What Separates the Good From the Bad Expansion Teams?

On the intro that marks the front of this website, I ask, and then follow with:

Why does one team seemingly strike gold in their expansion draft, while the one the next year finished 45 games under .500?  Why do expansion brothers in 2000 split so far apart right from the beginning?

In this slice of the internet, you’ll find my attempts to answer this simple question.

I began this project (in some manner) months ago.  If you include the time messing around with the expansion draft function on NHL 99 almost from the day it was released in September 1998, it’s been close to 18 years that this has fascinated me and prompted me to research.

As I went deeper into the research over the past few months, this question was always right there under everything, but the answer was elusive.  Finally, I set about four essays aside and decided to research this one simple topic: Why do some teams have success early, and some don’t?  This focuses entirely on the nine most recent teams: San Jose, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Anaheim, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus, and Minnesota.

First, I didn’t truly have a working definition of “success” because it’s slightly fluid.  Atlanta and Nashville were in a different starting situation than Columbus and Minnesota, while Anaheim and Florida were absolutely in a different starting situation than Tampa Bay and Ottawa, and all were in a different starting situation than San Jose.  My definition of “early success” is similar to the way that another great Ohioan, Justice Potter Stewart, defined pornography: “I know it when I see it”.

The following list is just some of how I tried to separate the various factors among the various teams.

For the initial owner, or early owner if not the initial one, or ownership group in general:

  • Was the initial owner a wealthy sportsman, or a wealthy investor adding to his portfolio?
  • Was initial ownership heavily involved in day-to-day operations, or hands-off?
  • Was initial ownership demanding of success at all costs?
  • Was initial ownership regularly in the papers, or mostly in the shadows?
  • Was initial ownership generally positive or not?
  • Was initial ownership cutthroat?
  • Did initial ownership become successful by investing wisely, by building a company from scratch, or by inheriting money and simply managing it well?
  • Did initial ownership become successful while leading tactically, or emotionally?
  • Was initial ownership previously involved in the NHL at all?  In hockey?  In major league pro sports?  In minor league sports?

Research was done and compiled on these, but I found no correlation between any of these factors and early success or lack of success.  There is no determining factor of success or lack of success as it pertains to ownership.

Next, I looked at the initial and early coaches.  There are quite a few players whose careers were on the downswing and had a resurrection after going to an expansion team, and quite a few more whose careers were simply going nowhere until going to an expansion team.  Since coaches are most intimately involved day-to-day with the players, they were the next logical source for further analysis:

  • Was the head coach a former player?   Were his assistants?
  • If yes, what was the highest level they reached as a player?
  • Were any head coaches in the NHL previously?  In the IHL or AHL?  In the NCAA or Canadian college hockey?  In the CHL?
  • Did any coach internationally at all, whether in an international tournament or for a team overseas?
  • Were any assistant coaches in the NHL previously?  In the AHL or IHL?  In college or in juniors?
  • Did they focus more on offense, more on defense, or more on general player development without a great focus on a tactical system?
  • Did they lead tactically or emotionally?
  • If tactically, were they emotionally stable in general?  If emotionally, what was the level of their tactical knowledge?
  • Had they been praised for interpersonal relationships (“people skills”), or were thye more distant or abrasive?
  • How old was the coach?  Was he a rising star as a coach, or someone who’d been recycled previously?

Believe it or not, I did not find any strong correlations between any particular factor with coaches and early success or lack of success.  Nor did I find any correlations between a particular set of factors and success of lack thereof.

I then looked at the expansion drafts and early rosters themselves.  After all, to have success on the ice requires some amount of talent on the ice, and even the best coach can’t get blood from a stone:

  • Did the team acquire a #1 goalie in the expansion draft or in a side trade?
  • Did the team acquire a top-pairing defenseman?
  • Did the team acquire a first-line center or a first-line winger?
  • Did the team aggressively trade with other teams in order to acquire additional assets?
  • Did the team acquire players who had previously been on expansion teams?
  • Did the team acquire former captains, or former alternate captains?
  • Did the team acquire top players or leaders from successful organizations, or from inefficient or otherwise poorly-run ones?
  • Did the team’s early roster match what was in vogue at the time that they entered the league; did the teams in the early 90s draft for speed and special teams, and did the teams in the late 90s draft for defense and a more sluggish pace of play?
  • Did the team acquire immediate help in the entry draft, or did they focus on longer-term prospects?

