You could have excused most Toronto Maple Leafs fans if they had forgotten the team was still looking for a GM.
The incumbents conducted a draft, free agency and blockbuster trade before every reporter tweeted he or she was gone on vacation for the rest of the summer.
I didn’t forget that they had a GM position that was—at least technically—still vacant, but it was getting to the point where they were forging ahead without one and people simply stopped wondering what was even going to happen there.
Then, out of seemingly nowhere, the team hires Lou Lamoriello. The man who built, and was the face of, the New Jersey Devils franchise for nearly three decades, is now the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs at age 72. You can’t make this stuff up.
There were two entirely different things that came into my head when this was announced.
The first is that if this doesn’t work, then what? It has to work, right? A management team with one of the game’s all-time-great-GMs, a young up-and-coming outside the box thinker, one of the hardest working scouts in the league, and an elite coach — all locked into the most financially gifted organization in the league.
It’s going to take time, patience, and development, but to this point they’ve all said the right things and seem to have bought into that notion—at least publicly. The biggest mishap they can make right now is veering off the course of collecting picks, drafting well, signing more bargain free agents, and then washing, rinsing, and repeating. It’s a good strategy for at least another year until they are good enough to start dealing in real assets and improving the NHL roster.
Then, there’s the other side of me that says the GM most famous for running a tight ship and overseeing every little thing is not going to do well reporting to a President so young that he drafted him two decades ago, one who has virtually no NHL management experience. Add to it a coach making over twice as much as him that has roster input, along with an entire management group essentially assigned to him in permanent marker. Who goes through more coaches than Lou Lamoriello? The Devils went through 19 in 27 years with him in charge. Does the, “When will Lou fire Babcock and go behind the Maple Leafs bench,” pool open at the 2017 trade deadline?
For all the well-deserved accolades and credentials bandied about, the Devils have been a poor organization for three years running. They had the oldest forward group in the league last year along with one of the youngest defense cores. He oversaw massive contracts to a 31-year-old Ryan Clowe and 32-year-old Michael Cammalleri, and signed Travis Zajac to one of the most under-the-radar worst contracts in the league. And he traded for Tuomo Ruutu.
Last year, when everyone in the league knew they were out of the playoffs approaching the deadline, Lou refused to give in. When the season ended and they finished sixth last, the time was finally right for the Devils to move in a different direction. Everyone in the league commended a legend, while also acknowledging this was well overdue.
And now he’s back in charge with the Leafs. He’s GM, with the rest of the brain trust reporting to him, and Lou himself reporting to Shanahan.
It has the makings of a glass house: It looks pretty, it might work, but it might also be a stone’s throw away from falling apart in a hurry.
While people were quick to offer their two cents on what this hiring really means – Dubas’ mentor! Lou’s in charge now! They just want his relationship and trade experience! — the truth is that it’s impossible to even remotely predict how this is going to pan out come the time when his three-year contract is up.
Three years ago today the league was about to enter a half-season lockout. The Maple Leafs started that season by firing Brian Burke, then they made their first playoff appearance in ten years in May of 2013. Back then, who could have projected Shanahan, Babcock, Lamoriello, Hunter and Dubas would be running the Maple Leafs just two years later?
So let’s focus on the now—what we think Lamoriello can and will bring in the immediate short term—and go from there.
If there is one thing that is abundantly clear in researching Lou Lamoriello, it is that he is all about structure, organization, and professionalism.
Devils colour commentator, Sherry Ross, told The Hockey News as much in a recent collection of interviews:
Lou came in and put his stamp on the team in terms of the way he wanted everybody to act. Everybody thought he was bringing a lot of the college mentality to the organization – suits and ties on the road, certain things were not allowed in the dressing room, etc. There was a structure that was put in, and although that word is overused in sports today, he put a structure and a mentality in right from the start that had not been there before, and it gave the team an added air of professionalism it had been lacking.
As poor as the Maple Leafs were on the ice last year, they were arguably even worse off the ice. The entire season was one big issue after another, and it started the first day of training camp with an article on Phil Kessel’s summer habits. The season eventually got to the point where fans were waiting to see what was going to happen next as seemingly every week a new “controversy” of sorts came to be.
Now Lamoriello has been involved in his fair share of controversies (he literally got an injunction against the league once), but for different reasons. Simply getting the circus out of town and taming some of the white noise in this city next year would be a huge win, on top of continuing to turn pending UFAs into good draft picks.
In Behind the Moves (BTM), Lamoriello told author Jason Faris that, “Ultimately, your philosophy keeps getting compounded into your players, and then they really become who the organization is… I have a one-on-one with every player who comes in [to New Jersey]… [I set clear expectations for] the way they dress, the way they talk, what they do, how they act.”
In the Players Tribune, Sheldon Souray gave some thanks by writing:
[To] Lou Lamoriello: Thank you for pulling me into your office when I was an out-of-shape 20-year-old kid at his second New Jersey Devils training camp and saying, “If you ever embarrass this organization again by coming in overweight, you will never pull on a Devils sweater.” That was just the ass-kicking that I needed, and the tone you set for the Devils organization is why it is one of the most respected in hockey.
