Early Recon: An Updated Look at Dave Tippett’s Many Missions With NHL Seattle

He doesn’t have a commercial campaign from a beer company, but it’s becoming more clear as each week passes that Dave Tippett is arguably the most interesting man in the effort to bring the National Hockey League to Seattle.

Between helping with the building of a training facility, finding an American Hockey League affiliate, founding a hockey operations team for a front office, to helping design the dressing rooms at the new privately-funded KeyArena — it’s been a wild first couple of months for Tippett.

And those were just the projects we knew about publicly.

Some of the Senior Hockey Adviser’s other missions have subtly been revealed over the last few weeks and months. Among them? A forensic analysis of the Vegas Golden Knights, searching for a general manager, and laying the groundwork for an extensive scouting process to begin.

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Vegas, Baby

Tod Leiweke mentioned at his introductory news conference in April that they would (understandably) be studying and meeting with the Vegas Golden Knights. That became another of Tippett’s jobs, but it wasn’t revealed until mid-August.

Why the wait?

Leiweke divulged Tippett’s work on Vegas a day after the Seattle Hockey Partners had a board meeting. Tippett made a presentation at that meeting. I was told at the time (and Tippett confirmed a month later, in September) that presentation was to share the results of his forensic analysis of the Knights’ rise from expansion club to Stanley Cup Finalist.

According to Leiweke, he told Tippett to answer the question the entire hockey world (and a few people outside of it) asked: What happened in Vegas?

NHL Seattle tasked Tippett with finding out (among other things) how the Knights wildly exceeded all expectations, the key decisions they made that influenced their success, and where their players (primarily the impact guys) came from. Those were all things Leiweke admitted Tippett had been working on.

The Knights obviously benefitted from some expansion draft rules that were more favorable than previous editions. But to their credit they also did several other things well, including:

  • They acquired some players who were undervalued/underutilized by their previous clubs
  • Used a combination of scouting & coaching to coax extra value out of some of those players
  • Their coach built a system that suited and accentuated the players’ skills
  • They took advantage of franchises facing a crunch at one position, a pile of bad/restrictive contracts, or GMs who just made mistakes

While neither Tippett nor NHL Seattle will (understandably) want to show off all of his findings, some of them have come out across a few different interviews — including on 950 KJR, and with Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt.

“Well, their staff did a really good job finding motivated players between 22 and 28 [years old], players who were out of entry-level and really looking for more opportunity. [Head coach] Gerard [Gallant] did a real nice job. Their coaching staff did a real nice job of meshing everybody together, getting everybody onboard and giving everybody a piece of the pie, so they all came together really well.” — Tippett to Prewitt, September 11th

“The other thing that I don’t think can be underestimated is the tragedy of October 1st last year. A week before the season started, this tragedy in Vegas, and that team and the city — they just bonded. The players… I mean it was… it was a sad sad time. but those players — and I know I’ve talked with a lot of them — that say they didn’t want to let that city down, and that ‘Vegas Strong’ was something that was a true motivator for them right to the [Stanley Cup Final].” — Tippett to KJR, September 4th

The Jack Adams Award-winning coach echoed both observations in each conversation.

He also, deservedly, mentioned the side deals Vegas made that worked out better than almost anyone could’ve expected. The deals gave the expansion franchise five picks across the first and second rounds the 2017 NHL Entry Draft — a much needed jump-start for a new organization’s farm system. Most importantly: in Tippett’s view, six of the side deals Vegas agreed to gave the Knights eight of their best players.

Tippett did not mention those guys by name, but in looking back at the 2017-18 roster it’s not hard to tell who he’s referring to (Marc-Andre Fleury, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, etc.)

But how did the Knights go about identifying those players?

Scouting Set Up

Both Tippett and Leiweke have heaped praise on the job McPhee and his Sin City staff did at scouting the league to find these potential stars that were undervalued or underutilized by their original clubs.

Leiweke and McPhee are friends dating back to Tod’s time in Vancouver. It’s not hard to imagine the NHL Seattle President & CEO will try to mirror and improve upon his friend’s successes in this regard.

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What’s Seattle’s plan for getting that puck rolling?

During his weekly appearance on 950 KJR, Tod Leiweke mentioned Tippett has started doing “early work” on every other team in the league for a Seattle expansion draft.

“He’s also looking out and saying here’s what’s going on across the league, and so we’re doing early work now to begin to prepare.” — August 28th

This is something that Tippett himself also acknowledged a week later.

Q: “How much scouting has already taken place?”

