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Where Did the 32 NHL GMs Come From? Part 1

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Tom Fitzgerald was an Assistant General Manager to Ray Shero and was hired as the GM of the New Jersey Devils as Shero’s replacement. Is this common path for other GMs in the NHL? This first of two parts looks at the staffing history of the other GMs in the league to see if they had success prior to their position.

2021 NHL Draft - Round One
Tom Fitzgerald was Ray Shero’s Assistant GM before he became the Devils’ GM. What about the rest of the league?
Photo by Andrew MacLean/NHLI via Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about applying a common investigation tool - 6Ms - used in various businesses and how it could be applied to a hockey problem, such as the New Jersey Devils’ penalty kill. It was not particularly well-received, which I get as it is trying to take something from one world and putting it into hockey. This led to criticism of there being too much criticism of the league’s General Managers (GMs). This comment from one of the People Who Matter, Carl12345 and will be known is this post as Carl, stood out to me:

Yeah guys don’t fail their way up to this level. Coaches/GM’s are not infallible but they didn’t just coincidentally get here. I often see people mocking these guys and I kind of laugh at how dismissive / unaware they are when they imply they know better.

I think Carl is right in that many, myself included, can be too unaware of how much is involved in being a GM. It is a lot more than just signing players, making trades for players, hiring a coach, and overseeing decisions such as NHL Drafts. However, I have to question the first statement. One of the common criticisms in the hockey world (and in sports and other industries) is that it seems there is a club or a revolving door of people in charge only to be replaced by people who used to be in charge. Rather than state Carl is wrong, I want to look into it. So for this offseason special of a post, I am going to attempt to answer the question: Where did the 32 NHL GMs come from? Other than their mothers, obviously. More specifically: How many had success in their prior positions where we can understand why they got a GM job with a team?


As this is a New Jersey Devils blog, let us begin with the one we really should know best. Tom Fitzgerald is the current GM of the Devils. He was the Assistant GM (AGM) to Ray Shero, who was the previous GM of the Devils. After four-plus seasons and one playoff appearance in 2018, Shero was fired on January 12, 2020. Fitzgerald was named as an interim GM. He oversaw the Devils through the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, which saw Blake Coleman go to Tampa Bay and Andy Greene go to Long Island. The returns were good. In the pandemic-extended 2020 offseason, ownership was pleased enough with Fitzgerald that they decided to remove to interim tag from Fitzgerald instead of hiring a new GM. He has been the GM ever since.

I like what Fitzgerald is doing. I think most of the moves he has made has been quite good, particularly in this offseason. I really hope the Devils are significantly better in 2021-22. If not, then Fitzgerald’s seat is going to get warm and we may be looking at a third attempt of a re-build by someone else.

However, Fitzgerald was not an example of someone earning their way up the ladder. The Devils were absolutely re-building under Shero. And they cratered after a brief 2018 playoff appearance that made many (myself included) hope that the Devils would move onward and upward. As much as I liked Shero’s moves at the time, they did not work out and he was fired. In parallel, Fitzgerald’s responsibilities included overseeing the Devils’ the minor league affiliate. In Albany, the A-Devils made the playoffs twice before their move to Binghamton. There, they missed the playoffs twice prior to Fitzgerald’s ascension to the job in January 2020. I will point that out the B-Devils could have made the playoffs had the season not end due to a pandemic. However, it still was not a successful venture. Fitzgerald got the Devils’ job because ownership preferred him and they did not want the other options. It was not because the team was good or improving, and Josh Harris & David Blitzer figured on promoting from within a successful front office.

Again, I like what Fitzgerald is doing now and I want him to succeed. Like all right-thinking people, I want the Devils to be good. But it would be inaccurate to state his work yielded on-ice successes on his way up to his current job. That is what happened with the New Jersey Devils. And the Devils are their own organization. An organization that fired a GM during one season and promoted the assistant of the GM they fired in a pandemic-extended offseason. Not every team can say they had the same circumstances when it came to hiring their GM.

So let us see what those GMs did prior to their current their position. Can we at least make a case if a current GM had success before becoming the GM? Let us look at them in this two part post because there are 31 other GMs in this league and a lot of history to unpack. I may have went a bit overboard. This first part will cover Anaheim to Minnesota in alphabetical. Part 2 will cover Montreal through Winnipeg and will be up tomorrow.


