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Tom Fitzgerald, Kevyn Adams well-suited for the challenges they face

If work ethic, professionalism and people skills count for anything, the NHL's two newest GMs will be just fine.
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It’s too early to tell whether the NHL’s two newest GMs will even be any good at their jobs, but I suspect Tom Fitzgerald and Kevyn Adams will. Both are entering situations that need a lot of work and, in the case of Adams, a ton of dysfunction to overcome.

But this much I do know. If integrity, work ethic, professionalism and people skills count for anything, both Fitzgerald and Adams will thrive in their positions with the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres. I’m actually not a big one on former players becoming GMs, something hockey does more than any other sport, but in these cases, you’re dealing with two very intelligent people who will not be threatened by the people around them, nor will they be afraid to put in the requisite amount of work.

I covered Adams and Fitzgerald on a daily basis when they played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and I was a beat writer with the Toronto Star, Adams in the 1999-2000 season and Fitzgerald in 2002-03 and ’03-04. The fact that both players left such a positive impression despite being with that team for such a short time speaks to their strength of character.

As players, they were cut from the same cloth, American-born, college-trained players who accepted and thrived in their third-/fourth-line roles, two players who would have been offensive stars in the league if their hands were able to keep pace with their foot speed and work ethic. Both players knew what they were, were keenly attuned at what they were good at and aware of their deficiencies and embraced their roles with gusto. And both of them got around, with Fitzgerald playing for seven different NHL organizations and Adams six.

Adams came to the Leafs for good in 1999-2000, three years removed from a four-year career at Miami (Ohio). A first-round pick by the Boston Bruins six years prior to that, things had not exactly worked out the way Adams would have thought, but by the time he was 25 years old he was smart enough to realize that if he was going to have a career in the NHL, it would be as a penalty killer and checker, not as the scorer he had established himself as in college. And it was then that he learned a lesson that he’d be well advised to remember as a GM.

After his first full season in Toronto, the NHL was expanding by two teams. Pat Quinn was both coach and GM of the Leafs that season and he was faced with the prospect of exposing either Adams or an unproductive, lazy and overpaid veteran named Dmitri Khristich. Exposing Khristich would have been a win under any scenario. Either one of the expansion teams would have plucked Khristich and his salary or they would have declined, and the Leafs would have kept an asset in Adams. Quinn felt loyalty and protected the veteran and the Leafs lost Adams for nothing. Khristich played 27 games the next season before the Leafs tired of his ways and dealt him to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick.

Fitzgerald, by contrast, was a 34-year-old veteran when he signed with the Leafs in 2002, fresh off a stint as the first captain of the Nashville Predators. He was polished, poised and engaging. I remember him reminiscing about his cousin, Keith Tkachuk, saying that his father called him early during his NHL career to tell him that Tkachuk was being considered for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Fitzgerald was early in his pro career at the time and remembered his younger cousin as a talented kid who was a little overweight and not terribly dedicated to off-ice conditioning, not the beast he was as a 20-year-old. “I asked my dad, ‘You mean the hockey team?’ ” Fitzgerald said with a laugh.

To be sure Adams has a much bigger job ahead of him than Fitzgerald does. Unlike Fitzgerald, Adams has not been an assistant GM and he’s taking over an organization where the owners can’t get seem to be able to put out a tire fire that has been almost entirely of their own making. A flat salary cap, a lean organization, a lack of depth of talent and a long look up in the standings are just a few of the obstacles facing him. Another rookie GM in Buffalo, he has far fewer tools with which to succeed. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, had already established himself as the Devils’ interim GM, making five deals before the trade deadline and getting a hefty return for Blake Coleman and Sami Vatanen. His hiring of Lindy Ruff as the head coach has the potential to be a game-changer for this young roster.

Different scenarios to be sure, but as they were when they played, both Fitzgerald and Adams will approach the challenges they face with patience, smarts and an ability to play nice in the sandbox with others. Those qualities will serve both them and their organizations well.

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