In comprising a ranking of the Top 10 National Hockey League (NHL) General Manager’s (GM’s), I assessed the GM’s by a series of factors: Overall performance – cumulative and trending; drafting and development; trades and acquisitions; capology – the ability to efficiently manage their respective salary cap; variable factors – ownership, organizational legacy, the situation they’ve inherited.
So, this list is not linearly-related to the team’s current record or whether they recently won the Stanley Cup as so many rankings of this type tend to do.
With that, here are the rankings of NHL GM’s:
1) Ray Shero (Pittsburgh Penguins) – Sure, inheriting a team that possesses the NHL’s premier player in Sidney Crosby and one of its other elite players in Evgeni Malkin may appear to be walking into a foolproof situation, but Shero has proven to be the NHL’s best GM by what he’s been able to do in the face of adversity. Last season, Crosby and Malkin were both lost for the season within a week of each other (January, 2011); however, while most observers considered the Pen’s season to be finished, Shero made a series of stellar acquisitions for the playoff push: acquiring James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski and acquiring Alex Kovalev for a conditional 7th round pick. Shero has been able to deftly make acquisitions and draft and develop young players in lieu of often being right up against the NHL’s salary cap. And while Penguins ownership is far more stable than was the case in the early 2000s, Shero has proven time and time again that he in one of the NHL’s greatest executive minds.
2) Mike Gillis (Vancouver Canucks) – Similar to Ray Shero’s situation, possessing the Sedin twins may appear to be idiot-proof, but Gillis has proven to be a GM that makes solid, albeit methodical moves. Gillis as hired as the ‘Nucks GM at the end of the 2007-2008 season and immediately made his mark by resigning key players such and the Sedin twins, Alex Burrows and Roberto Luongo. He then made a series of trades designed to improve the overall team’s fortunes, most notably his trade of two forward prospects to the San Jose Sharks for defensemen Brad Lukowich and elite Power Play (PP) specialist Christian Ehrhoff. Gillis has also made solid moves by acquiring via Free Agency (UFA) Dan Hamhuis and Manny Malhotra, as well as shoring up resigning goaltending prospect Cory Schneider who has not only teamed with Luongo to make the NHL’s top goaltending tandem but has taken the mantle of the ‘Nucks starting netminder in light of Luongo’s struggles early in the season. Justly, Gillis was rewarded for his stellar efforts, becoming the second recipient of the NHL General Manager of the Year award for 2010-2011.
3) Ken Holland (Detroit Red Wings) – Some may question whether Holland should be placed much higher than this, given that he’s been at the helm of the closest semblance of a NHL dynasty since the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s as the Red Wings have won three Stanley Cup championships during his regime as General Manager. The reason for being ranked slightly lower than Red Wings faithful would prefer is due to their downward trend since their Stanley Cup title in 2008, having been runner-up the following season then having been eliminated in the 2nd round the past two seasons. Much of this downward trend is attributed to having an aged – the NHL’s oldest (average age) – salary cap-strapped team. However,Holland has deftly continued his penchant for drafting and developing a young core of players, a feat even more remarkable considering their usual drafting towards the end of the 1st round of the NHL draft. But with current young stars such as Jimmy Howard and potential NHL stars in waiting such as Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jakub Kindl and Tomas Tatar, the potential fall from the NHL’s elite may be somewhat mitigated once the NHL’s best defenseman of his generation, Niklas Lidstrom, decides to retire.
