The official bio for Laurence Gilman, the Toronto Maple Leafs new AGM, lists all the stats, just like for a player. He even has an Elite Prospects page.
He’s from Winnipeg, graduated law school in North Dakota, started his NHL career with the Jets (original recipe) soon after that. He first shows up in a management job with the Phoenix Coyotes in 1998. He was with the Vancouver Canucks from 2008 to 2015, and he helped the NHL design and implement the expansion draft process that brought the Vegas Golden Knights into existence.
And then for the past year, he’s been a radio analyst on TSN in Vancouver, and it’s in those conversations where we can find out more about the man than how old he is (53) or if he ever played in the NHL (he didn’t). The other place we can learn about Gilman is the Full 60 podcast recorded three months ago with Craig Custance.
You can read Matt Sekeres’s thoughts on Gilman from his time with the Canucks to his position in Toronto. He knows the man well.
He came off as your favourite neighbour, and every Wednesday our inbox and phone boards would fill up with hockey fans wanting to know Gilman’s opinion on a wide-variety of matter.
There was good reason for that, too.
While he entered the league as the (old) Jets’ contract negotiator, Gilman quickly got labelled a “capologist” for his acumen with the salary cap. He wields math and analytics freely, believing that possession metrics are most useful, but not the whole story in decision-making.
From his own words, you can learn a lot about the man before he disappears into the obscurity where the Leafs like to keep their AGMs.
How Gilman got into hockey managment
On Full 60, Gilman tells the story of how he wrote a paper about mediation, arbitration and dispute resolution in relationship to hockey while in law school. And it was his professor who suggested he submit that paper to hockey teams because that was obviously the thing he loved, not the law. He got rejected a lot, but eventually he got hired by the Winnipeg Jets (the real ones) because they were looking for someone to negotiate contracts differently.
Over and over again, you can hear from Gilman that this aspect of the business fascinates him. And what he was innovative in bringing to an NHL team when he joined the Jets is now commonplace on all teams.
As Sekeres says, his job skills overlap heavily with Brandon Pridham’s.
On Brandon Pridham, he told S&P, “He’s as sharp as anyone in the National Hockey League.” Gilman also said that Pridham is qualified to do what Dubas does as well as his then current job.
Gilman said that under Mike Gillis he sometimes dealt with the GMs or AGMs of other teams, if he knew them well, but some other teams have a more strict structure of who does what job, and he’s worked in that situation as well.
How the responsibilities will be sorted out on the Leafs isn’t absolutely clear, but Gilman has expressed a preference for a separation of personnel and business control in several comments. I think you can say that Gilman leans to personnel and Pridham leans to business, but at the same time, Gilman and Pridham could swap jobs and it would go way better than that time the Habs switched their special team’s coaches.
Most of the discussion about organizational structure and the job of a GM came on the S&P shows of the last few months as Gilman was interviewing with the Carolina Hurricanes and, we now know, the Maple Leafs, so you need to bear that in mind.
The job he turned down and the one he was never offered (Minnesota)
About that Hurricanes job. He covers that in depth on two episodes. On the April 25 edition of S&P, he says he could not get agreement on the conditions, the term or the pay with the job in Carolina, which was not going to have the title of GM, but seems to have been nearly that in terms of responsibility, and then he says, “You have to feel comfortable with the people you’re going to be working with, you have to be comfortable with the person you’re working for, and you have to feel good about the deal that you signed too.”
He also says that Cliff Fletcher is his mentor, and it’s very clear that relationship is a close one,
Referring to the situation in Minnesota (at the time, Chuck Fletcher, who is also a friend, had just been fired) he talks about the job of GM in general:
The guys who became the General Managers were the best scouts, but those days are gone, particularly in the salary cap era. Managing now has gotten far more modern, Hockey Operations departments have quadrupled or quintupled in size over the last 20 years.
He drops the mic on this line: “This is a multifaceted job. It’s not about trading O-Pee-Chee hockey cards anymore.”
What is a General Manager in the NHL?
He returns to this theme in Full 60:
“The tenure of a GM isn’t what it used to be.” He notes that there are not as many big-name, long-term GMs, and how in the past, GMs used to get contract extensions at least a year before their contract ran out. Now they often work like players as pending UFAs.
But Gilman emphasizes that the GM is responsible to do his job, not just look to his own future, and he talks about Brad Treliving in Calgary as an example of someone who didn’t act like his job was coming to a close just because he didn’t have a contract. He does concede that GMs acquiring players at the trade deadline when they won’t be around later to see the team pay the cost of that acquisition doesn’t look good, but the GM still has to have integrity.
I feel sometimes like the view from afar of hockey executives and players both is that they act in their own self interest to the exclusion of all else. It’s a cynical view that paints all people as venal and selfish, and it’s not how Gilman talks about the hockey business.