Anaheim - GM: Bob Murray, since November 2008

Murray replaced Brian Burke, whom joined the organization in 2005 when the Samuelis bought the team. Burke rejected a contract extension from the Ducks and so the organization promoted Murray. Murray was a Senior/Executive VP of Hockey Operations of the Ducks as well as their AHL GM for four seasons prior to being promoted. The 2005-06 and 2007-08 Portland Pirates made the playoffs and went to the Conference Finals (they missed in 2006--07). The Iowa Chops did not in 2008-09, but Murray was promoted during that season. As Murray was part of a winning organization - Anaheim did win the Cup in 2007 - and his GM role had two playoff runs out of three seasons, I think he is an example someone who earned his way up prior to his current position.

However, he is also an example of that revolving door concern that fans have about hockey personnel. In the 1990s, Murray was a member of management for Chicago. He was an assistant GM in the 1995 and 1996-97 seasons and was given the full GM position in 1997-98. He was fired and replaced by Bob Pulford during the 1998-99 season. (Aside: Pulford was the GM of the team from 1977 to 1990 and again from 1992 to 1997. He was an interim twice after. He was an institution of sorts.) Chicago went from being a consistent playoff team to not starting with that 1997-98 season and things were not getting any better in 1998-99. That said, the Blackhawks’ woes continued long after Murray left with one playoff appearance between 1997 and 2008. Still, I would say he proved (re-proved?) his worth in the Ducks organization.

Arizona - GM: Bill Armstrong, since September 2020

This is an example of a new GM coming in due to outside circumstances. John Chayka left the organization in July 2020, terminating his contract. The Coyotes ownership were unhappy. This became a larger issue as the NHL suspended Chayka for all of the calendar year of 2021. Anyway, Steve Sullivan was then promoted to interim GM in July. That did not last as the team brought in former St. Louis assistant GM Bill Armstrong to be the GM in September. Sullivan returned to be an assistant GM until February 11 when that contract was terminated. Arizona could use a little boredom when it comes to management.

As for Armstrong, he was a member of the Blues organization from 2004 up until 2020. He was a scout for six seasons and their Director of Amateur Scouting for the following decade. He was given an Assistant GM role in 2018-19 and 2019-20. The Blues did go on to be one of the better teams of the 2010s and the franchise won its first Stanley Cup in 2019. It could be argued that Armstrong was in line to take over as GM one day. He ended up having to go to Arizona for it. Mark this is another example of someone earning their way up to a GM job.

Boston - GM: Don Sweeney, since May 2015

Don Sweeney has been with the Bruins organization since becoming a staffer in the 2006-07 as a Director of Player Development. He was promoted to an Assistant GM position in 2009-10 for then-GM Peter Chiarelli. Sweeney was a GM of Providence for the 2014-15 season. When Chiarelli was fired after the B’s missed the playoffs in 2015, Sweeney was promoted as his replacement. He has been the GM ever since and oversaw the B’s go to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2019.

While Chiarelli’s luster has rusted in recent years, it is important to note that his time with the Bruins was a success. The Bruins went to the Stanley Cup Finals twice under his reign with the Cup won in 2011. They won a President’s Trophy in 2013-14, the season before he was fired. Sweeney was the AGM in those seasons. The Bruins were contenders throughout the 2010s. That Sweeney has been able to sustain some of that success speaks to the organization’s success before him. In other words, this is an example of someone earning their way up to their job.

Buffalo - GM: Kevyn Adams, since June 2020

In a perfectly Buffalo-like move, the Sabres fired GM Jason Botterill and promoted Kevyn Adams to the GM role on June 16, 2020. Adams was the Senior VP of Business Administration in the prior season. Not a hockey operations position; a business position. He has served other roles in the Sabres organization since the 2009-10 season. If nothing else, Adams has at least been a Sabre off the ice for a while. He was a development coach for two seasons and an assistant coach in the following two. In 2013-14, he moved on to be a Director of the Sabres, a Youth Hockey Supervisor of the Sabres, and the President of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres. He served those three roles until 2019-20 when he shifted from being a Youth Hockey Supervisor and Director to the VP role on the business side of the organization. Then he was named GM. OK. That happened.