Shockingly, I couldn’t find any strong correlations here either.  There were some weaker ones, but no smoking gun even on player acquisitions that marked the difference between early success and early floundering.

Next, I moved on to the general managers:

  • Was the GM a former player?  If so, at what level did his career reach its peak?
  • Was the GM a former coach or assistant coach?
  • Was the GM involved in the game in a more auxiliary role, like TV or radio broadcasting?
  • Was the GM previously an assistant GM?  If so, at what level?  What was their role?
  • Did the GM come from a lower level, whether in the minors or in juniors?
  • Was the GM college-educated or not?  Had he taken some college without graduating?
  • Was the GM previously a scout or not?  Was he a scouting director?
  • Was the GM regarded as a long-term solution, or a stopgap until “the right guy” came along?
  • How highly-regarded as the GM around the league?

Believe it or not, this still led nowhere.  But I felt I was on the right track.  Next came a handful of miscellaneous questions, trying to find something to grab on and maybe lead to the answer:

  • Is there a correlation between the length of time that a GM is on the job before the expansion draft and early success?
  • Is there a correlation between how long the GM and the assistant GM or scouting director are employed by the team and the expansion draft and early success?
  • Is there a correlation between being located in a “traditional hockey market” and early success?
  • Is there a correlation between the span of time between a team getting a name, or logo, or jersey, and the expansion draft and early success?

All of these, and still no answer.

Somehow, I missed one seemingly obvious question that I’d glossed over: Was the GM formerly a GM for an NHL team?

I looked at the eight GMs who began the nine most recent expansion teams, and there it was.  Not just a correlation, but an ironclad correlation from the recent history.  The teams that hired a GM with previous experience in that position in the NHL had early success, the teams that did not hire such a GM did not have early success.

Here is the quick breakdown.

Jack Ferreira – San Jose – 1991-92

Jack Ferreira was 44 years old when he was named general manager of the Minnesota North Stars in 1988.  His pro hockey career to that point was sixteen years in; he had been a scout, assistant coach, and assistant general manager with the New England Whalers of the WHA starting in 1972.  He became a regional scout with the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau in 1977, then after three years there he became a scout for the Calgary Flames for six more years.  The New York Rangers named him as their director of player development, and after two seasons in that role he was named as the fourth general manager in North Stars history.

Ferreira played hockey through college; he was an All-American goalie at Boston University.  After graduating, he would serve as an assistant coach at West Point, Princeton, and Brown before switching to the pro side.

When the complex deal that split the North Stars in two came down, Ferreira moved with the severed chunk of the team to San Jose and became the first general manager in Sharks history.  His official starting date is listed as May 9, 1990, and he had 386 days to prepare for the Sharks’ expansion draft on May 30, 1991.  The actual agreement for what the Sharks were to take from the North Stars was changed multiple times, and a final agreement didn’t come down until two weeks before the dispersal/expansion draft.

All things considered, the Sharks did as well as they could considering the onerous conditions that they were saddled with from the beginning.  The expansion draft itself was a bad joke, and the North Stars’ system that they chose a handful of players from (24) wasn’t exactly teeming with talent.

The Sharks’ first entry draft (1991) saw them take Pat Falloon in the first round, then Ray Whitney and Sandis Ozolinsh in the second.  The pick used on Ozolinsh was one of two that was acquired from the North Stars in exchange for not taking a certain player in the dispersal draft; the other was a 1st-rounder in 1992.

Ferreira was fired by the Sharks on June 27, 1992, after just one season on the ice.  The prevailing rumors involved a desire for a horizontal power structure, in which decisions were split among three men instead of having a traditional GM (like Ferreira) making the decisions.  Touted as “forward-thinking”, the Sharks slumped to one of the worst records in NHL history the very next year, causing the dismantling of this strange tripartite arrangement.

The Sharks made the playoffs for the first time in their third season (1993-94), then knocked out #1 seed Detroit in the first round.  The core players on that team were almost entirely acquired by Ferreira, and several more (Mike Rathje, Andrei Nazarov, and Marcus Ragnarsson) were on the way up after having been drafted by him just a week before his ouster.  Despite some very trying circumstances, Ferreira laid the groundwork for an excellent team going forward.

