Sunday, 22 May 2016

In praise of Sam Pollock. And Serge Savard.

There have been a few retrospectives recently on Sam Pollock in the Montréal Gazette and its online offering HockeyInsideOut.  And I read this comment:
“The difference between Bergevin and Pollock is that Pollock would do anything he could to make a team better. Bergevin will do things to make his make his team better but there are some things he will not do.”

While I have nothing but high regard for Sam Pollock, having lived through the great dynasty of the Seventies in my formative years, I don’t know that we can make the statement quoted above with any certitude. Marc Bergevin is dealing with much different conditions than Sam Pollock did, with 29 other teams to contend with, all of them strong organizations instead of nickel-and-dime front offices you can snow under. He has the salary cap to shackle him, limit how much he can spend on player salaries.  He is forced into line with 29 other GM's at the universal draft every June.

What we can say about Sam Pollock is that he didn’t squander the huge advantage the Canadiens had when he took over, with their deep farm system in the Sixties, before the inauguration of the universal draft. He used this bank of assets to wheel and deal. He realized that this new draft was going to be the way to build a great team in the future, while other teams were slow on the uptake, it took them a decade or so to not surrender their first-rounders so readily.

So Sam Pollock was probably the best GM of his day, and he started the race with such a huge lead that there was no way any other GM, any other team could catch him. I’ve used this analogy before, but he was like the best player at the poker table, blessed with a formidable stack of chips in front of him, with which to bully and bluff opponents, essentially in an unbeatable position.

But to say that he would “do anything to make a team better” is probably unknowable, since he never was scratching and clawing to get into the playoffs, to get fans into the stands so the team could survive another season in Kansas City or Cleveland. It’s like if Jacques Villeneuve had never left Williams to start B.A.R., and had kept piling up wins and championships. We might have been tempted to think of him as one of the greatest Formula 1 drivers ever, but there would also have been many to speculate that if he hadn’t been on such a dominant team, he might have been more of a journeyman.

And in fact, I’ll argue against the proposition that he did 'anything' to make the team better. For example, there was some attempts made before the 1971 draft to pry the second overall pick out of Detroit, so he could then draft both Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne. The tale goes that he put together a very enticing package, that the Red Wings were tempted, but ultimately turned down the offer. So he folded his hand, broke off negotiations, accepted that he wouldn’t have the #2 pick.

Did he “do anything to make the team better” in that case. How do we define “anything”? Did he fail in this instance, or did he calculate the risk, do the cost-benefit analysis and figure that there came a cost when this trade became unwise? Did he decide wisely that throwing more players, more proven commodities, more potential in further draft picks at Detroit might be too much? That Marcel Dionne might not thrive in the NHL with the small stature he possessed?

And this wasn’t the only time Sam Pollock stopped short. Another case came in 1973, when Sam Pollock correctly identified Denis Potvin as a potential superstar, and tried to fish the first overall pick from the Islanders, to no avail. Bill Torrey couldn’t be swayed, he probably saw the same thing in Denis Potvin that “Trader Sam” did, he had his heart set on picking the guy. But what if Sam Pollock had offered developing youngsters Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Larry Robinson to Bill Torrey, would that have sealed the deal? Would that have been doing anything to improve the team? Would that have been wise? Or did Sam Pollock do the right thing by holding back, analyzing the risk that Denis Potvin could end up being more of a Dale Tallon than a Bobby Orr?

Irving Grundman, Sam’s handpicked successor, can be said to have done “anything to improve the team”, when he dealt away Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin for defenceman Rick Green, himself a former first overall pick, and Ryan Walter, a player we pined for in the heyday of open-lines talk radio shows, he was “le gros ailier gauche” we were obsessed with acquiring. Mr. Grundman went for it, made a ‘big move’, instead of retaining his disgruntled and ‘greedy’ young defenceman, he sent him to the Capitals where he’d win Norris Trophies, in an age when a player’s options were limited to holding out, before free agency. And it can conclusively be argued that had he folded his hand earlier in the negotiation, we’d have come out a winner, if he hadn’t “done anything” to get this deal done.