I am sure he was perfectly fine in those roles. I do not know if any of them would really lend itself to being an effective GM. I also do not know or cannot claim that he faltered in those positions. I think this GM hiring remains as the most unusual. I will disregard it from the failure/success dichotomy I am trying to work out from Carl’s initial comment. Also: Good luck with all of the things there, Mr. Adams?

Calgary - GM: Brad Treliving, since April 2014

Brian Burke was the President of the team and served as an interim GM in 2013-14 after Jay Feaster was fired in December 2013. The full-time replacement would be current GM Brad Treliving. He was also the only option Burke considered. He spent a long time in management prior joining the Flames seven years ago. He was the GM of the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage from the 2002-03 season to the 2010-11 season. He became an Assistant GM of Phoenix in 2007-08 and still oversaw the AHL affiliate. When it switched to Portland, he remained their GM through the rest of his time in Phoenix as an assistant GM. After the 2013-14 season ended, he joined the Flames organization.

Was he good as a GM of San Antonio? Not really as the Stampede made the playoffs just twice under Treliving. What about with the Pirates after 2011? They made it once out of three seasons. To be fair, I do not know how much “support” the parent organization gave to Treliving to help those teams compete. What about the Phoenix Coyotes from 2007-08 to 2013-14; how were they? They had a three-season run of making the playoffs from 2010 to 2012 with one surprising deep run in 2012 to the Western Conference Finals. But that success was not (and has not been) sustained. Treliving definitely had a lot of experience. That counted for something. And the Coyotes were not dreadfully bad during Treliving’s AGM period even when they did miss the playoffs. Did he win his way upward, though? Not really.

Carolina - GM: Don Waddell, since May 2018

A few months after Tom Dundon became the owner of the Hurricanes, he pushed Ron Francis out of the GM role and into a President of Hockey Operations role in March 2018. As the linked article by Kyle Cantlon at Yahoo! pointed out, it was not really a promotion. Francis’ full-time replacement was veteran manager Don Waddell. If the name sounds familiar, then you may remember the Atlanta Thrashers. Waddell was their GM throughout almost their entire existence. Before then, he was a GM and head coach in the old IHL with Flint and San Diego before settling into just a GM role with the Gulls and one season as a GM with Adirondack of the AHL (and as an AGM in Detroit). The Thrashers were bad. But a lot of their issues could be pointed to ownership issues, particularly after Atlanta Spirit became involved. After that ended, Waddell became a scout for Pittsburgh for two seasons, consulted for the USA WJC team in 2014, and joined Carolina as the team’s President. After Dundon’s power play, he chose the team’s President, Waddell, to be the replacement. So it has been since then.

While Carolina did improve as Waddell was President, that role does not really lend itself to a lot of direct control over the team. Waddell may have been undercut by ownership but the moves he made and the drafts he oversaw were ultimately bad for Atlanta and kept them in a sub-mediocre state for their time as an active franchise. And Dundon wanted Francis out and chose someone with experience internally to take over. I cannot say Waddell earned his way to the job. I can say that the team has been very good under him, so it is not as if he is a bad GM. But he didn’t win his way up to this one.

Chicago - GM: Stan Bowman, since July 2009

Back on July 14, 2009, the Chicago Blackhawks announced that they promoted Stan Bowman to the GM position and re-assigned Dale Tallon, their previous GM from 2005, to a Senior Advisor position. Timing is everything and Bowman took over just as Chicago’s draft picks from the past decade were blossoming. Chicago won the Cup in 2010, 2013, and 2015; took the President’s Trophy in 2012-13; and were a top team throughout the last decade amid a lot of cap maneuvering. However, all of that may be rightfully overshadowed by very serious investigation into the organization that may ultimately implicate Stan Bowman. That stated, this post is not to ask whether Bowman should go or not, but whether he had some success to justify how he obtained his current role.

