When Brendan Shanahan tossed a lightning bolt from his perch atop the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, it was his riskiest move in his four years as president of the team.
By telling Lou Lamoriello he was out as general manager, Shanahan exposed the organization to months of fallout if the succession plan does not play out well. Given the personalities involved, this has the potential to create the toxic front-office environment Leafs fans were so used to for too many years.
The key question is which of the assistant GMs, Kyle Dubas, 32, or Mark Hunter, 55, will become the next general manager. Will the loser agree to stay on? And if Dubas is the guy – as the tea leaves indicate he will be – how will he get on with head coach Mike Babcock, 24 years his senior and a noted Type-A personality who is not shy about making his views and desires known to the GM?
However, given the few hints dropped by the secretive (well, okay, circumspect) Shanahan and Lamoriello during a conference call on Monday afternoon, there is every indication the Leaf president has a well-considered plan in place. Shanahan can also point to his own track record as president, which has the franchise on an upward trajectory since he decided to tear the team apart and start over in the winter of 2015.
There are risks of this blowing up in Shanahan’s face, despite the decision being carefully planned. First, this was clearly not Lamoriello’s idea, even if his contract stated he had three years as GM to be followed by four years as a senior adviser.
“This morning I informed Lou that I was not going to deviate from that course of action,” Shanahan said in a statement from the Maple Leafs announcing Lamoriello was out as GM. This indicates there was at least some expectation Lamoriello might continue as GM given he previously made it clear he was not the retiring type, even at the age of 75.
When the New Jersey Devils, the only NHL employer Lamoriello knew up to that point, took away his GM portfolio and limited him to being president in May, 2015, it was an unhappy transition. In less than three months, Lamoriello was the Leafs GM.
The easy thing to do for Shanahan was maintain the status quo. The Leafs, despite a tough playoff loss to the Boston Bruins, are still an up-and-coming power in the NHL. The toughest part of that decision might have been convincing Dubas and Hunter to remain in their roles for at least another year.
Shanahan was the first player drafted by Lamoriello after he took charge of the Devils in 1987 and grew close to him over the years. He acknowledged telling his mentor his time was up was a difficult decision. “Absolutely,” he said on a conference call.
Earlier in the call, though, Shanahan indicated he and Lamoriello discussed this situation from the start. “Lou and I, when we first met and discussed this challenge, we talked about that timetable. I guess I came to the conclusion that was the right timetable. It was time to make a change,” Shanahan said.
When Lamoriello said he plans to stick to his contract and serve as an adviser, his answer was unequivocal. But there was just this glimmer of doubt.
“I made an agreement and a decision three years ago and it is my intent to honour that,” Lamoriello said. “There are no other thoughts in my mind at this point.
“It’s an unknown. I’ve never been in a situation like [senior adviser]. Like everything else in life, you wear it as you go and make the best of it.”
If Lamoriello can’t make the best of it, then lots of hockey people think there might be a GM’s job waiting for him with the New York Islanders. Their front office is a mess and Lamoriello has connections with some of the staff, which includes his son, Chris, who is the Islanders’ director of player personnel.
Shanahan said he is going to take his time picking the next GM with no deadline. In the meantime, Shanahan will act as GM with input from Lamoriello. When he was pressed, Shanahan made what sounded like a token acknowledgement he might look at outside candidates.
“I haven’t gone there,” Shanahan said. “My focus was on this today. Certainly, as I go through my process, I will consider everything that is best for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Handicapping which of Dubas or Hunter will get the job is not worth the effort. Neither man gives interviews, so their ambitions are not clear, although it is safe to say Dubas wants to be an NHL GM. Those around the team believe Shanahan hired him to groom him for the job, which probably gives him a leg up.
Dubas came to the Leafs with a reputation as a wunderkind advanced-stats maven. Clearly, though, he is more than that now. He became GM of the Toronto Marlies farm team and has developed enough of a reputation as a bright young hockey mind the Colorado Avalanche tried and failed to get permission to talk to him about their GM job a year ago.
But losing Hunter would be a real blow to the team. He is an elite judge of talent, the most-valuable single quality a successful team can have in an executive. It isn’t known if Hunter likes finding players enough to be happy with that or if his ambitions are greater.
Then there is the Babcock question. He’s just like the rest of the front office, unwilling to share what he really thinks. But listening to him every day in scrums makes it plain he values experience. A lot. He also drops the odd crack about analytics.
So just how and if Babcock would welcome the ascension of Dubas is a key part of this. The coach has the best and longest contract of anyone, so Shanahan needs to have this scoped out or this so-far happy collection of big egos and strong personalities could fall apart.