December 05, 2009
(No, the first decade of the 21st century doesn't technically end until 2011. Save your bellyaching. But we've had nine NHL seasons and one stolen from us since 1999-2000, and Yahoo! Sports has decided it's time to rank the best and worst of the last "decade." Enjoy, and snark freely in the comments.)
Building this list is a tricky thing, because once again we're dealing with pre- and post-lockout achievements. In the case of the 10 general managers we're spotlighting here, there's no question that the ones who thrived under the constraints of the salary cap deserve a little more credit than the ones who couldn't hang.
Take Darryl Sutter of the Calgary Flames. He's done some very good things in the decade, like trading for Miikka Kiprusoff(notes) and managing a team to the Stanley Cup finals. After the lockout, he made some questionable trades, hired Mike Keenan and managed the cap so poorly that the Flames weren't dressing a full roster of players for games. That's a bit of a disqualifier in our eyes.
Who makes the cut? Hint: No one on this list.
Here are the 10 best general managers of the last decade ...
10. Darcy Regier, Buffalo Sabres
The GM-for-life of the Sabres isn't necessarily someone you'd expect on this list, what with the online valentines to his tenure including a petition for his firing, a Web site dedicated to his "sucking" and "Darcy Regier is an ass clown" categories.
Fiscally handcuffed at times, Regier's seen some very good players leave for other places upon free agency, and is infamous for failing to make significant moves at the deadline to bolster his team's chances.
Still, the team finished under .500 only once, made the playoffs four times and the conference finals twice. Looking back at its draft history in the decade, there are an impressive number of NHL players and names still making a difference for Buffalo in 2009.
This could have easily been David Poile of the Nashville Predators or Doug Risebrough of the Minnesota Wild, managing small payrolls and keeping their expansion franchises competitive for most of the decade. But Regier's teams reached higher highs ... even if all three benefitted from some great coaching.
9. Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay Lightning
Feaster was the GM of the Lightning from 2002-Koules/Barrie, and helped build the team's only Stanley Cup champion. The Bolts won two division titles and made the playoffs in four straight seasons.
He was an interesting person for a GM job; a lawyer rather than an ex-jock, for example. Bob Andelman's 2004 profile on Feaster for the Gulf Coast Business Review gives you everything you need to know about how Feaster changed the course of the franchise, from hiring Bill Barber to be his hockey personnel man to the vision he had for the Lightning in contrast to that of former GM Rick Dudley:
"Rick's mantra used to be a size/speed ratio," Feaster says. "We looked at a player two years ago. When I read the reports, they talked about 'Vision like (Wayne) Gretzky.' 'Playmaking reminds of Gretzky.' 'Looks like Gretzky.' 'Worships Gretzky.' But the reports all ended, 'Not for us. Not a Tampa Bay Lightning player.' Because according to Dudley, a player had to be 6'2", and fast. I said to the scouts, 'We want to pass on the guy you said will be the next Gretzky because he doesn't fit the matrix you created?' We had guys in the organization that were 6'8" who skated real well but had the heart of a pea. Then we had a guy 5-foot nothing with the heart of a lion who carried us in the playoffs last year, Marty St. Louis."
It wasn't all good for Feaster: The top-heavy salary structure of the Lightning eventually cracked the foundation of the team, necessitating the trade of Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards(notes). Tampa's draft history was also unremarkable. But only seven franchises won the Cup in the last decade, and Feaster built one of those champions.
8. George McPhee, Washington Capitals
The decade timeline for the Capitals: Division titles, Jagr, payroll explosion, extreme purge of talent to cut payroll, 59-point season under Bruce Cassidy, Ovechkin, lockout, Backstrom, Boudreau, division titles.
The two constants in that decade were McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis, who had his GM's back during some very turbulent times. But GMGM (as he's called) survived and eventually thrived, although there are still questions about his ability to get this Capitals team "over the hump" and into a Cup. His draft history has some home runs and middling results; the Michael Nylander(notes) free-agent deal was, in hindsight, one of the bigger busts of the cap era. But securing Alex Ovechkin(notes) as the franchise's star through 2021 was essential and impressive.
Bottoming out helped rebuild the team, but McPhee made some solid moves to expedite the process and capture the imagination of a fan base again.
7. Pierre Lacroix, Colorado Avalanche
Nothing was going to top the construction of the 1990s Avalanche teams built on the foundation of the Patrick Roy trade. But just like back then, Lacroix again augmented the talent in his lineup by trading for established stars in early part of the decade: Making the Ray Bourque trade in 2000 and dealing for Rob Blake(notes) before the 2001 playoffs.
The result? Both skated the Cup for the first time in 2001 for Colorado.
The Avalanche made the playoffs in the first six seasons of the decade, winning four division titles (and nine in a row dating back to the previous decade). But after the lockout, as Colorado's core players were looking at their prime in the rearview mirror, Lacroix had his stumbles; crystallized by the José Théodore trade in 2006, in which he tried to once again build around a Montreal Canadiens star goalie, this time with very different results. The team also had so-so-draft history in the decade (though Paul Stastny(notes) as a second-rounder was a coup).
Lacroix relinquished the GM job in favor of his team presidency in 2006 though his influence was decisions was still palpable -- for the worse in the cap era, that's for sure. If you believe only his time as GM should be considered, though, he belongs right about here.
6. Ray Shero, Pittsburgh Penguins
Detractors will claim Shero had an advantage over others because the Penguins went in the tank early in the decade, and they have a valid point: He took over a team in 2006 that had the advantage of drafting Sidney Crosby(notes), Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Marc-Andre Fleury(notes). That's a hell of a foundation.
