Bob Murray, Hero

Bruce Bennett

This is a positive piece about the wonders and glories of general managing hockey teams.

It's come to my attention that this community heavily dislikes Anaheim Ducks general manager, Bob Murray. This seems foolish to me, but I profess not to understand why this is because I haven't ever followed along with the sentiment nor the arguments made for it here. But I'll take a quick stab at disagreeing with the stance since I'm already writing some stuff about him this offseason in light of his rightful nomination as GM of the Year.

I could honestly just post the Ducks draft history from Brian Burke's tenure until now to paint the best picture and leave the whole thing alone. Aside from in 2008, when the organization hired its current chief scout and Burke was actively trying to quit working in Anaheim, this team hadn't drafted anyone really worth a damn since 2005, when it was really hard to miss with a second pick. Some of that is unluckiness (because betting on futures is half fortune-based anyway), and some of that is probably because Burke has shown a tendency to be both genius and idiot in his decisions guiding teams, and the Ducks draft decisions were largely questionable.

Murray served as vice president of hockey operations as well as getting Burke coffees from 2005 to 2008, when he took a quick plane to Iowa to generally manage them for about five minutes before he came back to totally manage the Ducks. See, by and large, 2008 was really weird here. The Toronto Maple Leafs wanted Burke to manage them, and Burke wanted to manage that team because his whole family was all East Coast based, you see, and one wants to be closer blah blah blah...bollocks. I'm not even continuing with the fake reasoning. Burke wanted to be famous, he wanted to make cash, he wanted to manage a team without cash restraints, and the league was pretty heavy handed in endorsing the move, as it tends to do for people who serve it faithfully in the past.

The Ducks were up shit creek. It's no real secret that the Samueli family more or less jumped on buying the organization as a way to own an arena ready-made for basketball. The Los Angeles Clippers had flirted with Anaheim before, and the whole Disney and arena management thing going on here never appealed to now-batshit crazy owner Donald Sterling. There's more to it I guess, but all and all, the Ducks are a budget conscious team because it has owners who want to build a bigger brand here. I'm fine with that. Anaheim was relegated as a small market when it joined the league anyway, since the NHL stroked the Los Angeles Kings relative ego by granting it oodles of advertising and marketing restrictions. (I hear this has changed, which is good. It helps that teams like the Ducks and Angels ended up creating a secondary TV market in LA that isn't exactly LA but sorta kinda is, so TV networks won the day and more money is available for all!)

Why am I droning on in vague terms about this nonsense? Oh yeah, because the budget conscious owners were suspended from NHL operations when all this shit with Toronto and Burke was conveniently going down. See, they were in trouble with the Law* for some money matters and had been fighting it in court, and unlike the NFL with its strung out owners who never get disciplined, Gary Bettman loves his league's image and smacked the team. (Now, I am pretty familiar with the Samueli's handling of non-profit business arms, and the Ducks are no exception. Henry S. is a basketball guy first, so he has hired good hockey people to run the hockey show and has largely left it all alone except to finance it. Being suspended changed nothing except perhaps how money could be made from the team during that time, although I know less about this part, as well as the obvious reality that during the suspension, the family was up to its neck in sweet-ass lawyering bills and fines and junk. Paying that out makes wanting to donate cash to hot market hockey pretty low priority.)

Having an owner who wants to perhaps cut some costs to focus on not being in trouble with the Law can perhaps explain why Burke was like "pfft this is nuts, I want a bajillion dollars to run the Maple Leafs and be famous" and who could blame him? I don't. It is also why the Ducks moved Chris Pronger (who wanted five-plus years at significant money) and let Francois Beauchemin sign with his buddy Brian in Toronto, what with an injury that threatened his usefulness and an asking price that wasn't in keeping with cost cutting.

Really long, long story short: Bob Murray inherited a goddamn mess despite all of this by and large being kept out of sight. "Bob, be a GM here but promise not to re-sign these guys we all love for the coin they want because we're more or less broke scaling back spending and want the Sacramento Kings to be your besties in any event so that's kinda what we're about right now. Oh and also the coach you have under contract is sorta moronic but refuses to stay unless we promise him all manner of crap so extend him I guess since he won us a Cup and hey, enjoy yourself!"

Speaking of Randy Carlyle, my impression of Murray only improves considering this dynamic. Carlyle has precisely one philosophy for how to play and knows how to coach one awful system, and he wanted very specific players that fit into it. He is without exaggeration the worst coach currently in the NHL, to which Burke chose him over the guy widely considered to be the best coach. Ironic. But despite that, Murray worked well with Carlyle in the way a good GM should. He acquired "Carlyle guys" and generally gave Randy the roster he wanted (just without the Hall of Famers it required to be consistently successful, and even then, no guarantees, especially since there's room to argue the 2007-08 roster was better than the 2006-07 one).

It is not coincidental that when Carlyle left, Murray's acquisitions and non-drafting player moves began more or less conforming to "sense" in ways not previously known. I'm sure someone will say "well Bryan Allen was signed after Carlyle was gone," but it was a decent move at the time and, in my mind, still is. (Don't read this as an advocacy for the player so much as a recognition of the circumstances and what his role was to be and has been fulfilled as and in any event, that's for another day.)