 

Mel Bridgman – Ottawa – 1992-93

Mel Bridgman was just 36 years old when he was named the first general manager in (new) Ottawa Senators history on August 31, 1991.  From that time, he would have 292 days to prepare for the expansion draft that would stock the Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Bridgman was the 1st overall pick in the 1975 NHL Draft, and would play fourteen seasons in the NHL before retiring in 1989.  He earned a business degree from Wharton after retirement, and went right to the top of hockey ops with the expansion Senators.

The missteps that the Senators took under Bridgman are legendary.  They include:

  • Not even opening the league’s official unprotected expansion draft list before beginning to make selections at the expansion draft
  • Not being able to access the team’s internal draft list because of a bad power outlet that Bridgman’s laptop was plugged into, and because no one had brought a battery or backup power cable
  • Three times attempting to select players in the expansion draft who were not eligible to be selected, a direct result of not verifying the official list
  • Concocting a plan to draft Czech defensemen Roman Hamrlik in the entry draft, then help him adjust to the culture shock by also drafting two of his older countrymen who would be of little use otherwise.  Hamrlik was drafted by Tampa Bay, and Bridgman drafted the older Czechs anyway.
  • A series of nonsensical trades and other acquisitions, sometimes done without having consulted his head coach (Rick Bowness) at all

This list is far from all-inclusive; it could veer off into other things like threatening to demote a player to the AHL permanently unless he hurriedly agreed to renegotiate his contract on the spot for a substantially lower salary.  This particular incident, by the way, took place less than two hours before a Senators game in which said player was going to be playing.

Ottawa finished their first year with a staggering 10-70-4 record, an appalling .143 point percentage.  Bridgman was fired on April 15, 1993, after the season came to a merciful end.

The Senators would make the playoffs for the first time in team history in their fifth season of existence, well after all vestiges of Bridgman’s reign were gone.

 

Phil Esposito – Tampa Bay Lightning – 1992-93

Phil Esposito played seventeen years in the NHL, putting together a career that would carry him into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the first ballot.  He led the NHL in goals six times, in points five times, and in playoff scoring three times.  In one five-year span, he scored 326 goals and 687 points.  By the time he retired, he was second all-time in goals and points scored, trailing only Gordie Howe.

Esposito spent four years in the Rangers’ broadcast booth after retiring in 1981.  He was named the team’s general manager on July 14, 1986 and quickly acquired a reputation for transactions that earned him the nickname “Trader Phil”.  In three seasons with the Rangers as their GM, he made 44 trades in addition to several more signings and waiver moves.

Esposito stayed involved in hockey by going in with a group that was attempting to acquire an expansion team for Tampa Bay.  The Lightning would, in fact, come into existence, and Esposito was named as the first general manager in franchise history on April 4, 1991; this gave him 441 days to prepare for the 1992 expansion draft.

The Lightning did little better than Ottawa did in the expansion draft, but the big difference was that Esposito brought a frantic aggression to the front office.  Whereas Ottawa was content to mostly stand pat with their expansion picks, Esposito made four trades within 24 hours of the expansion draft and also signed a free agent.  He’d make another six trades by New Year, and nine more by the time the 1993 entry draft took place.

Esposito would last six years as the Lightning’s GM, putting together a team that made the playoffs in its fourth season before ownership interference and obscene budgetary demands forced it to be stripped down to bare bones.

 

Jack Ferreira – Anaheim Ducks – 1993-94

Ferreira’s background is all up top with San Jose.

Because of the way that the 1993 expansion was handled (invite only), Ferreira had only 93 days between the time he was named as Anaheim’s first GM (on March 23, 1993) and the expansion draft itself.

Anaheim performed extremely well at the expansion draft, and would tie an expansion team record for wins in a season that first year.  The Ducks would finish tied for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot in just their third year, but miss out due to a tiebreaker.  They made it decisively in their fourth season.

Ferreira did a solid job of methodically building Anaheim through a combination of trades and signings, but plenty is owed to the initial buildup from the expansion draft and entry draft.


Bobby Clarke – Florida Panthers – 1993-94

A legendary player and a first-ballot Hall of Famer like Esposito, Clarke went straight from the ice to the front office in Philadelphia.

He was originally drafted by the Flyers in 1969 and played 15 seasons, which included captaining the team to its only two Stanley Cups (1973-74 and 1974-75).  Upon retiring in May 1984, he was named the fourth general manager in Flyers team history.

