The game of musical chairs that has been played in NHL circles over the past couple of weeks has left the Florida Panthers scrambling for someone to fill the chair in their GM’s office.
If the Montreal Canadiens and Jacques Martin had been able to make up their minds two weeks ago, the Panthers would have had the chance to hire either Chuck Fletcher or Joe Nieuwendyk, both of whom have past ties to the organization and might have been a good fit. Instead, Fletcher signed on with the Minnesota Wild and Nieuwendyk was unveiled as the new GM of the Dallas Stars Sunday afternoon.
But Panthers owner Alan Cohen obviously didn’t think much of Martin’s acumen as a GM or he wouldn’t have allowed him out of his contract to take the coaching job with the Montreal Canadiens at such a crucial time. And it’s clear Martin wanted desperately to coach again or he wouldn’t have left a relatively cushy situation in Florida to catapult himself into one of the most pressure-packed jobs in the NHL.
(And remember, there will be no compensation going back to the Panthers for losing Martin. NHL bylaws clearly state that once one team gives another permission to speak with one of its front-office people still under contract, the team holding the contract gives up all rights to compensation.)
There are those who think Martin wanted so badly to get back into coaching that the Panthers figured it would be best to let him out of his contract now because he would have bolted for a coaching job as soon as it expired. Funny how they didn’t seem to have the same philosophy when it came to Florida’s decision on whether or not to move Jay Bouwmeester at the trade deadline.
In Dallas, meanwhile, the Stars came to some conclusions of their own; namely that there was no way the two-headed GM monster in Texas was going to work. This corner took some heat from both Brett Hull and the Stars for suggesting in December that Hull was on his way out as co-GM of the Stars. (All right, we said it would happen in a couple of weeks and it took significantly longer than that.) But we weren’t wrong when it came to the rationale behind the decision.
Hull was unsuited for the GM’s role not because of his ill-advised signing of Sean Avery in the off-season – every GM makes mistakes like that one and survives – but because he simply wasn’t willing to do the heavy lifting required to run a hockey department. Those close to the Stars say Hull had little interest in seeing the Stars prospects and did little to no scouting in Europe or in junior or college hockey.
Nieuwendyk, on the other hand, was one ex-player who was willing to do all of that and learn his craft at the same time. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, had something of a crowded front office and had little room for someone with Nieuwendyk’s career aspirations. He wasn’t a Brian Burke hire and, therefore, was someone with whom the Leafs could afford to part.
The Panthers, though, don’t have that luxury. They face some crucial free agent signings – David Booth as a restricted free agent and Bouwmeester as an unrestricted free agent – and the grapevine suggests that Martin hadn’t done much of anything so far this summer to move ahead in those negotiations.
So if Martin had his ear to the ground for potential coaching jobs and the Panthers seemed so willing to allow him to pursue them, why didn’t they just let Martin go after the season, or at least shortly thereafter so they could fill the vacancy in their front office when there was a better selection of candidates?
Nobody knows the answer to that one, but now the Panthers must once again find somebody to run their hockey department on a permanent basis. Like everything Martin does in hockey, he did a good, solid job, but not a great one. He signed a bunch of players to long-term deals and made a very good coaching hire in Peter DeBoer and did a reasonably good job of restoring the Panthers’ credibility after the mess Mike Keenan left. But he also watched as his team missed the playoffs after not getting something in return for Bouwmeester at the deadline.
In 12 years of coaching, Martin has made it out of the first round just twice. His insistence on defensive hockey, while possibly out of step with today’s game, should play well with Montreal GM Bob Gainey. But it will almost certainly drive fans of the Canadiens nuts, just as it did in Ottawa when the Senators lost several times in the first round to the Leafs despite having superior offensive talent. Prior to Game 7 of their first-round series in 2004, the Senators were badly outplaying the Leafs and enduring a seventh contest only because of the brilliant work of Leafs goalie Ed Belfour. The day before that game, Martin said, “We have to hope to win 1-0.”
(Irony of ironies, Nieuwendyk scored two softies on Senators goalie Patrick Lalime to give the Leafs the series.)
Now that the dust has settled, the Wild and Stars have found their man and the Panthers allowed theirs to walk. We’ll find out which of those teams made the best choice, but it is telling that the Panthers are willing to enter such a crucial stage without Martin as their GM.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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