Russo Ramblings on GM search, potential changes, Masterton; Aeros take 1-0 second-round lead

Posted on May 1st, 2009 – 1:06 PM
By Michael Russo

First things first, the Houston Aeros, behind goals from Krys Kolanos and a face from the past, Tomas Mojzis, and 27 saves from the revelation that is Anton Khudobin, beat the Milwaukee Admirals 2-1 in Game 1 of West Division Finals last night. Here’s the link.

Game 2 is in Milwaukee at 7 p.m. Saturday if you have a hockey yearning and want to hop on I-94 and drive east.

Kinda quiet in Wildland, eh? It’s weird covering a team without a general manager AND coach. I think Boston had that for awhile a few years ago because Peter Chiarelli hired Dave Lewis. And I was reminded, the Rangers went without a coach and GM from March to June 1, 2000, when Neil Smith and John Muckler were fired, and eventually Glen Sather hired.

I’ve been getting a few emails from fans wondering what’s taken so long. It’s been two weeks! Calm down. All I can tell you is be patient. This is a phenomenally critical decision. The GM is the most important hire in an organization. Screw this up, and the franchise is set back dramatically. So allow Craig Leipold & Gang the time to do a far and wide search (although, if you’re reading Mr. Leipold, I’m imposing a May 15 deadline because I’m leaving town the next day)  :)  

Leipold is keeping everything close to the vest, but here are some things I know from recent days:

– Leipold has formed a committee of confidants who are assisting him with the entire process. Chief among them is Jac Sperling, who is currently a board member for Minnesota Sports & Entertainment (MSE). He also currently owns and manages Grit Rock (Rodeo) Ventures based in Minneapolis. He was formerly Vice Chairman of MSE for Bob Naegele and prior to that was CEO of the Wild, while playing an instrumental role in returning the NHL to Minnesota back in 1997 and hiring Doug Risebrough. Sperling is well-respected and known throughout the hockey world.

– I was told yesterday that Sperling was on the phone recently with a long-time NHL team executive to go over the Wild’s list of 20-plus applicants. The list has been weeded down dramatically, and the interview process was supposed to really get started as early as yesterday (Thursday) and at the latest, Monday.

– Leipold has had phone conversations and email exchanges with several candidates. However, it’s tough to know the exact list Leipold’s interested in for a couple reasons. One is this: Several GM’s have contacted Leipold to recommend candidates, like assistant GM’s, letting him know he’s got permission to speak to them. I’ve found out a number of those identities this week, but I haven’t written their names because it’s so deceiving.

Yes, the Wild’s received permission to talk to these “candidates,” but that’s very different than the Wild contacting teams to talk to candidates. And I’ve since learned that the Wild, even though they’ve gotten permission to speak to some people, really aren’t considering some of the names I know but haven’t written (hope that makes sense).

– One name I keep hearing they’re really focusing on is Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Chuck Fletcher. It’s a sensitive topic right now because the Penguins are in the second round and nobody wants to create distractions for them. But the Wild wants to talk to Fletcher, has received permission to do so, and GM Ray Shero — whom Leipold knows well because he used to be assistant GM in Nashville — is really pushing for Fletcher. The Harvard-educated Fletcher is immensely respected, is young at age 41, in 16 years has been to three Stanley Cup Finals (Florida, Anaheim and Pittsburgh) and has been around the game his whole life (Cliff Fletcher’s son).

– I keep hearing that Pierre McGuire, the longtime NHL TV personality and former Hartford Whalers coach and Pittsburgh assistant coach – is “enamored” by people inside the Wild offices. I know he’s got friends inside NHL headquarters that are pushing his name. He’s long wanted to get back into management, and he knows everybody in the league. And because of his job, he’s probably seen more NHL players and prospects close up than any manager or scout around. I do hear he’s going to get an interview, and boy, you know he’d be aggressive and a quote.

– I still think Leipold is very intrigued by Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton and Director of Hockey Ops Mike Santos. I think he plans to talk to both — if it hasn’t happened already.

– And I keep hearing that Pat Quinn, Doug MacLean and Jay Feaster are very much interested in the job, with reciprocal interest from inside the Wild. I will say this: I keep hearing Quinn mostly wants to coach again, and although he’d take the GM’s job, he just loves coaching and most consider him a better coach. But one would think the Wild would allow the new GM to hire the coach.

– And you know there are always mystery candidates that haven’t been revealed yet. I’ve heard some very, very interesting names, but since I haven’t been able to confirm, I haven’t written them. Of course, if one of them is hired, I’ll probably beat myself up over not writing it for months.

– I know a lot of you are praying this team makes a big free-agency splash. I still think the smartest thing to do, and the thing these guys probably would do instead, is make their splashes via trade rather than free-agent signings.