Serge Savard was faced with a similar situation in the 1984 draft, when he was trying to obtain the first overall pick from the Penguins so as to pick Mario Lemieux. Eddie Johnston knew what he had in the Laval Voisin superstar, he’d sabotaged his season to get the #1 pick in the first place, but he apparently entertained the notion of trading the pick in return for a king’s ransom that reportedly included young proto-superstar Chris Chelios. I can’t remember the package exactly, but I know that upon reading about it I wondered if it would have been worth it, even for Mario Lemieux, whether the cost would have been too high. You had to wonder whether Mario Lemieux might have developed differently in Montréal, under all that media pressure and fan scrutiny. And Serge Savard, probably weighing the pros and the cons, taking into account the whispers that Mario was a bit lazy, he kind of loafed around when he skated, decided not to pursue these trade talks.

To me, Marc Bergevin is exactly the kind of GM I appreciate. He’s careful with his assets, understands that you get good players by drafting them, not by lucking into lopsided trades, by volume.

He also had a self-confessed moment when he pushed away from the table rather than anteing up. Dave Morrissette had him as a guest on his show, and asked him if there was a trade he made that he regretted. Marc answered that there was one that he didn’t make that he regretted, but didn’t go into details. My hunch, based on the climate at the time, is that he was talking about his attempts to move up in the draft in 2013 to pick Anthony Mantha. He was a little out of range with our 25th pick, and he probably couldn’t find a deal he liked to move up in the teens, a cost he considered acceptable, given what we knew of the kid, his size and scoring touch, but also questions about his effort and consistency and leadership.

Fast-forward to a year later, and Monsieur Mantha had answered all these questions with a 57 goal, 120 points in 57 games regular season, and a trip to the Memorial Cup with his Foreurs, during which he maintained his goal per game pace. I’m relatively confident that this was the trade he regretted not pulling the trigger on, deciding instead was too rich for his blood. Fast-forward another year though, after Mr. Mantha’s difficult first season in the AHL, and maybe he felt better about his decision now, maybe he felt good about not having done ‘anything’.

That’s my take on this, that slow and steady wins the race, that in today’s NHL you build up assets through the draft, patch on some players with trades and free agency and waiver claims, and wait until you have an extra Seth Jones burning a hole in your pocket to go out and get a Ryan Johansen. But you don’t make Paul Holmgren trades, deals to appease your impatient fanbase and wingnut owner, where you rob Peter to pay Paul, plug a hole but in the process create one elsewhere. I’m glad Marc Bergevin won’t do anything to improve the team.


In our discussion about Sam Pollock yesterday, I mentioned that he had the advantage of a huge overstock of prospects and players when he took over, as the universal draft era began. I contended that while it’s impossible to compare him with other GM’s at that time and say for sure that he was the best, since they were dealing with vastly different circumstances, it’s easy to see that he was very shrewd, saw how the game was changing and adapted rapidly, and effectively used his bigger stack of poker chips to wheel and deal and draft, he didn’t waste that advantage.

Didn’t waste it like Irving Grundman did.

Serge Savard, when he took over and did his first tour of the wrecked house he was being ceded, didn’t have the vast inheritance that Sam Pollock did, didn’t have the advantages at the draft table and when swapping horse flesh.

In that light, while we rue a few of his moves, the ill-advised Chris Chelios trade, letting John LeClair and Éric Desjardins go, Serge Savard did very well as a GM, winning two Stanley Cups with a roster he largely built himself, with shrewd drafting, and excellent trades, like acquiring Bobby Smith for fading talents Keith Acton and Mark Napier.

Serge Savard didn’t have the huge headstart that Sam Pollock had in his race with other GM’s, he was more neck-and-neck with them, so his errors smarted more than Trader Sam’s. We didn’t have the ability to withstand losses of assets in the eighties and nineties as we had in the sixties and seventies. So Serge Savard was creative, he was aggressive, like he did when he swapped draft positions with the St. Louis Blues’ Ronald Caron so as to leapfrog the Nordiques in the draft, and have first crack at potential Sergio Momessos and Patrick Roys.

Serge Savard gets more than a healthy passing grade, an A- or so in my book.

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