He was developed as a staffer within the Chicago organization. From 2005 to 2007, he was a Director of Hockey Operations. From 2007-08 up until July 2009, he was the team’s AGM. The Blackhawks were improving from being absolutely terrible in 2005-06 and did make the postseason in 2009, making a run all the way to the Western Conference Finals. It helped that, again, their draft picks in the 2000s were working out with Towes, Kane, Seabrook, and Keith among others. This may be a bit of a stretch, but the improvement of the Hawks during Bowman’s first four seasons in the organization does point to some success on the way up. If you disagree, then I understand. But understand that it did ultimately work out on the ice.

Colorado - GM: Joe Sakic, since September 2014

Sakic was a legend with the Avalanche as a player. He served as an advisor for two seasons before getting an Executive VP of Hockey Operations role in 2013. The Avalanche were then bad. The team decided to switch things up in 2014 by moving then-GM Greg Sherman to an assistant GM role and naming Sakic the full-time GM in 2014. As Adrian Dater wrote in The Denver Post at the time, Sakic actually had more control in his VP position than one would think. The decision in September was more for aligning titles with actual roles from the 2013-14 season. Dater noted that Sakic was given the VP role as Josh Kroenke, related to team owner Stan Kroenke, took over as President; it was part of a larger organization change. That is not a coincidence in my view.

At the time, the appointment could have been seen as a head-scratcher. Sakic was not a general manager or served any major role with a pro team anywhere else prior to getting this VP position in 2013, which was apparently a quasi-GM role before being named GM. While it certainly worked out as of now as the Avalanche have become an excellent team, we cannot say Sakic earned his way up to the GM position. He was given the position as part of a larger shake-up by ownership. It just happened to work out well in time.

Columbus - GM: Jarmo Kekäläinen, since February 2013

Kekäläinen was the first European GM of the NHL. He is the only one. He also had a varied career prior to being named the Columbus GM in February 2013. After his playing career ended, Kekäläinen joined Ottawa in the NHL as a scout and HIFK in the SM-liiga as a GM. It is not often to see a scout/GM combo, but he did it from 1995-96 through 1998-99. In the 1999-2000 season, he transitioned to the NHL full-time as Ottawa’s Director of Player Personnel. In 2002, he joined St. Louis as their Director of Amateur Scouting. In 2005, Kekäläinen was named as an Assistant GM, which he served from 2005 through 2010. In 2010-11, Kekäläinen returned to Finland to be the GM of Jokerit in the Liiga. That lasted for two and a half seasons as Columbus sought him out to be Scott Howson’s replacement. He has been the GM of the Blue Jackets ever since.

Kekäläinen certainly had a lot of experience both in Finland and in the NHL in a managerial role. HIFK was quite good in his four seasons with a championship in 1998 and a loss in the SM-liiga Finals in 1999. Jokerit made the postseason in all two-plus seasons under Kekäläinen with a third-place finish in the postseason in 2012. Ottawa and St. Louis certainly were not bad when he was with those organizations. I think it is fair to say that Kekäläinen earned his way to the Columbus job, which he is approaching a decade in holding down. Who will be the next full-time European GM? Who knows. (Patrik Allvin doesn’t count, he was in charge in Pittsburgh for just a few weeks.)

Dallas - GM: Jim Nill, since April 2013

Nill replaced Joe Nieuwendyk in April 2013. When the Stars announced his hiring, they made a point of it to state how Nill was a part of Detroit’s core management for two decades. They were right to do so. After three seasons as a scout for Ottawa, Nill joined Detroit as a Director of Player Development in 1994. In 1998, he was named an assistant GM for Detroit as well as a GM for Adirondack. The AHL affiliate role was only for 1998-99. Nill remained as an AGM until 2013. Yes, he served over a decade as an assistant GM as well as nearly 20 years with some of the strongest Detroit teams in franchise history. He has four Cup rings from 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. I am going in team alphabetical order after New Jersey, but I would be hard-pressed to find any other GM on this list with a resume better than Nill’s prior to being hired as GM. He absolutely earned a GM job.

Detroit - GM: Steve Yzerman, since April 2019

Steve Yzerman was a legendary player for the Red Wings. He was not brought back to the organization to replace legendary GM Ken Holland just because of that. No, he was in management with Tampa Bay, helping build the team that is continuing to crush it to this current day. Yzerman did serve four seasons with Detroit as a VP of Hockey Operations from 2006 to 2010. He even was Canada’s GM at the 2007 and 2008 World Championships and 2010 Olympics. But Yzerman moved South to Florida and joined the Lightning in 2010 to be their GM and VP of Hockey Operations. He only stepped away in 2018 as an advisor to Julien BriseBois. In 2019, he returned to Detroit and is now entering his third season as a GM.

