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, 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. That is worthy of its own post. The first statement made me much more curious. Is that true? Yesterday, I decided to start to look at the pasts of the GMs in the league to see if it was true. Where did they come from? Have the GMs of the NHL earned their way up by having some success to warrant a GM position with a team? Given the amount of information, I broke it up into two parts. I looked at Fitzgerald and the 15 GMs from Anaheim to Minnesota in the first part. Out of those 16, I think we can claim 12 of them earned their way up. Now let us look at the other 16, from Montreal to Winnipeg in alphabetical order, to see if that still holds true.
Montreal - GM: Marc Bergevin, since May 2012
The Montreal Canadiens are one of the most storied franchies in hockey. As such, there is a lot of pressure for them to succeed. It takes a lot for someone to take the job. Marc Bergevin did so in 2012 and has managed to become one of the longest running GMs in recent memory. You would have to go back to Serge Savard for the most recent GM to last longer than Bergevin. What did he do before he took the job? Surprisingly, not that much with Montreal. He spent seven seasons with Chicago instead. After he retired as a player in 2004, he joined Chicago as a scout from 2005-06 to 2007-08. In that final season, he was the Director of Pro Scouting. He became an assistant coach to Joel Quenneville for 2008-09 and then moved on to the front office as a Director of Player Personnel for 2009-10 and 2010-11. In 2011, he was promoted to be an Assistant GM to Stan Bowman. That lasted for a season as the Montreal job became available.
Chicago was becoming a rather good team in the time that he was there. The Blackhawks went from being poor to contenders during those seven seasons. Clearly, he impressed the decision makers as he was moved up the proverbial latter pretty quickly. As a scout, he could have identified some of the players that would go on to make Chicago the very good team they would be in the 2010s. He was behind the bench for that 2008-09 campaign that ended with 46 wins, 104 points, and a Western Conference Finals loss to Detroit. Bergevin was part of the staff for the 2010 Cup winning team. It may be a stretch given his different roles, but I think he earned a spot in the same way I gave the credit to Stan Bowman. He was part of the improvement of Chicago. Montreal wanted someone to help the team get ahead. It is arguable if he did or not but he’s still there.
Nashville - GM: David Poile, since July 1997 - the start of the franchise!
It is remarkable that Nashville has kept the same GM for as long as they have. He has survived the expansion seasons, a change in ownership (Craig Leipold sold the Predators to Predators Holdings in 2007), and a whole lot of seasons of varying success and non-success. He also was in hockey management for decades prior to Nashville’s existence. Poile is one of the few active members in hockey with ties to the Atlanta Flames as he was the Flames’ AGM from 1977-78 to 1981-82, which included their move to Calgary. Poile joined Washington in the 1982-83 season as their GM and VP of Hockey Operations. He remained the Capitals’ GM through to the 1996-97 season. Poile is still Washington’s longest serving GM in franchise history. Poile was relieved of his duties after that season. He then joined Nashville and stayed their since.
Did Poile earn his way to the Nashville job? I do not know if you can he did not. The Capitals were not a particularly successful team under Poile. They won one (1) division title in the regular season. The Capitals built up a reputation of being a good regular season team but never following through on their playoff appearances. To be fair, the Capitals were absolutely awful before Poile became the GM; they never made the playoffs until that 1982-83 season. They made it in every year under Poile’s reign until that 1996-97 season. It is hard to maintain a successful team for a long time even if they did not win a championship or go deep in the postseason. And consider that Nashville was an expansion team; I can understand the desire to go get someone with a lot of experience to manage those first few seasons where the roster was lacking and the organizational depth has to be built. Poile was the right choice for that. To that end, I think he is a clearly in the “earned it” category.
New York Islanders - GM: Lou, since June 2018
You know who Lou is. There is no golden era of the New Jersey Devils without Lou. So let me go over what happened since 2015.
