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.