Brad Treliving seems to be the only candidate for the job of Leafs GM because he quit his last one. Everyone else out there with a line item in their CV of NHL GM was fired for very good reasons – some of them years ago. So who exactly is Treliving and is he better than all the rest because he still knows the fax number of the NHL offices?
Treliving turns 54 in a few months, and he is originally from BC. He played hockey, not very well, but he is 6'4" all day long, so he was a defenceman who piled up some big penalty minutes in a few ECHL seasons when he couldn't crack the AHL. He retired in 1995.
His father, as most people know, is a wealthy man who used to co-own Boston Pizza (if you're bored, find someone from Boston and tell them about this chain). Jim Treliving was also on the "Dragon's Den" television show. I don't know if Brad Treliving ever had any involvement in his father's businesses or what he did immediately post-playing.
In 2002, Treliving appears again in hockey as the GM of the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL. They were the affiliate of the Panthers in his first years there. He stayed with the Rampage for years, until they became affiliated with the Phoenix Coyotes, and he became AGM for the Coyotes while retaining his role with the AHL team until 2011. The Rampage made the playoffs twice in his tenure as GM, playing a total of 10 games.
In 2011, he became the VP of Hockey Operations for the Coyotes and was also GM of the new AHL affiliate in Portland. The VP title vanished the next year and he remained the AGM in charge of the AHL team until he left Phoenix in 2014 for the Flames. Portland made the playoffs once under his watch too. Three more games.
Treliving's entire tenure in Phoenix was under Don Maloney, and occurred during a period of stability in Phoenix between the disaster of Wayne Gretzky's coaching season and the arrival of John Chayka and multiple ownership changes. The Coyotes weren't good, but they weren't a joke team either. They had real rosters and tried to put a real team on the ice.
Maloney followed Treliving to the Flames when he was fired in Phoenix, acting as a scout for one year and then stepping over his former employee to become his boss as the VP of Hockey Operations. With Treliving's exit from the Flames in what has been reported to be a dispute over the firing of Darryl Sutter, he has now left behind the man he brought into the Flames.
The period of Treliving's role with the Flames, coincides with a great change in NHL hockey. Beginning in 2016, and finding full flower in 2017-2018, the NHL saw a major upswing in total shots (all shots, not shots on goal). The quality of those shots began to improve as well. Teams moved away from more traditional offensive styles and that growth has continued. The Maple Leafs were in on this change early under Mike Babcock, but they weren't the only team.
Given that reality, I decided to largely skip the first few years of Treliving's time in Calgary. What matters now is what was going on from 2017 onwards. Prior to that time, the Flames were a team with a lot of points from defencemen. Mark Giordano was an offensive powerhouse in his prime there. Their offence was focused on point shots, and they were built as a defence-first operation.
That hasn't changed entirely; they've always had good to excellent defensive results and weaker, less-skilled offence, but they have gradually moved away from the old style of offence towards something more recognizable by today's high-paced standards – particularly while they still had Matthew Tkachuk. The other thing they've nearly always had is terrible goaltending.
In Treliving's tenure, they can boast five goalie performances (out of 20) that were above zero in Goals Saved Over Expected. Two are weakly positive performances from Jacob Markstrom and Chad Johnson (in only 36 games), one was Jonas Hiller's season in the sun, and the other two are Mike Smith's 2017-2018 powerhouse performance, and Markstrom's unrepeated 2021-2022 season. There are several seasons in the mix as bad as the two excellent ones. One Markstrom's 2020-2021.
Markstrom had laid down two good seasons in Vancouver, and was signed by Treliving in 2020 to a six by $6 million contract. Which isn't even the most inexplicable contract the man has signed in recent years.
Treliving hasn't signed many big deals, because the Flames haven't had a lot of top prospects. The biggest is the eight-year, $10.5 million mistake he made extending Johathan Huberdau when he mistook a shooting percentage in Florida for genuine repeatable skill. This contract is the next GM's problem, as it only kicks in next season. Huberdeau will be 38 when it ends. Huberdeau is a valuable player, but this contract will take a lot of cap inflation to look reasonable.
The second biggest deal was a sweet one. He got Matthew Tkachuk for only $9.5 million over eight years. Except Florida got him for that. Treliving agreed to a sign and trade to help the Panthers out and to get back his new star in Huberdeau. That deal for a player who was walking away was the best deal he ever signed. Would I trade Tkachuk straight up for anyone on the Leafs not named Matthews? You bet, and at that price, I'd throw in a gift basket.
Treliving has signed two $7 million deals, one a seven-year deal to Nazem Kadri, who will be 39 when it ends. The other, a three-year bridge deal for Tkachuk that seemed like a great idea at the time, I'm sure – boy he didn't get taken to the woodshed on an RFA deal, did he? He got Johnny Gaudreau for $6.750 million, but only for six years, and he didn't have to try to negotiate an extension on that one, so we'll never know how high he would have been willing to go.
