Monday, June 22, 2009

GM For More Than a Day

When I was writing a few weeks back about the Pirates and Nate McClouth, I realized something that's probably pretty obvious to anyone who's been reading Top Shelf for a while but that I've never really stated outright. I'm fascinated by general managers.

If the Sabres were to call me tomorrow and say, "Heather B., as a reward for being the greatest blogger ever, we're going to let you shadow the person of your choice for three days," it wouldn't even be a contest, I'd follow Darcy Regier in a heartbeat. Not just because I like him - I do - but because I find his job really interesting. A few years ago, the Sabres did an intermission piece about trade deadline day and there was a very short scene of Darcy, Lindy Ruff, and a few other people in a room with a white board behind them. Any delicate information was blurred out and the conversation we saw had been carefully culled of any direct references to specific offers or players but I was still fascinated. I could watch footage like that forever. Regardless of what you think of Regier, you have to admit that his job is not an easy one. I don't think fans or journalists appreciate that enough. I think a lot of times even when people say, "I realize it's not easy..." they're just paying lip service to the idea because the thought is almost always completed with, "I could do it better" whether directly stated or implied.

GMs have so many decisions to make. Is your team good enough to go all in this season or do they need a little more time to grow? Do you make a really long commitment to this player or do you attempt to keep things more short-term? Do you chase the big money free agent or do you earmark that money for players already in your organization? Do you sign one big name or two or three smaller names? Do you go with high-flying offense or steady, fundamental defense? Do you trade one of your more productive players while his value is still high or do you hold on to him and say a prayer that he plays at his current level for a few more years? Do you draft the alleged can't-miss prospect or do you take a chance and go after the high risk-high reward project? I love how two GMs can look at the same issue, come up with two totally different takes, and respond in completely opposite ways.

The aspect I find most interesting - and most difficult - is that none of the above decisions can be made in a bubble. Almost every single choice a GM makes has long-term ramifications for a team. If you throw a lot of money at the hyped free agent of the year and he doesn't work out, you might not have the money or cap space to fix your roster later. If you give one player a huge contract, the younger players coming up for renewal behind him are going to expect the same. How is the contract you offer right now going to affect your cap space for the next four years? Heck, what's the cap going to do for the next four years? Go up? Or come down? Those decisions are even harder in smaller markets like Buffa where a team isn't going to be able to buyout a player without still feeling a crunch.

And none of this is even taking into consideration the personal aspect. GMs are part of creating an environment that players are comfortable in and want to play in. If a player is drafted by the organization and comes up through the system and plays with them for a while, the player develops ties to the organization and the fan base. They want there to be that player or two who become the face of the franchise, the fan favorite. But then after going to the trouble of helping that develop, a GM has to be able to put emotions aside and think of players as assets, nothing more, nothing less. That would be incredibly hard.

I know GMs have a whole team of people who help them with decisions - coaching staffs, cap specialists, scouting teams (or if you're TBN, that guy in Darcy's basement watching grainy footage on a 13 inch black-and-white TV). But ultimately the final decision comes down to the GM. And even if it doesn't - even if there's an owner or a money man in the way - the blame for any screw-ups comes down on the GM. Unless you win a Stanley Cup - and yeah, that's REALLY easy to do - no one's happy with you. Being a GM sucks, yo.

What's my point? I don't know, really. I've just been thinking about this more lately with the draft and free agency coming up. I have my problems with the Sabres roster as is and I hope to see some changes, some small, some big. But I also have some sympathy for how easy it is for us to talk about making those changes and how hard it is to actually make those changes, how many different factors go into a trade or a contract negotiation. I'm not making excuses. I do like Darcy but I'm going to be disappointed if the Sabres start next season with pretty much the same roster. I just think it's a difficult and interesting process and I think we sometimes forget just how complicated it all is.

For the record, if the Sabres called and said I could shadow anyone I wanted, my top three choices would be as follows:

1. GM - See above.
2. Head of scouting - Where and how do they find players? How much do they watch the kid in person, how much do they watch him on video? What are they looking for? What pushes one prospect over another on draft day especially in the later rounds? Are they really watching video on a 13 inch TV?
3. Equipment manager - I'm fascinated by hockey equipment, how much of it there is and how a group manages to get it all packed up and on a bus in 0.6 seconds.

Didn't really get a chance to listen to Darcy's press conference today but I heard bits and pieces of info about it. I'm going to assume he's just keeping that Derek Roy trade under super secret wrap until draft day.


James W said...

I'd put GM #1, Goalie Coach #2, and Equipment Manager #3.

amy said...

You know those scouts are just watching video on beta machines. The VHS upgrade is still years away.

I'd probably shadow Coach #1, VP Marketing and Sales #2 (what, I'm interested in that stuff) and Equipment Manager #3.

Vanek's Hair said...

I wouldn't mind shadowing a GM for a day. I would enjoy the negotiations and the high level decision making. The scouts would be interesting also because I would be really interested to see what makes them (the scouts) tick. What is it exactly that they see in a player that makes the recommend the player.

I am hoping for some player movement this offseason, with July 1 rolling around. However, if I hear about the need for "leadership" one more time, I may grab a screwdriver and jab my eardrums. That is, by far, my least favorite sports cliche. It is so untrue and overused. What the Sabres need is a true, legitimate and effective defensive center. A guy who can be counted on the shut down the opposing team's top line. Also, another strong, physical stay at home defenseman to complement Rivet. Finally, a reliable goal scorer not named Thomas Vanek. If they can add two of those three things this offseason regardless of "leadership" the Sabres will be back in the playoffs. Rudy Giuliani wrote a book about leadership. I don't want him on the penalty kill come October.

I am wavering a bit on Jay Bouwmeester. Mainly because I think I am going to hate the money in his contract. Getting back to how hard it is to be a GM, I think people oversimply the ease of making trades. Sure trade Lydman, Tallinder, Connolly and Hecht (and whomever else). But I think making a trade is exceedingly difficult and I even more this season with the cap staying relatively stable.

Heather B. said...

James, goalie coach is a good one. I'm not particularly interested in what a head coach does but a more specialized coach might be really interesting.

Amy, would that be like PR stuff? I could see that be kinda interesting. It'd be pretty far down on my list but I won't make fun of you for it or anything :P

VH, I'm not super high on Bouwmeester for the same reason. He's clearly the hot name of the year and I think that's going to lead to an albatross of a contract. I like him and I think he has some things the Sabres need but I'm not convinced he's going to be worth that kind of money in the long-run.

Lee Andrew said...

If I could follow anybody for 3 days it would be Jennifer Connelly. Hey, you didn't say it had to be somebody in the Sabres organization.

If I had to pick somebody in the Sabres organization then the pick is obvious, zambonie driver. That guy is a rock star.

amy said...

would that be like PR stuff?

Yeah, it's PR/advertising/web, all that communications stuff. I'm a media geek by trade, so getting additional insight about how different organizations approach their advertising and communications strategy is a bonus.

War Penguin said...

Heather - have you read Future Greats and Heartbreaks by Gare Joyce? I highly recommend it for an inside look at scouting and drafts in the NHL. Last time I looked, it was available from for much less than wants.