Why It Doesn’t Matter if Leafs Hire Coach Before GM

The hockey world is a very conservative place.

Not in the sense of politics, just in the more general sense where changes are small, gradual and usually met with disdain. I am sure there are many exceptions, but generally speaking, as far as I can tell, new ideas are often met with mockery by the NHL establishment – whether that is fans, players, media or management.

I don’t want to set up a straw-man argument here, because obviously there are probably tons of examples where this isn’t true, and the following are just anecdotes which do not scientifically or conclusively prove anything.

But, just for example:

– Instead of just eliminating fighting, the NHL has fought a war of attrition against it since instituting the Instigator Rule in the earlier 90’s.

– The NHL once, for a single season, maybe two, decided to call its own rules and everyone actually called it the “New” NHL.

– Pulling the goalie just a little bit earlier than the conventional last 60-90 seconds of a game was seen as “revolutionary” even though  it’s such a sensible decision that it’s bizarre someone didn’t think of it sooner.

– People are aghast – like practically apoplectic – that Brendan Shanahan might hire a coach before he hires a GM.  As if it would be impossible for two people whose primary life interest is hockey to work together unless things are done the exact way they have always been done.

And that is what I want to talk about right now.

Mike Babcock Coach Red Wings
(Icon SMI)

You can Pick a Coach First

It makes sense that the GM would normally pick the coach of his team, given that traditionally the GM is in complete charge of shaping and building the hockey team and it is only logical that he choose the guy whose job it will be to implement his (the GM’s) vision.

If the two men have different philosophies it is clearly going to cause problems.

But quick, how many Presidents of hockey teams can you name?

If you’re reading about the Leafs when they haven’t played in a month and a half, I think it’s safe to assume you could probably name most, if not all, of the NHL’s general managers.  But I doubt anyone but the most dedicated hockey-nerds can name all 30 presidents.

That is because President of a hockey team is a largely mysterious job. The general manager is usually the face of the team – he makes trades and hosts press conferences. The President is presumably the boss of the GM, but who knows what else he does in the day-to-day running of a team? It’s probably complicated and boring. It probably involves lots of meetings and stress.

Maybe the President approves the GM’s moves. Maybe he’s the buffer between the GM and ownership. Lots of stuff. But the GM is usually the guy making hockey decisions.

In Toronto, whether he gives himself the title or not, Brendan Shanahan is basically the Leafs  GM – in that he is the face of the franchise, he is the guy clearly in charge, and it is quite obviously his vision the Leafs will be implementing.

If there is one single person out there that thinks the Leafs don’t already have a plan and a philosophy about the types of players they want to acquire and the way they want to play, I haven’t heard from them.

(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

I don’t think anyone believes for a second that Shanahan is going to hire a GM who comes with a philosophy that is counter to what the Leafs management has already started to do. That is why it’s ridiculous to criticize the Leafs for “missing out on Peter Chiarelli,” since, why would one of the premier general managers in the league want to come in and not be 100% in charge?

It then follows that if the Leafs aren’t implementing the traditional power-structure of a hockey team and aren’t going to be hiring a general manager with a different philosophy from the current managers, then it doesn’t really matter if they hire a coach first.

Clearly the new GM won’t be allowed to come in and hire a coach that Shanahan and his team do not want, so it shouldn’t matter if they hire one first. It literally makes no difference.

And it is all really a moot point anyways because the Leafs already have a guy in charge. What you call him doesn’t really matter. Titles at this point are irrelevant because the Leafs – and Shanahan – are, thankfully, not interested in doing things the way they’ve always been done.

Clearly there has already been backlash, because, well, it’s the NHL and that is to be expected. But that doesn’t mean this can’t work – that remains to be seen.

What doesn’t remain to be seen, however, is that there is absolutely no problem with or negativity to be gleaned from the Leafs hiring a coach first.  Given their situation, it’s perfectly sensible.