NHL’s Top 5 General Managers of the Decade

The shelf life of an NHL general manager may admittedly be longer than that of a head coach, but it’s still a largely thankless job. After all, it may be a few seasons of laying groundwork, building a contender before a truly good GM first tastes success in the win-loss column… and gets the props that comes with it.

It’s in large part why the NHL General Manager of the Year Award is meaningless. However, assessing the effectiveness of individual GMs over the course of an entire decade? Much more accurate.  

Further proof NHL GMs have it tough? Six different franchises won Stanley Cups over the course of the last decade. Only the team with three of them, the Chicago Blackhawks, didn’t change GMs at some point over the previous 10 seasons, starting at the midway point of 2009-2010.

Obviously, the GM in question, Stan Bowman, made this list of the five best of the 2010s, but where does he rank? Probably not where you might think.

5. Dean Lombardi (Los Angeles Kings)

Tenure: April 21, 2006 – April 10, 2017

Dean Lombardi’s Los Angeles Kings may not have won three championships, but they did tie for second place with two during the decade. As a result, Lombardi could only place as low as No. 5 here, even if he was let go three seasons ago. If it’s any consolation, Lombardi did last over a decade in his position… just not the decade that matters most for this list’s purposes.

Dean Lombardi
Ex-Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi – Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Lombardi’s achievements should be abundantly clear: He took a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in three seasons and eventually transformed it into a perennial Western Conference powerhouse.

In fact, Lombardi’s tenure is consistent with the career arc of what most would consider an accomplished GM. The Kings bottomed out when he arrived for 2006-07. They increased their point totals in the standings each season before making the playoffs for the first time under him in 2010. The rest is history.

Unfortunately, they’ve since bottomed out again. While a great deal of responsibility for their inability to sustain success falls on successor Rob Blake, Lombardi himself couldn’t adapt fast enough. His mis-management of the Slava Voynov situation and his inability to replace him and rebuild the defense as a whole is what did him in.

4. David Poile (Nashville Predators)

Tenure: July 9, 1997 –

Nashville Predators GM David Poile is the longest-tenured GM on this list (and in the NHL). The only GM the one-time-expansion Predators have ever known, Poile helped the Predators hit new heights this decade largely on the strength of the immensely controversial Shea Weber trade for P.K. Subban.

David Poile, Nashville Predators, NHL
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile – (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The ensuing 2016-17 season marked the first time the Predators made it out of the second round of the playoffs (and the third round too, to reach the Stanley Cup Final). The two seasons after that? They won the Central Division each time, which they had never accomplished before.

Poile may be a bit of a surprise pick here, seeing as the Predators didn’t win a single championship this decade (or at all). However, Poile’s success at the position is undeniable, as he is now the GM with the most wins in league history. Seeing as this decade was arguably his most successful, he’s more than earned a spot on this list.

3. Jim Rutherford (Pittsburgh Penguins)

Tenure: June 6, 2014 –

It’s admittedly a tad of recency bias, why Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford ranks higher than Lombardi, despite both winning two Stanley Cups these past 10 years. The simple fact of the matter is Rutherford is still employed, while Lombardi is not.

Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford
Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford – (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

More than that, unlike the Kings, the Penguins continue to enjoy success year after year, enjoying the league’s current longest postseason-appearance streak. Granted, that’s largely on the strength of the drafting of his predecessors, as the Penguins haven’t missed the playoffs since 2006 thanks to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Nevertheless, Rutherford was able to get the Penguins over the hump Ray Shero couldn’t as the team’s GM of a perennially underachieving team before him. The two consecutive Stanley Cups marks the first time a team has accomplished the feat since the Detroit Red Wings did in 1997-98.

So, why only No. 3? Rutherford has in fact been employed as a GM the entire decade. However, it’s only after he resigned as GM of the Hurricanes in 2014 that he began to head up the Penguins. Prior to that, the Hurricanes had failed to make the playoffs since the start of the decade… a streak that only got snapped this past spring and a streak for which Rutherford was to blame.

2. Stan Bowman (Chicago Blackhawks)

Tenure: June 14, 2019 –

With similar regard to recency bias, it’s hard to give Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman too much credit for the three Stanley Cups he’s won. Obviously, you can’t disregard the championships altogether. Hence, the No. 2 spot on the list of the best GMs of the decade.

Chicago Blackhawks Stan Bowman
Stan Bowman – (AP Photo/Amr Alfiky)

However, the Blackhawks are poised to miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season in 2019-20. Bowman’s job could be on the line as a result of salary-cap mismanagement to the point they’re in trouble in spite of long-term-injured-reserve relief with regard to the contracts of Brent Seabrook, Calvin De Haan, Andrew Shaw (and Drake Caggiula). It seems years of short-term thinking and doling out ill-advised deals has arguably caught up to Bowman.

There’s no disputing Bowman has delivered. However, when you consider how the team with which he won his Cups was arguably engineered by his predecessors and how his draft record has been spotty at best, Bowman’s own successes can only take him so far. Bowman is a great GM, but, as far as building a team from the ground up to enjoy sustained success goes, he can’t be considered the best.

1. Doug Wilson (San Jose Sharks)

Tenure: May 13, 2003 –

Putting aside championships for a second, it’s hard to dispute the degree of success Doug Wilson has had as GM of the San Jose Sharks. He’s only missed the playoffs once, in 2014-15, a season in which the Sharks still technically owned a winning 40-33-9 record. Seeing as his tenure dates back to the start of the last decade, when he took over for Lombardi in 2003, that’s impressive.

The Sharks then followed that disappointing 2014-15 season up with a Stanley Cup Final berth. Admittedly, it was their first-ever appearance and they lost (to the Penguins), but lines get blurred between what constitutes success and failure as a GM in that regard, seeing as Wilson’s teams remain in contention every season.

Doug Wilson San Jose Sharks Ken Holland Edmonton Oilers
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson and Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland – (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

The way this season is going and Wilson’s inability to fix his team’s current goaltending notwithstanding, Wilson’s inclusion in this list cannot be disputed. After all, few would argue Poile does not belong, as the GM with the most wins in league history. It just so happens Wilson has actually accomplished more this decade.

Each has two division titles and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Wilson has more playoff appearances, more trips to the second round or further (six vs. five) and, simply put, more wins (441 vs. 422) in the regular season up to this point (excluding 2019-20 totals). In fact, Wilson has more regular-season wins this decade than anyone else on this list, Bowman included (437).

The consistency is why Wilson has never won the aforementioned General Manager of the Year Award. It’s never a surprise his team is in the hunt and, quite honestly, it won’t be a surprise when the Sharks do win it all. That title unfortunately won’t come this decade, but, for what it’s worth, at least some recognition has.