Clarke’s first player-for-player trade was a doozy, as he sent future Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler to Detroit for Murray Craven and Joe Paterson.  Compounding the matter was the rumor that Sittler was to be named Flyers’ captain that very night, and instead he was traded for two young players.  Philadelphia had been bounced from the playoffs in the first round three consecutive years, but they made it to the Stanley Cup Final in Clarke’s first year…and his third…and the conference finals in his fifth…

Clarke lasted six years as Flyers’ GM, and after his firing the team would miss the playoffs entirely each of the next four seasons.  Clarke himself, meanwhile, went to Minnesota in 1990 and guided the North Stars to a Stanley Cup Final that very year.  He departed a year later to take over with the expansion Florida Panthers.

Clarke was officially named Panthers GM on March 2, 1993, which gave him 114 days to prepare for the expansion draft that would stock his team.  The Panthers set expansion records for wins and points in their first season, which still stand to this day.  He left after that one season to return to Philadelphia’s vacant GM position, and the lengthy streak of seasons without making the playoffs ended immediately; the Flyers would be there the next eleven consecutive seasons, all with Clarke guiding the ship.

As for Florida, the Panthers not only made the playoffs in their third season, they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.  Nearly half of their roster (10/23 players) was composed of players who had been directly acquired in the expansion draft itself, and several more (Stu Barnes, Jody Hull, Rob Niedermayer, and Geoff Smith among them) acquired by other means during that year.  Florida’s early success is a testament to the superb job Clarke had done in such a short time on the job.


David Poile – Nashville Predators – 1998-99

David Poile began his career in professional hockey at age 22, following a brilliant collegiate career at Northeastern.  In 1972, he entered the pro ranks as an administrative assistant with the expansion Atlanta Flames, and was elevated to assistant general manager in 1977.  He would remain with the Flames through the end of the 1981-82 season, and then move to Washington to become general manager of the Capitals for the 1982-83 season.

Washington had just finished their eighth year in the NHL and had not come within a mile of the playoffs, despite over 2/3 of teams making it in any given year.  The Capitals’ best single-season record in franchise history was 10 games under .500, and they had never recorded more than 27 wins in an 80-game season at that point.  In Poile’s first season at the helm, the team set franchise records with 39 wins and 94 points, and also made the playoffs for the first time ever.

In fact, they would make it 14 consecutive years, a streak that began when Poile arrived.  He was fired after the Capitals slumped in 1996-97, and went to Nashville to get their team off the ground.

Poile was hired as Predators’ GM on July 10, 1997, and had 351 days to prepare for the expansion draft.  It’s tough to imagine a team doing better in an expansion draft than what Nashville did, acquiring several players who would be there for close to a decade and perform at a high level.

The Predators missed the playoffs in their first five years, but it was obvious that the team was really on its way to something.  They made the playoffs for the first time in their sixth season, and would make it seven of the next eight years.

Poile is still there to this day.  I’ve actually been forced to edit this because of the shocking Weber-for-Subban deal that was announced, his second blockbuster in less than six months (Jones-for-Johansen being the other).  The Predators are 114 games over .500 in franchise history, which is saying something considering that their first five years they were 54 games under.

 

Don Waddell – Atlanta Thrashers – 1998-99

Don Waddell was an excellent player, an offensive defenseman who merited strong consideration for the 1980 USA Olympic team after a stellar career at Northern Michigan.  He would play eight years in the minor leagues, and would also suit up for a single NHL game.

After retiring in 1988, he became the head coach and general manager of the IHL’s Flint Spirits, a role he would hold for two seasons.  In 1990, he moved to the San Diego Gulls, and this was where he really came into his own.  The independent Gulls, who were not tied to any affiliation agreements with NHL teams, had the ultimate maverick in Waddell.  If there was a loophole that could be found, he would do it.  He publicly offered Eric Lindros a contract after that player’s refusal to sign with Quebec after being drafted in 1991.  He did sign Ray Whitney, an NHL draft pick that very year who had been sent back to his junior team without a contract; this brought threats of injunctions and legal action from the NHL and at least three teams, but Waddell prevailed.  He built one of the greatest minor league teams in history (the 1992-93 Gulls), and then ended up in Orlando when the IHL expanded in 1995-96 and promptly built that team into an instant juggernaut.

