Reaction: Front Office Restructuring

On Saturday night, it broke that the Panthers are shuffling their management structure. Dale Tallon has been promoted to President of Hockey Operations, with Tom Rowe named GM in his place. Eric Joyce, the GM of the Portland Pirates has been named an Assistant GM, as has Steve Werier, formerly the Panthers’ VP of Business & Legal Affairs.

The management structure being used here is the relatively new braintrust situation, where decision-making power is diffused across a committee of minds rather than concentrated in the central nexus of the GM’s seat. We have most prominently seen this structure employed in Toronto and Arizona. Calgary, Colorado, and Vancouver all use a similar structure as well. This type of management structure is usually tied to a focus on analytics and that is exactly how this is being sold. In George Richards’ write up at the Miami Herald, he wrote:

“Miami Herald learned the Panthers were leaning toward changing their management structure as the season came to a close because the team wants to incorporate more mathematical analysis when it comes to making roster decisions.”

The new structure does not support this at face value.

Each new appointee raises questions, not through faults of their own, but simply because these men do not have long or recent track records in management positions, and therefore little is out there to indicate what management is going to look with them in power.

Tom Rowe is the most experienced of the promoted men. He had a seven season NHL career from 1976 to 1983, playing for the Washington Capitals, Hartford Whalers, and Detroit Red Wings. He also spent 14 seasons in various front office positions from 1991 to 2005 in both the NHL and AHL. However, he has spent the vast majority of his time since 2005 as a coach. He returned to a management position for the first time since 2005 at New Year’s, when the Panthers named him Associate GM. It was the first time he was in any sort of front office with an NHL team since he was a scout with the Hartford Whalers in 1995.

We do not have a recent view of what Tom Rowe is like as a manager. His style is up in the air. While he seems genuinely interested in numbers and analytics, he is not a mathematician, he is a hockey guy. Interest in the numbers is good, but it is not a guarantee that he knows how to use them effectively. While there are positive signs with this move, there is not enough evidence to endorse it wholeheartedly right now.

The two new Assistant GMs raise even more questions. Neither Eric Joyce nor Steve Werier come with the track record of other analytic hires around the league.

The two most notable hires are Kyle Dubas (Toronto) and John Chayka (Arizona). Both came with clear hockey and analytical track records prior to their hiring. Kyle Dubas was a player agent and then GM of the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, where he gained a reputation for statistical analysis and attempting to quantify the game on a deeper level. John Chayka started his own analytics firm, Stathletes, which continues to operate to this day.

The same cannot be said for either of the Panthers’ new assistant GMs. Eric Joyce played for the Army hockey team from 1998 to 2002, graduating with a degree in Systems Engineering. He went on to serve as a Captain in the Army, and earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Bronze Star, and the Valorous Unit Citation for his service in Operation Iraqi Freedom III in Mosul, Iraq (2004-2005). He then graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School, focusing on international economics and development. Prior to joining the Panthers, he taught in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy. Steve Werier, in contrast, has a relatively short track record. A Google search shows that he earned his J.D. from the University of Toronto in 2008, and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 2009, where he practiced law prior to joining the Panthers.

While these men have certainly done ambitious things in their lives, there is little to tell us that these are the right guys to have in a position of power in an NHL front office. Joyce is highly decorated, but how are his credentials relevant to being part of an NHL team’s management structure? How does he fit into the management team? What exactly does he do in his role? How do his skills fit that role? These are not questions that can be answered at a first glance. We, the fans, have no way of knowing what effect he has or will have on management decisions. I’m not saying he should not be part of management, or that he will be bad. What I am saying is we cannot definitely say this a good thing based on what we know.

Most of what we know about Werier is that he’s a lawyer. We do not know the strength of his math skills at current moment, much less what his vision for a hockey team is. His specialties are in salary cap and contracts according to George Richards’ column, so perhaps his role as assistant GM is more on the technical side, rather than analytical. That jibes more with his legal credentials, and is a more natural fit. However, that clashes with how this restructure is being sold.

If this is truly about analytics, where is Brian MacDonald, Florida’s Director of Analytics, in this series of promotions? He has strong mathematical credentials, and a history beyond the Panthers of analyzing hockey, through his Greater Than Plus Minus blog. He would be more in the vein of a Dubas/Chayka type of hire/promotion. The fact he, at current moment, does not appear to have added power makes me question how analytically driven this restructure actually is.

The timing of this restructuring is also puzzling. This is the kind of move losing organizations make. All of the teams that have implemented this scheme did so after finishing with one of the eight worst records in the entire league during the previous season. The Panthers had the 7th best record in the NHL this past season and won a division title. I understand moving forward, and insisting on progress, but effecting a dramatic shift like this after a successful season seems like overkill. It sends a confusing message to the fanbase and the players about where the Panthers stand. If things were working well before, and they were, why mess with it? This just seems unnecessary. Now there is added pressure to prove this makes the team better, on top of the pressure of repeating as division champion and moving beyond the first round.

The one comfort I have is that Dale Tallon remains on top of the pile. It was his plan which has taken the Panthers this far, and it is the hard work of the staff he put together which has the Panthers on the precipice of an extended run of relevancy. He, at the very least, deserves to remain atop the power structure. He’s earned it, especially after the way he was treated by the Chicago Blackhawks organization. I trust that this promotion is not a perpetration of the same kind of power play I saw as a Blackhawks fan back then. President of Hockey Operations, after all, is a position held by highly respected men around the game like Brian Burke and Brendan Shanahan.

Now, could this set up work? Of course. I’m not denying that it could work. I certainly hope it does. I love the Panthers and I want this team to be successful as much as anyone else does. If it all works out, that means we are all happy. I just have a hard time trusting that this is what’s best for business at face value. Trust is earned and not given, after all.

The decisions have been made though, now it is time to prove they were the right decisions.

AJ Bruhn

About AJ Bruhn

AJ is the Managing Editor of The Sunshine Skate, and can be reached on Twitter below.