Lou Lamoriello has been GM of the Leafs for two years, almost to the day. I asked myself what I think about him and his two years in charge.
I mulled that over, and had no clear answer beyond one: I'd asked myself a leading question, so I'll start there.
Is he in charge?
One thing we tend to do is infer information from the names of things. That's what names are for, so it’s all good so far, but we can easily take this too far or assume a level of stark clarity where none truly exists.
Lamoriello is the GM; Mike Babcock is the coach; Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas are the AGMs. Brandon Pridham is over in the office with the really good computer laughing at us all for our confusion over how the cap works.
And we can picture that like any corporate structure, just like where we work or like some TV show about life in an office. And there, just like that, we've created a fiction of what the power structure is like for the Leafs. For all I know, Pridham is way too nice to laugh at us, or is a touch confused himself.
There's nothing wrong with fiction, and it creeps into all sorts of so-called non-fiction writing, so let's be upfront about that. Sportswriting is rife with speculation, inferences, guesses and personal opinion masquerading as facts. Often because the truth is unknowable, in our defence.
The trouble comes when you weave a story in your mind and use it to base your arguments on. It's a common tactic and can bolster any argument. But it's not compelling reasoning.
Is Lamoriello at the top of some pyramid of power, directing his underlings in a strict linear fashion? That's not how life ever works, but just exactly how the tangle of power and personality, competing responsibilities and expertise all work is an open question.
I'm not setting out to answer it. But I might find some small bits of evidence here and there to light our way.
Mike Babcock is not like other coaches
We can start there. It's very clear that Babcock is involved in the overall planning and vision for the team. When he occasionally tries to play at the dumb hockey coach who just takes the players Lou gives him and orders them over the boards, it rings very false.
Lou, you see, told Mike that Nikita Soshnikov was ready to hit the NHL (exactly at the moment he wouldn't blow his waiver exemption) and Mike said, "Sure, Lou, I'll play him if you say so."
And that's part of the problem. They make up stories. too.
But Babcock went to watch the Preds play in the playoffs, he went to Europe to see the World Championships, he went to the Memorial Cup, and he announced acquisitions in a television interview, and talked about the overall scouting department of the team in that and other interviews. He functionally acted like a GM in most of those instances. Or at least like management.
You pay a man that much, you aren't asking him to say nothing but "Yes, sir." Someone should have told the Coyotes that when they made that deal with Dave Tippet.
Mark Hunter is hard to see for such a big man
One thing is very clear about the Leafs: They are more likely to put President Brendan Shanahan on camera than one of their assistant GMs.
The only time you see Hunter is draft day. He gave an interview along with Lamoriello, after the draft, that was mostly fact based. I think that was the only time I'd ever seen him speak on camera. I've seen Kyle Dubas little more. He did an end of season Marlies' scrum that was the first time he'd spoken to the media in some time.
One of the fictions that is popular about Dubas is the he is in "media jail" and this is repeated by reporters, columnists, television presenters and everyone under the sun. It's as pernicious an idea as Robidas Island, and it conjures up some image of Rapunzel locked in her tower, over on the margins of Leafs Land, powerless and alone.
Poor Kyle, he'll never be allowed to grow his hair long enough to escape.
But from the evidence we can see, both Hunter and Dubas are equally mute and speak only to their particular areas of control and expertise.
If Dubas is in a tower over there, not allowed to do anything but decide which player to call up from the Solar Bears, then surely Hunter is off over the ocean, exiled to travel forever in search of whatever the MacGuffin is in this tale.
Lamoriello has a different story
After the recent development camp, Lamoriello said, laughing — he was in a very happy mood at that scrum — that they would all get together and talk about the prospects and free agents who'd been at camp. "It's always a discussion because everyone has opinions," he said. He sounded like he was both resigned to this and amused by it.
And the very thin evidence from other interviews supports this team idea that might occasionally yell at each other in passionate debate. Shanahan is at the top, but beyond that, what is the structure?
Lamoriello is more in charge than Dubas. That's obvious, and shouldn't make anyone outraged. But it isn't clear where the vision is coming from. The details might be open to loud debate, but who is deciding the broad direction the team takes?
People will say things like, "Oh, in New Jersey, Lamoriello did such and such." Such as: played hardball on bonuses. The fiction becomes popular, and it's fun, it fits the meme of the strong man in charge, it fits the ethnic stereotypes, it makes a good story.
And we are learning, aren't we, that the truth can't trump a good story. So when Auston Matthews signed his full-bonus contract a year ago Friday, the fiction persisted even if it was all hot air.
Timothy Liljegren cut his hair
On the other hand, there is that hair policy. It infuriates people, and I understand why. I am fairly chill about the idea that a bunch of mega-millionaires to be should be asked to make a small token gesture of conformity, to show some small level of obedience to authority.
Way beyond the hair thing, the Leafs are really working this group identity concept. Culture is all they talked about for a while. It's antithetical to my personality, this sort of cult of sameness, and yet, I'm not a hockey player, and I'm not convinced it's bad.
Hunter, that great mythical figure (just look at the name the author gave him, I mean, come on, his role in the narrative is clear), is off finding every sort of prospect and tossing them back into the cauldron of the most hockey-obsessed city on Earth. So maybe a little, "My boy has my back and hair as stupidly short as mine," isn't so bad. It bridges cultures.
But what about Lou?
I still don't know. The worst contract he negotiated was the Jonathan Bernier extension, and in the end that just cost Rogers and Bell some money to get out of.
Patrick Marleau is the highest paid player on the Leafs, and at least he plays hockey, unlike number two, who is Nathan Horton, aka the ghost of GMs past.
That's damning with faint praise.
But the Leafs, overflowing with players, about to be at 50 SPCs and needing to make trades (not an ideal state for getting good deals), are still an unformed thing. They have 12 skaters signed for the 2018-2019 season. They have a host of pending UFAs and RFAs and $30 million in cap space, and the only one of those players who must get a contract is William Nylander.
The Leafs can take any direction after this year, become any type of team, add any sort of player, re-sign their UFAs or turn them into someone else entirely. They can trade some of those 12, sign their minor-league RFAs or wave goodbye. They can look for free agents or promote their own prospects.
They've got a 1C and a 2C. They've got two hot wingers and a pair of defenders locked up to term. They've got a starting goalie.
As a build your own NHL team starter kit, that's not bad.
What do I think of Lou?
Get back to me when he's done something beyond shore up the foundation. Because so far, the Leafs are that starter kit fleshed out with temps or cheap players like Hyman. And since I argued back in June that, given the general situation in the league, the smart play was to just sit and wait, I can hardly complain that they've done that.
The foundation looks good to me. It’s not quite how I would build it, and the temp staff manning the front counter are not what I want to see, but so far, so good. Next year, I might have a firmer opinion.