A: “Not much. I’ll start watching some games here, and I’ve got some things… kind of the way to track teams and that. But really there’s not — it’s more about building infrastructure, between the KeyArena, trying to get a practice facility done, trying to find where the [American Hockey League] team should go, there’s a lot of things like that before you start scouting players.” — Tippett to KJR, September 4th

Leiweke had a similar answer (a lot has to happen before they can really dive into scouting players). But what piqued my interest was that first full sentence from Tippett, particularly “I’ve got some things… kind of the way to track teams and that.”

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Now keep in mind: Tippett and co. are trying to project not only how players will evolve over two seasons (or more), but also whether each player is going to be on the same team, how that team views the player, whether they would be exposed or not, how that player would react to a new role/team/city, what their contract situation is, etc.

That gets tough very quickly. It’s a rabbit hole that, at this point, does not lead you very far.

But once again — our Most Interesting Man in Seattle Hockey (Tippett) has a current solution, which he mentioned during this exchange with Prewitt.

Q: “Have you started fantasizing about roster construction?”

A: “No, I’ve got a program that I put together to monitor teams. I have my own thoughts of when you put the rules in place, who teams might protect and who they might let go. But it’s so hard when you’re two years out. So much can change with player eligibility and movement. More than anything, trying to put together ways to monitor the league. But the roster part of it will change dramatically in two years.”

Q: “What do you mean by a program?”

A: “A software program to monitor teams, so you have their rosters on it and you can move players around in and out to protected or not protected.”

Q: “You built that?”

A: “A couple interns helped me. They know how to build those things more than I do.”

I’m not sure about you, but in addition to watching this season’s games through the eyes of the coach — it sure sounds like Tippett is going to be actively tinkering with and running simulations of various teams’ protected lists. Excited sports fans in the greater Seattle area can relate.

What makes this software program of Tippett’s even more interesting are some recent comments from Leiweke, which seem to suggest this embracing of technology is just the beginning.

(Quick side note: the following excerpted comments are long, but I want to include the context surrounding what I’m focused on below)

“… Every game we will watch this year — and [Vice Chairman of NHL Seattle] David Wright and I are going to watch games together — we will see players on the ice in virtually every game who potentially could be wearing Seattle across their chest, and that’s not so far off. So when we start backing up the timelines and thinking about ‘How do we build a brilliant scouting platform?’ Because we’re going to have to not pick a player in the draft, we’re going to have to pick an entire team. We have some of the smartest people in the world now in our ownership group. Not just fans, but Andy Jassy, I think, is one of the smartest technologists in the world and he’s now in our group! It is so exciting because I think things are done very well in the NHL. I think there’s not anything that can’t be done better. We’re going to try to do everything just a little bit better.

“I think that we fully expect that our owners are going to be heavily involved. In fact we’re going to build an organization that is going to tap into the expertise that we now have in our ownership group, because we have world class talent in our ownership group. So that means building an organization that is designed to tune in and listen. [David Wright] will be a bit of a generalist as vice chair going across the board. But we have expertise in technology, we have expertise with Adrian [Hanauer] in how to build a championship team, scouting, medical all sorts of things, and we had some of this resident. I’ve been around the block a few times. But now we have actual owners who can really help guide us.” — Leiweke to KJR, September 11th

There’s a lot to unpack from those three paragraphs, but there are three things that really jumped out to me.

  1. They’re planning on building a scouting platform/database
  2. Leiweke praised Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, by name in almost the same breath after mentioning said scouting platform
  3. Leiweke mentioned Seattle Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer along with building “a championship team, scouting, medical all sorts of things” while discussing owner involvement

You can read into it what you like. Here is what I think:

  • It should not be a shock that they’re planning on building a scouting platform. They’re going to be watching hundreds of players over the many months before an expansion draft. They’ll need somewhere to find all of their scouts’ reports on each player, statistics, video, contract information, etc.
  • I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that Leiweke mentioned how intelligent his ownership group is, including Jassy as “one of the smartest technologists in the world,” right after he discussed building a scouting platform.
  • I also don’t believe it’s random chance that Leiweke later said they are “going to build an organization that is going to tap into the expertise that we now have in our ownership group. … [W]e have expertise in technology, we have expertise with Adrian [Hanauer] in how to build a championship team, scouting, medical all sorts of things.”

For what it’s worth: I asked NHL Seattle about Tippett’s software, building a scouting platform, and Jassy & Hanauer’s involvement in that process. A spokesperson told me the organization can’t answer any of those questions because they’re not ready to disclose the details.