It could be seen as unfortunate that the Lightning managed to win the Cup after he left. However, the Lightning went from three straight seasons out of the playoffs to a surprise Eastern Conference Finals appearance in 2011, three really good seasons from 2013-14 to 2015-16 with a Cup Finals loss in 2015, and two more strong seasons including a banner season in 2018-19. Yzerman’s fingerprints are on the current champions. And as a VP of Hockey Operations, the Red Wings were still a strong team. I would say he earned this GM role; the right to tear down and try to re-build Detroit to past glories.

Edmonton - GM: Ken Holland, since May 2019

After Peter Chiarelli’s failed tenure in Edmonton, the Oilers wanted to bring in someone with even more experience. More success in their background. A bigger name to turn a team with Connor McDavid into contenders. On paper, they did that as they hired Ken Holland on May 7, 2019. Holland was in the Red Wings organization as a staffer since 1985 when he started as a scout. After two seasons of that and seven as Director of Amateur Scouting, he became an AGM. He was named as the one to follow Jim Devellano and Scotty Bowman as GM in 1997-98. Holland held that role until 2019 with four Cups and a whole lot of winning along the way. Detroit has declined in those final years, but Edmonton wanted the experience. You could not ask for anyone with more past success than him.

I don’t think anyone can make an argument that Holland didn’t deserve another GM job anywhere after what he did in Detroit. Even with the decline. Your mileage may vary for after Edmonton as his current tenure has not turned the Oilers into Cup contenders during McDavid’s peak years. But if resumes are meaningful, Holland has one of the most successful among all active GMs in the NHL.

Florida - GM: Bill Zito, since September 2020

Bill Zito has been GM of the Florida Panthers for two seasons now, so he is one of the newer people at this position in the league. He did not come out of nowhere. Zito cut his teeth in management with the Columbus organization. He was an assistant GM of the Blue Jackers from 2013-14 through to 2019-20. He was even given the title of Associate GM in that last season along with Senior VP of Hockey Operations. From 2015-16 to 2018-19, he was also the GM of their AHL affiliate in Cleveland. Zito was even the GM of the USA roster at the 2018 World Cup of Hockey. Zito had plenty of experience in the front office before heading to Sunrise.

And last decade was Columbus’ time to start ascending from being just a team in the league to being a more competitive team (and a thorn in the side of the Devils). From 2000-01 to 2013, the Blue Jackets made the playoffs just once. When Zito was in the organization, the Blue Jackets made it five times out of seven including their best regular season ever in 2016-17 with 50 wins and 108 points earned. While Zito was not the one in charge of those teams, he was part of the group that made them. The Lake Erie/Cleveland Monsters were not as successful, although they did win the Calder Cup in 2016 - which was a significant victory. All together, we can claim that Zito had a share of the success of Columbus’ improvement last decade. Combined with the experience, a future as a GM seemed reasonable.

Los Angeles - GM: Rob Blake, since April 2017

After a long NHL career where he wore a letter more often than he did not, Rob Blake jumped right into the management side of the game after retirement. He was an assistant GM for Canada at the 2011 World Championships as he also worked for the NHL in their Hockey Operations department. He left the league and joined the Kings in 2013 with multiple titles. He was an Assistant GM and VP of Hockey Operations from 2013-14 to 2016-17. He was also the GM of the AHL affiliate, which were Manchester Monarchs from 2013-14 to 2014-15 and the now current Ontario Reign in 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. He was also the GM of Canada’s World Championship team in 2014 and their Assistant GM at the World Cup of Hockey in 2018. Blake was promoted to the GM job in 2017 to replace Dean Lombardi. He remains in that role and the VP of Hockey Operations role ever since, all for Los Angeles.

