For a while there, it looked like Scott Luce was going to outlast the Panthers in Florida.
He was involved in scouting for 14 years. That’s seven head coaches and five general managers in Florida Panthers’ terms. As director of scouting, he oversaw the construction of the Panthers team that won the Atlantic Division this season and produced two rookies of the year in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad.
Luce was promoted to director of player personnel last season. "Scott has done a tremendous job leading and preparing our scouting staff for the last several seasons," said GM Dale Tallon in July 2015.
Less than a year later, Luce is out of a job and Tallon is no longer the general manager. And yet new GM Tom Rowe claims that Tallon was one of the voices calling for the dismissal of the guy he literally just promoted to the job last July.
What the hell is going on here?
Rowe praised Luce’s loyalty and work ethic, but said that he, the owners and Dale Tallon, who recently changed titles from general manager to president of hockey operations, felt it was time for a “different voice at the top,” of the scouting department.
“Scott’s a good man and obviously brought in some players who have helped us over the years, but I felt we wanted to expand the roles of [scouts] Jason Bakula, Peter Mahovlich and our guy in Minnesota, Fred Bandel,” Rowe said via phone from Red Deer, Alberta where he’s scouting Panthers prospect Jayce Hawryluk in the CHL Memorial Cup.
The last few weeks have been as tumultuous as any stretch in the Panthers’ history, and that’s saying something. And this is coming off their most successful season in 20 years. Even if the Panthers claim Tallon is still the final word for transactions at the top of the hockey operations food chain, and even if this was how the Panthers have been operating for months, this is a massive upheaval of team management.
Publically, the moves have been made in the name of analytics. Steve Werier was the Panthers’ VP of legal and business affair, and is now an assistant general manager. Eric Joyce is now the assistant GM as well.
Cam Lawrence and Josh Weissbock, the ‘Money Puck’ guys who have a drafting model called “Prospect Cohort Success,” were hired to consult the team in December. That’s a model that uses a player profile cross-referenced with historical data to “decipher how pre-NHL production explains NHL production.” It’s a game-changer, potentially.
Word is Florida’s current scouts are wary of where this is going. They are skeptical and feel they will be either let go or encouraged to pursue alternate employment. There will be demand for their services.
It’s a funny time around the NHL. More and more owners use analytics in their “regular” businesses, so they are open to it in hockey. But, even those who consider themselves analytics aficionados fight a battle over whose metrics really work.
So my first reaction to Luce being fired was that he felt his kung-fu was stronger than the ‘Money Puck’ guys, who were getting the backing of the new management team, and that obvious clash resulted in the firing.
Rowe keeps saying “we wanted a different voice,” but what he actually means is one that would sing the same tune as the rest of the revamped player personnel department. In “Moneyball” terms, Luce is the guy with the bad tan and the polo shirt storming out of the conference room, and they’re Jonah Hill.
But overall, this smacks of an ownership group trying to exert its philosophy on the hockey operations side. They’re hiring numbers guys. They’re hiring guys that fit into a militaristic operational structure favored by owner Vinny Viola, who has a financial background and is a West Point grad: Streamlined, cost-effective and based very much on predictive outcomes than “gut.”
(The West Point connections continue with Joyce, a former cadet who is now assistant GM, and the fact that the team’s new logo mimics that of the 101st Airborne of the United States Army.)
So the question becomes whether this is meddling or if this is a positive restructuring and philosophy for the Panthers.
South Florida is full of owners who learned the hard way that succeeding in sports is different than business. Ask Dolphins owner Steve Ross. Ask the Marlins' Jeffrey Loria. Ask H. Wayne Huizenga. Ask the previously failed Panthers owners.
Heat owner Micky Arison was the only local owner who immediately made the best move any team owner can. He hired the best person possible to pick his players and build his franchise. Did the Panthers just diminish the role of their Pat Riley?
This should be an offseason of great hope for the Panthers. Instead, it's now weighed down with a question of recent days. It's not what Tallon's diminished role is or who Rowe is.
The question starts here: Does Vinnie Viola know what he's doing?
There are too many examples of sports owners who try to arrange the toys in their new sandbox to their liking, and end up ruining a good thing. The pessimism these moves have earned is understandable. The skepticism over trying something fairly radical, insofar as evaluating draft day players, is as well.
But if we’re going to praise really, really bad teams for going all-in on analytics and attempting to integrate them with some old-school philosophies – see Kyle Dubas and Lou Lamoriello, John Chayka and Dave Tippett – we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a good one because the timing appears odd and the optics are terrible.
What’s the worst that can happen? The Panthers go a decade without making the playoffs?
Been there, done that.
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