Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The New NHL Order

Brian Skrudland laced up his skates and left every drop of sweat and, often, blood, he could wring out of himself on NHL ice rinks for 881 games over seventeen seasons. Marc Bergevin played 1191 NHL games, breaking into the big league in 1984-85, just one year before Skrudland made his debut with the Canadiens. With 13 different home teams between them over their 2000 combined games, it's something of an accomplishment that the two never dressed in the same room. That's not to say, however, that they didn't know something about each other.

"A funny story about Marc Bergevin," Skrudland, now director of player development with the Florida Panthers, recalls with a laugh. "Every time I walked into an arena and Bergevin was on the opposite team, he would always impersonate Brian Skrudland getting ready for a faceoff and then skating. So, he would be pulling his elbows up and putting everyone in position. And then going into the faceoff and really whacking and hacking. And then he would go for a quick little skate and, of course, it drew a pretty good smile from those who were watching.

"I walked into Dale Tallon's office last year before our home opener and there sat Marc Bergevin. It was the first time I'd ever actually met him, and Dale and him are pretty good buddies. So I walked in and said, "You son of a bitch. I've never met you before and now I finally get the chance." Dale said, "You've never met him before and you're calling him a son of a bitch?" I explained the story and we all had a good chuckle."

This is the new network of former players who are moving into today's NHL management positions. Some played together, some faced each other in corners or over faceoff dots or fists, but they all know each other in some fashion.  After recalling his 'official' introduction to Bergevin, Skrudland was quick to wish the new Habs G.M. well.

"Congratulations to Marc. I think that's going to be a nice fit," he praises.

That's how it works today. Brian knows Dale, who  knows Marc, who knows Stan, who knows Ken, and the web of interactions is spun. When a trade is on the table, one of the most valuable things a GM can have going for him is his network of connections. These days, as well, it's not just one guy who's responsible for building that network. Management of up-and-coming NHL clubs is based on teams of executives that collaborate in decision-making. The loner autocrat general manager is a thing of the past. Skrudland says he sees the way everyone works together in Florida's front office as a positive thing.

"It's a group effort. Here, Mike Santos, our assistant GM and Dale work together. Then there's the money side, the business side, that has their say in it. There are a lot of fingers in that pot. It's about having those people in place, having good people in place and making those decisions as a group," he explains.

Skrudland says that collaborative approach applies to scouting and drafting prospects too. When teams invest so much time and money into developing draft picks, it's vital they know as much as they can about the players they're choosing.

"It's amazing. That's the thing that really gets me in regards to speaking with some of those guys who absolutely study it. It's almost an analytical thing today. Everybody knows where the guy last went to the bathroom, for crying out loud. That's how in-depth we are today," he marvels. "But, at the end of the day, as we can see, you still can't measure a heart. At the end of the day, there's still a lot of great hockey players out there that may not have the greatest skill, but we can see how beneficial they are, especially these last four teams. They've got a lot of those kinds of players and they make a big difference."

Skrudland looks at the success Edmonton and Florida have had in their high draft picks of the last few years, and knows if a team chooses properly, the right pick can really help turn its fortunes around. He thinks Montreal has a chance to do that in June, if Bergevin and his team can work together to make a wise choice.

So, in the new era of management team-building and networking, one wonders whether Skrudland himself is thinking of using some of those hard-won connections to move up in the front-office ranks.

"I learn as I go along the way. I certainly pay attention to what people are doing and what they're saying. There's always part of me that wants to be a bigger part of the action," he confesses. "Maybe one day down the road, I'll find my way back behind the bench again for a couple of years because that's where I think all the fun is.  It really is a challenge. Coaches today have to not only coach a hockey team, but there's the media and it's more of a full-time job than it's ever been."

One thing is certain: Brian Skrudland didn't play more than 800 NHL games because he was a fool. Lots of Habs fans wonder Bergevin and his team might consider trading the Canadiens third-overall pick this June for an already-developing prospect like Florida's Jonathan Huberdau, currently starring in the Memorial Cup playoffs for the Saint John Sea Dogs.

"People have asked me that, but Huberdeau is going nowhere. He'll be the face of the Florida Panthers for hopefully the next decade. He's doing a lot for Saint John. But (Habs prospect) Michael Bournival is a good young player too," he soothes with a laugh.

Maybe a job higher up the NHL management ranks is in Skrudland's future. If it is, though, he knows he won't be working alone. And, chances are, the people he'll work with will be guys he played with or against in his NHL career. Perhaps there'll even be a son of a bitch among them. All in the name of good fun...and good business...of course.

*Coming soon: Skrudland's memories of the '86 Cup and his record-setting 9-second OT goal against Calgary.


Steve said...

Skukland is just raising the price on Huberdeau, Montreal has to get him, overpay now or cry for a decade later.

Anonymous said...

Really good article- Skrudland was one of my favs.
Never took a shift off,left it all on the ice game in and game out.
Hopefully we will have some of the same kind of players this season.
Thanks for taking the time to keep us entertained JT.

moeman said...

Beauty piece J.T.