How were the teams he had a say in before he replaced Lombardi? They were more successful than I thought. On the AHL side, the Monarchs had two really good final seasons in the AHL and won the Calder Cup in 2014-15. The Reign continued the winning with another 40+ win season in 2015-16 that saw them go out in the third round and Ontario were a playoff team in the following season. On the NHL side, the Los Angeles Kings did win a Cup in 2014 (thank you) and that may be enough for some people. Since that Cup, it has been a decline for the Kings. They did not make the playoffs in 2014-15, they made the playoffs in 2015-16 but were bounced in the first round, and they missed again in 2016-17. The core was showing its age and it became apparent the needed a re-build. Ownership put Blake in charge of that. It has been three seasons of it so far. That stated, Blake did have success with the AHL teams and while the NHL team has declined, he was part of management of the franchise’s second Cup win ever. I think he fits in the “earned it” column.

Minnesota - GM: Bill Guerin, since August 2019

While it seems like yesterday since Bill Guerin played, he has been a member of hockey management for the past decade. After his retirement in 2011, he remained with the Pittsburgh Penguins organization. He was a Development Coach for three seasons before management made him, well, one of them. In 2014-15, Guerin was named as an Assistant GM. He held that role through the 2018-19 season. Guerin also received other jobs: an Assistant GM for America’s 2017 World Championship team and the GM position for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s AHL team from 2017-18 to 2018-19. After Minnesota dumped Paul Fenton, they sought to bring in someone from outside the organization. They chose Guerin, who is now set to enter his third season with the organization.

Pittsburgh was a rather good team for the last decade. As easy as it to just say any team can win with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, that would be false. A big part of Pittsburgh’s sustained success is their management. Developing players and identifying talents to work well and complement those two have kept the Pens constantly in the hunt for championships instead of just winning seasons. During Guerin’s time as an AGM, Pittsburgh won two Cups and their “worst” season was a 98 point campaign in 2014-15. It seems like a lame narrative to describe him as a “winner,” but he really as an AGM. As for the AHL franchise, the 2018-19 team missed out on the playoffs by a bit, but the 2017-18 team won 51 games and earned 107 points. It is a bit of a wash. After all, NHL success is the goal and that means more than AHL results - and Guerin absolutely had them.


Halftime

Again, this post is long enough to warrant two whole parts. Part 2 will be up tomorrow to go through the other 16 GMs in the league. So far, though, it is looking good for Carl’s thesis. Out of all 16 GMs - Fitzgerald included - 12 of them did have success prior to their position. Three of them (Fitzgerald, Waddell, Treliving) did not with Adams being an odd exception as explained earlier. You could make some arguments, but in looking at the first half of the league, a majority of the league’s GMs had both experience and team success somewhere before their current role. Surprising to me. Also surprising in that in this group the only re-treads were Waddell and Murray. Murray’s initial GM tenure was for a bad Chicago team and was so short it could be written off. Waddell is there because Tom Dundon did not want Ron Francis.

There is still another half to look at, so this may change. One thing is for sure, and this may support the “old boys’ club mentality” that fans and pundits may gripe about, is that a lot of these GMs were former pro players. Some were only kept in the minors like Brad Treliving. Others were NHL players from stars (e.g. Sakic, Yzerman, Blake) to regulars (e.g. Fitzgerald, Adams) to players with short stints in the league (e.g. Holland, Kekäläinen). But only Stan Bowman and Bill Zito were not pro players. Zito did play for three seasons at Yale. Stan is the son of legendary coach Scott Bowman, so that helped. While having first hand experience in the game cannot be replicated, it helps sustain the idea that you have to be a former pro to get into hockey management and then work your way up. With luck and timing, then maybe you get that GM job. It is understandable to a point, but it does lend to a more closed system. Becoming a NHL player is incredibly difficult in of itself. Going right from playing to management means a lack of experience elsewhere that lends itself to doing things the way they have always been done. Hence, that could result in some of the lack of imagination and differences among GMs. Your mileage may vary on its significance.

Anyway, thank you for reading Part 1 of this look at all of the GMs in the league. In Part 2, which will be up tomorrow, I will go through Montreal through Winnipeg. Will Carl’s point remain true? How old will you feel when you realize how many more former pros will be discussed? Will I throw some digs at Our Hated Rivals (spoiler: also yes)? Please leave your answers, opinions about GMs, how they got their jobs, and more in the comments. Thank you for reading.