On S&P in early May, Gilman has a lot to say about organizational structure and his experiences as an AGM when the team slid a new GM in over him. He got fired twice in that situation. That’s not happening at the Leafs. It’s very clear that Gilman’s area of conflict with the Hurricane’s owner, Tom Dundon, was over decision making powers. He says he would never hire a guy to be a NHL head coach who has never been a head coach. Dundon wanted to hire Rod Brind’Amour, and Gilman wouldn’t have done that, which shouldn’t be seen as a slight on Brind’Amour.
On the Leafs, you have to figure he’s not going to like it if he gets second-guessed, but he has to be comfortable with the structure, or he wouldn’t have taken this job.
On Full 60, they get into a topic that was popular at the time, the NHL having GMs who are mostly former players. Gilman, picking up on three names Custance mentions, says, “Steve Yzerman, Ron Hextall and Ron Francis, aside from being ex-players, are GMs who put their time in learning the business ... each one of them spent a great deal of time apprenticing at various levels.”
He then returns to a common theme whenever he discusses this topic:
The level of complexity of running an NHL team has risen exponentially. Whereas the job of a GM 20 years ago was a lot different, it’s not about trading army men anymore. It’s about managing assets and managing dollars ... you need a team of people.
Many people might be familiar with Gilman as the man who sometimes humourously announced the draft picks for the Canucks. He did a lot of media in Vancouver, and he’s said that he did that because his GM didn’t like talking to the press or being in the spotlight at the draft. So were they “his” draft picks? He covered that on S&P:
The job of being a General Manger is about managing people, managing assets and managing money.
Every GM gets too much credit and too much criticism for any of the team’s successes or failures at the draft. It’s not the inability to pick the right players, it’s the inability to pick the right scouts.
The expansion draft
It’s in discussing the expansion draft that you learn a lot about Gilman’s attitudes to team building and player evaluation.
Full 60 was recorded three months ago, when Vegas hadn’t won any playoff games yet, and about the Vegas Golden Knights, Gilman says that the team was supposed to be better than some existing clubs. “This was not an expansion draft. This was an asset harvesting event.” He details his ideas around the draft as an exploitation of other GM’s evaluation of the asset value of their players. He emphasizes that Vegas took the maximum allowed defenders because defenders were the highest value assets.
You might want to interject with, “But Marchessault and Karlsson and Smith!” But those were players taken because of a deal with a GM who saw no other way out of a mess he was in. We may not see how Vegas fully utilizes the value of their defence corps until this summer, after Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller have played in the Stanley Cup Final.
Of course, the deal for Marc-Andre Fleury was the key to Vegas’s success.
Custance calls Vegas’s success “peak value from the entire roster”, which Gilman agrees with, but he also talks about the mix of players George McPhee took. While Gilman starts off by mentioning Vegas’s speed, he also mentions that Vegas did not take any “outlying personalities”, and that the character of the team plus Gerard Gallant’s culture has made the team fit together well.
Custance’s reply of, “yeaaah” is telling. This isn’t what you think you’re getting when you preface a question by calling the guy a number cruncher. But it is exactly who Gilman is. He understands asset value at a highly abstract level, but he doesn’t get lost in that layer of abstraction.
Asset value, also known as Moneyball
The map is not the terrain. Or, the map is not the territory. Or, the map is not the thing mapped. However you wish to express it, it’s a key component of fitting an abstract understanding of something — player skill as defined by shot metrics, player value in a salary cap league as defined by asset value — into a real-world system where the players are still people who interact as people with each other.
When talking about contract negotiations later on in Full 60, Gilman discusses his first real contract negotiation. with Chris King, “a heart and soul” guy whose “contributions transcended his value on the ice”. This is where Gilman steps right away from what hard-core map readers think of as asset value. He talks about holding the line on the contract for King being difficult because he had attributes that were difficult to quantify.
His final word on that idea is that he never treated the owner’s money like it wasn’t his own. And finding that right line on asset value without losing sight of the bigger picture is key.
Custance, of course, jumps right on the idea of paying for a player like King when he doesn’t produce enough. And Gilman’s comeback is to discuss one of Tyler Dellow’s articles about how the Habs should assign value to Max Paciorrety as an ageing player.
He says, “In a perfect payroll, you want a player’s level of contribution to match or exceed his place on the depth chart or his productivity. And the problem you have when you are signing star players is that as they approach 30, their productivity will decline, and you get situations .... where a player is making by far the most money he’s ever made as his productivity is declining rapidly.”
His solution? To place a heavy emphasis on procurement and development of players on ELCs.
I think the existence of ELCs makes those big and long term UFA deals inevitable, but Gilman is all about managing the artificial system of the NHL CBA and salary cap as it is, not wringing his hands over how he wishes it was.
This is one area where he parts company pretty heavily from Mike Babcock. Babcock has expressed some very firm beliefs in the natural right of wealthy teams to spend their money on players. He doesn’t like the salary cap. Gilman has discussed several times that he thinks the cap is important to make teams like Vegas viable, and that a luxury tax or the system the NBA has of having a “Franchise Player” be paid outside the cap defeats the purpose of the cap.
