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Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Updated: September 28, 3:07 PM ET
Pressure of success now shifting toward GMs

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Coaches used to live with their bags packed because they just never knew when they'd get to the rink and find the locks had been changed and some other guy was standing in their shoes behind the bench.

Now, it's their bosses, general managers, who have to peek nervously into their offices every day and hope they don't see the soles of someone else's feet propped up on their shiny desks.

The pressure point has shifted to the men who assemble the talent and juggle the salary cap, appoint the scouts and meet with the owners when the ship starts to list.

"The hangman's never far away in this job," Anaheim GM Brian Burke said. "It's a command job and the casualty rate is high for guys in that field."

Brian Burke
While the rules have changed, Ducks GM Brian Burke believes the game's building blocks to success have not.

Never more so.

In the past, when there might have been a $50 million gap between the low-end payrolls and the big spenders in Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Colorado, there was less pressure on the small-market GM because the expectations were modified based on the economic restrictions he faced. He toed the line, and if he got a couple of breaks and won a playoff round or two, so much the better.

Burke recalls the 2000 playoffs, when his Vancouver Canucks faced the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. Burke's team payroll at that point was about $22 million. "Colorado's first power-play unit was making more than twice that," Burke said.

Not anymore.

That payroll gap has been mandated at a fixed $16 million "and a manager can overcome that," Burke said.

More to the point -- he'd better overcome that.

That's why Craig Patrick was shown the door after a long stint as Pittsburgh GM after he spent wildly on a clutch of free agents a year ago and the Penguins turned out to be one of the worst teams in the NHL.

Mike O'Connell, who looked as though he had assembled a playoff team in Boston but ended up with a collection of underachievers that ultimately led to the trading of MVP-in-waiting Joe Thornton to San Jose, was shipped out of the GM's office.

In their place, Ray Shero and Peter Chiarelli, respectively, will try their luck, two of six new GMs on the job this season. The other newcomers are Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles, Francois Giguere in Colorado, Jacques Martin in Florida and Garth Snow on Long Island.

There's also new St. Louis president John Davidson, who is taking a hands-on role and working closely with GM Larry Pleau in trying to rebuild the sad-sack Blues, who finished dead last in the league a year ago.

Burke doesn't think the principles or the building blocks that go into creating a winner -- good goaltending, sound drafting, good development -- have ever changed. What has changed for general managers has been the economic factors that affect putting those building blocks together.

Procuring players who can be productive at a low price is one key to building a successful team because they are the players who allow you to pay your stars the premium dollars, Burke said.

That is why a player such as Andy McDonald, who had 85 points last season but earned $627,000, might be as important to the Ducks as a top-end earner such as Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger, whom Burke acquired from Edmonton in the offseason.

Teams have long spent considerable amounts of money on scouting, but Burke predicts that teams might spend even more, and a lot of that new expenditure will be in scouting pro players because the cap -- and the lower age at which players can become free agents -- will mean unprecedented player movement of established players.

"Winning is an outcome, and you can't win until you have all the pieces in place," said former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a senior scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs. "If you can't recruit and develop players from within our organization, you can't get that outcome."

Lombardi is on his second go-round as a GM after helping build San Jose into a Western Conference power through patient development of talent from within. He admits he's not sure whether the same mind-set will prove successful in the new NHL.

"I'll be perfectly honest with you. I said this before I had the job. I think anybody that thinks they have all the answers under this system right now isn't telling the truth," Lombardi said during a recent conference call. "I'm perfectly cognizant that some of the rules that I followed in San Jose are probably not applicable. Also in this market, it's a challenge, where I don't think Los Angeles can afford to fall off the map and pick in the top three and get those guys everybody knows are top players.

"I still believe that the drafting and development is critical. It's just that now it is more balanced in terms of the amateur and the pro side."

The element of the new system most seem to agree on is that it is easier for teams to "reload" more quickly, Burke said. The flip side of that dynamic is that expectations from fans and owners will be higher and patience at a premium.

It's why the deathwatch for Toronto GM John Ferguson has begun already after he cleaned house in the offseason, firing longtime coach Pat Quinn and bringing in free-agent defensemen Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill.

There are also pressure points in Ottawa, where John Muckler was brought in to bring home a Cup with one of the NHL's most talented teams, and in Philadelphia, where the Flyers looked like a Cup contender a season ago only to be blown out in the first round by Buffalo. GM Bob Clarke tipped over the first domino in what almost certainly will be a management trend by presenting unsigned, restricted free-agent center Ryan Kesler with an offer sheet.

The Canucks matched the Flyers' offer sheet, but they ended up paying twice what they had hoped to for Kesler's services. With teams pressed against the $44 million salary cap, it seems like a sound strategy for teams to try to raid opponents knowing they can't match an offer sheet, opponents like the New Jersey Devils, who entered the preseason over the cap without crucial players Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and David Hale under contract.

However players are acquired -- through the draft, trade or free agency -- the salary cap means teams will pretty much have to highlight a few core players around whom they're going to build, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. Ideally, that'd be six forwards, four defensemen and a No. 1 goalie. Those players will take the bulk of the salary but will also, in theory, provide the bulk of the production. One of the keys, Rutherford said, is to be patient because there are often free-agent gems late in the summer.

Rutherford's patience in the free-agent market a season ago yielded key components of the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup run, Cory Stillman and Ray Whitney. This offseason, he added Trevor Letowski, who will be asked to help fill a role up front as the Canes lost Matt Cullen to free agency and will miss Stillman for the first couple of months because of his shoulder injury.

Other teams that made late moves this fall include Columbus GM Doug MacLean, who hasn't been able to come to terms with rising star Nikolai Zherdev, so insulated himself against Zherdev's possible return to Russia by signing 33-goal man Anson Carter.

Another issue for GMs that became apparent this summer was the awards of arbitrators, who made life difficult for Darcy Regier in Buffalo and Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey, just to name a few.

The history of arbitration has been that teams almost always accept an award even if it's well above what they were hoping to pay, as was the case with Briere, who was awarded a $5 million deal, $3 million more than he made a year ago. Given those kinds of awards, GMs will have to not only worry about signing players before they become unrestricted free agents but also make hard decisions about whether to qualify players and risk going to arbitration.

The Sabres, for instance, accepted the Briere deal but chose to walk away from J.P. Dumont, who had 20 goals in 54 games last season and was awarded $2.9 million by an arbitrator.

Dumont later signed a longer-term deal in Nashville for less money.

"I think the harsh reality is that we're going to have to walk away from players," Button said.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.