Jim Kelley
Thursday April 24th, 2008

And so the clock ticks on regarding the search for a general manager for the Toronto Maple Leafs with one tantalizing question still unanswered:

Will the new boss be some team's old boss?

We're not talking about an ex-boss like former Rangers and (briefly) Islanders GM Neil Smith or former Blue Jackets President and GM Doug McLean. They are on the market because they, along with ex-Canucks GM Dave Nonis and several other legitimate candidates, were relieved of their duties. There may have been time left on their contracts at the time of their dismissals, but from the moment they were told "We're going in a different direction" -- hockey's way of Donald Trump-ing you -- they were free to seek employment elsewhere.

That wasn't the case with Ducks GM Brian Burke, who on Wednesday evening apparently took himself out of consideration for the Toronto job. Burke said he would honor the remaining year on his Anaheim contract.

Now, that's a curious way of saying one is staying put in the hockey business. It should be noted that Burke did not say he has agreed to the terms of a contract extension (believed to be four years) that's been sitting on his desk for months.

The perception is that team owners Henry and Susan Samueli, two people whom Burke has acknowledged have been very good to him, would not give him permission to speak with the Leafs. That's one version and it's logical. Burke is a talent. The Ducks won a Stanley Cup under him just a season ago and he has a year left on his deal. One doesn't just give that away even if there are strong hints that the party in question would like to go.

But there is another version making the rounds in the NHL, and though it's clearly still in the rumor stage now, it also makes a great deal of sense:

The NHL said no go.

It makes sense on several levels, the most important being that, to the best of anyone's knowledge (and I've polled a few long-time hockey people on this), no GM under contract to a team and in good standing with ownership has ever jumped to another club while the contract was in force.

Sure, you hear about teams asking permission to talk to people, but that's almost always for those who've been fired with time left on their contract or for talent at administrative levels below the GM (say, a highly regarded assistant GM or person in another organization who has designs on becoming a GM). In many cases, an assistant or even a coach will have a clause allowing him to interview for a top job. In addition, it's been a long-standing tradition in the business that a GM or team owner won't stand in the way of an underling, even a key underling, from leaving to take a top job with another organization.

But a sitting GM with a valid contract?.

"It's an interesting dynamic largely because it's never happened," said one GM who requested anonymity because he's a sitting on a valid contract, but just might have an interest in the Leafs job. "You wonder if the league would allow it to happen."

Not that there isn't precedent in other sports, including a team that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment owns. MLSE recruited its current GM for basketball operations while he was a sitting boss. Bryan Colangelo was President and GM of the Phoenix Suns when he was lured north. He not only left a valid deal, he left while the NBA was still in season, the better to see exactly what the struggling Raptors were all about in the final weeks of play.

MLSE did ask permission from the Suns and got it, but that was long after they had hired an executive head-hunter in their quest for a new basketball boss. Many smirked at MLSE for "going business" rather than the traditional way of internally determining the best man available and then asking and receiving permission.

Ridicule aside, the reality was that it was a finely calculated move. In hiring a head hunter to "seek out" candidates, MLSE was able to keep a distance as regards the charge of poaching another team's employee. In the case of the Suns, they were willing to let Colangelo go because they had a replacement at the ready and, we assume, were well compensated. But in using a recruiter, MLSE had a go-between who was able to determine whether ther was interest from Colangelo, the Suns would ask for compensation and what it might be, and even what kind of deal it would take to tempt their GM out of the Valley of the Sun and into the Great White North.

Don't think for a moment that the NHL's radar didn't identify that little blip.

The league went through a season-long lockout to win a salary cap with the idea being that the wealthier clubs had too much power for signing talent away from lesser-monied brethren. The big spenders were driving up salaries for all clubs and the NHL wanted and needed that to stop. But the league never put in a fix on the cost of off-ice talent. Perhaps it thought it didn't have to, given the long history of contracts at the administrative level always being respected. But when MLSE hired Colangelo, things clearly changed.

MLSE has gobs of money and made it clear that it was willing to spend it on the best possible hockey candidate, even if it meant moving the salary structure for administrative help into the level of an offer that couldn't be refused. There were published reports that the Leafs were willing to dangle as much as $5 million for the right person, a figure some four times beyond what the best GMs are currently being paid.

Poaching administrative talent would open the door to a great many problems for the league. Escalating the salary scale would be one, but there are others. The idea that a man working for one club while negotiating to take over another is considered an affront to the sanctity of the game in the NHL.

The league set a precedent in this matter when it fined Pat Quinn and the Vancouver Canucks a serious sum after Quinn, under contract to the Los Angeles Kings, agreed to coach the Canucks AFTER his contract with the Kings was set to expire.

The league didn't like that.

Burke, who was once a high-ranking league official and who has always abided by directives issued from the Commissioner's office, definitely had an interest in the Toronto job. The fact that he cut off that interest by stating he would honor the final year of his Anaheim deal and that leaving while under contract would be "no different than if a player signed a four-year deal" at least hints at the possibility that the league might have intervened.

We may never know the answer for certain, but if the Leafs keep interim GM Cliff Fletcher in place until, say, Burke is contractually free to take the Toronto job, or if the next boss of the Leafs is not a GM with a valid contract in force, well, draw your own conclusions.

Word out of Atlanta is that GM Don Waddell is safe despite his team missing the playoffs this season.

Bryan Murray got a vote of confidence from Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk even before his team was ousted in four straight by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Burke, we know is safe and it appears that's the case for first round losers Doug Risebrough in Minnesota, George McPhee in Washington, and even Peter Chiarelli in Boston despite ownership's penchant for constantly making changes there.

There is no doubt that Lou Lamoriello is the boss in New Jersey for as long as he wants the job.

Nashville ownership is enamored with David Poile, as well they should be. Calgary is likely to stay with Darryl Sutter, but one has to wonder why.

This is the third straight year that Sutter's Flames have gone down in, well, flames, in the first round and the future doesn't look all that bright. The team is one of the oldest in the NHL, there are serious questions as to whether Sutter's hiring of Mike Keenan was the right decision, especially given his handling of franchise goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. (Keenan yanked him in Game 7 in a move that had disaster written all over it). There is player unrest over that and many more of Keenan's decisions and some regarding Sutter given that he hasn't improved the team despite making numerous changes.

And while it's likely that Sutter stays simply because he's an icon in Alberta and still living off a 2004 run to the Stanley Cup Final (the Flames lost to Tampa Bay in seven with him behind the bench), the bigger question is: What becomes of Jarome Iginla?

Arguably the most complete player in the NHL, Iginla signed a new deal after 2004 with the idea that the Flames would go forward in regards winning the Cup. Calgary has used Iginla's talent to the max, but hasn't improved the surrounding cast. The question as to whether Iginla will want to be a part of what has to be a rebuilding program in Calgary is real.

The clock is ticking on Iginla, who waited some eight years for the Flames just to make the playoffs. They had one glorious run, but have been in backslide mode ever since. A trade won't just be good for Iginla, it would also provide the base talent pool for starting over for the Flames.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.