LeBrun: Inside the Flames’ GM search, why Craig Conroy got the gig, and how he’ll tackle a critical offseason

Being the in-house candidate during a general manager search has its obvious advantages.

But there are also a few drawbacks.

One of them was hilariously pointed out by new Flames GM Craig Conroy on Wednesday when he joined me and Ryan Rishaug on our latest Got Yer Back podcast.

Specifically, we asked Conroy what he needed to sell Flames president of hockey operations Don Maloney on to get the GM gig at the end of an exhaustive process and search by the organization.

“You know the one thing is Don was very open right at the beginning,” Conroy said. “He said, ‘Craig, we’re going to go through an extensive search, yourself and (AGM) Brad Pascall are going to be internal candidates, and I’m going to be very upfront and honest with you.’ And he said, ‘Even though we know you, bring your resume, bring your vision, your mission statement.’

“Now, it’s a little bit different because I knew Don was doing interviews and I’m in just the other office (next door), and you could hear the Zoom calls, and I would shut my door because I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear that,’” Conroy added with a laugh.


But as far as Maloney speaking to external candidates, Conroy insisted it made it mean all the more in the end.

“I’m glad he did it … rather than them just give me the job,” he said. “I’ve never been given anything in this game and I wouldn’t want that.”

Maloney absolutely did speak to a host of candidates, including the likes of Dave Nonis, who ended up being hired as senior vice president of hockey operations (he will report to Conroy), Marc Bergevin, Stan Bowman and Peter Chiarelli.

My understanding is that Pascall got pretty far down the road, as well, and the Flames adding the title of vice president of hockey operations to his AGM role is reflective of their not wanting to lose him (Pascall has received feelers from a few other organizations).

Conroy always felt the like front runner, though, even if he himself was never sure this day would come after nine years as Flames AGM.

“I don’t know if I ever thought I was actually going to be in the big chair,” Conroy said. “To be sitting there yesterday and having the news conference, it was special. It was really special. To have my family there and be able to reflect back on everything I was able to do as a player and then on this side, and to get this opportunity, I can’t thank the organization enough.”

Well, he can thank them right away by making some pretty important decisions. The job now begins in earnest.

The Flames have several key players entering the last years of their deals, including the likes of Elias Lindholm, Mikael Backlund, Tyler Toffoli, Noah Hanifin, Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov.

It’s pretty clear that we’re looking at contract extensions or trades, and nothing in between, when it comes to the top names on that list — none being more important than Lindholm. The Flames are still feeling the sting of letting Johnny Gaudreau walk in free agency last summer after failing to extend him and Matthew Tkachuk, who was a restricted free agent last summer, forcing his way out.

“It was hard enough with one person in Johnny the year before,” Conroy said. “Matthew was restricted so we weren’t in a rush to do anything. We could have kept Matthew this year, but he let us know (he wasn’t going to commit long-term), which I appreciated. And I think I’m going to have the same honest conversations with our guys. We like all seven guys. They’re really good players. But I want to see where their mindsets are at. I’ve talked to them — I kind of have an idea right now, but now that I’m in the big chair, it’s a little bit of a different conversation.

“But I want guys who want to be in Calgary. You know what? If they want to be here and we can do something, I would love to get them signed sooner than later. And if not, I want to explore what options are out there with other teams.”

Conroy stressed again what he said the previous day, that what he doesn’t want is to allow assets to leave with no compensation a year from now.

Conroy also got a front-row seat to his predecessor, Brad Treliving, not being afraid to make big trades. He was aggressive over the years. And he had no choice, obviously, last summer when it came to Tkachuk.

Watching Treliving wheel and deal was an important learning experience for Conroy, even if he will have his own style with that part of the job. First-year GMs often are reluctant to make bold trades, wanting to grow into their jobs first, but Conroy may not be afforded that luxury, given all his players with a year left on their deals.

“Yeah, things are taken out of your hands sometimes,” Conroy said. “Last year, I saw the way Brad goes about his business, and it was a great learning experience. The one thing is, he always had a good pulse on what was going on with other teams and what their needs were and if we were fits.

“I think that’s what I really learned from Brad: get all the options and see what’s out there. And then you have to make hard decisions. And that’s what is going to happen. We’ve got seven players who are UFA (in a year). There’s going to be hard decisions for sure.”

Just from talking to other GMs over the years, Treliving did come across as someone who constantly stayed dialed into what his counterparts were thinking. As a first-time GM, Conroy can’t be shy about asking other GMs if core players are available — can’t be worried about the other guy’s reaction to that question. You would be surprised how shy some first-year GMs can be that way.

Maloney, meanwhile, saved Conroy one difficult task, the firing of head coach Darryl Sutter, which Maloney at the time told Calgary reporters came in part after strong feedback from players. That suggests that the environment in and around the dressing room needed a new voice.

Which isn’t just about the head coach, Conroy said Wednesday, when asked about setting the tone in that environment. It’s the entire staff, from the trainers on up to the coach.

“The staff down there has to bring that energy there every day,” Conroy said. “I’ve been on teams where, when everyone down there from the coaching staff to the trainers, when you’re all on the same page and having fun and you care about each other, it translates on the ice.

“But it does start with the head coach. The head coach sets the tone, and the assistants kind of send the message on after. Because I still believe you have to have accountability for the players. You can’t just let the players do anything they want. They like structure. I liked to know, black and white, what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong. It’s that grey area when you get in trouble, when you’re not sure. You need to have that open communication with the coach. You need to be able to go talk to the coach.”

Conroy said he would ask players to talk to Sutter.

“I said to them, ‘You need to go in there and talk to them,’” Conroy said. “And sometimes they would, and sometimes they wouldn’t. But I need each and every guy in that room to feel comfortable talking to that coach. Because it doesn’t work if you don’t have communication.”

Sutter has clearly taken a lot of the blame for last season.

“I mean, I like how Darryl coaches. I liked playing for Darryl,” Conroy said. “That’s me. Each person’s different. So I do think some guys coming in had a harder time. As an organization, we need to figure out: How can we make it better?

“We want to maximize what every guy’s strength is and take him to that next level. For some reason we weren’t able to do it with this group. I don’t want to put it all on the coach. I put it on management. Everybody’s at fault here. I don’t ever want to put it on one person.”

According to league sources, the Flames have already built a pretty long list of candidates for the open head coach job — a list that includes internal options in Flames assistant Ryan Huska and AHL head coach Mitch Love plus external candidates such as Gerard Gallant and Andrew Brunette.

It just so happens both Gallant and Brunette have coached Jonathan Huberdeau, which no doubt would be part of the equation as Conroy proceeds on the coaching front.

Either way, getting a bounceback season from Huberdeau is imperative.

“Jonathan is a big part of this moving forward,” Conroy said. “The one thing I want Jonathan to know is we believe in him. We brought him here for a reason. And I want him to get that swagger back.

“I know he puts a lot of pressure on himself. As a management and coaching staff, we have to help him with that. We have to take some of the pressure off. And I know he came from Florida, and coming to a Canadian market and being the highest-paid player and the expectations that were on him — you know what? At times I thought it was unfair. I have to figure out a way, and the coaching staff and just the team in general, how to take that pressure off. But also, we want him to have fun.

“I know you’re going to see the best in Jonathan Huberdeau next year when the season starts.”

That would certainly make Conroy’s first season as GM a smoother ride.

(Top photo of Craig Conroy and Don Maloney: Larry MacDougal / The Canadian Press via AP)