Tippett obviously is far from the first person to start looking ahead to a 2020 expansion draft. But based on Leiweke’s response, they’re doing all of the prep work before they get to scouting individual players over the next 20 months or so.

As for what they plan to look for in players, Tippett mentioned the age-old characteristics that most franchises want in their athletes.

“They’ve got to have the will to bond together quickly and to prove something. … The character of players and the ability to come in and bond with teammates, being good people is a big asset for an expansion team.” — Tippett to KJR, October 30th

From an organizational standpoint, character and culture seem to be the big buzz words — and ones of high importance. Tippett said NHL Seattle is looking around at some current “winning cultures,” like the Golden State Warriors, for inspiration on how to lay that hard-working vibe into the franchise’s foundation.

“You’ve got to have an organization that is willing to step forward with a culture of winning. The great thing about our situation here is you don’t have to change a culture; we can start it.” — Tippett to KJR, October 30th

In addition to looking around, Tippett also admitted that he does call coaches around the league and then watch their teams after those conversations. Otherwise he sounds like myself and quite a few others, since Tippett says he’s enjoying this part of the 2018-19 hockey season so far. He’s flipping around to watch different teams and coaches in an effort to keep tabs on things.

While the coach may be talking to his friends and colleagues and watching their work, he stressed he’s not actively evaluating NHL players. I have a hard time believing that Tippett or NHL Seattle would start that process of trying to identify individual guys they want to target before they have a GM in place to lead the effort.

Speaking of which…

Getting The GM

Q: “But you’ve got to hire a GM first, right?”

Tippett: “Yeah that’s the first step, really. He’s the guy that’s kind of the coordinator of the scouts and the whole thing. … I think [a GM hire] happens right at, probably around the [2019 NHL Entry Draft]. A year out [from a possible Seattle expansion draft], you know. Vegas hired George McPhee about 15 months out from when they started. George had been let go by Washington so he wasn’t working that year, so they hired him a little bit before. We’ll have a good list of candidates that, some maybe are working through the [entry draft] with their team, there might be somebody available before that, we’ll see how it goes. But by next spring we’ll start digging into that.” — Tippett to KJR, September 4th

Late June or early July. That’s the rough timeline to keep in mind.

It will be earlier (before the draft) if they’re hiring someone who is not currently part of an NHL front office, and later if that is the case. We know that because other teams typically will not let their employees jump ship to another franchise (let alone an expansion team) right before the amateur draft, and most contracts advance a year/expire when the league year rolls over on July 1st.

Personally: I believe they’ve already started to do the background work on some potential candidates. They’re experienced, organized and intelligent. If they have time, then they’re going to use it.

The Seattle Hockey Partners also can’t exactly openly talk about how certain people could fill the position, since that would count as tampering if those people are under contract with another NHL team.

Yet with that said — Tippett did mention that he’s already received quite a few applications from people for a variety of positions with the still potential Seattle franchise.

“This is going to be — there are going to be a lot of guys reaching out. If it’s any indication so far, not just general managers, but scouts, trainers people like that — I’ve got a lot of resumes on my desk so far.” — Tippett to KJR, October 16th

What’s important to keep in mind during this search is that Tippett is still technically the lone hockey operations department employee of NHL Seattle. So he is the one who will be overseeing the hunt for a GM (likely with input from Tod & Tim Leiweke), and leading the charge for other front office hires until he gets some coworkers. Tippett has said a few different times that he expects to get some colleagues in the spring of 2019.

But again — it appears that already is in the works.

The former coach has already spoken with Mike Modano about coming to Seattle in some capacity (though not as a coach or a GM), per Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet & Hockey Night in Canada. Modano is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Tippett was his coach in Dallas for six seasons, including five playoff runs and a Western Conference Final appearance in 2007-08. The history and connection makes sense, particularly when looking at what Modano told Friedman about getting the itch to get back into hockey.

I asked NHL Seattle about that report, whether Tippett has or plans to reach out to any more of his former players or coworkers, and just how much power Tippett will have in the GM search/hiring process. Again: I was told the organization can’t answer those questions since they’re not ready to disclose any details about any of those topics.

I point all of those things out about Tippett’s role and power in this process, because he subtly revealed a key opinion that will greatly narrow the list of potential general managers.

Q: If you’re not the head coach, where do you see yourself in the hierarchy of [a Seattle NHL] franchise?

