Lou Lamoriello ran the Devils for 28 years and was the Maple Leafs’ general manager the past three seasons. The transition to being the Islanders’ president of hockey operations and general manager did not give him a moment’s pause.
How quickly did he flip that mental switch? “The day you decide,” said Lamoriello, 75.
In other words, always look forward.
The NHL is vastly different today from when Providence College athletic director Lamoriello was hired in 1987 to be the Devils’ president. There are 10 more franchises (with another potentially being awarded to Seattle), an ever-increasing salary cap, an influx of European and U.S.-born players, a growing reliance on advanced analytics and a wealth of information instantly available on smartphones and tablets.
When Lamoriello joined the NHL, it was the end of the era of the dynasties. The Canadiens won four straight Stanley Cups from 1976-79 and 10 between 1965-79. The Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83 and the Oilers won five between 1984-90. Since 1991, 14 teams have won the Cup, including Lamoriello’s Devils three times. In 2017, the Penguins became the first team to repeat since the Red Wings in 1998.
NHL executives must constantly evolve along with the ever-changing landscape or become irrelevant (read: unemployed). The seemingly tireless Lamoriello has been among the best in that regard.
“He’s a guy that I respect the most in the league,” said the Penguins’ Jim Rutherford, 69, a goalie for four teams from 1970-82 and an NHL general manager since 1994. “I’m happy he’s still in a game he loves because he’s very good at what he does. To continue to work as long as he has, you have to evolve and maybe do some things different than when you first started.”
“It’s incredibly different in some ways and, in other ways, there are some core values that are the same,” added Brendan Shanahan, who was selected second overall by Lamoriello in 1987 and, as the Maple Leafs’ president, was Lamoriello’s boss the past three seasons. “It doesn’t stop. Whatever methods are successful now will be antiquated in five years, but I think what makes hockey special is some things don’t change.”
Shanahan said Lamoriello’s “work ethic and his compass” have never changed. But Lamoriello has had to learn how to deal with each successive generation of players.
More money brings more complications, though there is more to it than that. As compared with 30 years ago, many 18-year-olds already are training year-round for hockey. Many already have personal trainers or skating coaches or nutritionists.
The NHL Players Association reported the average player compensation was $271,000 in 1990-91, the first season of full salary disclosure. By 1997-98, that figure rose to $1.2 million. In 2008-09, the average salary topped $2 million for the first time. The $3-million mark was reached in 2016-17.
“I think just the personality and the situations of the players have evolved so much over the years,” Shanahan said. “Some of the core values of a hockey player remain the same, but you have to recognize that a 23-year-old in 1987 versus a 23-year-old in ’98 versus a 23-year-old in 2008 and a 23-year-old in 2018 is different. People who have been in the game a long time like Lou, they’re unwavering in some of their core principles. But they absolutely understand how each generation and decade has produced players with different needs and requirements.”
Shanahan said Lamoriello has always had a personal touch with his players.
Shanahan recalled struggling in his second year with the Devils as his father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He said he went into Lamoriello’s office and wondered if he was ready for the NHL.
“I remember, at the time, Lou telling me he’d seen a lot of kids like me, at my specific age, at Providence College and he had a lot of experience with kids dealing with being away from home,” said Shanahan, who played in the NHL from 1987-2009 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2013. “I think, at that time, if I had a general manager who didn’t reassure me that things were going to be OK, or simply moved me to another city, I don’t know that I would have had the career I had.”
In Toronto, Shanahan, Lamoriello and coach Mike Babcock formed a leadership triumvirate, aided by then-assistant general managers Kyle Dubas, who succeeded Lamoriello as the Maple Leafs’ GM, and Mark Hunter, who could rejoin Lamoriello with the Islanders as his Maple Leafs contract expires Sunday.
Lamoriello already has hired away Steve Pellegrini from the Devils as an assistant GM to work both in cap management and talent evaluation.
“Lou’s always had good-quality people who are a little more current, who have good hockey minds and have strong hockey opinions and they have a personality where they would voice their opinion,” said Jim Schoenfeld, who was Lamoriello’s first coaching hire with the Devils and now is the Rangers’ senior vice president and assistant GM. “Lou’s never afraid to talk it through. He’s never worried who’s going to take the bow, who’s going to get the recognition.”
Rutherford said one of his keys to adjusting to changes in the league is hiring ex-players for management positions.
“Now, using analytics more than we did then, having the input of players who played in the league just recently really means I have a lot more sounding boards before I make a final decision,” Rutherford said.
He added that being innovative in hiring decisions also is crucial.
For instance, Rutherford promoted head European scout Patrik Allvin to be the Penguins’ director of amateur scouting before last season rather than, as typical, have a scout with more of a North American background in that role.
“You don’t see that often,” Rutherford said. “That’s how strong I believe that we have to cover all parts of the world.”
Schoenfeld said there’s an easy explanation for what keeps executives such as Lamoriello and Rutherford so successful for so long in the NHL.
“First of all, it tells me that he still has a tremendous passion for the job,” Schoenfeld said. “Because, you know, the job isn’t for everybody. It is a lot of phone calls. There’s a lot of negotiations with agents. Sometimes I look at managing as kind of removed from hockey. When I was coaching Jersey, Lou told me once, ‘You know, the most enjoyable part of the day is coming out and watching practice.’ And I think he’s still a hockey guy.”
Even if the definition of that keeps evolving.
Which means Lamoriello must as well.
“There’s no question it’s a different league. The rules have changed that,” Lamoriello said. “The youth on the roster, the speed of the game, the abilities the players have had. In earlier years, the quantity and quality wasn’t as much as there is right now. It’s at its highest level being a great game. Also, the parity the league created by the rule changes. The worldly part of the game. So many things have changed. All for the good.”
With Colin Stephenson
Then and now
A comparative look at the NHL in 1987-88, Lou Lamoriello’s first season in the league, and last season:
NHL teams 21 31
Salary cap No Yes
Avg. Player Salary $271,000 (1990-91) $3,115,115
Avg. Top 10 salaries $559,225 $11.6 M
Avg. Player Height 6-1/2 6-1
Avg. Player Weight 198 200.8
Avg. Player Age 25.4 27.0
Pct. Canadian born 76.6 45.0
Pct. Czech born 1.2 3.7
Pct. Russian born 0 3.7
Pct. Swedish born 3.1 9.6
Pct. U.S. born 15.2 27.5
SOURCES: NHL, NHL Players Association, Sport Magazine, Spotrac