It will have been two weeks tomorrow since the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to part ways with Brian Burke and Ron Hextall as the leaders of the team’s hockey operations department. David Beeston spoke on behalf of the Penguin ownership Fenway Sports Group, said they wanted the team to get back to trying to win around Sidney Crosby and that they had no early identified candidates, and since then, the news has been extremely limited.
Knowing FSG from what was said that day, and their other major team sport properties - the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club - could set the blueprint for where the team looks next. After FSG took over, the themes presented are that they sought forward-thinking leadership, with data-driven approaches that often had a new, young, fresh and unconventional bent. The most famous example is Theo Epstein for the Red Sox, a then 28-year old (second choice behind Billy Beane) without much experience who went on to break curses and establish the Red Sox as a premier team.
As Rob Rossi wrote in The Athletic about the motives moving forward back in Pittsburgh on the hockey side of things:
FSG is open to everything from a singular GM to an executive VP of hockey and a GM, and maybe something that hasn’t been done yet in the NHL.
Given the FSG ways of thinking, the next leader of the Penguins could be a unique structure in seeking individuals not coming from the typical NHL path (i.e. former NHL player turned scout turned assistant manager into GM candidate). While that may not rule out a rising star on that trajectory like Mathieu Darche from Tampa or a Jason Botterill from Seattle, based on the past it would stand to reason the new ownership will put their first spin on picking people to run their team from differing backgrounds.
While the FSG process is not in the open, Cam Lawrence might be a name to know or at least ponder in the search of potential off-the-beaten-path candidates that could intrigue the Pens. The Province (Vancouver) had this to say recently about the rugby player from that neck of the woods.
[Lawrence] trained as an accountant, worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers for five years, then started up the corporate ladder, working at several Vancouver-based biomedical and tech companies as a senior financial officer.
But since 2019, he’s lived in Pittsburgh and is now chief financial officer of GNC. When he arrived, the company was facing bankruptcy. He helped pull them out of that pickle.
Along the way, he’s lent his data brain to thinking about hockey. He wrote for CanucksArmy for several years, asking questions about how the game really works and teaming up with colleagues there to build a big-data player analysis tool, which was used to project success rates for drafted prospects.
The tool was so unique, the Florida Panthers brought him in as an amateur scouting consultant — along with CA colleague Josh Weissbock — and his bright mind quickly saw him involved in building the team’s draft lists and more.
In 2021, he and Weissbock were scooped up by the Columbus Blue Jackets, where their titles expanded to hockey analytics consultant.
Lawrence being right in the Pens’ backyard makes him an intriguing candidate to consider, if not for the full general manager position then in some sort of leadership capacity in the front office or in hockey operations. Lawrence has some experience in NHL circles by consulting with Florida and Columbus and would fit the mold of “smart, well-rounded data-driven person” more than “experienced NHL executive”.
Another potential candidate with Pittsburgh ties, NHL experience and someone who is right up FSG’s alley for an interesting potential candidate is current Chicago associate GM Jeff Greenberg.
Greenberg has a tangential FSG tie from working closely with Epstein while both spent many years with the Cubs — assuredly a reference that would be sought. To go even deeper, Greenberg’s father is somewhat prominent in sports and no stranger to the Pens - Chuck Greenberg is a long-term associate of Mario Lemieux who helped Mario navigate the legalities to buy the Penguins back in 1999. The elder Greenberg owned the minor league baseball team Altoona Curve at one point in the 2000’s.
Josh Yohe recently wrote that FSG was “very interested” in Greenberg, which makes a lot of sense given all the convergences and his growing resume that includes time in an NHL front office on the management side.
The Chicago Tribune wrote last May about what the younger Greenberg was bringing to the table in his switch from the MLB to NHL:
Greenberg said he wants to modernize the Hawks’ scouting, analytics and other information systems — making them as expansive as what the Cubs and most baseball teams have — and warehouse them in one system that’s seamlessly accessible to players, coaches, scouts and operations staff at all levels of the organization.
Much of that, Greenberg said, he learned from Epstein and Hoyer.
“Having the systems like that in itself isn’t enough,” Greenberg told reporters after the news conference. “It comes down to how are you using those things, how are you leveraging those things effectively.
“We’re not trying to build systems or good processes for the sake of building good systems and good processes. We want to really help drive what we’re doing — how we’re acquiring players, how we’re developing our players, what we’re doing in the game — figuring out principles and lessons from baseball that we can apply to hockey.”
Developing actionable processes with information not commonly used in the sport to make wise decisions in all areas of management? That sounds like it could have come straight from what Beeston and FSG have said verbatim for the direction they want the Penguins headed towards.
FSG could also augment or replace those listed above with others that have more time in the NHL, such as current Carolina assistant GM Eric Tulsky, New Jersey analytic guru Tyler Dellow or former Penguin staffer and current Buffalo VP of hockey strategy and research Sam Ventura.
There’s also an elephant in the corner with Toronto GM Kyle Dubas and his expiring contract and another name to remember in the Maple Leafs’ organization in assistant GM Laurence Gilman. While Dubas’ “will he stay or go” saga with Toronto has yet to play out, Gilman was a finalist for the Vancouver GM job last spring and manages the AHL Marlies and might be the person from that organization more likely to be departing in the near future.
Right now, the Penguins are a blank slate for the future. They have some pieces and contracts in place for players next season, but the success of the late days of Sidney Crosby will likely be defined by who the ownership goes after and chooses to lead the new department and how they will apply decisions moving forward.
Nothing about the process has leaked out to tip the hand about which way the team is thinking about heading. When we eventually do learn more about the process unfolding, don’t be surprised if unconventional names like Lawrence and Greenberg are considered as in the mix as other candidates to be a part of the next Pittsburgh management team.