Tippett: “We’ll see. It’s just… I’ve been lucky to touch a lot of different parts of the game, [including] as an adviser, in a lot of those different roles. We’ll see how it goes. General manager, I think, is somebody that’s had to have done that job at the NHL level before. I really think that’s important in an expansion team. But there’s a lot of things that go on between a coach and management, and all the things that kind of come in between — between travel, schedules and facilities — and somebody bonding all of those things together is kind of where I fit right now. But we’ll see where it goes.” — Tippett to KJR, September 4th

Tippett feels that Seattle’s first GM should be someone who’s done the job before at the NHL level. That’s big. If the Leiwekes and ownership hold a similar stance, then that will filter out dozens of people.

That idea also follows the logic behind Vegas hiring McPhee, and it goes with how seven of the past 10 expansion teams approached the GM job: get someone with prior experience in the NHL.

(For those wondering: Ottawa, Atlanta & Columbus all hired rookie GMs to build their foundations. Ottawa’s first GM was fired after a season, Atlanta made the playoffs once and kept the same guy as GM until just before the Thrashers got moved to Winnipeg, and Columbus fired their GM after going six seasons without making the playoffs. So, yeah. Not great results on that path in history.)

Additionally it will only add fuel to the fire of speculation surrounding (among others) former Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s unknown future beyond the 2018-19 season. That’s because Yzerman just-so-happened to work with Tod Leiweke while they both were in Tampa.

Tippett’s comments also mean I’ll need to tweak/re-do my soon-to-be-released early list of potential GM candidates. (Side note/teaser: It will be much more than just a list of names.)

One person who won’t be on that list? Mr. Tippett.

Leiweke: “When we talked to Dave, I went to him and said ‘Dave, if you want to be the GM, we’re not hiring that now. If you want to be the coach, we’re really not hiring that now. But we want to bring somebody on to help us build this from ground up, and there’s such unique opportunity here to be in on the ground floor.’ But the rules of engagement were that this was not necessarily a path to any other job.” — Leiweke to KJR, August 28th

If you combine Tippett’s aforementioned belief with those remarks from Leiweke, then we can rule out Tippett as GM. Whether he ends up in a front office role, or behind the bench, is unclear. He’s said that he enjoys the building part of his job, and that he’s not ruling anything out.

“Right now I haven’t thought about it much because of all the things going on, all the new things that I’m learning right now is really exciting for me. … I watch the game very closely and talk to a lot of coach friends of mine that are still around the league, and touch base with them. But right now I’ve really enjoyed the process of getting this thing together, and feeling like you’re on the ground floor of what’s going to be a great organization. One of my biggest roles now is to start to look into the hockey spaces of the new training center and the [new] KeyArena, making sure the locker rooms and everything that athletes need now to perform at their highest level are there. We want to make sure we’re doing everything right. And I’ve been in a lot of those locker rooms. So there are things like that that are really intriguing to me right now. So do I miss the coaching right now? Not much right now, but we’ll see where it goes.

“I was a head coach in the league for 15 years, ran a minor league organization for 5 years, assistant coach in Los Angeles for 3 years. So you know it becomes part of you. But there’s the other side of it where, you know, talking to my wife, the everyday grind of you get home at 1 in the morning after a loss, and you watch video til 2, and you get up at 7 to try to go fix it again. After a long time your body needs a break, your mind needs a break. So I think i’m in that break period right now. I still feel like I’m contributing to an organization, it’s just not in that grind mode that I used to be in.” — Tippett to KJR, October 16th

Site Searching for an AHL Team

This is a task that we knew was on Tippett’s to do list. While the longtime coach admits this will not really pick up until a GM and scouting staff are in place, he recently explained some of the steps and locations he’s looking at.

“I’m leaving to go see the opening game in Boise, the [Idaho] Steelheads, this week, and talk to them a little bit about what kind of facility they’ve got going there. They’ve got an [East Coast Hockey League] team that’s affiliated with Dallas right now. But we’re looking at all the different options around for possibly an American Hockey League team. So I’m going to go and just look around there for a little bit. So that’s — some of my days are forward thinking and where the organization is going to head a few years down the road.” — Tippett to KJR, October 16th

The facility Tippett mentions is likely a reference to the arena. The Steelheads play at CenturyLink Arena. Their roughly 5,000-seat home opened 21-years ago in 1997. That capacity would put it on the low end of AHL arenas, with only three current rinks on the minor league circuit with fewer seats (Belleville, Binghamton & Utica).

For what it’s worth: John Barr of NHL to Seattle listed Boise as a candidate for an AHL team for Seattle in his breakdown of possible farm team sites. Check it out if you haven’t already. 

