There was a moment you might have called Sergei Bobrovsky a millstone hung around the neck of the Florida Panthers franchise. That moment was a month ago.
The Panthers were about to slip out of the playoffs. Bobrovsky was being paid Hall of Famer money (US$10-million a season) for back-up-quality work (34th-best save percentage in the league). There was no getting rid of him.
Things look a little different now.
There’s a ways to go, but Bobrovsky is having some playoffs. Maybe the best playoffs by a goalie ever. If the current trend continues, maybe the best playoffs period.
All of which to say, the NHL makes a lot less sense than the people who make a living running it would like you to think it does.
Around these parts, the postseason ended when the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs were knocked out. Now we’re into the Game of Thrones portion of the annual hockey calendar.
Kyle Dubas is in the bull’s-eye position here. While the Leafs look for a new GM and Dubas tries to figure out how to make it okay to look for a new job, there’s time for a ruthless assessment of his run in Toronto.
He lucked into a golden generation of players. He turned that into one playoff-round win in five tries. Any reasonable person would call that a significant professional failure. In another, less-publicized results-based business, he’d be out of mulligans.
I get that it’s hard to find someone to run NASA or the Bank of Canada or a construction site. But a hockey team? Come on.
Do you have an internet connection? Can you use a telephone? Then you can be a GM.
There are hundreds of people who already do the job at various levels in hockey who’d kill for the chance.
Just once, I would love a team to ask fans to apply and pick a name out of a hat. Just to see how much of this is science, how much is art, and how much is smoke. I suspect it’s at least 75-per-cent smoke.
In the current NHL, failing doesn’t matter so much as how you fail. Did you sound smart while the team screwed up? Did you play the media game right? Did the players back you? Did you get the anoraks of hockey Reddit on your side? Most importantly, do people like you?
Dubas did those things.
And then one of the black swans of hockey lands in his lap just as he has to start interviewing for jobs.
“Fellas, just when I had it figured out in Toronto, this guy shows up. He was a mutt in March. Now he’s an impenetrable force field. What do you expect me to do about that?”
The black swan works for Dubas and his former players. What do you think the Leafs are saying to themselves right now? It isn’t, “We messed up. We need to make a real change in our lives.”
It’s, “See? We got Bobrovsky’d.”
Then there’s always the black swan to come. Even if the Leafs do nothing this off-season, they can tell themselves, “Maybe Matt Murray is the Bobrovsky of the 2024 playoffs? Only way to know for sure is to try.”
That’s how a whole decade gets behind you.
It’s why the NHL keeps recycling the same executives and coaches. Most of them can pick one or two years out of 20 that their team did something impressive. In the interview room, that becomes the year everything went according to their plan. That year, the stars played like stars. Nobody got injured. The board wasn’t messing around.
Right now, Kyle Dubas is a failure. If the Leafs win next year, he was a success. If they don’t, it was never the right fit.
What happened doesn’t matter. It’s how you tell the story of what happened that matters.
Oilers president and GM Ken Holland? Sad story. Lost his heater. Up there throwing executive beach balls.
The Oilers go to a final next year? Ken Holland, epochal genius. Scotty Bowman isn’t fit to kiss his hem.
When the Leafs say they want someone “experienced” to replace Dubas, that’s the sort of person they’re talking about.
They don’t want one who’s been successful everywhere he went. That person doesn’t exist. They want one who was really good once.
Then they have something to talk about in the introductory news conference. He may have also had 10 incredibly average years, and four or five truly disastrous years. Those were the years the team president screwed him.
But you don’t say that. Never say that out loud. It would break the first rule – no enemies.
This person should always sound like they know what they’re doing. People won’t laugh at you for hiring this person. The press won’t rake this person for sport. That’s what “experienced” means.
There is an art to running a hockey team. But it isn’t the part about drafting, trading and signing players. It’s got little to do with style of play or understanding zone transitions. As long as you have scouts and coaches, that part is done for you. In a pinch, they can also be blamed for your decisions.
The real art is convincing people that you have a secret. The longer people believe that, the longer you will remain in work, and the more jobs you will have.
Then when a little magic happens – say, a guy you got stuck with in net turns into Ken Dryden for a couple of months – people will say they knew you were a magician all along. It was just a matter of time.