Watching the parade of postseason news conferences from eliminated teams has been like watching the NHL as scripted by “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, minus the colorful prose. It’s a collection of empty suits spackling over their own backsides and deflecting blame as if they have a force field up.
Among the lowlights: Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin saying that “with a better or different attitude, we don’t have 40 losses,” two years after making one of the most regrettable trades in NHL history under the auspices of “a different attitude” for his franchise; New York Islanders GM Garth Snow telling reporters he expects to return, and then owner Jon Ledecky punting on the issue in a question-less news conference and a subsequent letter to fans; Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland getting two more years to ride his franchise’s slide into irrelevance; and finding out that Peter Chiarelli is still the Edmonton Oilers GM because the team is being run by former players sipping red wine together in clandestine meetings.
All of this leads to one basic question being screamed to the heavens by certain fans this week:
Why is it so damn hard to fire these guys?
Nineteen of the NHL’s general managers were hired in 2014 or earlier. That doesn’t include the newly formed Golden Knights or the recently sold Carolina Hurricanes, who are the only team to make a change at the top this season. Ownership changes are a surefire catalyst for swapping out a GM — witness the end of Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey — although strangely that trend seems to have no home on Long Island.
I asked a few former team executives this week why changes at the top happen so rarely in comparison to, say, coaches. They said:
GMs don’t get fired because: They’re essentially salesmen. They sell players on signing with their teams. They sell other general managers on transactions. And they sell their team president and owner on the “Big Plan” that they just need a few more years to execute, the plan that’s slowly coming together, the plan that’s going to result in a championship. They sell them on the idea that without their hands on the wheel, this plan never gets them across finish line, so they sell themselves as essential even if they really aren’t. If that sounds familiar, well, there’s a reason car dealerships also have general managers.
GMs don’t get fired because: This is basically a two-step authorization process. If an owner wants a coach gone, he’s gone. No general manager is going to fight for that guy because essentially they’re already tethered to this loser, and their owner is handing them a knife to cut them loose. But the firing of a general manager usually means both the team president/CEO and the owner have agreed that a change is mandatory. Otherwise, favor is usually curried with the former, who will be a champion for them in meetings with the owner; or more typically, the GM will have buttered up to the owner enough to have won his confidence, so even when things go sour, that relationship thrives. Ask Ken Holland or Marc Bergevin.
GMs don’t get fired because: Teams consider the alternatives. Winning a Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal. There are a finite number of executives who have that accomplishment on their LinkedIn pages. Six of the 11 general managers hired since 2015 have a Stanley Cup ring as an executive. And then once they get into these gigs, “well he does have a Cup ring” becomes a miraculous way to extend general managing life no matter what a track record since then would indicate, to which Chiarelli can attest.
GMs don’t get fired because: It’s a real hassle to flip your managerial apparatus. Fire a coach and it means replacing at most about five people on staff. Fire a general manager, and unless you promote from within, that means wholesale changes in hockey operations, managerial staff and scouting. Firing a coach is deleting a malfunctioning program. Firing a general manager is like reformatting a hard drive.
GMs don’t get fired because: There are often very specific circumstances that touch off GM firings — like a conflict with superiors or an ownership change. It takes a significant change in fortunes — tumbling down from a Stanley Cup, several seasons of losing with no hope of a turnaround — to necessitate a firing. Or sometimes it just takes a super reactionary owner with extraordinary expectations, to which Tim Murray can attest. But ultimately …
GMs don’t get fired because: Every situation is different. It isn’t like coaches, where wins and losses and playoff berths and stats can be quantified and the formula tells you whether a change is necessary. In fact, as team president Brian Burke spelled out when he fired GM Jay Feaster with the Calgary Flames, wins and losses are only part of the equation: There’s the quality of the GM’s staffing decisions, the ultimate returns on their transactions and their success or failure at the draft. So when you hear Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson spare Chiarelli because of the improvement of the team’s scouting system, well, that’s a selling point.
But every situation is also contextually different. Maybe Marc Bergevin is spared because of the languages he knows or because of his relationship with John Tavares‘ agent. Maybe Garth Snow’s contract, rumored to be “fireproof,” courtesy of former owner Charles Wang, really does keep him in a job. Maybe we don’t appreciate the bank of goodwill Ken Holland has saved up the way the Ilitch family does.
So there are reasons these guys aren’t fired — maybe not good ones, but reasons nonetheless. But at some point, despite all this, it does come back to whether these plans and this prestige have led the team to on-ice success.
Take it from a GM who’s been fired twice.
“This is all about having a parade,” Burke said. “That’s what this is about.”
Jersey Fouls of the Week
This Foul is relevant to my interests.
@PuckSoupPodcast @wyshynski @davelozo I appreciated the Ocean’s 11 reference when breaking down the LA/VGK predictions and with that I give you the most gimmicky drunken jersey purchase I’ve ever made… pic.twitter.com/ajKERXB4v3
– Clint Arndt (@nytexpat) April 11, 2018
A Danny Ocean No. 11 Vegas NHL jersey is totally a Foul, but its existence makes me happier than a group of thieves staring wistfully at the dancing fountains of the Bellagio. Or Elliott Gould in a bathrobe. One of the two.
– Michele (@GauzePaws) April 8, 2018
Five amazing things about the Ottawa Senators‘ town halls
In case you were wondering how tenuous and fractured the relationship between the Senators and their fans had gotten, please know that owner Eugene Melnyk and GM Pierre Dorion held not one, not two but three (!!!) town hall meetings with season-ticket holders in the past week.