In 2015, Lou stunned everyone and forced a name change for this site by joining Toronto. This was part of a larger plan led by Brendan Shanahan, then President of the Maple Leafs. The Shanaplan, if you will. The organization had a young executive named Kyle Dubas. Rather than throw him into the GM job, they wanted someone with experience to groom him, someone with the intimidation and integrity to force a massive culture change in the organization, and someone with the ruthlessness to cut the chaff from the wheat. Enter Lou. Toronto needed a rebuild and he did that. Toronto needed a new culture and one was put in. Toronto needed to prepare for a brighter future that Dubas would leave. Lou left one. Toronto even made the playoffs twice in the interim. Job done. Toronto re-assigned Lou to be an advisor in May 2018. Lou is not done, though. He joined the New York Islanders in June 2018 as a replacement for Garth Snow. Lou brought in Barry Trotz to replace the also-fired Doug Weight as head coach. With Lou’s management and Trotz’ coaching, the Isles have made three straight playoff appearances with two runs to the Conference Finals. You doubt Lou at your own peril.
Yeah, he’s earned the job. Any job he wants, really. Only Ken Holland has a more successful resume than Lou.
Our Hated Rivals - GM: Chris Drury, since May 2021
Our Hated Rivals were re-building themselves to become a contender in the not so distant future under the decision-making powers of Jeff Gorton. On paper, it was looking good. On the ice, it was also looking good. The drafts and lottery luck had yielded stud prospects Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. They hit big with Adam Fox and Igor Shesterkin. They made a big play for Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba and hit one out of two - and neither big has ruined their salary cap. But all was not well in Manhattan. James Dolan of Knicks infamy and his band, J.D. and the Straight Shot, remembered he owned the Rangers and did not like what he saw. He saw. He felt the team lacked the grit of the Islanders. There was not enough “pushback.” The Tom Wilson incident was the last straw. Dolan fired Gorton and team President John Davidson. Assistant GM Chris Drury was moved up. Given their moves this offseason, he clearly heard Dolan’s requests loud and clear. Are they a better team for it? I do not know.
I also do not know if I can claim that Drury earned this promotion with a successful team. He has been with the Rangers for a bit of time, though. He was a Director of Player Development for the 2015-16 season for New York and he was an assistant GM since the 2016-17 season until this year. The Rangers went from good but not great to blowing it all up for a re-build that started in 2017-18. They have not quite built themselves up to the postseason; extended playoff play-in series in 2020 excepted. Drury was the GM of Hartford for that same timeframe he was an AGM. Hartford failed to make the playoffs in any of those seasons. Maybe they would make it in 2019-20 but, like Binghamton, it was not set in stone. Coloring all of this is the process of how he got this job. The owner was unhappy, fired his President and GM, and named Drury as both with the understanding to do the things to make the owner happy. I cannot quite call that an “earned” position. I can enjoy the Drury era so far given the Buchnevich-for-Blais deal and the signings of Ryan Reeves and Barclay Goodrow.
Ottawa - GM: Pierre Dorion, since April 2016
Speaking of GMs who are very clearly listening to their owners, Pierre Dorion has had the unenviable task of doing what Eugene Melnyk wants. Discuss amongst yourselves about the quality of Dolan and Melnyk as owners. Unlike Drury, Dorion has a far longer background in prospects. Dorion was a scout for Montreal from 1994 to 05. He then joined the Rangers as a scout from 2005 to 2007. Dorion joined Ottawa for the 2007-08 season as a Director of Amateur Scouting, a natural upgrade given his previous decade-plus as a scout. In 2009-10, he was transitioned to Director of Player Personnel. He was promoted during the 2013-14 season to be an Assistant GM to Bryan Murray. He remained as an AGM until he was given the GM job in 2016 as the team moved Murray to an advisor position. Dorion then oversaw a surprising deep run from Ottawa in the playoffs in 2017 and then has blown up the team as part of a re-build after. Partially because of Dorion’s decisions after 2017.
But did Dorion earn this position? I would say so. Believe it or not, Ottawa was actually a good team in the 2010s. Not coincidentally prior to 2017. Since Dorion joined the organization, Ottawa made the playoffs five times and missed it four times. Only 2009-10 was a real bad season; their playoff misses were not that far off. It was not inconsistent like, say, Philly. The 2008 and 2009 drafts were good for Ottawa as they found Erik Karlson, Zach Smith, Jakob Silfverberg, Robin Lehner, and Mike Hoffman. The results of the re-build will determine Dorion’s tenure as a GM, but I do think his past work warranted a position even if the success was not so great. There is the Melnyk factor to deal with, after all.
