On the Lou Lamoriello era, and what’s next

Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced a move that everyone expected to happen at some point, but not necessarily in the moment. The team announced that Lou Lamoriello, who had been their General Manager since 2015, would be transitioned as planned to a special advisors role.

“Doing the expected thing” shouldn’t be a big story, but a combination of sudden nature and perpetual uncertainty had many curious leading into this summer. While the general consensus was that this would be the year where the team would promote one of its Assistant GMs to the big helm (with the strongest money on Kyle Dubas), there were still a handful of people insistent that Shanahan would attempt to stall for one more year.

This removes all doubt. Lamoriello, interestingly, still has four more years left on his contract, under a “Senior Advisor” position; a vague title that has also been held in the organization by Cliff Fletcher for the past nine and a half years. Toronto also has Lamoriello hires Jacques Lemaire and Jacques Caron in “Special Assignment Coach” roles that are thought to be similar in their advisory-driven nature.

Looking back at Lou

Looking at things strictly from a hockey perspective, it’s important to be aware of where we are giving and taking credit.

A quick glance at Toronto’s roster shows a significant Lamoriello fingerprint in between the pipes with Frederik Andersen, Curtis McElhinney, and to a minor-league spillover extent, Calvin Pickard. But as far as skaters go, a lot of the skaters were taken care of before him: just five skaters in Toronto’s Game 7 roster were brought in after his hiring; one through the draft (Auston Matthews), two through traditional free agency (Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey), one through a deadline rental (Tomas Plekanec), and a mostly pre-arranged signing in Nikita Zaitsev (who Toronto had agreed-in-principle with before he showed up).

Lamoriello’s legacy-defining hockey moves won’t be the ones that added players to the fold, but the ones that involve creative cap and roster manoeuvring. His first transaction, dumping five loose-change prospects to the New York Islanders in exchange for Michael Grabner, didn’t help the team win as many games as they had hoped but allowed for more flexibility in signing around the fringes, and for more minutes to the Marlies players they had a firmer belief in. The move that sent Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa was a masterstroke; accelerating the burn-off of an albatross contract, shedding more longshots, grabbing a draft pick, and even giving them a long-term useful AHL veteran in Colin Greening. Buying long on Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly after bad-luck seasons has looked to be an excellent gamble.

Blemishes exist too, though. The Matt Martin signing appears to be primarily on his hands, and it began to show warts almost instantaneously, leaning into all-out dead weight waiting for departure well before the halfway mark. His insistence on having as many potential lineup options available for his coaching staff at once is sound on the surface, but has frustrated its fair share of late-development aged prospects looking for a leap; something that is “tough luck” in a vacuum but could create a reputation later. It’s also encouraged Mike Babcock’s “tiebreaker to the veteran” philosophy, allowing for him to lean in on the Roman Polaks, Ben Smiths, and Eric Fehrs of the hockey world when players who are at worst just as good are expected to learn how to get better without playing. That’s something that lies on the hands of the coaching staff primarily, but at a certain point, there’s a responsibility to take away toys if you know they’ll keep playing with them.

Also going against Lamoriello’ tenure are the Brian Boyle and Tomas Plekanec trades (both fine individually, but the big picture of giving up a pair of seconds and three late-development age cusp players for two short-term 4C’s is spotty), and the second contract of Nikita Zaitsev (a gamble like Kadri’s and Rielly’s, but with no where near the available information to assess if he had more or less to give).

Is this the right time?

Where Lamoriello’s tenure perhaps pays its best dividends is away from the roster. The hockey body of work is complicated but probably comes out as a net win via the Phaneuf trade and Kadri/Rielly signings, but in most cases, the aggregate wouldn’t be enough to put him in the upper echelon.

But it’s important to keep note of where Toronto was philosophically when Lou showed up. Bad hockey moves on and off the ice weren’t helping things, but even the casual fan was aware of the lack of direction shown by the whole organization. Few of the players seemed to be particularly impassioned about wearing the blue and white. Management seemed to be a mess of people who wanted to make sure they were remembered for having the most fingerprints on the club if they found a way to win, rather than a group that worked towards success whether there was credit given or not. The rumour mill was constantly overflowing because people were always talking. More than anything, it seemed like a club where everyone was in attendance next to each other, but rarely together.

