The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle recently wrote an interesting piece on what it takes to be an NHL general manager in a salary-cap world. Mirtle believes they must be “smart, rational and ruthless”.
He notes that general managers, especially those on Stanley Cup-winning teams, more often than not pay a price for loyalty toward players who carried them to a championship. A GM’s largesse toward those players often has serious salary-cap implications down the road.
Mirtle cites former Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli as one example, pointing out how paying hefty raises to several key players (including David Krejci, Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic) ultimately landed the Bruins in salary-cap hell this season, costing them both defenseman Johnny Boychuk in a cost-cutting trade and a playoff berth. Chiarelli paid the price by losing his job.
Another example Mirtle lists is Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, who grossly overpaid team captain Dustin Brown and gambled on a fading Mike Richards by not giving him a compliance buyout last summer.
Thanks to the salary cap, Mirtle concludes the day is coming when general managers will be forced to make more rational and detached roster decisions. While that could happen, it’s difficult for management to reach those decisions whilst caught up on the excitement of a Stanley Cup championship.
It’s easy for fans and pundits to imagine ourselves in Lombardi’s shoes, thanking Richards for his service and sending him packing via compliance buyout. We have no emotional involvement and so buying out Richards seems an easy decision.
But it wasn’t easy for Lombardi. The Kings were coming off a second Stanley Cup championship in three years. He was dealing with a player who helped win both titles. Lombardi obviously thought highly of Richards and wanted to believe the fading veteran center could reverse his decline. Reason tends to vanish when drunk on victory.
Many NHL general managers are former players. Their competitive fires are still raging even if their battles are in the boardroom rather than on the ice. They want to keep a competitive roster together and reward those players who got their team to the pinnacle of success. They’re wired to win, even if it means the risk of salary-cap difficulties by keeping a championship core together.
Ownership is also an issue. A general manager might see the sense of not overpaying to retain some key players, but his bosses could disagree. An team owner and his subordinates could be willing to invest big money to keep a championship core intact, gambling that their window of opportunity will remain open longer than expected. There’s money to be made from selling the fans on the belief that further success lies ahead.
If that bet fails to pan out, the roster will eventually suffer. The general manager takes the fall while his bosses skate away without suffering the consequences. To avoid becoming a fall guy, or postpone the inevitable as long as possible, some general managers go along to get along and acquiesce to ownership’s wishes, even if they know it’s not the right choice for long-term success. With ownership and fans demanding a contender be kept together, making ruthlessly smart roster decisions isn’t easy.
Such moves can be difficult when dealing with a star-laden roster. A club might have two superstars but can only afford to keep one. Which one do you move? Picking the wrong guy can eventually be fatal to a GM’s job security.
Over time, perhaps there will be more general managers of successful franchises capable of the wisdom Mirtle envisions. Such GMs will be upheld as examples of knowledgeable hockey men capable of working well within a cap system whilst removing emotion from difficult player decisions.
However, even those general managers won’t get it right all the time. They’ll still find it difficult to resist the expense of keeping a contender together, even at the risk of a salary-cap crunch down the road. They could deviate from the template which brought them success, seeking shortcuts to keep the good times going. They’ll be tempted to show loyalty to fading stars. Reason can still be trumped by success.
The salary cap could force general managers to make better decisions, but it won’t make them foolproof. The human element will still be there, which will make the most rational GM eventually pay a price for loyalty to his players.