Down Goes Brown: 12 NHL GMs under the most deadline pressure

NHL insider Renaud Lavoie makes a strong case for the Maple Leafs to target big, tough defenceman Erik Gudbranson from the Canucks at the deadline.

We’re less than three weeks away from the trade deadline, which means GMs around the league are huddling with their scouts, putting together their wish lists, and working the phones. But which ones are under the most pressure as the clock ticks down?

The short answer, of course, is “all of them.” Nobody gets to take the month off when the deadline is closing in, and every team will be expected to do something. Even minor moves can make or break a team’s hopes, so all 31 GMs are feeling the heat.

But that heat isn’t the same for everyone. I’m sure George McPhee wants to make the right moves for his Golden Knights, but he’s basically playing with house money at this point. But other GMs around the league aren’t so lucky. In some cases, their jobs may be on the line. In others, the short or even long-term future of their teams are at stake.

That’s not fun for the GMs. But it’s fun for us as fans, as we wait to see how (or if) they can maneuver their way through the coming weeks. So today, let’s pick out a dozen GMs who are facing the most pressure over the next few days and weeks, and count them down as the temperature climbs up.

12. John Chayka, Coyotes

The league’s youngest GM is watching his team stumble through a disastrous season. Normally that would be a recipe for a high-pressure deadline as he faced down the need to salvage some sort of value out of a nightmare year.

But the Coyotes aren’t a team with any obvious rentals in play. That’s too bad, because Chayka did a great job on last year’s Martin Hanzal trade. This year’s roster doesn’t seem like it will yield any similar opportunities, short of an unexpected move involving Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Chayka is already managing expectations towards a quiet deadline. That will make for a relatively low-pressure February compared to a typical last-place team. His off-season might be a different story.

11. Jim Rutherford, Penguins

Rutherford’s a good example of the difference between being under pressure and being on the hot seat. While there’s obviously a big overlap between those two categories, Rutherford’s a guy who could sit back and watch his team crash and burn without being in any danger of losing his job. Two consecutive Cup rings will do that for a guy.

But you know what’s better than two straight Cups? Three straight. That’s the opportunity Rutherford and the Penguins have, and it’s one that nobody’s managed to pull off in almost 35 years. Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers, Mario Lemieux’s Penguins, Steve Yzerman’s Red Wings… they all managed two straight titles, but couldn’t three-peat. The Pens have a chance, and lately they’ve finally started looking the part. But they still have their share of holes, and reinforcements would help.

We’ve been hearing all year that Rutherford was working on something big. With the opportunity at achieving genuine dynasty status sitting right in front of him, it’s going to be tempting to do everything he can to give his team its best shot.

10. Ron Francis, Hurricanes

Here are two words that always bring the pressure for an NHL GM: “playoff drought.” Here are two more: “new owner.” Francis checks both boxes, with a league-leading eight-season absence from the post-season and a new owner in Tom Dundon who probably wouldn’t like to see that continue. In theory, that should be keeping Francis awake at night.

But, of course, this isn’t an ordinary situation. Francis isn’t just the GM; he’s the best player the team has ever had. Even if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs yet again, is an owner who’s been embracing the team’s history really going to fire a guy who was literally nicknamed “Ronnie Franchise”? It feels unlikely. But would he boot him upstairs to bring in new blood? Francis may prefer not to find out.

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9. Stan Bowman, Blackhawks

Most of the GMs on this list are under pressure because of what they need to do. Bowman is here because of what he needs to avoid.  The Blackhawks are all but done, sitting seven points out of a wild-card spot with four teams to pass. Trading future assets for help right now in hopes of a miracle playoff push would be the wrong move (especially since it’s been the youth that’s been leading the way this year).

That’s easy enough to see from the outside. But inside an organization that’s used to winning, the pull to deny reality will be strong. Bowman’s job is to ignore that temptation and do what’s right for the long-term. But he may take some heat for doing so.

8. Brad Treliving, Flames

You can’t accuse Treliving of being afraid to make a deal; the Flames have been among the league’s more aggressive traders in recent years. Some of those, like Mike Smith and Dougie Hamilton, have worked. Others, like Travis Hamonic and Curtis Lazar, haven’t paid off yet. But at least the Flames have a guy who’s willing to pull the trigger.

