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A hockey player takes the ice in Toronto in this file photo. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
A hockey player takes the ice in Toronto in this file photo. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

NHL trade deadline

Geeks no more, ‘capologists’ become integral part of any trade Add to ...

On Laurence Gilman’s desk is a copy of the new collective agreement, the summary of terms, pages held together by a small, black, metal binder clip. The amended rules of the NHL’s financial game. On one wall, there’s an animation cel of the Grinch. On the other, a photograph of Gilman, the vice-president of hockey operations and assistant general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, and Mike Gillis, his boss, at a charity fishing event a couple of summers back. Gilman is holding a 31-pound Chinook salmon, a hefty haul for a boy from Winnipeg.

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Gilman, in moments of duress, turns to that photograph for relief. The big one is out there.

There is stress in Vancouver, even as the Canucks have ascended to the top of the Northwest Division after last week falling to seventh in the Western Conference. The team has been beat up by injuries. There is a gaping hole at the centre position. Roberto Luongo remains a Canuck, $5.3-million (all currency U.S.) on the bench. And the NHL trade market is pretty quiet. “It’s a very strange season,” Gillis says.

Gilman, 48, thrives in this milieu. He is in his fifth season with the Canucks and has been in hockey upward of two decades. A lawyer by training, he scored his first job with the Jets when they were in Winnipeg. He hung on to his job when the team moved to Phoenix. He developed a reputation as a savvy, tough contract negotiator, and as an executive who knows the game.

With the advent of the salary cap, he added “capologist” to his résumé, a term he and others of his breed don’t especially care for as it evokes the picture of numbers nerds who don’t really understand the nuances of a fast game on ice. But the role has become a crucial one for most teams, this year especially with the salary cap falling next season, and new contract tricks like keeping salary in a trade, and contract buyouts.

They are lesser known than general managers, but the likes of Gilman; Joel Solomon, vice-president/hockey operations and legal affairs for the Los Angeles Kings; and Frank Provenzano, assistant general manager for the Dallas Stars, play essential roles. The Pittsburgh Penguins describe their capologist, 36-year-old assistant general manager Jason Botterill, as “avant-garde.”

“As much as I try and distance myself from the capology part of it, you do have to play to your strengths,” Gilman says. “My wife tells me I should embrace it. The PR guys tell me it’s my brand. My strength has always been understanding the value of players. And I know what’s important in running a National Hockey League team.”

Thirty-seven hundred kilometres southeast of Vancouver, near the end of the vast northern Dallas suburbs, Provenzano sits at a picnic bench at a gas station over a lunch of brisket, sausage and ribs at Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q. Provenzano, who played university hockey at Queen’s and whose father was a Member of Parliament for Sault Ste. Marie, scored his first NHL job as he finished his MBA in Vancouver and cold-called the Canucks in the mid-1990s.

He moved to the Washington Capitals, and in 2006 caught on in Dallas. Like his friend Gilman, Provenzano, 45, doesn’t care for the term capologist – “it sounds like a mushroom farmer,” he says – but the capologists are a bit nerdy. The two were among the few NHL executives at the recent MIT Sloan sport analytics conference, and both the Canucks and Stars use advanced stats to measure players.

It’s a necessity of modern sports, Provenzano says. With the money at stake, the risk for the owners is bigger, and all available tools must be employed. Provenzano says hockey is behind sports like baseball, basketball and football. Indeed, the team the Vancouver Canucks want to emulate is the San Francisco 49ers, who went from 6-10 in 2010 to a Super Bowl berth this year. The 49ers’ chief executive officer is Jed York, scion of the owners and formerly an analyst at a hedge fund. Gideon Yu, the 49ers’ president, previously was chief financial officer at both Facebook and YouTube.

“In hockey,” Provenzano says, “if you only base your analysis on goals, you’re going to miss 98 per cent of the other things that are happening that have value. So what are those things, and what value do they have, and then how do you translate that value into your decision making – into dollars. That is the stuff people like myself and Laurence do. It’s not contract law. It’s that.”

Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Calgary Flames when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989 and a general manager in the NHL for a quarter of a century, praises Gilman as much more than a geek with an abacus. Gilman worked for Fletcher for six years in Phoenix.

“Laurence is a hockey guy,” Fletcher says. “He’s a top-notch hockey executive. He’s as good as you get when it comes to the younger breed, the ones on the verge of the opportunity for a general manager position.”

Gilman has his eye on a GM job, but says he is wary of taking the first position offered. The job of GM, Fletcher says, has become more difficult than it was in his 26 years, as the cap is a considerable constraint. To resuscitate the situation in cities such as Calgary or Columbus is an arduous task.

“In my era,” Fletcher says, “if you made a mistake, and all managers make mistakes, if you made a bad signing, a bad trade, you could recover from it by signing another player or making another trade. Under the system that prevails today, making a mistake is a tremendous handicap. You’re stuck.”

A salary-cap expert is particularly important for a team like Vancouver, because the Canucks spend to the cap ceiling. At that acme there is barely any room to breathe, and manoeuvring is a delicate dance. Luongo remains. The need for a centre is searing. The trade deadline, April 3, is a big date.

The new collective agreement on Gilman’s desk helps teams get a bit unstuck, move some salary, buy out the deadweight. The Canucks’ billionaire owner, Francesco Aquilini, most of all wants to win. So, right now, as it’s been in recent years for Gilman and Vancouver, it’s all about a push for hockey in June.

“We’re trying to win the Stanley Cup this year,” Gilman says. “We’ll deal with what we need to deal with in the off-season.”

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