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Mark Hunter will likely be the next GM of the Leafs, and that isn’t a bad thing

About a year ago, the Leafs made a somewhat surprising move by naming Mark Hunter, then-player personnel director, as a co-assistant general manager alongside Kyle Dubas. We had known that both had essentially equal roles in the organization to that point in terms of the importance of their input, but it was sold to us that Dubas was more so seen as the potential successor to Lou Lamoriello to become the decision-maker in the future. Hunter, on the other hand, was believed to be keen on keeping his duties focused on scouting – getting into the smaller rinks around the world and staying out of the front office limelight.

After the two were formally put on even ground, speculation started to ramp up, and there were rumblings that Lamoriello and Hunter had developed a tight-knit working relationship. With that came the whispers that Hunter had moved into the forefront for Lamoriello’s job, should he move on next summer when his contract expires. That cycle has started again with news coming about yesterday evening that the Colorado Avalanche have gained access to Dubas to potentially fill their GM chair, and of course Leafs supporters are reacting in a big way to those reports.

If you’re one of the obsessives who follows this team closely, you probably already know there’s a mini-battle going on with a portion of the fanbase about Dubas vs. Hunter and who gets to take the reins next. Dubas, to some, represents the new school, analytically-inclined segment of the front office, constantly up against the supposed old boys club in Hunter and Lamoriello.

Perhaps there is an ounce of truth to these types of assumptions, but there really isn’t anything out there that stands up as proof that this is the case. For the most part, it seems as though folks are content in conjecturing moves that are in line with their own opinions as Dubas-driven, and anything that is in any way outside of that must be Hunter and Lamoriello.

Don’t get me wrong, all indications point to Dubas being as smart as any hockey executive in the game today, and without a doubt he has a long future in the NHL. I’m certainly not advocating Hunter over Dubas, it’s just that writing off the former as some sort of dinosaur is silly, and unfair.

Nothing about Hunter’s tenure with the Leafs to this point has signified that he isn’t cut out for the pro game, or at least any less so than his competition. Toronto has taken steps in the right direction essentially the entire time he’s been with the organization. While they have completed some debatable moves, like the Martin signing or Zaitsev extension, it would be wrong to assume he’s the single driving force behind those. For all we know, he disagreed with them. Lamoriello is still the general manager, remember.

Hunter is almost being portrayed as some traditional Don Cherry-type for some reason, but his actions don’t indicate he’s that at all. He’s well-known as one of the hardest working hockey execs on the planet when it comes to trying to find diamonds in the rough, and the limited view we get into his overall approach paints it as entirely reasonable.

Here’s what Cliff Fletcher had to say about Hunter in the lead-up to last year’s draft, regarding his ability to stand his ground against Mike Babcock when the coach pushed for Noah Hanifin over Mitch Marner the year before:

“That’s what Mark is all about. He doesn’t want people agreeing with him. He doesn’t want, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right on this, Mark . . . You’re right again, Mark.’ He wants to hear opposing views…“Mark wants to hear where other people are coming from and to debate it with them and find out why there may be a difference of opinion.”

If this quote was about Dubas, we’d rightfully sing his praises loud and proud. But Hunter seems to get overlooked because he’s a former player and he’s 54-years-old – a supposed old school hockey lifer.

Again, there’s nothing to indicate Hunter is behind the curve on anything. His time running the Knights was obviously second-to-none in junior hockey, and his focus on the draft in the last two years has helped turn around the Leafs at every level in a short amount of time. He’s received deserved criticism for adding picks like Keaton Middleton and Nicolas Mattinen in an attempt to add some size to the prospect pool last summer, but then again, unearthing players like Carl Grundstrom and Adam Brooks on the same day might actually have the Leafs pulling more value from the 2016 draft than in 2015.

No general manager will make every move perfectly the way you want them to, and I say that not as a cop out to appealing to authority. I recognize that poor process can be indicated by bad moves, even on a small scale, that add up quickly. But outside of a pick or two we may not agree with, it doesn’t seem that Mark Hunter is someone who overvalues results or fails to recognize that process, so it’s unfair to pin those attributes on him without evidence. And going back to that quote above, if we are to believe Hunter is emerging as the guy in charge, perhaps it’s because of his ability to work a pretty bloated Toronto front office and coaching staff and dig in when needed, like when the highest paid coach in history over-steps with his opinions.

If Hunter eventually does show himself to be someone who’s being left behind by the game, sure, we’ll get on him for it. But in terms of whether or not he can handle himself as a general manager in the NHL, there don’t seem to be many holes in his approach to point to that would warrant doubt right now. I mean, Hunter does have a sort of mystique about him, spending most of his time in the background and being known as a rink rat. For those reasons, we honestly don’t know much about him, and perhaps that’s why people project their fear about this front office regressing onto him. All we have to go by is his past performance and a quote here or there to get an idea of how he might operate as the new GM in Toronto. If that’s the case, history is on his side, and we’ve yet to be given a reason to think otherwise.

  • I kinda feel like Hunter would have no problem getting leapfrogged by Dubas and having the same work relationship with him as he does with Lou. Like you said, he’s characterized as a rink rat, excellent scout, someone who works on the personal level with the players. He should leave the money and contracts and things like that to the young math geek and keep on doing excellent work from a position where he can focus on getting the right people into the organization

  • Will Murray

    I think this is a really important piece. There are obviously numerous ways of thinking and analyzing moves and players. Some lean on data, others on the un-quantifiable, others are somewhere in between. I tend to trust those who lean on data, more, but if I – and others – are going to so that, it seems to me we have to wait for the data to come in on Hunter before we judge him. There’d be an irony in “going with our gut” and assigning certain moves the Leafs have made to be because of Dubas, and others because of Hunter.