Say what you will about “Lou’s rules”, his tight-lipped nature, and his consistent lack of emotional investment, but that was exactly what Toronto needed at the time that he showed up. They needed someone who could, for the most part, get everybody working on the same wavelength and give everyone a sense of group value and consequence. Sure, it means the executive quotes are more boring and the facial hair is less fun, but the whole operation was, if nothing else, consistent and made the group work as a team.

If you think you have your core, of which Toronto was a large part of the way to establishing even before Matthews and Andersen on the ice, and basically entirely there off of it, that kind of stuff matters. Lou was the ideal general to teach everyone how to march together, and he deserves all the credit in the world for it.

As well, he had a reputation that minimized the odds of teams pushing him around at the negotiating table. I think the world of Kyle Dubas’ body of work, but his one big swing during the gap between Dave Nonis and Lamoriello (the Kessel to Pittsburgh trade) showed clear signs of getting talked into accepting “good enough” instead of using then-unavailable clout to play hardball.

With that said, we’re at the point where there isn’t anything much left to instil. Lamoriello’s culture has bled into every staff member and has every core player has bought in about as much as they’re going to. Even if the next group were to deviate from his philosophies, they at least know how to roll new ones out now, in a way that has everyone moving their respective feet forward at the same time.

Perhaps some deviation is in order, too. Toronto is now at a crossroads where they need to turn this team into a perpetual contender, and there are a lot of decisions to make. The most logical ones likely involve gambling on the youth pipeline harvested and cultivated by the two assistants; having someone at the helm who buys into that and leaves little room for the coaches to get around that is going to be extremely important. Not to mention, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a Lamoriello slam dunk; if you believe Frederik Andersen’s acquisition was a game changer, that still puts Toronto at nearly two calendar years since their last big leap forward.

So long as Lamoriello has sufficiently mentored his staff to be able to work the phones (and, if he hasn’t, he *is* still around), someone with fresher ideas could likely use some extra clout at the table to make that leap, or at least make sure that no one overreacts to the early playoff exit by making a detrimental leap.

Who’s up next?

People are going to speculate about this one until the announcement is made, as a mixture of fear, uncertainty, curiosity, and “boy do I ever love page views”, but it would be shocking to see anyone but Kyle Dubas take the reigns for next year,

It doesn’t exactly take a game of twelve-dimensional Snakes and Ladders to figure that out. After all, he’s the future GM that has been groomed by the team for nearly four years now, and when Lamoriello came in, even he was suggesting that the job was Dubas’ to lose once it became his time to move on:

Since coming here, the impact of Dubas and his support staff has been pretty apparent. Toronto was pretty quick to turn the Leafs into a team that could at least control play post-Carlyle, their first draft involved a lot of gambling on skill and (lack of) size and seems likely to pay dividends, and most obviously, the Dubas-run Toronto Marlies have become spent the last four years on one of the most dominant runs of youth-driven success that the AHL has ever seen.

Given that this is far from Dubas’ first rodeo, having been in various facets of the game for half his life now, and given that he’s had nearly half a decade to learn the ropes in this organization, you can’t imagine that there’s much left for him to prepare for. If there is still a weak spot or two (realistically, there will be: everyone in hockey has them), he should have support around him to help him out now, though the need likely won’t be there in the way that it was in 2015.

Besides, if the plan wasn’t to keep him around for this clearly-scheduled moment, I can’t imagine that the Leafs would have worked so hard to keep him away from other, enquiring teams. At this point, naming someone else within the team likely leaves them no choice but to let him go (or have him walk away at the end of his deal), as would bringing in an outside candidate.

Similar can be said about Mark Hunter, to an extent, but as much as I think he’s a valuable asset to the team as a sharp traditional hockey mind, its hard to believe that they’re as nervous about the prospect of losing him. It’s easier to find someone who is good with the status quo than someone who has shown a track record of succeeding when they have to escape it, and not to mention, Hunter is believed to want to continue working near London/Toronto. Teams that could’ve afforded him that proximity (Buffalo, Detroit) have made their commitments recently, so the threat of him immediately bailing is slim.

Realistically, here’s how I think this all shakes down: Toronto planned to make their announcement about Lamoriello on Monday. Dubas still has unfinished business to take care of with the Marlies (they’re entering the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs), and if Hunter decides moving on is important to him, they at least owe it to him to pre-generate a buzz for himself. The team will let the hype train roll on for a bit, but ultimately, we’ll see Dubas get named shortly following the end of the Marlies’ playoff run.

Either that, or it’s Josh Leivo. Who knows, really?

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