What else do I feel like rambling about?

– I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many things will change around here. It’ll be fun to cover. For instance, watching Sergei Fedorov score the winner the other night for Washington. At last year’s trade deadline, I got a lot of emails from readers wondering why I never included Fedorov in as a center possibility to trade for. It’s because I knew Doug Risebrough wasn’t a fan. And when you learn GM traits or opinions, you often just discount things. It’s the same reason why I didn’t list a guy, like say, Marc Crawford or Quinn as a coaching candidate. It’s because I knew Risebrough wouldn’t consider them.

Well, no more.  A new GM means I can no longer have pre-conceived ideas about what they’ll do or won’t do, which will be fun.

I’ve even been thinking about trivial on-ice things. I watched the Vancouver-Chicago game last night with a friend. I pointed out to him how three Canucks dove to try to block a Brent Seabrook shot at one point. That’s something you’d never see from a Wild player with Jacques Lemaire as the coach. Not that it’s right or wrong, but Lemaire wanted players to stand in shooting or passing lanes and never leave their feet. Now even something like that may change under a new coach.

Everything will be new. It’ll be kind of cool. Incidentally, allow this shameless plug for some friends, but we watched the game with Davina and the Vagabonds playing live in the background. Go to their web site to see where they’re playing because they’re awesome, and incredible live.

– Boy, how about San Jose choking again? Can’t blame the coaches anymore, eh? New coaching staff. Blame now gets pointed at the common denominators, and those include guys like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Check out this indictment of a quote from Sharks coach Todd McLellan in the San Jose Mercury News: “One wears the C, the other the A. Frankly the team hasn’t succeeded with them driving the bus.”

And on the Sharks’ lack of intensity in the playoffs: “You can’t just go to Costco and pick it up, but it’s an essential ingredient to winning.”

– Interesting that Richard Zednik’s signed a two-year deal in the KHL, eh? Remember, this is a player who last season had his life saved because of the incredible medical care he received in Buffalo when Olli Jokinen’s skate slashed his throat. You’d think such an incident would prove to you that the NHL is the place to be.

Lastly, I’ve got to rant real quickly about the Masterton voting process — one I won’t take part in again if the Professional Hockey Writers Association conducts it this ridiculously in future years.

Every chapter picks a nominee from the team they cover. The chapter chairman writes a bio, the 30 bios are put together and sent out to the membership for voting.

This year, the PHWA sent out all 30 bios, but on a trial run, had a “committee” cut down the list of 30 into a list of “favorites.” While the PHWA board urged the membership to read all 30 bios and vote from there, on April 12, the board sent out a list of five “top candidates” as chosen by this “committee.” This was apparently discussed at one of our PHWA meetings, which is absurd to begin with considering we live in an economic climate where many newspapers don’t send their writers to the major events where these meetings are held — All-Star Games and Stanley Cup Finals.

The “top candidates” were  Florida’s Richard Zednik, Nashville’s Steve Sullivan, Vancouver’s Alex Burrows, Detroit’s Chris Chelios and New Jersey’s Scott Clemmenson.

Now, I will be honest. I went a tad loco at the time. I fired off a reply email April 12 to PHWA President, Kevin Allen, and secretary-treasurer, Alan Adams, saying, this is “absolutely wrong” and it “completely taints the process.” 

Now, this might sound like sour grapes because Kurtis Foster wasn’t among the five “top candidates.” I’ll admit that might have spurred my reaction when I witnessed this guy be the personification of what the award is — perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. And I will also admit to you that a big part of my critical email to Kevin and Alan had to do with how a “committee” of people who allegedly watch hockey for a living could justify campaigning for voters to consider Alex Burrows a “top candidate” for an award that includes sportsmanship in its description.

But I promise, the major part of my problem was the precedent this set. It just completely taints the credibility of the award when a “committee” recommends the “top candidates” to vote for. As hockey writers, we vote for the Hart, Norris, Calder, Selke and Lady Byng. With our ballots, I never see the NHL send a recommendation sheet.

No, we have 600-plus names to choose from.

Well, with the Masterton, it is already broken down for us into only 30 players. If you’re a hockey writer who is incapable of finding the 10 minutes to skim through 30, 100-word paragraphs, you should not vote. But to ask at a meeting to have those 30 cut down, and then actually have that motion pass, is absurd.

Now, I’m not saying that Richard Zednik, Steve Sullivan and Chris Chelios aren’t deserving of the award — in fact, two of those players got votes from me — but I am saying, we will always have to wonder how the voting would have changed if this “committee” didn’t send out a separate email with “top candidates.”

But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong. Incidentally, after this blog, my PHWA cards since 1995 might be collectors items :)

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