I'm on fire here. What else? Oh so anyway, when it became clear Carlyle was a lunatic who smells like zoo animals (scientifically true info too, I assure you), Murray did a smart thing: he didn't fire him right away, mid-season. That's a big mistake to make in sports, because finding qualified candidates in-season is pretty difficult unless you have someone in mind already (Murray didn't). That usually means the new hire is just as reactionary and poorly thought-out as firing a guy who can't win with the same players who will show up tomorrow for an interim coach anyway, netting you a fat lot of nothing but paying a fired coach.

But then Bruce Boudreau became available, and even the aforementioned zoo animals recognize that he's a tremendous coach and most certainly is a cut above a number of other coaches. So marrying the need to get rid of Carlyle (and it was coming in the offseason had Boudreau not been available) and getting a fine coach in before anyone else did is a good piece of work. The fire-hire during a season can only end up being good long term if the new hire is a guy you'd want anyway, and Gabby is that and more. (If any of you missed Dellow's work showing how Boudreau taught the Pacific Division how to Corsi off lost offensive zone draws, shame on you.) [Ed. Note:  This one, I think... -CK]

Now, drafting. In 2003, the Golden Generational Draft Class year, the Ducks grabbed Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The next year, Ladislav Smid was the top pick, and he was used to grab Pronger. (But prevailing theory is that he'd have been pretty good had he not gone to the team that kills useful players.) From that point on, the other player worth anything to anyone the Ducks grabbed until 2008 was Bobby Ryan. And Burke had to be upsold on Ryan (over Jack Johnson) because scouts gave him the "no he's not just a sniper, we can mold him into a power forward!" That's basically untrue but boy did Burke and Carlyle screw a perfectly good young player out of his name being on a Cup trying to make that a reality. One day I'll actually write about Ryan and do this whole mismanaged thing justice.

Going through three drafts without producing NHL caliber players is bad for a team. Look at Vancouver now. Burke's Ducks took Ryan and then crapped the bed with everyone else until maybe Eric Tangradi** in 2007 (taken one pick before his fellow minor league teammate, P.K. Subban) but most certainly Jake Gardiner*** in 2008, the last draft Burke would've touched on his way toward further celebrity.

Murray's drafting then runs like so, starting in 2009: Peter Holland, Kyle Palmieri, Igor Bobkov, Sami Vatanen. In 2010: Cam Fowler, Emerson Etem, Devante Smith-Pelly. In 2011: Rickard Rakell, John Gibson, William Karlsson. In 2012: Hampus Lindholm, Nicolas Kerdiles, Frederik Andersen. In 2013: Shea Theodore and Nick Sorensen. All these guys either play already or project to be high talent guys who will play in the NHL. That's one big way to make up for three solidly terrible drafts and should, in and of itself, cut Murray a ton of slack from critics.

Furthermore, the trend since the Full Season Lockout and subsequent rule changes has been toward puck moving defensemen over big-bodied shutdown types like Brooks Orpik or Dan Girardi, who frequently eat Corsis from everyone when they get on the ice. Look at what Murray's drafted on defense in a short span: Fowler, Vatanen, Lindholm, Theodore. These are all guys who, aside from whatever traditional defending they may be known for, can skate or move the puck. So the GM is certainly a guy who sees how the game is being played and adjusts his staff accordingly, as opposed to Burke and co. up in Calgary with the Flames saying "we need to get bigger and heavier to beat the teams in the Pacific." Haha yeah ok Brian.

I don't know if anything I've typed here touches on the complaints against Murray as a good GM. Maybe. But one last nugget to consider. The three most "elite" teams (according to like everyone) in the league, the Kings, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Boston Bruins got to the point they did with a lot of draft picks inside the top 10. (And if you consider the Pittsburgh Penguins as still potentially elite, they blow those three away in this respect too.) The Kings had three top five picks, the Hawks had three top five and another top 10 pick. The B's had two top five picks and two more in the top 10.

The Ducks have one top five pick in the last 10 years (Ryan at second overall) and one top 10 pick as well (Lindholm at sixth overall). (Smid was ninth overall in 2004 if you want to include him, which is fine.) SO GET THIS: in a league in which the elite teams have built themselves from a core of the topmost prospects for a few years, the Ducks are competing RIGHT NOW with the fewest top end picks among them. So I sorta think: get right outta town with Murray hating, the dude's alright.

It is the drafting and positioning of those draft picks, as well as the lack of predicted falling off this team was supposed to see (by all measures), that has landed Murray another nomination and a good chance of winning the GM of the Year award.

* the Samueli family was pardoned of any wrongdoing and are therefore super awesome upstanding people.
** Tangradi is, I'm sure, great, but when you look at the misses there and then also realize he doesn't play for the Ducks now, it's hard to really call that a win for scouting.
*** there's some debate about the defensemen from that college team. Most argue that Ryan McDonagh is clearly the one who made the rest look great. I like Gardiner though and think there was some poor scouting involved in Justin Schultz, who looks more than ever like someone who only benefitted from playing with super rad players and isn't actually great himself. It was a gamble, but to get rid of a problem (Joffrey Lupul) and regain a good asset who was signed surprisingly cheap (since the market cooled on Beauchemin due to this ACL), someone had to go and Schultz wasn't able to have his rights moved, from my understanding. I might be wrong though. Both teams won in the shortie here, however, so it is hard to be upset. Gardiner is fun to watch but he's topped out due to his seeming inability to think the game yet.

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