Should Mark Hunter get more buzz as Toronto’s next GM?

Ever since it was announced yesterday that Lou Lamoriello is stepping down as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, rumours have been been swirling surrounding his potential successor. The dark horse pick seems to be Shanahan’s hand-picked man Kyle Dubas. The other internal option is Mark Hunter, but I think that it will shock a lot of people if Dubas wasn’t the pick. Considering Dubas is the poster boy of my current degree, Brock Sport Management, you would assume that I would be championing Dubas as my man to lead the Leafs to the promise land. But, as the title to this blog suggests, I’m going to make the case that Mark Hunter could be the better pick.

Hunter has decades of experience in terms of hockey decision-making. After an NHL career of 628 games across 12 seasons, Hunter transitioned into a coaching gig with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting in 1994-95. He would go on to coach for the Sting until 2000. It was then that he and his brother Dale would go on to buy the London Knights. Mark served as the assistant coach and GM of the team (with a brief stint as head coach in 2011-12 when Dale was hired as the Washinton Captials head coach) until the Maple Leafs made him director of player personnel in 2014. Hunter was the promoted to co-interim GM in 2015–alongside Kyle Dubas–when Toronto fired Dave Nonis. Since bringing Lamoriello aboard as general manager, Hunter has been an assistant GM whose main duties appear to be scouting and essentially running the table at the NHL draft.

Here’s a quick rundown of Hunter’s draft record since taking over Toronto’s draft room in 2015:

2015

Rd 1 Pick 4 Mitch Marner
Rd 2 Pick 34 Travis Dermott
Rd 2 Pick 61 Jeremy Bracco
Rd 3 Pick 65 Andrew Nielsen
Rd 3 Pick 68 Martins Dzierkals
Rd 4 Pick 95 Jesper Lindgren
Rd 5 Pick 125 Dmytro Timashov
Rd 6 Pick 155 Stephen Derocher
Rd 7 Pick 185 Nikita Korostelev

This draft was all about re-stocking the cupboard. I loved the Marner over Hanifin pick. I think Marner’s ceiling is Johnny Gaudreau-high while Hanifin has a lower ceiling (the debate begins at Hanifin playing a premium position). Dermott is already a staple of the Leafs blueline at age 21 so that pick is looking like a home run. Bracco, Nielson and Timashov have all emerged as legitimate prospects and if 2 of 3 hit as successful NHLers then this could be an all-time draft.

2016

Rd 1 Pick 1 Auston Matthews
Rd 2 Pick 31 Yegor Korshkov
Rd 2 Pick 57 Carl Grundstrom
Rd 3 Pick 62 Joseph Woll
Rd 3 Pick 72 JD Greenway
Rd 4 Pick 92 Adam Brooks
Rd 4 Pick 101 Keaton Middleton
Rd 5 Pick 122 Vladimir Bobylev
Rd 6 Pick 152 Jack Walker
Rd 6 Pick 179 Nicolas Mattinen
Rd 7 Pick 182 Nikolai Chebykin

The Matthews pick was a lay-up. Anyone would’ve made that pick. As for the rest of the draft, Hunter and co. leaned heavily on over-age prospects which I guess is something that they identified as a market inefficiency. Of the four over-age players taken, Korshkov has just committed to remaining in the KHL for another year making his next season at age 22 a make-or-break development year; Adam Brooks just got his first taste of AHL action after racking up 130 points in 66 WHL games last season; and Bobylev and Walker were a couple of physically imposing late draft flyers. Second rounder Grundstrom is a legitimate prospect and is now rated as the NHL’s 99th best prospect in The Hockey News‘ 2018 Future Watch. Joseph Woll was just USA’s goalie at the 2018 World Juniors and is probably the highest caliber goalie prospect that Toronto has had since the Rask-Pogge dilemma.

2017

Rd 1 Pick 17 Timothy Liljegren
Rd 2 Pick 59 Eemeli Rasanen
Rd 4 Pick 110 Ian Scott
Rd 4 Pick 124 Vladislav Kara
Rd 5 Pick 141 Fedor Gordeev
Rd 6 Pick 172 Ryan McGregor
Rd 7 Pick 203 Ryan O’Connell

Liljegren was considered the steal of the draft after a year of mono and under-performance in Sweden dropped the blue-chip blueliner from the potential second overall pick all the way to pick 17. Everyone else in this draft is seen as more of a project so we’re probably a year or two away from seeing any big jumps.

 


When all is said and done, nobody can deny that Hunter has injected a tonne of young talent with varying profiles and skillsets into the organization. Hunter has a great eye for talent, to the point where I can definitely see his skillset carrying over as an NHL GM.

Unfortunately this decision will be seen as the latest installment of analytics versus the old guard. And while I see the merit of analytics in roster construction, I do believe that when the games actually start, hockey is just too random to only trust numbers. Case and point, analytics darling Martin Marincin has been shredded anytime he’s laced up the skates in his Leafs tenure.

Analytics, AKA “math”, is definitely an important concept when front offices are tasked signing players, managing the salary cap, valuing draft picks in trades or even as a tool to explain why that there is a drop in traditional production stats such as goals, assists, plus/minus, save percentage or goals against. But at the end of the day, you need to have an eye for the game when you evaluate talent.

That isn’t to say that Dubas doesn’t have an eye for the game, or even that Hunter doesn’t know his way around numbers. My whole uneasiness with the situation is that, speaking as an outsider unfamiliar with discussions behind closed doors, there is absolutely no track record for the work that Dubas has done. One of his main duties is that he is in charge of the affiliate Marlies, but for the most part the team houses the prospects that Hunter drafts and the development is carried out by the coaching staff. He clearly has a voice in the Leafs war room but unless someone releases a tell-all book, there is simply no way of knowing which roster decisions could be his.

On the other hand Hunter’s track record as a drafter is tangible and, for the most part, impressive. I see what the Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators are doing this season as draft-and-develop rosters built by Cheveldayoff  and David Poile and see parrallels in the style of GM that Hunter could be.

Even if Hunter doesn’t get any GM offers this summer, it would make sense for him to move on anyways. At least he could move to an organization where he wouldn’t be blocked by a 31 year-old wunderkind should Dubas get the Leafs job.

At the end of the day this will be a tough decision to make because, from everything I’ve read or heard, it sounds like the loser will leave town. Shanahan clearly likes Dubas enough to block a move to the Colorado Avalanche last offseason, so I would be shocked if Dubas isn’t Lou’s successor. Ideally both Dubas and Hunter stay in Toronto regardless of who is hired to run the show, but that seems like a pipe dream. If Shanahan can somehow keep both Hunter and Dubas on board next year then I will never question the Shana Plan again.

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