I don’t know about THW readers, but when I was young, one of my favourite children’s stories was “The Three Little Pigs.” In this story, the first two pigs make mistakes by building flimsy houses of straw and sticks. True to his word, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs and quite easily blows them down.
But the third pig learns from the errors of the first two and builds a sturdier house of bricks. To make a short story even shorter, the little pigs are saved and live happily ever after.
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This story highlights the significance of learning from mistakes and making choices to overcome the problems we’ll face in the future. In fact, a popular adage is that “We learn from our mistakes.”
If that’s the case, and I believe it is, making errors can become a valuable learning experience for NHL general managers (GMs) because it emphasizes the importance of gaining insight from past errors.
Maple Leafs GM Treliving Made Mistakes in Calgary
Brad Treliving, when he was the GM of the Calgary Flames, made mistakes. His decisions also drew criticism from fans and hockey pundits alike. Welcome to Toronto.
Does that make him a poor GM? Of course not. Being a GM is a tough job; and, every single GM makes wrong calls. However, the key is to be considerate enough about one’s mistakes not to make them again.
In this post, I’ll look at three key mistakes Treliving made with the Flames and consider how learning from these mistakes will help him be a stronger GM with the Maple Leafs.
Mistake Number One: The Failure to Trade Johnny Gaudreau When He Had the Chance
One mistake was Treliving’s failure to trade Johnny Gaudreau before he became a free agent. As a result, the Flames eventually lost him for nothing.
Obviously, Gaudreau’s departure was not solely Treliving’s fault. He reportedly offered him an $80 million contract, which was turned down due to “personal reasons.” Gaudreau, who’s from the eastern United States, chose to prioritize his family’s wishes and pursue a change in scenery closer to home.
While Gaudreau’s eventual decision can’t be attributed solely to Treliving’s actions, he could have had the hard conversation before the walk to free agency happened. A sit down with Gaudreau to talk about the young man’s priorities might have revealed a hesitancy for him (because his background was from the East) to live in Western Canada.
In terms of lessons for Treliving’s work in Toronto, the key consideration is the need to have a serious sit down with Auston Matthews. While Matthews has made it clear that he wants to stay in Toronto, there was also no indication that Gaudreau would bolt to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
A smart GM must consider the unique circumstances and factors surrounding each player’s desires and needs. I’m thinking face-to-face and direct (but collegially) is the best. Like it or not, it might be important to explore trade options for players who might potentially leave the team as a free agent.
In the end, it’s crucial to respect any player’s personal decisions and priorities. But these have to be learned, discussed, and addressed.
I can’t imagine that Treliving would go down that road again. He’s likely learned to assess situations individually and consider the balance of factors such as player preferences with organizational goals. Effective communication can uncover a player’s motivations and can lead to proactively addressing them before disaster hits.
Mistake Number Two: The Huberdeau and Kadri Contracts
It would seem that former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is not the only GM who’s signed players to inflated contracts. Criticism has been leveled at Treliving for signing Jonathan Huberdeau to an eight-year, $10.5 million average annual value (AAV) contract at the age of 30 and Nazem Kadri to a seven-year, $7 million AAV deal at the age of 32.
While I admit I didn’t know Huberdeau’s body of work that well because he toiled in Florida, I did know Kadri’s. Although I’m a Kadri fan, I thought it was a pile of cash for someone who was unlikely to match his career season with the Colorado Avalanche. In the end, Kadri couldn’t.
When considering these contracts, there is a backstory that helps explain Huberdeau’s case. One has to believe Treliving factored in Florida’s lower tax burden when compared to Alberta when he shaped Hurberdeau’s contract value.
As for Kadri, it’s still difficult to determine the motivations behind the deal. His performance during the 2021-22 season with the Avalanche was impressive. In 71 games he scored 28 goals and added 59 assists (for a total of 87 points). However, last season his scoring numbers with the Flames declined to his normal career average. In 82 games, he scored 24 goals; however, he registered 37 fewer assists (he had 32 assists in total). His scoring total was only 56 points.
The specific lesson Treliving should have learned from signing the Kadri deal is not to confuse a career season with a sudden improvement in a player’s overall game. Kadri’s career had been long enough to suggest what normal would look like. The perfect storm experienced when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup was unlikely to be replicated. The general takeaway for Treliving would be to trust history.
Mistake Three: Treliving Hires Darryl Sutter to Shake Things Up: He Did
In March 2021, Treliving fired Geoff Ward and hired Darryl Sutter to bring a different approach to the team. In his time as Flames’ coach, Ward’s coaching style focused on communication and building strong relationships with his players. However, the Flames experienced mixed results under his coaching.
Sutter had been the Flames’ coach for three seasons from 2002-06 and was their GM from 2003-10. He last coached for the Los Angeles Kings in 2016-17 and, with the Kings, he won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014.
Treliving was correct. Sutter changed things. Known for his old-school coaching style, which emphasized discipline and a hierarchical structure, he didn’t stray from that style. When Treliving hired Sutter, he noted that he thought “the biggest strength I see from Darryl is the ability to be very clear.”
No kidding. He expected Sutter’s arrival to shake up the team and bring about positive changes. It shook the team up, but it didn’t bring positive changes for very long.
Instead, Sutter’s hierarchical style extended beyond the players and came to affect his relationship with Treliving as his boss. This dynamic contributed to Treliving’s decision to resign.
The lesson here for Treliving is that it’s important for GMs to carefully balance coaching style with the organization’s culture. Finding a balance between a coach’s approach and the organization’s values is crucial.
Who knows what will happen to current head coach Sheldon Keefe? One would think that he reflects the current Maple Leafs culture, but does he represent what Treliving believes it should be going forward? If not, he needs to find someone different.
Thankfully, the rumour today is that Mike Babcock will take a job with the Blue Jackets. I hope Gaudreau is happy.
The Bottom Line
As I noted, every GM makes mistakes. However, the ability to learn from them and adapt will ultimately define success. What we do know is that Treliving’s interpersonal skills and reputation are as a people person. He brings those skills to his role with the Maple Leafs.
Lessons can be learned from the choices Treliving made in Calgary. One caveat here is that even the most intelligent people err. The best any of us can do – NHL GM or not – is to consider and use the best information we have at hand to make the best decision we can at the time.
Now we wait to see the decisions that Treliving makes over the next few weeks.