Waddell moved to the NHL in 1997-98 to become the assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.  One year later, on June 23 of 1998, he was named as the first general manager in Atlanta Thrashers history.  And he had 367 days to get everything built before the expansion draft in 1999.

It’s difficult to grasp how poorly the Thrashers did in their expansion draft, or how poorly run they were for most of their existence.  Ownership certainly bears a fair amount of responsibility, but almost every move in the team’s 12 years of existence was made by Waddell.  The problem was that nothing seemed to go in any kind of positive direction.  For example, he made clever moves to put together an early top line of Donald Audette, Ray Ferraro, and Andrew Brunette.  Unable to get Audette signed to a contract extension because he misread the market, Waddell traded Audette for almost nothing.  The other two, who had terrific chemistry with Audette, slumped.  Brunette slumped without Audette and wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer, and Minnesota signed him with Atlanta getting nothing.  Ferraro, now missing both his linemates, was then traded for a draft pick.  A very good first line that accounted for over 75 goals and 200 points in 2000-01 was taken apart for the whopping return of Kamil Piros and two 4th-round picks.

The only two words to describe Waddell’s tenure are “inconsistent” and “mediocre”.  Drafting was occasionally superb, occasionally awful.  Trading was occasionally astute, occasionally horrific.  There simply wasn’t an actual plan.  The end result was a team that, in twelve years, made the playoffs one single time and was swept in that lone appearance.  Between the Thrashers and Flames, Atlanta has seen seven playoff years and a 2-17 all-time playoff mark.

 

Doug Risebrough – Minnesota Wild – 2000-01

A highly-touted player, Risebrough was drafted 7th overall in 1974 by Montreal.  In his first six years as an NHL player, he won four Stanley Cups.  After two more seasons, he was traded to Calgary, where he would play another five years before retiring to become an assistant coach with the Flames.

Risebrough was named Flames GM in May of 1991.  He lasted four full seasons and into the 1995-96 season before being fired.  He went to the rival Edmonton Oilers, where for three seasons he was the team’s VP of hockey operations.  The expansion Minnesota Wild came calling, and he became the team’s first GM on September 2, 1999.  He would have just 295 days to build the franchise from scratch before the expansion draft took place.

Handcuffed with poor talent available in the expansion draft, Risebrough picked up players in trades, free agency, and off of waivers.  They made the playoffs in the third season in franchise history (making it to the conference finals), in the sixth, and the seventh.  All told, Risebrough would end up serving as the Wild’s GM for nine years.  He left at the same time as longtime coach Jacques Lemaire in 2009.

 

Doug MacLean – Columbus Blue Jackets – 2000-01

MacLean followed a similar path as Don Waddell, in the sense that both began their off-ice careers in a coaching capacity before transitioning to the front office.  MacLean was an assistant coach in the NHL for two years and one partial, before being named as the head coach of Washington’s AHL affiliate in a mid-season shakeup.  He went to Detroit as an assistant the next season, and would serve two years behind the bench there before being named Detroit’s assistant general manager.

In the fallout from another playoff disappointment, MacLean was fired by Detroit in 1994.  He went to Florida’s front office in 1994, then became the head coach in 1995-96, where he led the team on a shocking run to the Stanley Cup Final.  Shortly after being fired by the Panthers in early 1998, he resurfaced as the first general manager in Columbus Blue Jackets history.  With a hire date of February 12, 1998, he was given a stunning 862 days before his team’s expansion draft.  This was longer than any two of the above GMs had been given combined before their team’s expansion draft.

MacLean’s time as head of the Blue Jackets in many ways mirrored Waddell’s tenure with the Thrashers: inconsistent and mediocre.  Despite the huge lead time, MacLean’s Columbus teams never came close to the playoffs and never really threatened to climb out of the basement.

Comparison between the two: In the six seasons of on-ice play where MacLean’s Blue Jackets and Risebrough’s Wild teams overlapped, the Wild put up a 209-194-89 mark (507 points, .515 point percentage) and made the playoffs twice.  The Blue Jackets put up a 172-258-62 mark (406 points, .413 point percentage).  The Wild to this day have never lost 40 regulation games in a season; MacLean’s Blue Jackets alone did it four times.

