LeBrun: Rumblings on the Maple Leafs’ GM search, with new names and priorities emerging

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Brad Treliving is an obvious person of interest in the Maple Leafs’ search for a new general manager right now, and while nobody involved has been willing to confirm it as of Monday afternoon, I would be surprised if Toronto president Brendan Shanahan hasn’t interviewed the former Flames GM by the end of this week.

The question is just how expansive Shanahan’s process will be — how many people he wants to talk to before making a hire that is rather time-sensitive before the NHL’s busiest offseason window is upon us next month.

We do know what Shanahan himself said at Friday’s dramatic news conference, that experience would be a factor in the candidate he hires.

“Certainly having an experienced general manager could be an attractive quality,” Shanahan said.

That doesn’t 100 percent rule out a first-time GM, but it strongly suggests someone who has been around the job a while.

Where that leaves Leafs assistant GM Brandon Pridham, for example, is interesting. He’s been in the Leafs front office since 2014, so nine years would qualify as experience. By all accounts, he’s super bright. He knows the CBA inside out and has explored every loophole as the Leafs have done a delicate salary-cap dance throughout his time in Toronto. But he might still be seen as not ready for a GM job in Shanahan’s eyes. I do think Pridham’s role and import have a chance to continue to grow and evolve under a new GM.

Treliving, meanwhile, spent nine years in the pressure cooker of being a Canadian-team GM in Calgary, and that kind of experience would have to be attractive to Shanahan. Maybe it would be a drawback that the Flames never got out of the second round during his time there, but Treliving has a good reputation — a people person — and has shown an attractive willingness to make bold moves. That includes last summer, when he was faced with the losses of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk and made the best of a bad situation, acquiring Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar and Nazem Kadri. It was an impressive pivot given the terrible circumstances.

And let it be said that the Leafs’ roster will require some major decisions in a hurry here.

Whether Shanahan — again, based on the idea that he’s looking at people with GM experience — will reach out to former GMs like Jason Botterill and Marc Bergevin remains to be seen. Bergevin, who spent 10 years in the frying pan of Montreal, was recently interviewed in Calgary and Pittsburgh.

That brings us to Doug Armstrong. The Leafs’ GM search was about five minutes old this past weekend when people began to mention Armstrong’s name as a possible candidate.

The Blues GM certainly checks all the boxes as far as experience and a Cup ring — not to mention the kind of confidence and wherewithal to withstand the pressure-packed demands of the Toronto market.

For starters, I do not believe Armstrong has an actual “out” in his contract with the Blues. He signed a five-year extension in September 2021 that runs through the 2025-26 season.

But I also think Armstrong has the kind of strong relationship with Blues owner Tom Stillman that if the Maple Leafs approached Stillman about it, maybe he would be OK with it if it’s something that Armstrong really wanted. Maybe, maybe not. Pretty hard to know exactly how Stillman would react.

Would Shanahan see that as too many hoops to go through? It’s pretty unusual for a GM to get pried away when still under contract for multiple years.

But Armstrong might be worth the hassle. Again, I have no idea at this point whether Shanahan would go down that road. Or whether Armstrong would, though maybe there has been a hint of it.

During a sit-down interview with Armstrong I did back in October 2019, a few months after the Blues won the Cup, I remember asking Armstrong whether being a GM in Canada was something he aspired to before his career was over. His close friend Ken Holland had been hired in Edmonton five months earlier. And the reason I asked the question at the time was also that Armstrong has had such a long history of Team Canada involvement, from being GM of the World Cup-winning team in September 2016 to being part of Steve Yzerman’s management staff for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. He’s GM of Canada’s team at the World Championship right now and, of course, was slated to be Canada’s GM at the Beijing Olympics last year had the NHL not pulled out.

So, here was our exact exchange during that October 2019 interview:

LeBrun: You were the GM of Team Canada in this city (Toronto) for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. What’s that like when everyone is staring at you for a couple of weeks in a Canadian market? One of your good friends is Kenny Holland who now finds himself in a Canadian market. I know you never look too far down the road, but what do you think that would be like for you if you ever had that opportunity one day?

Armstrong: Well I think working in Canada is certainly a little different. I’ve been fortunate to work in two cities that have an Alpha in their sport, and that was the Dallas Cowboys and the St. Louis Cardinals. So I see, I don’t want to say scrutiny, but the passion that fanbase has. Our hockey fans have the same passion but just not as many. And that’s not a knock on them at all. But when you have a national package like the Cowboys or a national package like the Cardinals, it’s different. What Canada has are all national packages. I talked to Ken, we’re friends, it’s a different animal he’s working with now. For me, working with Team Canada at different occasions, you see it on a shorter time frame. The difference with Team Canada is (that) you’ve got a whole country pulling for you. I think on an individual NHL team, you have most of the country hating you (he laughs). I think working in Canada is special. I think the people working in Canada know they have a special job, whether you’re a coach or a player or a trainer or a scout; the Canadian markets have a different outlook.

So, it wasn’t a hard yes or a hard no, Armstrong cleverly deflected. But deep down, I think it’s something that might appeal to him under the right circumstances. And I remember filing that thought away that day.

Maybe it would have been a more-realistic option had he not signed a new contract two years ago to remain in St. Louis.

I also don’t know if this particular time and this particular situation — where he would have a hockey boss in Shanahan, as opposed to answering to no one in St. Louis other than the owner — would be appealing to Armstrong from that perspective.

But I think if you’re Shanahan, why not make the call to Stillman to find out?

Treliving is certainly the easier route. He’s a free agent. There’s no red tape. And again I think he fits the criteria of what Shanahan is looking for.

Shanahan will speak to a number of candidates before this process is over.

There’s just so much riding on this hire for the Leafs president after the dramatic separation from Kyle Dubas, whom he promoted to GM five years ago at the expense of his own mentor, Lou Lamoriello.

This time around, again just going by Shanahan’s own words from Friday, he’s leaning toward the veteran route. I suspect that is about adding a layer of security to his next decisions after making a decision in splitting up with Dubas that was fraught with risk.

(Top photo of Brendan Shanahan: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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