Philadelphia - GM: Chuck Fletcher, since December 2018
Chuck Fletcher has one of the most extensive resumes among the current 32 GMs. His staff history page at Elite Prospects goes back to 1993-94. Poile’s goes back farther, but that was just with three franchises. Fletcher is on his sixth right now. He was an assistant GM in Florida from 1993-94 to 2001-02. He was an interim GM in Florida in 2002 before he joined Anahaim as an assistant GM and Director of Operations. That lasted from 2002-03 to 2005-06. Then he joined Pittsburgh as an AGM from 2006-07 to 2008-09. Fletcher got a GM job in the NHL with Minnesota that lasted from 2010-11 to 2017-18. He was an advisor for the Devils before Philadelphia hired him in December 2018 to replace then-GM Ron Hextall.
Fletcher certainly has a lot of experience. Did he succeed on his way up to Philly? If it was just before his Minnesota days, I would say yes. Anaheim had a thankfully failed Cup run in 2003 and Pittsburgh was great in his time there. He has a ring from his time with the Pens. The Wild had their best run as a franchise under him with six straight playoff appearances after two somewhat narrow misses. He inked their biggest contracts ever in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. However, they won just two playoff series and those two humongous big contracts were just bought out. Then again, he was let go after a 101-point season and another early playoff exit and the Wild have followed that with nothing better yet. I do think Fletcher is a re-tread pick; someone who has been in the hockey management business for a very long time must have appealed to Flyers ownership. But I don’t think he was a failure in Minnesota. If that means he “earned” it then so be it, but I am really more on the fence.
Pittsburgh - GM: Ron Hextall, since February 2021
Speaking of re-treads, Ron Hextall is now the Penguins GM. This is a bit awkward as Hextall was a long-time player and staff member of their bitter rivals, Philadelphia. Hextall became a scout after his playing days in Philly were done. After three seasons of that, he was named the Director of Player Personnel from 2002-03 to 2005-06. Hextall moved on to the Kings organization to be a VP of Hockey Operations and Assistant GM. He also was the GM of Manchester, their AHL affiliate at the time. This lasted from 2006-07 to 2012-13. Hextall returned to the Flyers organization to be their Director of Hockey Operations and the AGM to Paul Holmgren. In 2014, though, Hextall got his chance to be a GM. The Flyers promoted Holmgren to President and Hextall took the reigns. Hextall would be the team’s GM up until being fired on November 26, 2018. He returned to the Kings as an advisor for two seasons. After Jim Rutherford decided to resign on January 27, 2021; Pittsburgh hired Hextall to be their GM. He remains in the role for what will be his first full season as a Penguin for the 2021-22 season.
Given that Hextall was hired to be a permanent replacement for Rutherford, I can understand the thinking behind getting someone with experience. I am not sure the experience Hextall had as a GM was a desirable one. Flyers fans have a meme about how the team is good in seasons ending with even years but bad in seasons ending with odd years. Thing is, that has been true since the 2012-13 season. Under Hextall, they pinballed back and forth between making the postseason for a brief stay or missing it by a bit. The Flyers won one playoff series and that was in 2020 with an expanded playoff. Hardly an appreciable amount of success. Prior to that, Hextall’s AGM tenure oversaw a long tailed curve that went up. The Kings went from being a real bad team for a while (2002-03 to 2008-09 = zero playoffs, only one season above 50% points) and turned into a playoff team that peaked with an unfortunate 2012 Cup win. How LA grew may speak well of Hextall’s contributions then. But Philly’s maddening inconsistency gives one pause. And, again, even when the Flyers were good in those even seasons, they did not win anything of note. I would classify Hextall in the “not earned” category despite his experience and the (potential) fun in taking a rival’s GM.