 

Conclusions

Of these eight general managers and the nine teams that they led from the beginning, what stands out is that there does not initially appear to be a clear pattern as it pertains to early or long-term success.  Bridgman and Risebrough were highly-touted players coming into the NHL, while Poile and Ferreria were both collegiate players who never played professional hockey.  Clarke and Esposito were both Hall of Fame players.  MacLean and Waddell both came from the Red Wings organization, and Waddell had arguably had the most recent success at the time of being named GM of an expansion team.

There is no correlation between duration of time to prepare for the expansion draft and any type of success.  Waddell had more time than Poile but did a substantially worse job; MacLean had almost three times as much time as Risebrough but his team floundered for the duration of his reign.  Ferreira with Anaheim and Clarke with Florida both had less than four months from hiring to expansion draft, but both built enough of a team to set expansion records for wins in a first season.

There is no correlation between frequency of trades/transactions and any type of success, nor of free agent activity and success.  There is no correlation between whether more success comes from good drafting compared to good trades.

There is no correlation between having been in a successful organization compared to an unsuccessful one previously.  There is no correlation between a particular personality and success; Esposito and MacLean are very similar, but Esposito was successful while MacLean was not.  Waddell and Esposito are similar in terms of aggression and creativity, but Waddell found no success as an NHL GM.

The only clear correlation, and it happens to have a 100% hit rate, is whether the team’s first GM is someone who has previously been an NHL GM.  Being a longtime assistant GM doesn’t appear to be enough, nor does being a minor league GM.  The previous NHL GMs in this outline are Ferreira, Clarke, Esposito, Poile, and Risebrough.  The GMs who had not held that position in the NHL are Bridgman, Waddell, and MacLean.

A summation of the experienced GMs:

  • Jack Ferreira was fired by the Sharks after one year, but he put together the core of a team that would make the playoffs twice and win two playoff series in its first four years of existence.
  • Phil Esposito put together a Lightning team that made the playoffs in its fourth year, before issues with budgeting and ownership wrecked it almost overnight.  This was a circus that you really had to be there for.
  • In Anaheim, Ferreira’s first-year Ducks team finished 9th in the West; they would make the playoffs in their fourth year with a first line of a superb entry draft pick (Paul Kariya), an extremely aggressive trade acquisition (Teemu Selanne), and a supplemental pick out of a Canadian college (Steve Rucchin).
  • Bobby Clarke left Florida after one year, but he put together a core for a team that would not only make the playoffs in its third year, but score two monumental upsets along the way (against both division-winning teams in the East) to the Stanley Cup Final.
  • David Poile’s Predators methodically built toward the playoffs, which they made in their sixth year.  They’ve made the playoffs 9 times in the 12 years since then.
  • Doug Risebrough’s Wild made the playoffs, and the Western Conference Finals, in their third year.  They’d make it twice more in the ensuing four years.

Of the inexperienced GMs:

  • Mel Bridgman’s Senators were a disaster of the highest order.  The first-year team was horrendous, but the vestiges of his influence remained. In their first four years, Ottawa was 51-224-23, good for a .2097 point percentage.  In an 82-game schedule, that comes out to an average of 34 points, which would be (roughly) a 15-63-4 record.
  • Don Waddell’s was GM of the Thrashers for 11 seasons.  They made the playoffs one time, failing to win a single game.  In 11 years, and 10 seasons on the ice, they were 308-401-111 (727 points, a .443 percentage.  That’s a 73-point season on average, and that was with having the entire prime of players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, Marc Savard, and several others.  And that was while playing in what was far and away the weakest division in the NHL every year.)
  • Doug MacLean was GM of the Blue Jackets for seven seasons, never once cracking 75 points in one of those seasons and never coming close to the playoffs.  He left behind a team so thin on talent that after his firing, the next preseason began with Nikolai Zherdev taking faceoffs because there were so few centers of anything resembling NHL caliber in the system.

Of the experienced ones, there is no correlation between previous success as an NHL GM and success as an expansion GM.

I would theorize that a previous GM is able to have success because he is able to come in with a clear set of expectations and set a very clear course at a very early point.  “This is my assistant GM, these are your duties, go do it.  This is my scouting director, here’s what we’re focusing on, go do it.  Here is my phone ringing off the hook with trade calls from around the league; I’ve done this before and am not intimidated.  I have a clear direction for this franchise, and we are going to do it.  And now that my first week on the job is complete, we have months to prepare for the expansion and entry drafts.  Let’s make history.”

