The general manager position is easily one of the most difficult jobs in hockey. GM’s have to build a winning hockey team, and then find a way to maintain that success to become a perennial winner. All of that has to be done while steering clear of cap issues, fan complaints and media attacks.
It also happens to be a very difficult job to critique. Any analysis of a GM is only really done with hindsight. For example, we can criticize Randy Sexton for drafting Alexandre Daigle in 1993, but at the time he’s picking a sure-fire prospect. Can we really fault a GM for signing a star free agent who ends up crashing and burning? Or what about a trade that, down the road, goes awry?
Just look at the excitement in Toronto when the Maple Leafs signed David Clarkson. It turned into a disaster, but you can’t argue the hype that was created by this one free agent. But thanks to revisionist history, Toronto GM Dave Nonis was out of control.
One of the worst awards in hockey is the GM of the Year Award because it doesn’t really reward the best GM of that year. Sure, the Rangers had a great roster this season that earned them the Presidents’ Trophy. But doesn’t that mean that most of the great work that Glen Sather did to put this team together predates his GM of the Year nomination. You can even argue that some of Sather’s work in the past calendar year has been detrimental to the team (letting Anton Stralman walk, signing Marc Staal for another 6 years, etc.). It’s not shocking to find out that two of the previous five winners of the “GM of the Year” award have been fired within three years after they won.
On the other hand, sometimes GM’s get negative press when they’re really doing a good job.
So was the case with New York Islanders GM Garth Snow. Snow was regarded as one of the worst general managers in the league not too long ago but, as we can see now, that was merely a reflection of how the team was performing on the ice at that time. Now the Islanders have one of the most talented rosters in the league and their stock continues to rise. So while Snow was getting criticized for his terrible job, he was meticulously planning for the future and now the Islanders are in a great position.
The GM’s best work doesn’t necessarily occur when the team is at it’s best. They have to work hard to lay a solid foundation for the team to grow and only a few seasons later can they truly reap what they sow.
The Trade Deadline
One time a year that GM’s must really hate is the trade deadline. Fans of the team recognise where their roster is lacking and pressure the GM to make a move to fix up any hole his team might have. If a GM doesn’t make a move, his inactivity will be lambasted relentlessly. As far as anyone’s concerned, the GM should do whatever it takes to get his team as far into the playoffs as possible. And any time an opportunity to strengthen the lineup is passed over, hoo boy, forget about it.
But how far should a general manager go to bolster his roster for the playoff run. Every year we see players who get overvalued at the deadline because a lot of teams are looking for a third line centre or because teams really need a right-handed defenceman. Should the team give up the proverbial arm and leg to acquire those assets? Teams try to ship off their pending unrestricted free agents and teams in contention swarm these players for their services.
But how does one evaluate these trade deadline “rentals”? Can we ask Minnesota if two and a half months worth of Chris Stewart was worth the second round draft pick? Stewart notched 11 points in his 20 regular season appearances for the Wild but only totaled 2 assists in 8 playoff games before a separated shoulder finished his season. He didn’t play his best hockey and his 38.33% Corsi rating wasn’t very pretty.
For the New York Rangers, many suggest that their window is rapidly closing and they went all in this season by trading an impressive chunk of their future for defenceman Keith Yandle (and Chris Summers and a 4th round pick). They sent the Arizona Coyotes a couple of draft picks and defenceman John Moore but the centrepiece of this trade for Arizona was highly touted rookie Anthony Duclair. This bold move mirrored their all-in trade the previous season when they brought in Martin St. Louis for Ryan Callahan and two first round picks (2014 and 2015). Martin St. Louis’ inspirational play last season sparked the Rangers and propelled them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to the Kings. This year Yandle played some good hockey in the playoffs and really found his stride in the series against Tampa. He skated to a Corsi rating of 53.3% and had 11 points in 19 games, which was good for 4th on the team in scoring.
But the Rangers effectively gave up a treasure chest of assets in consecutive seasons and they have approximately 0 Stanley Cups to show for it.
Rangers sent two first-rounders to Lightning last season for St. Louis (plus Cally). Now send 2016 first-rounder away. Better win now.
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossNewsday) March 1, 2015
So do we look at these blockbuster trade deadline trades by the Rangers as utter failures because they couldn’t win the Cup? Or were a Cup Final appearance and Conference Final appearance good enough?
The Chicago Blackhawks this year had a couple of interesting trade deadline rentals that are showing varying results. First they got pending UFA Kimmo Timonen from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a second round draft pick and a conditional fourth round pick. At the time, it seemed like an okay move. Chicago shored up their D with a reliable veteran with experience in big games. Now, we see that Chicago gave away a high draft pick for a 39-year-old defenceman who didn’t play a single game this season (before the trade) because of a blood clot. Timonen’s been dreadful for Chicago this postseason and is currently watching games from the press box as Kyle Cumiskey and David Rundblad skate 5 minutes a night as Chicago’s 3rd defensive pairing.
Chicago’s other move was bringing in centre (and pending UFA) Antoine Vermette for defensive prospect Klas Dahlbeck and a first round pick in this year’s draft.
Vermette was invisible finishing the regular season in Chicago and ultimately (briefly) played himself out of the lineup in the third round series against the Anaheim Ducks. Vermette won over Hawks fans everywhere the following game when he scored the game winning goal in double overtime. Then he scored the game winning goal in the first game of the Stanley Cup Final in Tampa Bay. With just those 2 goals, it’s conceivable to think that Vermette was worth the hefty price at the deadline. But will Hawks fans still feel that way if they don’t end up winning the Cup?
How to Judge Deadline Trades
Only 1 team can win the Stanley Cup. That’s a fact. 29 out of 30 teams will not.
Can we claim that every team who falls short of Lord Stanley’s chalice didn’t do enough at the trade deadline to win it all?
Well, we do and it’s kinda dumb.
Last year there were 20 trades at the trade deadline. The Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings made a couple of splashes but you can’t look at all of the other trades by teams in contention and label them as failures. The name of the game is getting yourself in a position to win the Stanley Cup and the reason that fans are so interested in the trade deadline is because they like seeing their team doing everything in their power to make a push for the Cup. For a Ranger fan to criticize Glen Sather for the Keith Yandle trade for being too nearsighted, well, the Stanley Cup was within his sight and the move was made in order to achieve that goal.
Sure, it’s fun to look back and see where GM’s screwed up. But as long as they’re putting their team in the best possible position to win the Cup, they’re doing their job.
Joseph is a Jersey native and has been a hockey fan since he entered this world in 1995. He started his own hockey blog in high school and has been posting his thoughts on the game ever since. He has a really neat Twitter account.