San Jose - GM: Doug Wilson, since May 2003
All Doug Wilson knows as a staffer is San Jose. He was a consultant for Team Canada’s WJC teams from 1994 to 1997. He joined the Sharks for the 1997-98 season and never looked back. He was a Director of Player Personnel and Pro Development from 1997 to 2003. Wilson was an interim assistant coach for part of the 2002-03 season. He was then given the GM (and Executive VP of Hockey Operations) job ahead of the 2003-04 season. Since 2017-18, Wilson has been just a GM. All the same, he has overseen the good times, the great times (President’s Trophy in 2008-09, Cup Finals in 2016, a whole load of wins), and the current down times of the Sharks. Whatever is written about the Sharks’ history, Doug Wilson will be a major role in a large part of it.
Did Wilson earn his way to the job he has had locked down for nearly two decades now? I guess? When he joined the organization, they made their third playoff appearance ever and it would be the start of a five-season streak of playoff appearances. Given his role in development and personnel, it could be argued that he helped mold some of the players to perform. The Sharks started earning 90+ point seasons during his Director days and they have kept that going save for a few playoff-less seasons and that 48-game 2013 season. I think there is enough there to warrant saying he earned it. Wilson more than proved the decision to promote him was the right one in the following decade plus, recent seasons aside.
Seattle - GM: Ron Francis, since July 2019
From the Carolina section, we know Francis was removed from Carolina and replaced by Don Waddell. While Seattle is coming into the league for the 2021-22 season, they were hiring staff prior to them. When Francis became available, Seattle jumped right on him. But what happened before Tom Dundon made his move? Francis was a long time member of the Hurricanes organization. His resume goes back to 2006-07 where he was a Director of Player Development. He was given an AGM role in 2007-08 but that lasted only for that season. Francis was then named Director of Player Personnel and an Associate Coach for 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 seasons. Francis was then moved to the Director of Hockey Operations role for the 2011-12 season through to the 2013-14 season. He was given the GM job for the 2014-15 season and kept it until after the 2017-18 season. The Charlotte Checkers GM job was added to his role from 2015-16 through to 2017-18. Dundon wanted a change, Francis took 2018-19 off and only managed Canada’s Spengler Cup team. Then Seattle reached out and took the expansion team’s job.
The teams Francis managed were not bad, but they were not good enough. The Checkers improved in each of his three seasons as their GM. While that was good, Francis’ main job was with the Hurricanes. During his entire time working in their organization, the Canes made the playoffs just one time in 2009. Once. The frustrating thing is that most of those seasons were not so bad. A lot of seasons with points per game rates in the 1.0 or 1.1 range; indicating a team that can hang in the NHL but cannot pull themselves up to be competitive. It was during Francis’ tenure that the Canes became a seriously strong 5-on-5 team; their flaw was always something other than that holding them back. Special teams. Goaltending. Bad luck. Something. Since Francis never figured out enough of the issues to get them in the postseason, that was going hold Francis back. Dundon came in, presumably saw four straight playoff-less seasons following six before Francis, and so figured that changes were needed. Carolina is now seen as a contender and I think Francis deserves some credit for that. That all said, the lack of playoff appearances for Carolina - sorry, Charlotte - means I cannot say he “earned” this job. I will say I think he got a bit of a raw deal as the Canes made a run to the third round in the season after he was fired.
St. Louis - GM: Doug Armstrong, since July 2010
Armstrong is another long-term figure in the NHL and for Team Canada in international hockey. Armstrong joined the Minnesota North Stars and was named assistant GM as the team moved to Dallas. He served the AGM position as Dallas rose to prominence in the late 1990s with their Cup win in 1999 and their Cup Finals loss in 2000. A poor season by the Stars led to then GM Bob Gainey getting the axe during the 2001-02 season. Armstrong was promoted to the full-time position during the 2002 season. While the Stars missed the playoffs, the Stars proceeded to put up three 100+ point seasons and five straight playoff appearances under Armstrong’s time as GM. Unfortunately, playoff success did not come with that as the Stars only won one playoff series between 2002 and 2007. The Stars’ season in 2007-08 was going off the rails and, like Gainey before him, Armstrong was fired during the season. The Stars did recover enough to make the playoffs and had a run to the Western Conference Finals. Armstrong was not out of work for long. St. Louis picked him up as a Director of Player Personnel for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons. On July 1, 2010, St. Louis parted ways with long-time GM Larry Pleau and promoted Armstrong to the GM role. Pleau stated they were going to have a “heck of a general manager for a long time.” Armstrong is not only still their GM, but he is the GM of the one and only Cup win in Blues history.