4) Peter Chiarelli (Boston Bruins) – While this pick as one of the top NHL GM’s might appear weighted due to the Bruins winning the 2011 Stanley Cup, Chiarelli’s adept decision-making has cemented himself as one of the NHL’s elite executives. Chiarelli made his initial mark by obtaining elite blueliner Zdeno Chara from the Ottawa Senators and acquired via trade the following Bruins’ stalwarts: Andrew Ference, Rich Peverly, Tuukka Rask and Nathan Horton. But it was the Bruins’ inability to match the Toronto Maple Leafs’ offer sheet for Phil Kessel that may have proven to be one of Chiarelli’s greatest moves or perhaps gifts. In failing to match the Leafs’ offer, the Bruins were awarded the rights to the 2nd overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry, which the Bruins used to select Tyler Seguin who has established himself as one of the NHL’s elite young talents in just his second year in the NHL. This inability to match the Leafs’ offer sheet allowed the Bruins the right to the Leafs’ 1st round selections in both the 2010 and 2011 NHL Entry drafts as well as the Leafs’ 2nd round selection in the 2010 draft, which has also produced solid NHL prospects in Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight. Chiarelli now possesses a solid mix of veterans and young talent as well as one of the NHL’s elite goalie tandems in Rask and the ageless wonder, Tim Thomas who won the Conn Smythe trophy in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs and two Vezina trophies, in 2009 and 2011.
5) Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia Flyers) – Over the summer, Flyer fans were trying to talk themselves off of the ledge as Holmgren was thought to have lost his mind by trading his leading goal-scorer over the past three seasons in Jeff Carter for Jakub Voracek, of the Columbus Blue Jackets first round (8th overall pick) in Sean Couturier and the 68th overall pick in the draft and former Captain Mike Richards for elite prospect Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a 2nd round pick in the 2012 entry draft. Before you do question Holmgren’s sanity, do realize that the Flyers were a cap-strapped team in need of obvious cap relief, an elite goalie, something that has hampered the team in previous seasons and depth in their development system. In doing so, Holmgren has changed the look, image and direction of the Flyers into a young team with an edge and firepower and a franchise goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov, all while maintaining an solid defensive corps, one who has been able to withstand the devastating loss of Chris Pronger, its new captain and leader. However, it appears that the Flyers are now even more playoff-ready than the squad that challenged the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup finals. Holmgren is, as they say, as dumb as a fox.
6) David Poile (Nashville Predators) – Ranking Poile this high makes a great deal of sense when you consider one aspect: no NHL GM does ‘more with less’ than Poile has during his regime as the Preds GM. Be it having their roster decimated with UFA defections, the Preds continue to thrive under Poile having made the Stanley Cup playoffs in 6 of their past 7 seasons. The Preds overcome all of these obstacles by deft drafting and development, particularly with defensemen and goaltending. Names like defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter and goaltenders Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback, and former Preds stalwarts like Dan Hamhuis, Chris Mason, Dan Ellis, Tomas Vokoun, Poile has cornered the market on the concept that stellar defense and goaltending is the key to NHL success, especially while working with a limited payroll. If there has been a possible weakness in Poile’s career as an executive, it has been in obtaining elite talent on the forward lines. However, in drafting and developing future NHL forward stars in Colin Wilson, Patric Hornqvist and Craig Smith and acquiring solid forward line talent in Mike Fisher and Sergei Kostitsyn, Poile appears to have successfully addressed that area of weakness.
7) Doug Wilson (San Jose Sharks) -Wilson has been at the helm during the Sharks’ greatest years of success, opening his regime by making one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory, acquiring current Sharks captain Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. If Wilson stopped there, he would have cemented a legacy for a solid GM ranking, but Wilson has mostly made solid trades – Dan Boyle, Dany Heatley and Niclas Wallin – and UFA acquisitions – Rob Blake and goalies Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki – as the Sharks have ascended from a team with a penchant for early round departures to making it to the Western Conference finals this past season. This off-season, Wilson acquired via trade premier offensive defenseman Brett Burns, Martin Havlat and a 2nd round pick in the 2012 draft from the Minnesota Wild in separate trades, trading away Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle and their 1st round pick in the 2011 draft. While the Sharks have established themselves as one of the premier Western Conference teams and a consistent President’s Cup contender, both Wilson and the Sharks will only be judged on post-season glory.