He did work for the Coyotes for a very long time, while owners came and went, and the struggles to make something out of a team that did not begin with Vegas’s advantages were massive. Anyone can see that without from half the continent away.
Over and over, you hear Gilman talk about teams, in the hypothetical or the specific, with a range of attributes. He starts with speed, but he doesn’t avoid talking about character, toughness and swagger. If you insist on dividing people up into two groups, assign the groups each mutually exclusive characteristics, and then demand a team only draw from one bin, you’re making a massive error in your abstraction of hockey, I think.
Don’t bin your data. A player is not either small and fast or big and slow. Intelligence doesn’t diminish with height, and toughness has nothing at all to do with size. Character is not the antonym to skill. On Kyle Dubas’s and Mike Babcock’s teams, character means something about how the player behaves on and off the ice, not how hard they hit. A blend of skills and attributes is necessary to succeed, and the thing I like most about listening to Gilman and Kyle Dubas is that they both say they understand that, and you can see it in what they do.
One of Gilman’s jobs will be to run the Toronto Marlies, and it’s fair to look at his track record in the AHL. It’s just a bit difficult because no one ever asks him about the AHL on the radio. In his 20 years in the NHL, Gilman has helmed an AHL team before, but the situation in Toronto is new.
Most recently, in Vancouver, he was not directly responsible for the Utica Comets. Until this season, the Comets were wholly independently owned and operated, and their GM was not an employee of the Canucks. It’s not clear what if any input the Canucks would have had on players on AHL deals, and the NHL-contracted players were of course dictated by the needs of the Canucks.
Prior to that, Gilman ran the San Antonio Rampage from 2002 until he left the Arizona Coyotes organization in 2007. The Rampage played one playoff round in that entire time.
I don’t lay that at Gilman’s door, and I think it’s very unfair to blame any executive for the truly epic mess that is the Coyotes organization. One man who was also involved with the Coyotes at that time was Pat Conacher. He was an assistant coach for much of Gilman’s tenure on the team. He ultimately became the General Manager of the Utica Comets for several years, leading up to this year, where he’s still with the team as they have moved to their new relationship with the Canucks. Conacher made an the Comets, a team that had limited prospects, into a constant presence in the playoffs. How you performed on a broke bad team is sometimes very misleading for players, and it is for management as well.
Gilman’s challenge on the Rampage was to put together a team on an affiliate not directly owned by the Coyotes, but run by them. This is a common setup in the AHL, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
In paging through the rosters of the Rampage in those years, I’m hard pressed to find a guy I’ve even heard of! Keith Yandle played in Gilman’s last year as GM, but other than that, there were no stars there. Stephen Weiss might come closest. The rosters are full of players at the top of the points stats who went on to European careers very quickly.
The Marlies are the polar opposite to that team, but Gilman’s intervening years with some oversight of the Comets should serve him, and the Leafs, very well. If the Rampage never could succeed no matter who was running them, it’s fair to say the Comets overacheive on a regular basis. There’s only one way you do that, and it’s by being smarter than the competition.
The Marlies have the luxury of trucks of money to spend, a cleaner decision making structure, a team still fairly flush with prospects, and a scouting staff who can always find another Swede to play on the team. That’s not something most AHL teams can do. The Marlies are in very rare company with the Rockford IceHogs, the Ontario Reign, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Lehigh Valley Phantoms for the quality and the deep pockets of the parent organization. The Texas Stars might be in that group too; we’ll learn about them soon enough if they move on to the final.
With the Marlies, Gilman gets to do all the things he’s always wanted to do. Whatever his mind can imagine, he can implement. This is going to be a lot of fun to watch how he operates.
In listening to Gilman talk to Craig Custance, a lot about his attitude to hockey is revealed.
Gilman is a fascinating mixture of very traditional hockey guy with a knife-sharp business brain. He’s very like Kyle Dubas in some ways, but his experience in player contracts, trades and signings is extensive, and his analytical focus is on the money side of hockey.
On one episode of S&P, he is asked about the advantages for lower income tax markets. He acknowledges that Florida, Tennessee and Texas have a marginal-tax-rate advantage, but he also said that he thinks if money is the primary motivator of a player, and not opportunity and fit on a team, you don’t want that player.
People who know my impatience with the Stamkos and Florida tax question know that I’ve said that if you make major life decisions based on your future income tax rate, you’re living life wrong. This isn’t the only time I found myself nodding like a bobblehead to Gilman’s beliefs about hockey and about things more important. I think he’ll get along fine with Babcock and Dubas, but I would love to be there when he finds a topic to argue with Babcock about.
When Gilman tells stories, they’re of great negotiations, killer wins in arbitration hearings and battles of strategy and cunning. He wants to go head to head with player agents. He wants to beat them, and he doesn’t seem to like many of them very much.
He wants to win every negotiation on the way to having his name carved on the cup, just like Auston Matthews wants to score a goal in every game to get the same thing.