  • Ranger2k2

    I think if the plan was for Dubas to replace Lou you wouldn’t have seen the Leafs grant the Avalanche permission to speak with him. Obviously Dubas goal is to run his own hockey team (probably sooner rather than later) and if the plan is for him to continue to cut his teeth as an assistant GM then he probably wants to move on. You can’t blame Dubas either as there are only 31 GM’s in the NHL so if a position opens up and you pass on it you may have to wait a long time before another opportunity arises.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Ryan, at first I was disappointed that the Leafs gave Colorado permission to speak with Dubas but apon further reflection, it’s the right move. Those in the management group need to feel that Shanahan and Lamoriello have their best interests at heart. Had they refused, Dubas may have felt some resentment towards the organization. This way, whatever Dubas decides, he knows he has the support of those he respects and who respect him. Babcock made a comment a few days ago when asked about other teams possible interest in D.J. Smith and to summarize his response he said that he hoped other teams would show interest in the organizations management and coaching group. That reflects on the quality of personnel that the team has attracted.
    I believe that Dubas will remain with the Leafs whether or not Hunter becomes the next GM. At his age, he has time to grow as Hunter’s full time assistant GM as he possibly passes the Marlies reigns to someone else. I believe the team’s success is foremost in Dubas’s mind. He knows he will have many future opportunities at the NHL level with the Maple Leafs or another organization but must remember Shanahan and Lamoriello view loyalty as an utmost trait to belong with the Maple Leafs.

  • Brent Wisken

    Although i really like having Dubas on the Leafs’ management staff and very much value his contributions, it’s just silly to believe that the team will somehow regress if he heads to Colorado. First of all, Hunter is no neanderthal and is a lot more cerebral than some people give him credit for. He is a bright guy. With regards to owning and managing the London Knights, which is no small matter, he and his brother identified a long time ago that the game was changing and subsequently drafted accordingly. For instance, they drafted the super-super small Marner, and then Mark again drafted the “smallish” Marner for the Leafs when he could have chosen more bruising, larger defencemen. The London Knights have also drafted and played more modern, mobile defensemen (examples: Olli Maatta and Olli Juolevi. Incidentally, the Knights also drafted Zach Werenski). Hunter is also scouting more mobile, modern players in Europe and KHL, drafted for skill in many instances while with the Leafs, and obviously learned a lot in his Assistant GM role. As for Shanahan, he oversaw the draft selection of Nylander rather than the Don-Cherry type player in Nick Ritchie, which happened before Dubas was brought on board. Obviously Shanahan valued enough of analytics to hire Dubas in the first place, and can later hire another analytics person if Dubas moves on. Clearly the Leafs value the use of all types of information, whether that is analytics, traditional stats, or good-old-fashioned scouting. As for Babcock, while he does value having his grinders (which periodically bugs me), it is quite clear that he has prioritized talent, speed and hockey sense throughout his coaching career. As such, the Leafs aren’t returning to a more traditional strategy and management approach, whether or not Dubas takes a job elsewhere.

  • Petersversion

    The funny thing really, is that things have been so good lately that the only thing Leafs fans can bother getting upset about is 4th and 5th round draft picks along with the contract for a 4th line LW. Heady times.

    • Petersversion

      Also: if we lose Dubas? Good for him. We can always get another analytics guy. There’s more to being a good GM than evaluating players in a vacuum. Like a good poker face. Dubas totally blew the Kessel trade.

      • Derian Hatcher

        Is this a fair comment? The Phil Kessel we watch in Pittsburgh is no where near the same player he was as a Leaf, nor would he ever be that player if he had stayed in Toronto?

      • Kanuunankuula

        And the Leafs are not exactly in a pickle in the draft. We have a lot to gain instead of lot to lose. We’ll lose a marginal player at best, a supporting cast player at worst. I’ll doubt that Dubas could leak information that could not be summarized with a little thinking by yourself, or that he’ll leak it. I think it reflects rather poorly if you start yapping about your former place of business when you’re hired to the next place.

        • Gary Empey

          I generally agree with you. The problem, if there is a problem, is, if Kyle was to take the job and he is asked what does he think of this years draft prospects etc, what is he supposed to say? Looking of the bright side it is more likely to stimulate a trade. After a short period of time Kyle will know what direction both teams are headed and where they could exchange players for mutual benefit. Sakic is still GM there so does anyone know what sort of job Colorado has on offer?

  • Gary Empey

    I think handing the GM’s job to Hunter is far too premature. As owner and general manager of the very successful London Knights along with his brother Dale, Mark constantly turned down opportunities it interview for GM and assistant GM jobs in the NHL. I am sure Mark Hunter and Dubas both know the average life span of a GM’s job in the NHL is around 3 years before you get fired. They can expect to be tarred and feathered on the way out of town. I would imagine when considering a GM’s job a candidate needs to look closely at the ownership and senior executives you will be working for. At the moment Colorado does not have a great reputation for organization. If they expect Dubas to come in and straighten all that out, then the question arises, are they prepared to let him do it? We all know Patrick Roy walked away from the Rockies last summer. The reason given was he didn’t feel the direction management wanted the team to head, was the correct one. As it turned out, Roy was correct.

  • Cousin Eddie

    I wouldn’t be surprised if ken Holland comes in as the next GM after Lou’s contract is done. Dubas would be smart to apprentice under Lou for one more year at least.