But even with a sturdy foundation, Shero was still the architect for the Penguins two conferences champions and their Stanley Cup championship in 2009. He added pieces like Petr Sykora(notes), Mark Eaton(notes) and Jordan Staal(notes). He hired Dan Bylsma. He won the Marian Hossa(notes) gamble twice, both in trading for him (how's that Angelo Esposito(notes) working out?) and letting him walk. He managed to secure Crosby and Malkin for slightly lower cap hits than they might have earned on the open market.
Most impressively, he did what needed to be done at the 2009 trade deadline (like the acquisition of Bill Guerin(notes)) to turn the team into a champion. It's a small sample, but Shero's been stellar during his short run.
5. Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks
Oh, you wanted more? Consider that the San Jose Sharks have made the playoffs in each of Wilson's five seasons at the helm, winning three division titles and making the conference finals once. He's made some bold decisions beyond the Thornton trade, like dealing for Brian Campbell(notes). He's drafted extraordinarily well for the GM of a successful team, like finding Joe Pavelski(notes) in the seventh round.
Obviously, the knock on Wilson is that the Sharks haven't won but jack and squat in the postseason; to that, we'd ask if that's Wilson's fault? Have the pieces Wilson put in place failed him, or is he putting the wrong pieces in place? We'd err on the side of the former rather than the latter, and celebrate a strong decade of work.
4. Jim Rutherford, Carolina Hurricanes
There are different sides to Rutherford. There's the safe side that drafts Eric Staal(notes) and brings in an old friend like Paul Maurice when he needs to fire a coach. Then there's a gambler; the guy who aggressively believed that his 2006 team would win the first post-lockout Cup, to the point where he added Doug Weight(notes) and Mark Recchi(notes) at a time when other teams were shedding salaries.
The result: The Hurricanes' first Stanley Cup.
His draft success was all over the map, and a few of his financial decisions can be questioned (Eric Staal's current cap hit being one of them). The Hurricanes' record this decade is indicative of that feast-or-famine approach: Only four playoff appearances, but two were in the Stanley Cup finals and one was in the conference finals.
Would you rather see that or several years of first-round exits as a fan?
The only thing missing from Burke's portfolio was a Stanley Cup, which he accomplished last season with the Ducks. Burke has helped build one of the NHL's top teams, but what's even more impressive is how he took a very uncertain Scott Niedermayer(notes) situation and made his team better. Instead of waiting to see whether Niedermayer would retire, he went out and signed Mathieu Schneider(notes), then managed to juggle his payroll. Burke is unafraid to make big, high-risk moves if he thinks it will improve his team. In Vancouver, he managed to cut payroll, make the Canucks better and fill the building. Burke can be confrontational and brash, but he's also terrific at what he does.
The one thing we'll add that Campbell didn't was that the Ducks' attitude in their 2007 Cup run trickled down from Burke. Later defined as "truculence" when he took over the Toronto Maple Leafs, that bullying aggression was as much a reason as any the Ducks won and was briefly mimicked by rivals like the Minnesota Wild. Anytime you create that sort of template for success, you're doing something right.
Speaking of templates ...
2. Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey Devils
Call it the trap, call it positional defense, call it "Devils hockey." Whatever it is, Lamoriello's dogma maintained a level of success for this franchise in the 2000s unmatched by many.
One of the most respected and successful executives in NHL history, Lamoriello did some remarkable things that outweighed his fumbles in the 2000s. Please examine the rosters for the 2000 Stanley Cup champion Devils and the 2003 Cup champion team. Separated by only a few seasons, there are significantly different pieces that fit for the titles, beginning with the coaching staff.
As the decade continued, the Devils would win with a variety of coaches (including Lamoriello himself) and with an infusion of reinforcements as players like Scott Gomez(notes), Brian Rafalski(notes) and Scott Niedermayer skated away and Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko retired.
In the cap era, Lamoriello's stumbled a bit, as his team has in the postseason. That $3.4 million through 2013 for a spare part like Dainius Zubrus(notes) for example; or the, uh, "creative cap management" that saw Vlad Malakov sleep wit da Sharks and other Lamoriello-ian creativity.
Yet every time you want to slam Lamoriello, you remember he's a GM that's won two Cups and three conference titles while making the playoffs in every season of the decade; one that's kept his team competitive while shedding major talent; one that's drafted players like Travis Zajac(notes) and Zach Parise(notes) in the low first round; and one that's secured hometown discounts for players like Martin Brodeur(notes) and Patrik Elias(notes).
He'd be at No. 1 if his team had won a Cup in the cap era, but it didn't.
These guys did ...
1. Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings
The winner of four Stanley Cups with the Wings overall and two in the last decade, Holland tops the list as the leader of the most impressive front office in the NHL for the last 10 years.
Winning the Cup with this roster in the bloated payroll days of 2002 and with this roster in the spend-thrift days of 2008 is nothing short of remarkable. Not only in the sense of fiscal management, but in the sense of talent augmentation: The Red Wings lost a Hall of Fame's-worth of talent after that first Cup of the decade, yet won eight consecutive division titles and made the postseason every year of the 2000s.
They made smart additions to the foundation, like Rafalski. They took financial risks that paid off, like keeping costs down between the pipes with a guy like Chris Osgood(notes). Their drafts were better than they had any right to be for a team that good, like finding Jonathan Ericsson(notes) at No. 291 in the ninth round. Holland understood his roster, understood its needs, and made the moves necessary to build a championship team.
Oh, and since we are weighing the cap years a little heavier: He was also pretty damn creative with long-term contracts, much to the chagrin of the NHL and the Wings' rivals. But hey, he's playing by the established rules; who's to say Henrik Zetterberg(notes) won't deserved to be paid in 2021 around what Kirk Maltby(notes) is paid today, right?