Bless the Senators fans who recorded two of the three sessions. You can listen to Town Hall 1 here and Town Hall 3 here. We did. They’re … thorough. Questions varied from the future of Erik Karlsson to contract buyouts to parking fees to that one guy who wanted the team to change its logo to the one it wore at the Centennial game, before Melnyk told him that their extensive market research showed fans were actually quite fond of the Centurion.
Here are five amazing things we learned from these town halls and the team’s postseason discussions with media:
1. Pierre Dorion says shopping is totally different from listening or negotiating. Dorion threw a fit over accusations that he was “shopping” defenseman Erik Karlsson at the trade deadline. “I was disappointed because we live in a world where things, whether it’s the truth or not the truth, can be fueled. We weren’t actively shopping him,” he said.
This is what we in the business call “The P.K. Subban Special.” Please recall how the Canadiens swore on a pile of poutine that they weren’t “actively shopping” Subban but would listen to pitches from teams looking to acquire him because, hey, you’re not doing your job if you don’t listen. And so they “listened” to Predators GM David Poile, and suddenly Subban was singing at honky-tonk bars.
For the Senators, this is semantic nonsense. Once you call back, or have that second conversation, you’re shopping the guy. Once you get to within minutes of trading Karlsson to the Vegas Golden Knights, along with Bobby Ryan‘s contract, it’s not an informational query. And while Dorion took some runs at the media after the Senators’ season, it’s not like we’re the ones fueling the Karlsson trade speculation when no less an authority than Bobby Ryan himself is saying he expected to be moved.
2. The shorting of Erik Karlsson. The Senators are going to offer an eight-year deal to Karlsson on July 1. But you could hear in their voices that this is not going to be a max deal. “There are teams that can outgun us 5-to-1,” Melnyk said of Karlsson’s 2019 free agency. “You can only go as far as you can go and we’ll go as far as we can.”
So was this crying poverty a negotiating ploy ahead of their “praying for a hometown discount” offer to Karlsson, or is it a “best we could do” offer to save face when the team ends up trading him? Or both?
3. They have no idea what they’re rebuilding or how long they’re building it for. At one of the town halls, Melnyk told the fans “we’re not going to win the Stanley Cup next year. We know that. Three to five years, that’s the objective.”
At his postseason news conference, Dorion walked back the idea that it’ll be three years before the team contends, which is a good thing to say, if only for Matt Duchene‘s mental health. But it would be nice to all be on the same page here, as the team rebuilds less than a year after making the conference finals.
4. Guy Boucher is toast. If not now, then soon. Dorion declaring that the younger players must get ice time and ridiculing the coach’s “rest is a weapon” stance on practices was the door slamming shut on the Boucher era.
5. This was actually good. The biggest shock from these town halls was that they weren’t a three-hour slow-motion train wreck. Sure, there was plenty to be cynical about, but it was a serviceable way to air grievances and find some levels of catharsis and express frustration. And once that was out of everyone’s system, there was a certain amount of bonding done between team and fan. There was more laughter than sighing. Listen to these things, and listen to a combative relationship inch closer to “we’re all in this together” territory. Other franchises should take notes.
Look, I love puppies.
– NHL (@NHL) April 12, 2018
But I find the integrity of this “puppies pick the winners of Stanley Cup playoff series” gimmick to be unconscionable.
The bowls of food have no logos on them. They’re assigned a team through post-production CGI, perhaps months after these doggos were filmed.
I have witnessed an octopus correctly predict World Cup winners. I have seen a monkey prognosticate who would win the Stanley Cup. Are you telling me these very good boys and girls don’t deserve the chance to properly pick between two teams after the playoff series have been established? After they’ve had time to bone up on the matchups? To paws and reflect on their Cup chances? Granted, one assumes they’d have an inherent bias toward the Bruins and David Backes, rescuer of Russian strays. Or perhaps to Jay Beagle‘s team.
All that said, pups are the best, and this is sort of cute.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
A different kind of ESPN On Ice this week, as Emily checks in from Saskatchewan with insight and emotions from that tragic accident involving the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team. Plus, ESPN’s Barry Melrose is in studio to break down the playoffs. Plus another dumb media moment and Puck Headlines. Stream it here and listen in iTunes here.
Ken Campbell with a heartfelt tribute to Humboldt. “By the time you read this, I will likely be in the air headed east or back on the ground in Toronto. It was an honor and a privilege to share their grief and tell some of their stories. None of us can claim that our pain is equal to theirs, particularly for the families who lost children, husbands and fathers. But as the outpouring of emotion and support from all over the world has shown, we do share some of that pain.” [The Hockey News]
An interesting bit on new eye-tracking tech for goalies. “On isolated shooters, goalies tested so far seem to put isolated focus on the stick blade and puck from shot release to fully completed save. … In screened situations, the goalie uses peripheral vision to keep sight on the shooter and puck but also focus on players driving the net to calculate the line of the puck in case of a deflection.” [Sport Techie]
Really insightful feature on Artemi Panarin from Aaron Portzline. “There were kids who had everything handed to them, while Artemi had to borrow things or just have his grandfather ask for help around town. You can’t describe it. There are no words in Russian or English to describe how sad and humiliating it was for Artemi.” [The Athletic]
Oleg Znarok won Olympic gold, “got tired psychologically” and quit the Russian national team. Sounds about right. [AP]
Meeting the goalie whose paleo diet has “kept him from eating ice cream for nearly two years and pizza for more than two years.” [In Forum]
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
An off-beat story about the friendship between Team USA teammates Natalie Darwitz and Krissy Wendell-Pohl. [KARE]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Emily Kaplan, who provided incredible coverage of the Humboldt bus crash, on the link between the New England Patriots and one of the victims.