8) Dale Tallon (Florida Panthers) – If there was an award for catching “lightning in a bottle, twice” Tallon would be its first recipient. The former Blackhawks GM built the Blackhawks from perennial doormat to eventual Stanley Cup champions in 2010, although Tallon was not at the helm to witness or take credit for it due to a situation in which NHL Player’s Association (NHLPA) claimed the Blackhawks did not submit offers to their restricted free agents (RFAs) before the deadline. Tallon was able to sign all of their restricted free agents to resolve the situation, although at a cost of millions. Tallon was able to resurrect Blackhawks franchise around by drafting young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, with acquisitions – Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg – and with UFA signings – Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and John Madden. As a result of the situation regarding the RFAs, Tallon was demoted to the position of Senior Advisor for the remainder of the season although, as recognition of his stellar efforts, Tallon’s name was engraved on the Stanley Cup trophy.
Before the Blackhawks’ historic Stanley Cup title run, Tallon took the GM position with the moribund Florida Panthers. He quickly made his mark at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by drafting 13 players including Erik Gudbranson and Quinton Howden in the first round of the draft, the later via a trade with the Canucks. Tallon then spent the entire next regular season lowering the Panthers overall salary cap and keeping only two holdovers from the pre-lockout era Panthers. Then during the UFA signing period in July, 2011, several new players were signed to contracts including, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley, Ed Jovanovski, and Jose Theodore. These signings came on the heels of trades to acquire players Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, and Brian Campbell, all of whom were members of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning roster. The result of this overall has allowed the Panthers to ascend to the third position in the Eastern Conference standings, proving that “lightning in a bottle” is no accident when it comes to one of the NHL’s most brilliant minds.
9) Don Maloney (Phoenix Coyotes) – Maloney’s position on this list is the embodiment of the phrase “thriving in the face of obstacles”. The Coyotes seem to make the NHL’s headlines but it’s for all of the wrong reasons, primarily the team’s filing of bankruptcy in 2009 and their continued mounting losses and threats of the team being relocated. However, in the face of these obstacles, Maloney has built the Coyotes into a consistent Stanley Cup playoff participant. Maloney built the Coyotes struggling on-ice product by relying on their drafted talent such as Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal to make the team successful as opposed to using free agency. Maloney then acquired Radim Vrbata from the Chicago Blackhawks to provide the team with more offense. But it was Maloney’s acquisition (via waivers) of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov from the Anaheim Ducks that turned the fortunes of the ‘Yotes’ from perennial doormat to playoff contender. Maloney then hired former Dallas Stars’ head coach Dave Tippett, resulting in the first 50-win season in the franchise’s history, earning Maloney the recipient of the NHL’s first-ever GM of the Year award in 2010. Even with the defection of Bryzgalov and the continued uncertainty of where the franchise will end up, the Coyotes remain competitive in the Western Conference standings. Thus, Maloney merits consideration with the NHL’s top executive minds.
10) George McPhee (Washington Capitals) – McPhee has been at the helm of the Capitals since the 1997 season. When he arrived to the Caps, they were looking to turn around their long-storied history of being a regular season juggernaut, only to fold in the playoffs. Things started off great, as McPhee engineered the club’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in his first season. The team has played well under the general management of McPhee, having won six Southeast Division championships (1999–2000, 2000–01, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2009-10 and 2010-11), had seven 40-or-more win seasons (1997–98, 1999–2000, 2000–01, 2007–08, 2008–09, 2009–10 and 2010–11) and a franchise record 121-point season (2009–10). This was accomplished via a fire sale – the 2003-04 season in which McPhee and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis made the decision to scrap the team’s current lineup in order to dump salaries and begin a youth movement for the team resulting in drafting 1st overall pick Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft – and an overall rebuild – building the team via players they had homegrown in their own farm system – Niklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green and Alexander Semin. And although the Caps and McPhee have enjoyed stellar regular season success, it is the Capitals continued lack of post-season success that has eluded both parties and has frustrated the masses at theVerizonCenter. But McPhee’s efforts have certainly put the pieces in place to change the Capitals’ Stanley Cup playoff fortunes.