It is unfair to suggest general manager Jay Feaster was a “dead man walking” the moment Brian Burke joined the Calgary Flames as president of hockey operations in September.
The two were friends, and Feaster’s performance in fewer than three years featured some good (a sparkling draft class of 2013) and some bad (Ryan O’Reilly offer-sheet fiasco). No NHL GM can boast a flawless record, as Burke (former GM of the Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canucks, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs) would himself admit.
But there was also a strong sense if Burke was really going to run the show in Calgary, he would ultimately want it to feature his hand-picked supporting cast.
So Thursday, Feaster and assistant GM John Weisbrod were shown the door, and the Flames (11-15-4 before Thursday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes) will now jockey with the Buffalo Sabres – who are also seeking a new GM – in the hunt for the NHL’s next great young executive.
Burke put on his usual outspoken and entertaining show at a press conference in Calgary. Social media ensured the focus of the day was split between the state of the team and the state of Burke’s wildly out-of-control hair. (Two of his children, Molly and Patrick, were laugh riots on Twitter; Molly suggested she needed to take dad out for a haircut, Patrick warned her not to as he planned to give his father a hairbrush for Christmas.)
All jocularity aside, fixing the Flames is going to take far longer, which is why the next GM hire is critical.
The most intriguing and potentially polarizing candidate may well be former Flames star Joe Nieuwendyk, who was deposed this summer as the Dallas Stars GM and worked for Burke with the Leafs in 2008-09.
Nieuwendyk had a mixed record in Dallas (2009-13), stealing away a starting goaltender, Kari Lehtonen, from the Atlanta Thrashers for essentially nothing, but giving away scoring forward James Neal in a trade for defenceman Alex Goligoski that is skewed heavily in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ favour. But Nieuwendyk was under heavy financial pressure running a Stars team that essentially didn’t have an owner for most of his tenure.
Frequently, a young GM does far better in his second try at the job, after he’s gained some experience. Nieuwendyk is smart and sharp and would have Burke as a sounding board as well.
Burke indicated he would be fine hiring “either a young guy with great promise and maybe some experience, or just a young star that hasn’t been given a chance. That’s the beauty of this management structure – you could literally take a guy out of uniform if you believed in him and turn him loose, and he could avoid those big mistakes that young GMs make.”
Other viable and worthy candidates could include Nashville Predators assistant Paul Fenton and Maple Leafs assistant Claude Loiselle.
Burke wouldn’t speak to specific names, on the grounds it would constitute tampering, but did say the next GM would have to share his vision for an NHL team: truculent, physical and with good size.
Burke spent 75 days evaluating the Calgary organization before reporting to the ownership group that Feaster and Weisbrod had to go – a review he described as “done about as thoroughly and fairly and academically as you can do it.”
The coaching staff, including bench boss Bob Hartley – who was chosen largely because of a prior relationship with Feaster – will stay on until the end of the season, at which point the new GM will re-evaluate their work.
Burke, who’d kept the team at arm’s length while he was compiling his report, spoke to the players Thursday, and told them that while he admired their work ethic, he wanted to see them do a better job of holding third-period leads. The coaches were instructed “to do what’s best for the team long-term,” and that if they wanted to send a player down because they weren’t going to play him that would be fine with Burke. (Hours later, the Flames did just that: sending young winger Sven Baertschi to the minors.)
However, Burke also reiterated patience was never a virtue in his mind and Thursday’s moves were made with a view to accelerating the rebuilding process.
“Every team I’ve gone to work for, I’ve managed to fix over time,” said Burke, who managed a sideways shot at his former employer as he was wrapping up his comments.
“Toronto was a bigger challenge than I think people realized and, certainly, we realized because of all the assets we had to move before we could bring in new assets. We had a lot of guys who were overpaid, who had term. At one point, I said, ‘Realistically, we might not be able to move any of these guys’ – and we managed to move them all and turn them into assets. That’s what occupied the first 24 months there.
“That’s not the case here. Jay’s done a good job of managing the payroll. We’re under the [salary] cap. We don’t have 50 contracts. It’s different. You don’t just have to shovel the stable out to bring in thoroughbreds here, and that’s what we had to do in Toronto.”
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