggest that if there’s any chance Gilman can be pried away from Toronto, Seattle would be well-advised to try.

Author: Tim Currell

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