NHL expansion teams typically don't hire a general manager more than two years before starting play. But the Seattle franchise is leaning towards picking a GM this summer instead of next in hopes of being better prepared for the June 2021 Expansion Draft.
Inside the NHL
As the hockey world gathers in San Jose for next weekend’s NHL All-Star Game, a Seattle delegation will be there observing a daily FanFest, taking in the skills competition – and doing legwork ahead of our future team’s first major hockey operations move.
The team’s hiring plans mostly stalled last month when its launch was delayed a year until October 2021. But the group is still apparently leaning toward hiring a general manager this year rather than next to prepare for a 2021 expansion draft that should be tougher than when the Vegas Golden Knights last manhandled everybody.
No, the San Jose delegation, NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke included, won’t interview GM candidates as most currently work for teams. Seattle’s team won’t play for nearly three more years, meaning the situation isn’t pressing enough to disrupt opposing front offices in-season.
Leiweke’s group can wait until after the season for interviews. Over the last 20 years of NHL expansion teams, four of five GM hirings occurred during the June-through-September months.
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But that doesn’t prevent Seattle’s group from compiling a short list right now. They can spend the weekend speaking to third-party counterparts about potential GM fits and sleeper candidates not yet on their radar.
There’s no historical success formula for when to hire an expansion GM, largely because some franchises had bigger lead times than others before launching.
Vegas GM George McPhee was hired 15 months before the Knights began play and yet still manipulated the 2017 expansion draft to his liking. In fact, of hockey’s 10 expansion teams the past 30 years, seven hired GMs within 18 months of launching and two did it just seven months prior.
The outlier was the Columbus Blue Jackets hiring GM Doug MacLean two years and eight months before taking the ice. Not that it mattered much: MacLean went 172-258-62 over six seasons and never made the playoffs.
Seattle’s group would be going more the MacLean route than McPhee by hiring this year. And their reasoning would be that teams are wary after the Knights’ draft success, requiring Seattle’s franchise to be better prepared if hoping to replicate it.
But the counter-argument is that hiring a GM this summer adds a year of unneeded salary with potentially limited upside. After all, there’s only so much Seattle can do if other teams approach the draft determined to give up just the one required player apiece and not get fleeced in pre-emptive trades.
Also, they’d miss out on GM talent that becomes more available next year.
But my guess is they hire this summer, given NHL Seattle managing partner David Bonderman has spared little expense in KeyArena renovations and seems determined to build a first-class organization. Saving some GM salary pales next to the $1.5 billion committed to the team, arena and practice venue.
Also, highly qualified candidates are emerging that may not be around next year. There’s plenty of experience out there, making it unlikely the pricey new franchise risks going the completely untested route.
It’s worth keeping an eye on Detroit, where longstanding GM Ken Holland has a year remaining on his contract after this season with former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman poised as his successor.
Yzerman, 53, is an obvious Seattle choice, given he built a Tampa Bay Lightning franchise – much of it under then-CEO Leiweke – currently leading the President’s Trophy race. But Yzerman resigned as Lightning GM last September and remains on a one-year contract as an advisor there, largely for family reasons.
He still lives with his wife, Lisa, in Detroit, where he played all 22 seasons of his Hall of Fame career and won three Stanley Cup titles. Yzerman tired of regularly commuting from Detroit to Tampa as Lightning GM and his three daughters now attend college in the Northeast, so he’s almost certainly not coming here. It’s a matter of what happens with Holland.
Not long ago, B.C. native Holland, 63, would have been most teams’ first GM choice, given his overall success and renowned talent-spotting and player development. Lately, his reputation has taken a hit in Detroit as the rebuilding Red Wings struggle under the salary-cap weight of Holland-approved contracts.
Still, this is Holland’s 22ndseason as Red Wings GM and he’d made the playoffs every year until 2017, notching three Stanley Cup titles.
The Red Wings aren’t playoff-bound now, so there’s opportunity for ownership to swap out Holland for Yzerman a year early. Seattle hiring Holland would give him and the Red Wings a dignified way out of a difficult situation.
Or, Seattle could seek late-bloomer Vegas assistant GM Kelly McCrimmon, 58, a top candidate among NHL up-and-comers. McCrimmon differs from typical assistants given his stellar three decades’ experience in the Western Hockey League as coach, GM and owner of the Brandon Wheat Kings – where he turned down multiple NHL offers.
Brandon won the WHL title in 2016, defeating, of all teams, the Seattle Thunderbirds. Having accomplished that, McCrimmon accepted the Vegas job and helped navigate the 2017 expansion draft with unprecedented cunning.
There’s also former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, 60, who had a Finals appearance, still lives in nearby Victoria and is close friends with NHL Seattle chief operating officer Victor DeBonis. Former Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, 60, now with Philadelphia Flyers’ management, was hired in L.A. by Leiweke’s older brother, Tim, and won two Stanley Cup titles there.
Worth noting: Lombardi will be 63 when Seattle’s franchise launches, McCrimmon turns 61 that season’s first month, Holland turns 66 a month later and Gillis will be 63 a month after that.
The average NHL GM is in his mid-50s, while the four prior expansion GM hirings before McPhee lasted between six and 20 seasons. So, Seattle might want slightly more youthful experience.
If so, there’s former Carolina Hurricanes GM Ron Francis, 55, once a Hartford Whalers teammate of NHL Seattle senior advisor Dave Tippett. Or, Anaheim Ducks special assignment scout Dave Nonis, 52, who preceded Gillis as Canucks GM and received a multiyear extension as Toronto Maple Leafs GM in 2013 from Tim Leiweke.
Also, former Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall, 54, was only recently cut loose by that team.
That’s why the Seattle contingent will make inquiries at the All-Star Break and any upcoming hockey gatherings. It pays to cast a wide net for names because not every favored choice accepts the job.
But talent is out there. And in this case, with extra time to prepare and build an immediate contender, it behooves NHL Seattle to make this hire sooner rather than later.