Steve Simmons provided some great insight into the Toronto Maple Leafs today. Simmons’ work is usually a lot of thing, mostly opinions, but today’s column shed some light on what has been a pretty well kept secret here in town. Brian Burke has, what other Leaf GM’s haven’t, a hockey department. Yes the others had guys with titles, but Burke has actually set up a functioning unit.
I have been told by many a folk that the succesful teams don’t have one guy, they are run in similar ways to successful businesses. There is of course a boss, however underneath that boos there are clear divisions of labor, each person and or department having a responsibility. Furthermore, there has to be a great respect for scouting. Many a successful GM’s started as scouts so the know and appreciate the importance of scouts and having good ones, not just guys they know and or like.
For numerous reasons the inner sanctum of TML has been a deep dark secret. Much like a teachers lounge in a school. Those outside have no clue what it looks like in there or what goes on in there. Since Burke has come in to town we hear all sorts of names and various people are on the radio and in the media all the time, however who does what has been a deep dark secret. Simmons has shed some light on that, for those of us who care about these types of things.
What’s interesting, at least for me is that Simmons provides a fairly believable background and philosophy on how things are unfolding. It’s interesting to me for the simple reason that things don’t usually happen this way for the Leafs:
” When Gord Kirke first was approached to identify the next general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he had more than Brian Burke’s name in mind.
Privately, he talked a lot about the Leafs building an organization and not just hiring the right leader. And at times throughout the search, he focussed on two operations he had become quite familiar with.
One was the Detroit Red Wings, who under Ken Holland’s leadership, had amassed as deep an array of hockey minds in the front office as any in the game. The other was more familiar to Kirke. Over the years he had acted as lawyer, consultant and negotiator for the Blue Jays and had served as Pat Gillick’s agent. Kirke was well aware of the type of operation Paul Beeston and Gillick ran in the championship Blue Jays years.
He saw that Gillick and Beeston were the perfect dance partners: At different times, and under differing circumstances, either man could lead, both men could follow. One could do what the other couldn’t or wouldn’t, and surrounding them were wise old baseball minds such as Bobby Mattick and Al LaMacchia and trusted scouts such as Moose Johnson and Bob Engle and Gord Lakey.
Gillick, the baseball man, and Beeston, the number-cruncher with the human touch, came to rely on the voices around them.”
BIAS ALERT: I know and happen to really like Kirke. He is one of the few who walked away from the player agent game as a result of not liking the “nature of the beast”. More importantly, of all the people “in the game” Kirke is truly one of the best. He is smart, likeable, ethical and down to earth. So if Simmons says this was the plan, I believe it.
“Burke is essentially the CEO. Dave Nonis is general manager without portfolio: He oversees everything. Poulin, the former Philadelphia captain and Notre Dame head coach, is responsible for pro and amateur scouting, the lifebloods of any organization. (In fact, in today’s salary-capped National Hockey League, the role of pro scouting has taken on a far greater importance than ever before.) Jeff Jackson, a former practicing lawyer, is GM of the Toronto Marlies and salary cap expert and contract negotiator. ”
There in one paragraph is the start of some semblance of order and understanding. Is it me or is it that Nonis has the portfolio just not the title?? In any event, there certainly appears to be clear divisions of labor, and not too many chefs as may have been the case in the past Mr. Dryden.
“The way it works is, Dave Poulin reports to Dave Nonis, and Dave Nonis reports to me,” Burke said.”
Ah HUH- An Org Chart!! The Leafs are run like a business! There are reporting structures! That is really, really interesting, at least to me anyway. The other nice thing about having systems in place like this, is that it provides for younger execs to work there way in and up the system and for succession plans. Yes Burke has a 5 year deal. How quickly time flies and things change. The nice thing about something like this being in place is that if one person goes down their is a plan to replace them. No one is totally irreplaceable.
“I think one of my strengths is I don’t know what I don’t know. That’s why you hire good people, rely on their expertise, and listen to them.”
BINGO- that is how the best execs in any industry operate. Writers write and plumbers plum, we all have our areas of expertise and strenghts. A good boss figures that out, hires the right people and lets them do the jobs they were hired to do.
” It paid off for Burke when he was general manager of the Anaheim Ducks. His assistant GM was Bob Murray, who now runs the Ducks. Burke was negotiating to trade Sergei Fedorov to Columbus for Todd Marchant. Murray told Burke unequivocably: Don’t make the deal without also receiving minor-league defenceman Francois Beauchemin. Long after the deal was made, and after Beauchemin, now a Leaf, had become an integral part of Anaheim defence, Burke wasn’t shy about telling anyone: “I didn’t know anything about Beauchemin. Murph insisted we get him in the deal. He deserves the credit for that.”
I think this is the reason why the press are giving Burke so much “respect”. He doesn’t appear to be all things and he does surround himself with good people and he has a reputation of letting those people do their jobs.
“We’ve already lost Joe Nieuwendyk to Dallas,” Burke said. “That’s a compliment to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Dave Nonis will be at risk next summer. We’ll have to deal with that. I marvel at the New England Patriots The guys they’ve lost every year and they keep on winning. And that’s what we want to do here. We want to be an incubator of front office talent and we still want to win and be competitive.”
Kirke and the search team had an easy mandate but a huge challenge to get it right. Hiring the right guy for now probably wasn’t so hard. Hiring a guy who thinks like Burke does as evident by the last clip was much harder. If Burke can “draft” execs with any degree of efficiency we won’t go through these 40 + year spells for a long time. Burke may never win a cup here. However, if he lays the foundation to be the breeding ground for young execs then his legacy will go on for a long time. Look at the guys Lou Lamoriello groomed. Consider the Sam Pollacks. Building a hockey department is a huge task for Burke. It has to be built slowly and properly and it has to last.
It is interesting to see this type of thing going on in the background. Kudos to Simmons for reporting it. I think it’s as important if not more important than the off ice stuff right now. What the leafs do on ice this year isn’t nearly as important as continuing to build the foundation.
Have a good night.
Simmons is here