Armstrong may be seen as another re-tread as he was given this GM job two seasons after being Dallas’ GM. While I can agree that the expectations in Dallas were likely higher than just being a playoff team given the peak years in 1999 and 2000, the Stars certainly were not a bad team under Armstrong. When a new GM takes over in the wake of a lack of success, one of the concerns is that things decline even faster. That did not happen under Armstrong in Dallas. And this does not consider his international management, which garnered two Silver and one Gold medals for Canada at World Championships from 2007 to 2009 and an Olympic Gold in 2010 (sigh). Even if it was a relatively quick turnaround, Armstrong earned another shot as a GM. It definitely worked out in St. Louis.
Tampa Bay - GM: Julien BriseBois, since September 2018
BriseBois picked up after Steve Yzerman left the GM position in Tampa Bay in 2018. While it may have seen like a bit of a surprise, BriseBois had been in management for quite some time. He started in Montreal as a Director of Hockey Operations for 2003-04 and 2005-06. His title changed to VP of Hockey Operations in 2006-07 and he became the GM of the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs starting in 2007-08. BriseBois left the Canadiens and joined Yzerman in Tampa Bay as an Assistant GM in 2010-11. BriseBois continued to oversee the franchise’s AHL team as the GM of Norfolk (2010-11 and 2011-12) and Syracuse (2012-13 to 2018-19). When Yzerman left, the decision was made to promote his assistant that also managed the franchise’s successful AHL team. Clearly, it was the right decision.
During BriseBois’ time in Montreal, the Canadiens were in an odd spot. Outside of a 104-point 2007-08 season, the Canadiens were the definition of good enough to get into the playoffs (2006-07 was a narrow miss) but not good enough to contend. The Hamilton Bulldogs won the Calder Cup before BriseBois took over, missed the playoffs in 2007-08, but rebounded with two big, 100+ point seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10. Tampa Bay did suffer and eventually improved in a major way under Yzerman, which BriseBois was there for and presumably at least somewhat involved in. The big crown jewel for BriseBois was his AHL management. Norfolk had a good 2010-11 and an awesome 2011-12 with a 49-win season and a Calder Cup. When Tampa Bay transitioned their affiliation to Syracuse, TampaCuse became a thing as players developed there stepped right into Tampa Bay and were able to contribute. Oh, and the teams were generally competitive with only two non-playoff seasons and two runs to the Calder Cup Finals. There was success in what BriseBois did, it made sense to promote him to replace Yzerman, and so he goes in the “earned” column.
Toronto - GM: Kyle Dubas, since May 2018
As described under Lou, Dubas was basically groomed for this position as part of a plan spearheaded by President Brendan Shanahan. That said, when Lou joined in 2015, Dubas did have some hockey management experience under his belt. From 2002-03 to 2005-06, he was a scout for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. After then, Dubas became a player agent. This lasted for some time, but he struggled to maintain clients so he went back into hockey management. He impressed the Soo Greyhound boards with a detailed plan such that they named them their GM in 2011. Over the next three seasons, they did improve. Toronto came calling and he joined the organization as an Assistant GM for the Maple Leafs and was given the GM position for the AHL Marlies. When Lou moved on, the plan was followed and Dubas became the Maple Leafs’ GM in May 2018. Whether you think he is doing well depends on your expectations for the Leafs.
It is easy to dismiss Dubas since he was basically set to be Toronto GM provided the Shanaplan did not fall apart. But there was legitmate success in the things Dubas did manage. The Greyhounds improved in every season since Dubas became GM, and did win their first playoff series since 2008 after a 95-point season in 2013-14. The Marlies had their best regular season ever in franchise history with a 54-win, 114 point in 2015-16, they were two points shy of that in 2017-18 as the Marlies won the Calder Cup. Two other playoff seasons surrounded those two seasons. As an assistant GM, he was part of the team that Lou sorted out to become the contending team (on paper) that they are today due to Dubas’ decisions since then. If there was no media-revealed plan to make Dubas a GM, these results at lower levels would be something to justify a shot at a bigger job. So I would say he is in the “earned” column even if it does not feel like it meets the spirit of the thing. I’m not a fan of spirits of rules.