So does Tippett’s trip to Boise mean they’re a favorite? Or that NHL Seattle is looking at places with existing franchises (AHL or ECHL) with the goal of taking them over?

“Uh it all depends. It could. We’re looking at a couple of other spots that are brand new places too. So we’re just kind of — it’s the start of some due diligence kind of more than anything else. But we’re just trying to get our ducks in a row and see what might make sense for us. But  — you know we’ve looked at 2 or 3 places for the American League and we just want to make sure that — this is a time to look at everything. What’s going to be the best fit for us down the road? And we’re not into making any decisions right now, we’re just doing due diligence.” — Tippett to KJR, October 16th

Due diligence. That’s the overall name of the game for Tippett right now.

Whether it’s monitoring players and teams at the NHL level, considering who and what to look for in a GM hire, or evaluating the future homes of both NHL and AHL players — he’s got his hands full.

Odds are there are a few other interesting missions he’s on that we don’t know about just yet.

Loose Pucks

  • Tippett is also working on some of the locker room designs and layouts of key team, coach and player spaces inside of KeyArena. This was also on his to-do list, which we knew of for a while, but it’s another minor update to say that process has started.
  • In terms of the training facility: things are still in the design/planning phase. Nothing new to report at the moment.
  • The coach joined John Barr, Andy Eide & Darren Brown on their Sound of Hockey podcast to share some hockey stories. Give it a listen. I enjoyed the talk of his unhappy episode with a referee, and him discussing the “metrics” he uses as a coach.
  • If Seattle is awarded an NHL team in December (which is *knock-on-every-piece-of-wood-in-the-house* appearing to be a formality), then the league will have to realign its divisions. That’s no secret. But it sounds like the league is already close to passing one proposal to balance out the Pacific and Central divisions to eight teams a piece. NHL Deputy Commissioner told Pierre LeBrun & Scott Burnside of The Athletic that realignment is expected to be part of the Seattle expansion package that gets voted on at the December Board of Governors meetings in Georgia.

“I think we’re fairly far down that path in terms of what we’re thinking on alignment. As I said, I think the recommendation that has already been vetted with and adopted by the executive committee is firm at this point. So to maybe expound on what [NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman] may have told you, I don’t think we’re looking at a dramatic realignment. I think we’re looking at a tweak to the current alignment that is probably the most logical tweak we can make.” — Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, October 25th

  • It’s been widely and logically speculated for a while that Seattle would (naturally) slide into the Pacific division, and Arizona would become the eighth team in the Central (preceding a relocation to Houston, perhaps?).They’re not moving the three California teams, Vancouver, or Vegas (who just joined for $500 million). That leaves us with Arizona, Calgary and Edmonton. I doubt they split up the Battle of Albert across two divisions, and even if they did move both to the Central — you’d need to move another franchise back to replace one of those two Pacific slots. So you’re effectively impacting three franchises. Based on Daly’s comments, Arizona appears to be the “most logical tweak” the league can make since its impact would be limited to one franchise, and would not involve messing with one of its newest members (Vegas).
  • The NHL announced a new sports betting partnership with MGM. Essentially the deal just means that MGM is buying advanced player-tracking data from the NHL. Other casinos/gaming companies could follow suit. This could & should be a positive to teams and the league financially, and could impact Seattle’s expansion draft. A recent report by the American Gaming Association said the NHL stood to make about $216 million per year from sports betting. The MGM deal is a fixed-revenue agreement (bringing a specified amount of money in each year), meaning it is not tied to any actual bets that are placed. It also counts as Hockey-Related Revenue (HRR), meaning it will be added to the big pot that the owners and players split 50-50, per the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The logical assumption would be the increased revenue means an increase in the salary cap for future seasons, which would then impact a Seattle expansion draft. How? At the end of that draft, Seattle needs 30 players with a total salary cap hit between 60-100% of the salary ceiling from the season leading up to the expansion draft. So, for example, if Seattle debuts in 2020-21, they’d have to draft from other teams based on the cap number from 2019-20. I explained this several months ago in this piece about every detail of the Seattle expansion draft rules.
  • Lastly, I briefly want to clear up something: the expansion draft is when Seattle will pick players directly from other NHL teams. No other teams are making picks. The event where Seattle and 31 other franchises pick players from juniors (ex: Everett/Seattle), high school, college or international ranks is the NHL Entry Draft. I’ve heard and seen the two used interchangeably over the last few days and weeks. That is not correct. They are two very different things.

If you have any questions or feedback: leave a comment, send me an email at the address on the bottom of the page or hit me up on Twitter (@ScottMalone91).

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