By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (July 23) — Put your hands up, all of you that anticipated Lou Lamoriello would be named “new” general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (stunned expressions; arms at side). I thought so.
Count me vehemently among you.
If the Maple Leafs can turn it around on the ice as spectacularly as they’ve learned to keep things quiet off the ice, that “pain” Mike Babcock referred to will be acute rather than chronic. There wasn’t a scintilla of conjecture that Lamoriello would be sliding into the chair just beneath Brendan Shanahan in the hockey hierarchy of 60 Bay St. Even the appointment of Shanahan as president by Tim Leiweke — every bit the shocker — was rampantly speculated for a day or two. Lamoriello, by comparison, comes out of left field in a yet–to–be–built stadium.
LEAFS GM LOU LAMORIELLO SPEAKS AT INTRODUCTORY NEWS CONFERENCE EARLIER TODAY.
But, let’s begin by emphasizing that the Leafs have hired one of the most esteemed and principled hockey executives of the past generation. Other than being an uncompromising authoritarian — and therefore a challenge, at times, to work under — I have not been privy to a single, negative word about Lamoriello. He is in the Hockey Hall of Fame (2009 inductee) as a Builder and a true gentleman — not unlike his veteran colleague here in town: Maple Leafs’ senior adviser Cliff Fletcher. As an example of Lamoriello’s penchant for style and discipline, New Jersey players were ordered to wear jacket–and–tie for their head–shots in the Devils’ annual media guide. No other NHL club made such a request.
Neither will that influence harm the Leafs nor the reputation of the club’s parent company — Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
Beginning with Leiweke’s appointment as Chief Executive Officer on June 30, 2013 — and continuing through Shanahan, Babcock and, now, Lamoriello — MLSE has tapped into unassailable resource. Shanahan is a Hall–of–Fame player who stands 13th all time with 646 career goals, ahead of such luminaries as Bobby Hull, Jari Kurri and Guy Lafleur. He raised the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Babcock is considered among the best coaches in the current NHL, having won consistently in Detroit and Anaheim, with the 2008 Stanley Cup on his resume. And, Lamoriello just finished a 28–year term as president and GM in New Jersey, where his teams advanced to the Cup final on five occasions between 1995 and 2012, winning three championships.
The question now is: Can Lou turn back the clock?
MARTIN BRODEUR WEARING JACKET–AND–TIE IN THE NEW JERSEY DEVILS 2003–04 MEDIA GUIDE — AS PER AN EDICT FROM PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER LOU LAMORIELLO.
While pondering the answer, it is important to ignore as much of this “mentor–ship” crap as you can. We hear and read about it every time an experienced hand is acquired… “the veteran goalie is coming aboard to mentor his youthful partner.” Bullfeathers. The veteran goalie is coming aboard to play in as many games as possible and keep his young “pupil” on the bench. Same applies here. If you think Lamoriello has accepted this role primarily to tutor assistant GM Kyle Dubas, you don’t know the man. Nothing will drive Lamoriello more than to show that he — not Shanahan; not Babcock and certainly not 28–year–old Dubas — can maneuver the Leafs toward respectability. It’s that challenge Lamoriello is yearning, for he has not been overly successful in the salary–cap era.
Save for the Devils’ rather startling advancement through the Eastern Conference in the spring of 2012 — they were defeated by Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup final — the club has missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and four of the past five. Only twice in the previous five years (beginning in 2005–06) did the team win a playoff round. So, Lou is known for his often–peerless work in the pre–cap era. His age (72) is not a factor, nor should it be. Lamoriello is in excellent health and he has the respect of every person in hockey. But, he also has something to prove — that time has not passed him by as a general manager and team builder. You can bet that incentive is smoldering in his belly right now.
Lou’s knowledge and experience, naturally, will permeate the Leafs front–office; merely being around the man is certain to benefit Shanahan, Dubas, Brandon Pridham and others. But, don’t fool yourself into thinking Lou has come aboard as a teacher. Perhaps he’s in need of fresh scenery after nearly three decades across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The Devils are in mounds of disarray and that’s why Ray Shero joined the club, May 4, as Lamoriello’s successor. Lou was hardly on the verge of turning around his former team. But, that was then and this is now. The ultimate achievement — as viewed by hockey minions — is to end the Leafs interminable Stanley Cup drought (48 years and counting). That challenge, and 50 million bucks, inspired Babcock to coach the Blue and White. It has now overcome Lamoriello, even at 72.
LOU LAMORIELLO WON THREE STANLEY CUPS AS GM OF THE DEVILS.
Lou’s first order of business is to deal with the Jonathan Bernier situation. The Leafs No. 1 goalie has not yet agreed to a contract extension and will submit to team–elected arbitration one week from today, unless the parties reach an accord. Either way, Bernier will return under contract to the Leafs and Lamoriello will have to decide if it’s in the club’s short–term interest to retain a potentially elite puck–stopper, or to trade him for other assets and go with veteran James Reimer.
Babcock is certain to play a role in the decision as well.
Suddenly, now, another date on the Maple Leafs 2015–16 schedule comes into prominence. Along with Babcock’s return to Detroit (Oct. 9) and Phil Kessel’s return to the Air Canada Centre with Pittsburgh (Oct. 31) will be Lamoriello’s first game at the Prudential Center in Newark as general manager of the Leafs. Fate has decreed that Lou will not make that appearance until Toronto’s season finale — Sat. Apr. 9, 2016.
Which is exactly the way he’d want it.
BRENDAN SHANAHAN (LEFT) AND LOU LAMORIELLO AT THE AIR CANADA CENTRE TODAY.
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