Mark Hunter (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Mark Hunter was very much a part of the process of bringing Mike Babcock to Toronto and has taken on a lot of responsibility in the Maple Leafs organization. He'll be running the draft in June and has already made several key hires. All he's lacking is experience at the NHL level.
A person who has interviewed for the Toronto Maple Leafs GM job told me Thursday that nothing that unfolded during the Mike Babcock hiring came as a surprise to him. Team president Brendan Shanahan made it clear to this person that the coach was going to be hired before the GM and that the search for a new person to run the hockey department is still very much open.
Shanahan has displayed a unique management style through all of this. Whether it works brilliantly or blows up in his face will be revealed in time. If it does succeed, and it might, it could provide a template for future executives. And that is, find the people you want first and worry about job titles later.
That said, one name other than Babcock’s kept coming up at the proceedings, that of director of player personnel Mark Hunter. When asked about his plans for the GM job, Shanahan was a little cagey, saying that he’s not even certain he’ll hire one at this point, saying the job may be done by a committee consisting of himself, Hunter and assistant GM Kyle Dubas.
But if Shanahan does hire a GM, the clear frontrunner is Hunter. Hunter has already been given full control over the scouting department and will be the undisputed alpha male at that draft table in June. He was the one who decided the fate of the part-time scouts who were let go and he has since hired his head scout from the London Knights, Lindsay Hofford, as an Ontario scout and former Saginaw Spirit GM Jim Paliafito as director of player evaluation. Hunter was with Shanahan every step of the way during the process of hiring Babcock of coach, in lockstep with Shanahan in convincing Babcock the Leafs were a desired destination because there is a lot of exciting work to do and many improvements to make.
“I can tell you that Mark Hunter was a big part of this,” Shanahan said. “He deserves a lot of the credit for this.” Babcock was even more effusive in his praise for Hunter, saying he represents half of the two best hockey men he knows. The other is his friend Kelly McCrimmon, who is the owner, GM and coach of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
“When (the Maple Leafs) hired Hunts last year, I said, ‘Oh my,’ ” Babcock said. “(Hunter and McCrimmon) are the guys for me. They just keep flat-out doing it year after year after year. They find players, they can smell them. That’s a hockey man. When I met with Hunts and Shanny…I could talk to that guy. He’s a hockey man.”
Another notion that was brought up with respect to the GMs job is that Shanahan has already surrounded himself with people he trusts and that very few leaks have gotten out to the public, which is a departure from previous regimes. Nobody had any idea that the Leafs were going to deal David Clarkson and his onerous contract to Columbus for Nathan Horton until it happened. And until just hours before the Maple Leafs got Babcock, they were being dismissed as a legitimate candidate. Shanahan might want to keep his inner circle as tight as it is right now.
Whoever the new GM is, the Leafs are not going to have a conventional flow chart when it comes to their management team. First off, the coach is going to have much more say in roster and player personnel decisions than most other coaches around the league. Even if Hunter is not the guy, he’ll be a key decision maker and Shanahan will be very active and internally vocal.
Guys like Hunter and Hofford are very, very financially successful outside the NHL. Hunter makes gobs of money as part-owner of the Knights and Hofford has his fingers in many pies, including running a company called Pro Hockey Development. It has long been speculated that one of the reasons he wasn’t back working in the OHL was that no teams could afford to hire him.
The point is, these guys are not going to drop their lucrative and stable gigs without having an opportunity to advance at the NHL level. Hunter very much wants the GM job and has the inside track in as much as he’s already working so closely with the person who is going to make the decision. The only thing this group, including Babcock, lacks is experience. None of them has ever actually built a roster at the NHL level. None of them has experience making trades, negotiating player contracts or identifying talent at the NHL level.
They might want to bring in someone with the experience of doing that. That's where one of the other candidates - such as Mike Futa, Mike McPhee, Scott Gorton and Julien BriseBois - come in. Or Shanahan may just feel comfortable enough to officially hand the reins to Mark Hunter. Whatever the result, it will be a brave new world for the Toronto Maple Leafs.