Ultimately, the team just flat out needs better players. They aren’t talented enough at the NHL level to be Cup contenders, which is not hard to see. Nonetheless, last season was embarrassing at every level: the losing, the effort, the media, and the player’s abilities to handle any sort of controversy or even try to conduct themselves as professionals. It is one thing if they are going to lose more than their fair share again next season (they more than likely will), but having everything else that came with it last season would be an unmitigated disaster.
“Lou hasn’t changed since we were together for 35 straight days [with Team USA] at the 1996 World Cup. His philosophy is to win 1-0 and to be prepared to win 1-0. That’s the way he is.”
– Paul Holmgren, in BTM
Strong defensive play has been a staple of the Devils organization since Lou Lamoriello was GM. Even in the last three years while the team struggled on the whole, they still managed to put up strong defensive numbers as a team:
They also have the record for best penalty killing percentage in a single season (2011-12, 89.58%), and have the second-best goals against in a single season in the modern era (2003-04, 164 in 82 games).
While Lamoriello should not receive the X’s and O’s credit for that — as Pete DeBoer noted, he never interfered in his coaching or line combinations — his overall organizational mandate and way of doing business set the tone. It makes sense—playing actual defense is not hard. The issue with defense is that it involves doing things players generally don’t want to do. A player doesn’t make the big bucks for a being a good defensive forward unless he can score while doing so.
Defense requires discipline, sacrifice, attention to detail, and positioning (not necessarily in that order). Everything about it is coachable, but instilling it and having it happen consistently is far more difficult. Demanding the type of commitment required to play strong defensive hockey is something Lamoriello can set into place.
In his interview with Bob McCown, it was noted that Lou isn’t married to players that primarily play defense, or that he wouldn’t discount a skilled player that is weak defensively. That makes sense; as we noted, it’s about accountability and buying in on playing defense, which is a hard thing to do.
It’s going to require a big shift from a team that has been releasing the defensive zone early for years, consistently looking for easy offense off the rush, and has regularly left their goalies out to dry.
A big part of Lou’s job will have to be setting that tone and instilling that culture for the team of players to apply themselves on defense.
Loosely noted above, it is indisputable that Lou Lamoriello has been a demonstrably bad GM for a few years now. Even if you can move past that – say that Lou has a better support cast in management now, less financial pressures, maybe he’s invigorated in a new organization, etc.—it has to be noted that he hasn’t truly been part of a rebuild before.
Emailing with popular blog InLouWeTrust about the hiring, here is a portion of what they sent to MLHS:
The last time Lou did any “re-building,” it was back in the 1980s and he did inherit a Devils team with burgeoning young talent like Kirk Muller, Pat Verbeek, Aaron Broten, John MacLean, and adding Brendan Shanahan from the start. And that team did make the playoffs in his first season. That’s the other point of concern. This is new territory for him as a GM, which is why I’m still struggling a little bit with the thought process. Toronto certainly has plenty of talented players, more than New Jersey right now. But is it enough to really put together a successful squad soon, like Lou did in 1987? I think Toronto is still re-building to a degree and Lou doesn’t have that much experience with that. He won’t be alone in managing that, which is good. Yet, if Lou’s willing to do this by committee, that may take away his best trait as a GM – that Lou is set in his ways.
In BTM, Lou talks about his first year with the Devils saying:
When I think about it, in my first year, I come in as president, then I take over as GM in September, and then, right at training camp, I trade Greg Adams and Kirk McLean for Patrik Sundstrom. So there’s a message being sent in training camp. We started off pretty well, but then we started to falter a bit, so I changed coaches from Doug Carpenter and we made the playoffs.
The Devils made the playoffs all but three times between 1988 and 2012, and since then have made a string of poor decisions that haven’t gotten them any closer to the playoffs. This is relatively uncharted territory for Lamoriello.
The team has said all the right things about going through pain and that this will still take time. You can’t fault the organization for bringing in guys that have won their whole lives, but this is new to the main guys driving this bus. How they will go about fixing it all will be fascinating. This isn’t, say, Dale Tallon, who built Chicago and is now doing the same thing with Florida, or Dean Lombardi, who did it with San Jose and then with LA.
When faced with questions about rebuilding while with the Devils during the past season, Lou noted:
I don’t think you tear it down by any means; that’s not in the philosophy of this organization nor do I think that’s something that can be done in this day and age. You don’t just simply tear it down because of free agency and the way the draft is structured. It’s almost impossible to do if you think like that… I don’t like to use the word rebuild either because it’s a resignation that it’s OK not to succeed for a given amount of time, and I don’t think that really works in New Jersey.
What will happen after a year or two of losing? It’s anyone’s guess at this point, but it is as big a storyline as any.
Lou Lamoriello is one of the true legends of the game of hockey. Despite some recent evidence that the clock is striking zero, it is hard not to be excited about an experienced Hall of Famer grooming the Maple Leafs young management team while overseeing the team as it’s built up.
In the short term, his best value to the organization will be in righting the ship with the team’s structure and discipline. That applies to on-ice play, particularly on defense, and all facets of off-ice behaviour.
It’s an exciting move and for the time being the organization has all their momentum swinging positively—and downhill—which is important in anything you do in life.
The questions of how this arranged marriage front office will work and live together over the long haul, particularly when things get difficult, will hang over them until it is definitively proven one way or the other. So too will whether Lamoriello still has his savvy to him or not.
As the old saying goes, “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”