The Pittsburgh Penguins are set to enter their most fascinating, and potentially important, offseason in almost two decades.
They not only have to figure out what direction to take a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in 16 years and how to fix all of the things that went wrong, but they also have to find a new general manager and front office to guide that journey.
Front office changes are not really a new thing around here. Over the past decade we have seen general managers get fired and hired, general managers leave, assistant general managers leave, and different voices get added into the mix.
But this offseason feels a little different. The team is experiencing the type of failure it has not known since the 2005-06 season, and with an aging roster there are no doubt a lot of tough decisions to be made.
Who stays? Who goes? What do you do about goalies? Do you keep the first-round pick or trade it? Just how desirable of a job is this given the age of the roster and the relatively empty prospect cupboard?
When it comes to the latter point, I still think it would be an attractive job. There is still a core of players that should be good enough to be the foundation of a good team, and with the right complementary pieces added the playoffs over the next few years should not be an impossible goal. It is not yet a team that needs a full-scale rebuild, even if that day is inching closer and closer.
In the immediate aftermath of the firing of Ron Hextall and Brian Burke a lot of potential names have been thrown out there.
Rob Rossi at the Athletic compiled a list of names that could interest Fenway Sports Group, and it includes a lot of interesting analytical minds.
There have also been some names of people outside of the traditional hockey mold.
The most prominent of those was former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein who was mentioned by Elliotte Friedman. Along that same line of thinking was Chicago Blackhawks assistant general manager Jeff Greenberg, who also has a prominent baseball background (Greenberg was also on Rossi’s list).
The one thing that seems to be a common theme in a lot of these lists is candidates that seem to have a background in analytics. It has been reported that FSG wants to significantly build out the Penguins’ analytics department, which would fall in line with the way they run their other pro sports teams.
That is intriguing.
Let me tell you what is not intriguing.
I really have no interest in going the retread general manager route.
Brad Treliving? That does not move the needle for me at all. I don’t think he did a terrible job in Calgary, and I think he had some bad circumstances to work with, but it would be a boring hire.
Not necessarily a bad hire. But not one that overly excites me.
Friedman also mentioned the possibility of the Penguins asking the NHL about Stan Bowman, and that is going to be an even bigger N-O-P-E from me. Bowman is disgraced from the Kyle Beach fallout in Chicago, and his handling of that situation is the only reason needed to keep him away from another front office. He forfeited his opportunity to be an NHL general manager and to run a hockey team.
Even if you disagree with that mindset and only want to focus on building a hockey team, that too should disqualify him. I was of the belief that of the three general managers that had a hand in building those championship Blackhawks teams (Mike Smith, Dale Tallon, Bowman) he had the least to do with them. A lot of the core was already put in place by the time he took over the job, and his post-Stanley Cup management of the team rapidly accelerated the team’s decline. Pretty much every move he made after 2015 was a disaster from a hockey perspective. Keep him away from Pittsburgh. Do not even ask to talk to him. Do not even ask about him.
I am not totally opposed to the idea of going outside of hockey. I don’t think you need to be an NHL-lifer to have an understanding or knowledge of the game that can make you a good general manager.
There are aspects to that job that go beyond simply identifying talent and scouting players.
Negotiations, salary cap management, building an identity, organizational structure, and analytics are all things that translate across sports. If you are good at those things in one sports front office, it stands to reason you would be good at it in another. Plus, most general managers are not making decisions entirely on their own anyway (even if they are the final yes or no voice) and there is always going to be a team of people involved in the process.
I don’t think they are going to take somebody in an analytics position and promote them directly to running an entire team (which would be the Tyler Dellow or Sam Ventura route from Rossi’s list), and I am not sure I would want to see that, either. I am not saying they can’t be general managers or won’t be general managers, but again, there are other aspects to that job that go beyond just scouting or just analytics. Some management experience is important.
The most intriguing name that combines an unconventional approach, as well as having experience actually doing the day-to-day runnings of a team, remains Eric Tulsky in Carolina, who was mentioned by both Rossi and Friedman as somebody that could be on the Penguins’ radar.
His analytics work speaks for itself, and I also love the idea of somebody that used to write for Broad Street Hockey working his way up the ranks to running an NHL team. He also has assistant general manager experience and has, presumably, had a major hand in running the management side of one of the league’s best teams.
No matter who it is, this might be one of the most significant hirings in recent franchise history as they determine the path of the franchise for both the remaining years of the Crosby-Malkin-Letang era, and set the stage for what it looks like when they eventually retire.