To have early and long-term success, hire someone who has previously been a GM.  This is not the time or place to hire a first-timer.

For Las Vegas:

I actually wrote this a couple weeks ago, but didn’t upload it because I wanted to see what direction Las Vegas took with their first GM.

Reports came out earlier today that former Washington Capitals GM George McPhee is going to be named as the first GM in Las Vegas history.  I do not know if these are true, and I don’t feel like waiting the 17 hours from the time I upload this to verify it.

If, in fact, the McPhee to Vegas rumors are true:

  • Las Vegas will have hired an experienced GM.  This, as I’ve outlined above, is an absolute must.
  • McPhee himself has been a GM through every circumstance possible: from last overall to first overall, from taking over an aging team in dire need of a rebuild to building a young team that needs to get over the hump.
  • Perhaps most important, McPhee has been a GM on an existing team for three different expansion drafts.  He knows what it’s like in the room for an existing team: the agony of whether to protect this player versus that one, whether to intentionally expose a good player in favor of a hot prospect while banking on the fact that other teams might expose better ones from that same position and thus shield your guy from serious consideration, whether to make a trade to an expansion team to entice them to pass on someone unprotected that you might very much want to keep.  There’s a very small number of people out there who are both former GMs and were also either GMs or NHL assistant GMs for the last round of expansion drafts.

If McPhee to Vegas is true, one thing that is guaranteed to come up time and time again will be the trade he made that sent Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta.  There’s no way to dress up this particular trade.  However, I will argue that it’s irrelevant.

The last GM spotlighted above is Doug Risebrough, who was the GM of the Calgary Flames when he traded Doug Gilmour to Toronto.  If you don’t remember a prime Gilmour, you missed out; if you don’t remember a prime Gilmour seemingly willing the perenially moribund Maple Leafs to with an inch of the Stanley Cup Final in his second year with Toronto, it’s tough to grasp how loathed Risebrough was for the trade.  It was seemingly a massive black mark that would follow him everywhere.

And yet he took over Minnesota with barely 1/3 of the time afforded Doug MacLean in Columbus, didn’t even move to Minnesota until very late in the process, and still put together a team that was in the Western Conference Finals in just their third year of existence.  Looking good next to a MacLean-run team is not difficult; putting a team of 22 afterthoughts and a 20-year-old Marian Gaborik into the conference finals is obscenely difficult.

One question that may be asked is whether and to what extent the regime embraces the information of what’s currently known as “analytics”.  I would caution against insisting on analytics being a major part of operations, simply because it’s relatively new and primarily because none of us has the slightest idea of how strongly any of it correlates to anything.

When Jack Ferreira was hired and then fired as GM in San Jose, the Sharks’ braintrust talked about “new ways” of doing things.  Part of that involved breaking down the role of a traditional GM into several different components and splitting the duties horizontally among multiple people, mirroring what was taking place and very much in vogue among corporate America.  It was a total disaster; the Sharks put up 24 points in an 84-game season (.143 percentage) with this setup, and they jumped to 80 points and the playoffs the very next year with a more conventional setup.

When Mel Bridgman was hired as GM in Ottawa, he was holding a fresh MBA from Wharton.  In the corporate and business culture of the time, this was the ultimate qualification.  The ways of doing things in hockey ops was thought by some to be too static and rigid for the new reality of sports, and someone with an MBA (especially Wharton) embraced unconventional thinking and was perfect for bringing incredible levels of success to the NHL.  That, too, was a complete disaster: Bridgman’s Senators also had 24 points in 84 games (.143 percentage), and didn’t come close to respectability until every player he’d acquired except Alexei Yashin was long gone from Ottawa.

The nature and role of analytics in hockey is unknown.  It may very well be the next big thing, and as meaningful in hockey as sabermetrics is in baseball.  Or it could be a passing fad, as people realize that baseball is more made up of single actions and much more easily tracked and analyzed than the more fluid, fast-paced hockey game.  My point is: don’t sweat this part, and don’t either throw a party or run for the hills depending on the role of analytics in the new Vegas front office.

The most important thing was to hire a general manager with prior experience in that position in the NHL.  And if that’s been done, Vegas is a very good position right from the beginning.

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