On the Leafs and escaping the old school

Now that we’ve had a little time to absorb the Leafs’ addition of Lou Lamoriello to their front office, it might be good to circle back again and discuss how he can fit with the current group. It seems a lot of fans and media who follow the team closely still aren’t sure what to think, and many are looking for any excuse to go into all-out panic about what they believe might disrupt a good thing Shanahan’s had going.

There are some big voices overlooking this team right now, and how they manage to gel or fit or hash things out is causing some concern, perhaps mainly because they’ve been added at different times and from very different places. 

On one side of the room you have Kyle Dubas and his small army of numbers analysts pushing what is considered a new approach to management and team building (at least in hockey), and now on the other you have a man who was born in 1942 and has essentially run the league’s “old boys club” for the last three decades. Then beyond that you could probably argue Mike Babcock and Mark Hunter fall somewhere in the middle, and they obviously need to be heard as well.

It’s easy to see why folks are cautious about believing this’ll work. The styles in that group appear to be contrasting, at least somewhat.

But I think this will run relatively smoothly, and the reason I feel that way is because each of these figures seem genuinely smart in their own right and open to doing whatever it takes to keep winning in a league they’ve each admitted is always changing. 

None of these guys seem okay with letting the NHL get ahead of them – their overall boss, Brendan Shanahan, the least of all. For months we’ve come to to know this team wants to cut its own path and not fall into dated “out of the box” methods for building a contender.

Lamoriello made it clear upon his hire that he was buying in to what Shanahan was selling as his plan for rebuilding the Leafs. It’s been a collaborative or committee-like setup to this point, and the team hasn’t hid the fact that Dubas and Hunter have been relied upon heavily this offseason. It would be quite surprising to see Shanahan let them be undercut now, so my best guess is they still want this to be a group effort, even if that group isn’t particularly like-minded. 

Actually, especially if that group isn’t like-minded.

One of our own commenters, Jeremy Ian, hit on this point last week in Jon’s piece regarding the Lamoriello hire, and floated the idea of adversarial collaboration. It typically applies to scientists with competing hypotheses, but the approach is being used elsewhere. Instead of digging up an article or wiki page, here’s Jeremy’s explanation, which sums it up nicely.

…It means using dissent and disagreement to make smarter decisions. Puts a lot of pressure on the collaborators to understand their roles. It’s really hard to trade differences if collaborators get ego-involved or have autocratic styles; you have to be willing not to win all your battles…

Now the last part is likely where some of the concern lies with the Leafs and Lamoriello. Is he fine with this way of doing things? Is Mark Hunter going to be trusted as the authority on the draft? Will Dubas be allowed to continue ensuring the team can find valuable players and contracts by trusting the numbers and not being fooled by the percentages? Those are the types of roles that need to be established, though, like the “adversarial” part of this idea suggests, it’s still fine to question everything. 

Even if Shanahan isn’t modeling his front office based on adversarial collaboration explicitly, it would seem that is along the lines of the way it needs to operate. 

This sort of talk made me think of a blurb from War Room, a book about the New England Patriots which provides a rundown of how Bill Belichick established some of the systems that have made them so successful, but also simply provides some knowledge about how he challenges those around him.

From War Room: The Art of Building a Perfect Team [this part is on page 30 of the copy I have]:

Those who didn’t know Belichick were occasionally intimidated by his curiosity. The coach would sometimes ask people around him what they thought, which could lead to nervous rambling from those who weren’t sure what the “right” answer was. But (Scott) Pioli always knew the right answer: There wasn’t one. Belichick was just asking for opinions. He wasn’t trying to set people up. He might challenge a position that didn’t seem quite right, but overall he was generally interested in the football thoughts of people on his staff and how they saw certain situations

Pioli said “A lot of times (Bill) would just get your position on things but never tell you his. Now, this is why Bill is so different than so many people I’ve encountered in my life, period: When he’s asking those questions, you know that every fiber in his body is about winning and doing what is best for the team, with no personal and/or selfish motive”

This is where the Leafs need to get with Lou, and perhaps they’re already there, we obviously don’t know. But if his thing is to act alone as some sort of tyrant (which, again, I highly doubt) the Leafs are probably going to be in trouble. 