What they don’t have, at least with any degree of confidence, is a playoff spot locked down. Missing the post-season would feel like a major failure for a team with this much talent, so Treliving will be under the spotlight as he works to bring in reinforcements. That probably doesn’t mean pulling off another blockbuster, but a depth move or three should probably be on the way.

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7. Jason Botterill, Sabres

Botterill’s only been on the job since last May, so he’s not in any real danger of being fired. Bu there are different kids of deadline pressure. There’s “save your job” pressure, sure. There’s “win the Stanley Cup” pressure, too. But there’s also “please give this godforsaken fan base one minor thing to be happy about for the first time in years” pressure. That’s the kind Botterill is facing right now. And I’m not sure I like his odds.

The good news is that he does have some cards to play. The most important is probably Evander Kane, who’s among the best forwards available. He’s also one of the riskiest names on the market, which complicates things. Mix in finding a market for Benoit Pouliot or Zemgus Girgensons, and maybe figuring out what to do with Sam Reinhart, and Botterill’s got his work cut out for him.

And he’s got to do it in front of a fan base that’s, to put it kindly, getting impatient. Now that the Bills went and reminded the city that the post-season is a thing that exists, Sabres fans want to see some progress, too. Nobody’s expecting Botterill to fix this team in three weeks. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Sabres fans know it. But they’d sure like to see some indication that somebody in this organization at least knows where the hammer is.

6. Pierre Dorion, Senators

Dorion has a struggling roster, an impatient owner, and a fan base crying out for changes. He’s still relatively new at the job, and has already made one blockbuster this year that’s (so far) been a dud. He could use a deadline win or two to dial down the heat.

And that’s before we even factor in Erik Karlsson. Dorion probably won’t trade the star blue-liner this month, but he may have to consider it in the summer, and that means laying at least some of the groundwork right now.

Rebuilding on the fly is tough. Setting the stage for a possible franchise-altering trade is tough. Doing both at the same time? Good luck, Pierre.

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5. Peter Chiarelli, Oilers

You were probably expecting to see Chiarelli a little higher on the list. To be honest, I was, too. The Oilers’ season has been a disaster, and Edmonton feels like a franchise that’s about to undergo some major changes. It wouldn’t shock anyone if Chiarelli wasn’t this team’s GM heading into opening night next season.

So sure, his seat is about as hot as they come. The question is how much he can really do about it between now and Feb. 26. The Oilers are too far back to be buyers, but they’re not in the traditional sellers’ position of having a bunch of veterans to offer. Trading Mark Letestu or Patrick Maroon probably makes sense, but those deals aren’t going to move the job-security needle all that much.

In a perfect world, Chiarelli could offload some long-term contracts, or even make an old-fashioned hockey trade that made the team better now and down the road. (A healthy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would have helped in that department.) But right now this is a team with a long list of problems, and not many seem like ones that can be fixed with mid-season moves. I’m betting Chiarelli would happily take on more pressure if it meant having more options, but right now his best path might be staying the course and then hoping he gets another shot in the off-season.

4. Garth Snow, Islanders

Snow is in his 12th season on the job, has only won a single playoff round as a GM, and still doesn’t have John Tavares signed. Mix in relatively new ownership and a team that’s barely hanging onto a wild-card spot, and in theory his seat should be red hot by now.

And yet somehow, Snow always seems to find a way to stick around; only David Poile, Ken Holland and Doug Wilson have been on the job longer. The mystery of his seemingly unassailable job security has been an ongoing subplot for years, but maybe it’s as simple as him being really good at selling a long-term vision for the future.

If so, it seems to work on owners; soon we’ll see how well it works on Tavares.

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Honourable mentions
Before we get to the top three, let’s cover off some quick “Hey, but what about…” cases.

Jim Benning, Canucks: Is his job on the line heading into the off-season? Maybe, but his actual deadline work seems relatively straightforward: Get as much as possible for Thomas Vanek and Erik Gudbranson. Those aren’t the sort of moves that get a GM fired — or save his job.

Ken Holland, Red Wings: Holland’s in a similar spot as Benning, although with a slightly bigger trade chip in Mike Green. Still, after 20 years on the job, the betting here is that Holland’s fate is pretty much already decided.