Vancouver - GM: Jim Benning, since May 2014
Another GM of a Canadian team that receives plenty of criticism is Jim Benning. Interestingly, his long pre-GM career did not include any stops in Canada. He played there for Toronto and Vancouver. But nothing off the ice. Benning started as a scout in Anaheim’s first season in the NHL and then moved on to be a scout for Buffalo from 1994 to 1998. He was promoted to be the Sabres’ Director of Amateur Scouting from 1998 to 2006. He then transitioned to Boston and became a Director of Player Personal for 2006-07 and then an Assistant GM starting with the 2007-08 season. Vancouver hired him in 2014 to replace Mike Gillis, whom was fired after the Canucks were eliminated in the 2014 postseason. The Canucks have not exactly been good under Benning. Certainly a fall from where they were under Gillis. But he’s still there.
Benning certainly paid his dues and came up through a long time in player development. The Sabres’ drafts did vary under Benning, but they did find several players that would support Buffalo’s quick rise after the 2004-05 lockout season. As an AGM to then-GM Peter Chiarelli, he saw a great run by the Bruins. When he jointed the organization, the B’s made the playoffs after a two-season absence. In the following six seasons, he saw four 100+ point seasons, a Cup Finals loss in 2013, and a Cup win in 2011. If we are calling being an assistant GM for a winning team as a reason to promote someone as a GM, then Benning fits the bill. Why he is still the GM in Vancouver? Well, you would have to ask the Canucks owners that question.
(Las) Vegas - GM: Kelly McCrimmon, since May 2019
In the short life of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, Kelly McCrimmon is the second GM in the franchise’s history as original GM George McPhee reduced his role to just be the President of Hockey Operations role. The fact that McCrimmon is involved at all is a bit of a surprise. Unlike everyone else in the NHL, McCrimmon is the only one to own a major junior hockey team: the Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL. After his short playing career ended, McCrimmon became the GM and head coach in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, first with North Battleford and then with Lloydminster. He became an assistant coach of Brandon in 1988-89, GM and head coach in 1989-90, fired himself as head coach during 1991-92, and bought out a third of the franchise in 1992 while remaining as GM. McCrimmon became the sole owner in 2001. He remained in the WHL - and returned to the head coaching role from 2004-05 to 2010-11 and 2013-14 to 2015-16 - until the Golden Knights came along. McCrimmon still owned the Wheat Kings as he was McPhee’s Assistant GM from 2016-17 to 2018-19. Ahead of the 2019-20 season, McCrimmon became the GM in Las Vegas - and also sold the Wheat Kings to the J&G Group of Companies, led by Jared Jacobson.
The fact that McCrimmon spent so much time in junior hockey both as a manager and as an owner, he probably has a different perspective than a lot of others in NHL management. As a franchise in the WHL, Brandon often made the playoffs with just two misses as McCrimmon was owner. Brandon won two WHL Championships and 10 division titles in the season while producing plenty of players. Vegas hit the ground running in the NHL and McCrimmon was a part of that successful start as a part of management. Just as I gave credit to others who were AGMs for successful teams, you have to give it to McCrimmon. When McPhee stepped away from the role, McCrimmon was in a good position to be his replacement. I would say it was earned. Oh, and the Golden Knights are still a really good team.
Washington - GM: Brian MacLellan, since May 2014
Brian MacLellan played against Washington throughout his career as a player. As a staff member, all he knows are the Capitals. After a long period away from hockey, MacLellan joined the Caps as a scout for the 2000-01 season. After a break in 2003-04, MacLellan became a Director of Player Personnel for the Capitals in 2004-05. He remained in this role through the 2013-14. While serving it, MacLellan was named an Assistant GM for the 2009-10 season and served in that role the 2013-14 season. That 2013-14 season was a rough one for the Capitals as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Ownership responded by dismissing then-GM George McPhee (and head coach Adam Oates). MacLellan was tabbed as his replacement about a month later. A cynic may point out that MacLellan picked up after what McPhee did. However, I do not think that is really fair. In addition to the Cup, the Capitals responded to that 90-point season in 2013-14 with five straight 100+ point seasons and likely a sixth before COVID-19 ended the 2019-20 season. It takes good management to maintain success in a sport where players come and go real fast.