And that isn’t because the game has passed him by, necessarily. It’s because the management group can’t afford to let someone undo what they’ve done in the last few months or let this sort of upward momentum be squashed. Again, they’re trying to carve out their own slice of the league in new ways. 

Maybe Lamoriello isn’t a committee guy, it’s evident now that he definitely isn’t some sort of placeholder for the Leafs’ big chair, as was originally speculated. But he definitely needs to realize he’s got some important voices already in the room he’s going into, and he’d be foolish not to take the utmost advantage of the hockey minds he’s been fortunate to already be surrounded with.

    • TGT23

      Agreed.

      We have to trade the good goalie so the bad one can help the tank. Good goalies steal too many games. Reimer has to be the starter so his .909 SV% the last two seasons can lose us some games.

      #1 overall pick!!!

  • Harte of a Lion

    Well said, I think Lou will be an experienced voice dealing with other GM’s for any trades until he sees for himself who is onboard with the “front of the sweater is more important” There is no way Shanny will allow him to rule like a tyrant after investing so much time and effort changing the management.
    Ever since the Muskoka 5 ruled this team, it’s been about the players first.

      • TGT23

        Ok, fair enough. but I’ll take that error over “in their own rite”.

        In the same paragraph, it seems you’ve made a ritual (pun certainly intended) of telling the reader what you think. I’m of the opinion that it is stylistically abhorrent to state “I think this, and I think this because…”. This is a needless repetition that appears a few times throughout an otherwise interesting article.

        Similarly, go count the number of sentences here that you’ve ended with a comma and about three words rehashing something you already expressed. In essence, this is the same as my first point about your use of an unnecessarily dichotomous sentence structure.

        It begins to wear thin when the parts on either side of the comma tell you the same thing, and it especially wears thin when it happens many times.

        I liked the article, and as a whole I think this website is a good one. I would just like to see a bit more care taken with the actual words. (He said, admittedly a bit hypocritically)

  • STAN

    The smartest and most successful companies tend to hire non-sycophants who have a streak of contrarian in their personalities.

    Hearing the anti-PC sides of issues can be hard to swallow for a lot of leaders who by their nature are psychopaths.

    It can really be tough to accomplish in professional sports where egos abound.

    I still say Lou is only there as a glorified consultant whose input will be heard, but dismissed.

    As for the Bill Belichik example, I’d remind people that he is a verified, convicted cheat. The NFL is America’s game and reflects American values: win at any cost.

    He may have one multiple titles just as the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers did in the 80s and 90s, but they did it in Canada’s game, hockey. And hockey reflects Canadian values: WIN, but not at the expense of dishonour.

    This is not to say that American Lou is a cheater, but he sure has made some awful decisions in his New Jersey rein.

    Hopefully he’ll have very little influence with the group already assembled by Shanahan.

    • Jeremy Ian

      Stan:

      “The smartest and most successful companies tend to hire non-sycophants who have a streak of contrarian in their personalities.”

      Really? Since when? You really think the current Republican front-runner doesn’t surround himself with toadies? (ok, so maybe he’s not “the smartest and most successful…”)

      Disagreement is not an end in itself.

      And what’s with the anti-American stuff? I always thought of the US as the place that thrived off contentious debate (at least until recently). (oops, should I have put a comma there, followed by a dangling subordinate clause?)

  • TGT23

    If they all see the world the same, how do we come up with anything new. Otherwise they just validate one and other and we face all the dangers of “Group Think”. Remember what happened to JFK and his advisors to the Bay of Pigs.

    Diversity within a management team is essential to achieve some thing extra ordinary.

    • TGT23

      I think Shanahan is trying to make sure he’s not the one having to hand down discipline to players like with Kari last year. There needs to be layers to the management group.