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Craig Custance goes Full 60 with Daniel Briere, and we can learn things about the Leafs by listening

What does an old Flyer have to do with the new Maple Leafs? The ECHL of course!

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers
Daniel Briere vs Colby Armstrong.
Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Usually when I blog, I slip it onto the site on a weekend, and figure you all won’t notice it’s not an article, rather it’s just me rambling. But I’ve got some things in my mind so here we go, a Thursday blog.

Craig Custance, who writes for the Athletic Detroit, has a podcast called Full 60, and he did one episode recently which is an interview with Daniel Briere. This has a lot to do with the Leafs, trust me. But it’s also just a good listen for any hockey fan who is interested in the game on the ice, but especially in the management suite.

In what is likely news to most NHL fans, Briere is now the Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Maine Mariners, a team that is yet to play a game. They will be hitting the ice in the fall of this year and are not affiliated with any NHL or AHL team at this time. Now that we know the Leafs are inches away from finalizing the deal to put their ECHL franchise in St. John’s, the Mariners will be our big new rival.

Briere is very adamant that the Flyers, who share an owner with the Mariners in Comcast and a senior executive in Paul Holmgren, are not changing their ECHL affiliation from the Reading Royals. We’ll see in time, I suppose, but the Mariners may function without any affiliation.

In the first half of this podcast interview, he talks about building an ECHL team, finding a coach, how the league works and also just why a guy who made that much money as a player is working as an executive in a league where no glory is to be found. It’s a very interesting thing to consider: Who in the game moves into coaching or management?

When you look at the Leafs and see players like Colin Greening, who the Leafs got by accident and decided to keep, and who seems to be heading for a coaching career, it makes sense. He’s a journeyman player who only earned big money for a brief moment. I can’t help but notice he’s from St. John’s too.

Ben Smith is another player who landed in the Leafs’ lap to fill a void, and here he is, the captain of the Marlies as they roll along in Timothy Liljegren’s first pro season in North America. Stephane Robidas is yet another veteran who was a problem — an aging player on a bad contract with an injury that had sapped his on-ice value. Now he’s the Leafs go-to man for training up their young defenders, and we now know he even works with draft picks in the OHL.

So does Barb Underhill. All of this increasing interconnectivity of the organization at all levels through money being spent, the attention paid to prospects, and the time given to develop players is a new way of approaching NHL hockey. It’s more like a European club setup, but it’s spread out geographically, instead of concentrated in one building. It makes being an executive in a far-flung empire a very unusual job.

Briere talks about his journey from player to executive, and how he has shadowed various Flyers executives for years before embarking on the ultimate test, running a team for real. The unusual thing isn’t that a former player is wearing a suit where once he wore a jersey, but that Comcast is spending money to buy an ECHL team and to develop the team in a market where hockey was absent, and using it to see if Briere is an NHL GM in the making.

From what we know of the Leafs deal in St. John’s, they aren’t the owners, but they are calling more shots there than they ever did elsewhere, and it sure looks like they are setting the place up to train all sorts of staff. The assumption for the Leafs has to be that every bright, young person in their organization is as likely to end up poached by another team as promoted up to the Leafs. They need to keep the pipeline stocked.

Custance asks Briere about stocking his new team, something the Leafs will be doing too. The Mariners just hired Riley Armstrong, who is only 33, and has three years of experience as an assistant coach. He’s also played all over the minor leagues and in Europe. Custance is surprised at some of the things a coach does in the ECHL, but Briere counters by saying he knows coaches who say that the ECHL is where they learned how to do everything. This is what the Leafs now have an opportunity to do under more direct control.

As far as roster construction goes, Briere explains that ECHL contracts are one-year only, and what the team is looking for are, “Guys that are hungry. At that level, you find a lot of guys who are done with college or with major juniors in Canada and they don’t have a contract and they haven’t been drafted, but they still want to give themselves a shot.”

I guess the question I always have and wish Custance had asked is this: is that shot really there?

We’ve heard Kyle Dubas talk about using the ECHL as an entry point for players. But we still have not seen it. What we have seen is that the ECHL can be a place where AHL players develop. On the Marlies, this is chiefly Mason Marchment, who seems to be a full-time AHLer now, and Martins Dzierkals, who looks like he’s ready to move up from Orlando.

What you want, when the AHL is where the truly important players to the organization’s future increasingly are — Liljegren, Travis Dermott, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Borgman, all to varying degrees — is for the players you’re moving up to surround them to be character guys in the good way. I know that’s a loaded word that everyone sees as a code for a certain type of player, and never a skilled one. But given what happens when you mix youth, free time and money, I’m really okay with an effort to make all levels of the Leafs organization a place where there are expectations of the players and their behaviour that demands good character from everyone. Character, youth and skill don’t have to be three different guys.

Briere talked a bit about character in the second half of the podcast, where he mentions the two influences on his career, Chris Drury, who is now an executive with the Rangers, and Chris Pronger, who has a role on the Panthers. Briere says he wasn’t the best teammate when he was in Buffalo, but Drury taught him about preparation, always being ready, and about how a NHL player has to go out feeling like he is the guy who can turn the game. You can’t live in fear of mistakes; you have to want to be the guy who won the game.

I’ve heard James van Riemsdyk say that Briere was one of the influences on him. And now there’s van Riemsdyk in the room with all those young guys on the Leafs today who are learning that sort of way to play the game. The trick to all of this is to pick the parts of tradition and culture that are worth preserving and leave the bad things in the past.

Briere was a pure offensive player. He didn’t so much cheat high in the defensive zone as really never visit that end of the ice at all. You want to listen to the podcast at approximately the 34-minute mark where he talks about playing with Ville Leino. I felt like I was listening to a description of the way Auston Matthews plays with Zach Hyman. Although Leino scored a little bit himself, he was a unique sort of player, and the coach let this pair of unusual players create their own method of playing together that paid off big in the playoffs.

That coach was Peter Laviolette, and the ensuing discussion of how he coached for offence and to the strengths of his players fits with what I see on the ice with the Leafs, which is nothing at all what people will tell you a Mike Babcock team is. Perhaps, like with Laviolette, he coaches the players he has, not fits the players to a plan. This is what I have believed since sometime in Babcock’s first year. The Leafs are nothing like the last Canadian Olympic team, they are Auston Matthews’ team.

And yet, Babcock also likes to play older, more experienced players, character guys, with his young stars. There’s a parallel there between building an infrastructure for a team of experienced players around the rookies, and building an infrastructure of minor-league teams that allow that flow of experience and character to never dry up. It’s the same concept to buy or invest in the lowest level of the minor leagues to grow the organization from the bottom up, as it is to put Patrick Marleau or Matt Martin on the ice with Mitch Marner.

Briere talks about both Drury and Pronger and the line between confidence and arrogance. I kept thinking of Matthews during that part. And Briere himself, who needed some massive intestinal fortitude to ever step on the ice against guys the size of Pronger. But mostly, I thought of Matthews, who always believes he is the man for the job when the job is go over the boards in a Leafs jersey.

I don’t think every player has that at 19. I think some have to learn it. And being smart about who you surround those rookies with is a good thing to do. Creating the best players in all senses of the word at the lowest end of the pipeline, be that with the draft picks still in junior or the guys in the ECHL, is just good business sense.

So, over to you Leafs. Comcast has a plan for the Maine Mariners, what’s your plan for the St. John’s team?