Did MacLellan earn this opportunity? Similar to Tom Fitzgerald, ownership fired the GM and then promoted his assistant of several seasons to do the job. That does not seem like the smartest of ideas. However, un-similar to Fitzgerald, the Capitals were an actually good team as MacLellan was an AGM. The Capitals set a franchise high in standing points in 2009-10 with 121. Other than that 2013-14 season, the Capitals consistently made the playoffs and their high-scoring ways made them a contender at least on paper. The lack of playoff success plus that 2013-14 rollercoaster cost McPhee his job. It was not a case of an AGM of a failed re-build getting a shot to re-do it. It was justifiable to give MacLellan this opportunity because the teams were good just not great. Story of the Caps until 2018. Just ask Poile.
Winnipeg - GM: Kevin Cheveldayoff, since June 2011
When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg to revive the Jets, the organization cleaned house. Gone were Don Waddell and Rick Dudley. Kevin Cheveldayoff was named the team’s new GM and Executive VP of Hockey Operations on June 8, 2011. He remains as the Jets’ only GM and Executive VP of Hockey Operations. What he did before then involved a lot of time in Chicago - mostly with the IHL/AHL Wolves. After calling it a playing career, he jumped right into coaching as the assistant coach over the IHL’s Denver Grizzlies in 1994- 95. They moved to Utah for 1995-96 and 1996-97. Cheveldayoff moved to Chicago to become the GM of the Wolves for the 1997-98 season. He remained there until the 2008-09 season, overseeing the team’s transition from the IHL to the AHL. The only thing that would have ended that minor league run would be a call up. The Blackhawks provided it by naming him an Assistant GM to Stan Bowman for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. After those two seasons, True North came calling and Cheveldayoff got his chance to be a NHL GM.
Success in the minors does not necessarily mean success in the majors. However, the point of these really long pair of posts is to see if the current GMs at least had any success. Cheveldayoff absolutely did. As an assistant coach, the Grizzlies won two Turner Cups (the IHL championship) and made it to the playoffs in the third season. (Aside: The Denver Grizzlies went 57-18-6 in 1994-95, which is remarkable for a first season team.) As a GM of the Wolves in the IHL, Chicago won two Turner Cups, went to the conference finals in 1999, lost in the final Turner Cup finals series in 2001, and won 200 out of 328 of the franchise’s final four seasons in the IHL. When the Wolves moved to the AHL, they won the Calder Cup in 2002 and continued to be a strong team with just one playoff-less season, another Calder Cup Final appearance in 2005, and a Calder Cup in 2008. Was he loved? Absolutely. Cheveldayoff has a banner in his honor at the Allstate Arena. As an AGM, Chicago won a Cup in 2010 and made the playoffs in 2010-11. Cheveldayoff has had loads of success before the Jets named him. He definitely earned his GM position.
For Part 2, I found 13 GMs that had enough success in their previous positions that, on the surface at least, would warrant a shot at their current GM role. I tabbed Ron Francis, Ron Hextall, and Chris Drury as the exceptions. I could be talked into adding Chuck Fletcher to make it 12-4. But I will leave it at 13-3 for Part 2. That makes a total of 25-6-1 with Adams being the real odd one out. 25 out of 32 is a clear majority of the league’s GMs that was a part of and/or achieved success with a team before their current position.
