The idea behind the acquisition strategy is that each deal adds some new capability to Priceline. OpenTable adds restaurants and some technology that may be useful in expanding BookingSuite, while Kayak adds a broader audience, a base in advertising revenue and expertise in metasearch. At the same time, rival Expedia has been making deals to broaden its hold on its core business—travel-agency services for hotels and airlines, mostly in the U.S.—by buying Travelocity ($280 million) and Orbitz ($1.3 billion), as well as acquiring Asia-Pacific online travel company Wotif, for more than $600 million in 2014.
"Acquisitions like that take years to play out," said Mahaney, who rates Priceline "outperform" and predicts its shares will hit $1,450. "They have been very patient in the deals they've done, and they never overpay.''
In the short term, Huston's success or failure won't really be determined by the deals he's made. As usual for Priceline, it will boil down to the company's mastery of details and the macroeconomic path of economies in Asia and especially Europe. Mahaney has even backed off his guess that Priceline might make a new acquisition in the vacation-rental business—speculation has centered around HomeAway as a counterpoint to sharing-economy leader Airbnb. With Priceline boosting its vacation-rental business organically, Mahaney said Priceline doesn't need a deal.
The more assured path to gains for Priceline is for a recovering European economy to meet up with the company's consistent execution and the winding down of the post-merger reinvestment in Kayak and OpenTable, Mahaney said. Priceline's growth slowed in late 2014 as Europe stumbled, but revenue still rose 19 percent in the fourth quarter and 24 percent for the year. With shares below 21 times this year's consensus profit estimate of $57.32 a share, that gives Priceline room to zoom as both margins and top-line growth re-accelerate, the RBC analyst said. Mahaney said fast growth in the company's Asian business will also boost profits.
"Europeans will give up cars and coffee before their vacations,'' Mahaney said. "We're talking about an acceleration outlook, which usually works well for stocks, especially those like Priceline that began the year with trough multiples.''
Read MoreJack Bogle's success principles to live by
Only over time will it become clear whether Huston's deal-making and re-engineering is taking Priceline to a new place. But Wolf is betting that it will.
"He's like Boyd in keeping his hands off division managers and keeping their organization lean,'' Wolf said. "And he understands that his job is to build new shoes.''