Brian MacLellan, Capitals: He went big last year, and it didn’t work. Does he have the appetite to try again?

Doug Armstrong, Blues: With the Blues fading slightly, Armstrong may need to make a move. They’ve been tied to some of the bigger names, so there’s a case for finding a spot for Armstrong on this list somewhere.

Bob Murray, Ducks: He’s been on the job a long time, and a playoff miss could be trouble. But his cap situation limits his options, and all those early-season injuries might buy him some benefit of the doubt.

Steve Yzerman, Lightning: In theory, he should be in good shape. But with the Lightning looking a little off lately, another rough week or two could complicate things.

Kevin Cheveldayoff, Jets: Cheveldayoff’s reluctance to make major trades is well-known — he’s really made only one blockbuster in nearly seven years on the job. On the other hand, you look at the Jets’ roster, and you wonder what exactly he’s supposed to do. There aren’t any obvious holes here, and the imminent return of Mark Scheifele means the team is already getting a major February upgrade. But if a team like the Predators or Blues make a major move, the pressure on Cheveldayoff could ratchet up quickly.

Pretty much anyone else on the playoff bubble: Doug Wilson, Jarmo Kekalainen, Ron Hextall, Jim Nill…. It won’t be an easy few weeks for any of them. But at least they can be glad they’re not one of these next three guys.

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3. Chuck Fletcher, Wild

It’s not all that hard to add up the pieces here. Fletcher is one of the half-dozen longest-tenured GMs in the league, his team has never made it out of the second round, and he’s already played his coach card relatively recently. Despite a roster packed with veterans and tight against the cap, his team is part of a major Western traffic jam for the final wild-card spot. Oh, and he’s reportedly in the final year of his contract.

So yeah, Fletcher would seem like a guy who needs to make some kind of splash at the deadline. To complicate matters even further, he made a major deal least year that didn’t really pan out. So he can’t afford to fail, but he can’t afford to sit out. That’s not a fun position for a GM to find himself in.

2. Jeff Gorton, Rangers

On paper, the Rangers look like a classic deadline buyer. The roster is built to win now, including a 35-year-old franchise goalie, and they’re close enough to a wild-card spot that they could fool themselves into thinking they’ve still got a chance at a championship.

But according to reports, Gorton is ready to head in the opposite direction. That’s probably smart — the Rangers aren’t all that close to being genuine contenders, and sacrificing a piece of the future just to sneak into the playoffs won’t help them get there. With attractive bait like Rick Nash, Michael Grabner and (maybe) Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello in what’s shaping up as a seller’s market, Gorton has a chance to set the Rangers up in a strong position that will pay off down the line.

Which is great… for down the line. For now, Gorton would be taking the unusual approach of waving a white flag in a league where fans are used to seeing even quasi-contenders vow to go down swinging. Again, he’s probably right. But it’s a risky move, and if he can’t haul in big returns for his top names, he’s going to hear all about it.

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1. Marc Bergevin, Canadiens

I’m sure the suspense was killing you, but Bergevin takes the top spot in our countdown. His team is limping through another disappointing season, and this time it can’t all be chalked up to injuries or bad luck. The core that Bergevin spent the last six years building just doesn’t seem to be good enough. Now the question is whether he even gets a chance to fix it.

We can all rhyme off the other questions facing Bergevin and the Canadiens. Where’s the top-line centre they’ve been chasing for years? What do you do with Alex Galchenyuk? Don’t you at least have to consider moving Shea Weber? Was the Carey Price extension a mistake? If so, is there anything you can do about it now?

And then there’s Max Pacioretty, who feels like a guy they almost have to trade now. Reports say the asking price is high, and it should be. But after over a month of shopping his captain, Bergevin almost has to hit a home run here.

Montreal’s a tough market at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Bergevin is facing a massive to-do list, and a fan base that isn’t sure he’s up to the job. He almost certainly needs to make a big move or two. But if you get those kinds of deals wrong, they can haunt you.

On that note, P.K. Subban and the Predators are in town on Saturday. Sometimes, when you’re a GM under the gun, even the schedule-maker seems to be working against you.

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