This means that Carl is right. The majority of the GMs in this league really did not fail their way up the chain or just get the position due to some other connection. The only GMs in the league right now that really had no or very limited experience in hockey management are Kevyn Adams and Joe Sakic. Sakic had the least, but has certainly proven himself in the last seven years in Colorado. Adams is a result of Buffalo’s current mess of ownership. Even those I did not tab as people who were successful prior to their GM job, like Tom Fitzgerald, often had several years of experience as an Assistant GM, a Director of Player Personnel, a Director of Hockey Operations, and/or GM of a minor league affiliate. Even if you prefer experience over this admittedly shallow look at records equaling success to “earn” this job, then the difference between the have-had-its to have-nots is even starker. The GMs that one could call a re-tread really were not just given a job because they were available except for maybe Francis - and that was a situation created by Carolina’s owner. They either got a raw deal or did not meet expectations, but found and more than proved their worth elsewhere.
However, as I noted in Part 1, there are definite signs of the “old boys network” at play here. Just as in Part 1, a lot of these GMs are former players. Some were known names in their day, others were more depth players, and others still had only a little experience. But it was common that after they retired, they would get a position in an organization. Some were low level like scout, others were higher up like a Director or even an Assistant GM position. It was rare to find someone on this list that did not play pro hockey. McCrimmon and Dubas were the only ones in this post with any notable junior experience as a staffer, which I honestly expected more of given its prevalence in the North American game. The root seems to be more about getting involved in hockey operations or scouting to begin with. Should owners, team Presidents, or GMs want to see different faces or perspectives, then there would be where to start to make changes. That stated, I do not think discouraging ex-players entirely could be bad since some of the best GMs in the league right now went through that path too. But “opening” up hockey management to include different perspectives is never a bad thing and the place to start is with the positions where ex-players tend to start in management.
And that is up to whoever is really in charge in the organization. As a point I did not make in Part 1, every organization is different in terms of who is in actual control. Ultimately, the owner has the most power. It is their team. But not every owner is or wants to be directly involved a lot of the time. So they may work through a team President or a group. Or leave it entirely up to the the President. It is a bit different from franchise to franchise, and that may also explain some of the decision process in naming their current GM. For example, Chris Drury was moved up because James Dolan (gratefully) intervened and wanted a GM to do what he wished, which fortunately is to undercut what Jeff Gorton was building. Was Drury particularly successful as an AGM? Not really as New York has been re-building and Hartford certainly did not put anyone on notice in the AHL. But what the owner wants is what they typically get. And circumstances may call for someone who is willing to do what they want, or someone experienced so the owner can stay detached instead of getting involved in a league they may not be familiar with. This is another factor in terms of why a lot of the GMs in the league seem similar.
Likewise, every role is not necessarily the same in every organization. Some of the AGMs were also GMs of the minor league affiliate. Some were not. Some AGMs are heavily involved in making decisions with the GM. Some may be there just to for occasional feedback but not necessarily with any real power. This also applies to Directors of Player Personnel or Directors of Hockey Operations and similar. It is vague as to whether they are heavily involved in day-to-day decisions or if they are just in the room. But it is clear they are a part of the organization and several of the GMs in the league had such positions in addition to being an AGM or before becoming one. Unless there is inside information made public, we do not know how much the other positions entail.
Regardless based on who has these jobs now, the pathway to become one is usually long. In the majority of organizations, the current GMs have multiple seasons of experience in being in the front office elsewhere and in other positions. Some have found it through scouting, others with dealing with player personnel, and others still with assisting a current GM. It helps to be from a successful organization. It really helps to gain the favor of whoever makes the call; for example, Kyle Dubas impressed Shanahan so much in 2014 to form the Shanaplan, then Calgary President Brian Burke focused solely on Treliving in Calgary. But Carl’s first point is true. The majority of the GMs in the league did not fail their way up to their powerful position. The majority had team success and/or improvement prior to their appointment. And almost all of them have had multiple seasons of front office experience before doing so.
Carl’s second point about the position being more complex is also mostly true, but that is worthy of another post. Let’s say for next Sunday.
In the interim, thank you to Carl for providing the inspiration for a set of posts that went a lot deeper than I initially anticipated. It was a good exercise and it taught me more about the background of the league’s GMs than perception would suggest. I want to thank you, the People Who Matter, if you made it this far without just skipping to the end. This was a lot to digest and I hope you learned a lot too. Please share what you’ve learned, opinions about GMs in general, how they got their jobs, and more in the comments. Thank you for reading.