There are some wins in the signings he's made, and they are mostly with middle-six forwards: Elias Lindholm, Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund. But then there's also the frankly bananas deal with James Neal for five years at almost six million, and the ill-fated Dougie Hamilton deal that had to end in a trade because he's not the right sort of man for the Flames. The MacKenzie Weegar extension might be good, but Weegar was weirdly not as good on the Flames as he was in Florida, but is leading Team Canada in points at Worlds.
It's very clear that Darryl Sutter is most of what ails the current Flames, and they should have been a playoff team. It's not clear if Treliving was ever in favour of Sutter, or if that was always Maloney's idea. So you can't lay the entirety of the current team at Treliving's feet, but the team isn't skilled up front, and that seems to have been his team-building concept from the start.
Treliving's draft record needs to be looked at in the context of how poor the quality of the picks were. There were only four likely to turn out very good. Those are:
- Sam Bennet taken fourth overall in 2014, who sure is good and annoying. In Florida, that is, he was never much in Calgary.
- Matthew Tkachuk, also good in Florida and taken sixth overall in 2016.
- Matthew Coronato was taken 13th in 2021, and he just left Harvard for the Flames, and carries legitimate high hopes.
- Juuso Valimaki was taken 16th overall, and he's gone from a constant struggle to get playing time in Calgary to a genuinely good performance in, of all places, Arizona. And he got there via the waiver wire.
Treliving's only other first round picks are two in the twenties, who might be meaningful players in their time. But it's not that many people who can say they drafted a future Norris Trophy winner in the second round, but Treliving can. Of course Adam Fox ditched the Flames for the bright lights and the big city of the Rangers, but Treliving picked him! To be fair, Rasmus Andersson is a nice consolation as a drafted prospect who exceeded expectations.
Players wanting to ditch Calgary for America is not Treliving's fault entirely, but it is up to the GM to make a team so attractive that even the oddity of people who think they should have their own country with their own culture that isn't exactly like America doesn't bother the players too much.
In all honesty, the biggest problem with the Flames is that they've spent too long in what is actually called "the Flames zone" by many. They've been a bubble team at worst for many years, and never a contender. GMs in that situation get sucked into making deadline deals – maybe not Nick Ritchie for Brett Ritchie, but deals for real players – and they end up with no good picks. Just look at the Leafs under Lou Lamoriello. Managing that while you're a playoff team is part of the job. Managing to be more than just barely in the playoffs is also part of the job.
In terms of trades, the cap-clearing deal to dump off Sean Monahan cost a first-round pick for one final year of the deal. Last year, Calgary spent a second, a third and a seventh to get Calle Järnkrok at the deadline which is a hilarious overpay, and as much as I like the man on the Leafs, he's not a difference maker you seek out.
The Tyler Toffoli deal was good for Calgary, if expensive in that it cost another first-rounder and some extra picks and players, including one Treliving had just paid a fourth for the prior summer. He's made some good pick trades to get more mid-round chances at players, but a lot of picks have been spent to get mid-level defenders or forwards.
The most amazing trade of recent years was Treliving's attempt to clean up his James Neal mess. Frankly – keeping Neal was the answer but most GMs don't like seeing their mistakes walking around the locker room every day. Neal was going to go on LTIR sooner rather than later, but instead, Treliving loaded the team down with the indestructible tough guy Milan Lucic who inspires a certain kind of devotion in coaches while making the team worse.
Getting Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin for Dougie Hamilton was likely a good deal for Calgary in the end, and might be Treliving's major hit, considering Lindholm's value and value deal.
It's not fair to lay all of this at the GM's feet. We don't know how much Don Maloney or ownership were sticking their oar in, any more than we do with Dubas, but "managing up" is also part of the job. Treliving has also spent his career with small-market, penny-pinching teams, making him able to work within a confined space, but an unknown with a blank cheque.
The Flames are as good as they are because they aren't bad in most of their depth positions. They have guys who "chip in". They fail to thrive because of goaltending and lack of elite skill, making that chipping in fairly moot.
For me the big misses start with the young players that have legitimately been blocked from playing and only developed after they left. Valimaki was a foolish loss. And the biggest miss of all is spending years with bad and expensive goaltending. The Flames aren't built from the net out, they've been built for defence and nothing else.
The elite talent at forward walked away, and while Treliving made a decent omelette of the broken eggs last summer – he broke the damn eggs himself. He has to bear the responsibility for making Johnny Gaudreau decide living in America mattered most and for Matthew Tkachuk to decide anywhere but Calgary was the place for him. Those first RFA deals, though...
Because Calgary gets Canadian national media attention, but in small doses without total fixation on every nuance, Treliving has been portrayed as this nice guy who has bad things happen around him. Let's not have them happen around him in Toronto, okay?