Down Goes Brown: Assessing the outsized NHL GM class of 2014

Milan Lucic throws out a couple of crushing hits while his Oiler teammates do much of the same in this edition of the hits of the week.

Hockey fans love to review, rank and debate draft classes. Is this year’s any good? Was 2003 better than 1979? How does the Oilers’ class of 1980 hold up against the Red Wings’ haul in 1989?

But what about the guys who make those draft picks? Each year also brings a new class of NHL GMs, and like draft picks, some years are better than others. This off-season is shaping up to be a busy one in that regard, with plenty of GMs on the hot seat and the possibility of some major changes around NHL front offices.

With that in mind, it seems like a good time to look back at the 2014 off-season that saw eight teams anoint a new GM. According to the archives over at NHL Trade Tracker, that was the busiest single year of turnover since 2006, which was the year a bunch of NHL teams realized that the new post-lockout rules would require some fresh thinking. Other high-turnover years include 2000 (eight new GMs), 1997 (nine, including the expansion Predators), 1994 (eight) and 1974 (nine, including the expansion Scouts and Capitals).

Why was 2014 so busy? It’s hard to say, although history shows that the years immediately before and after lockouts tend to bring significant change to NHL front offices. The 2013 class had been busy in its own right, with six changes, and seven if you count coach Patrick Roy being briefly slotted in ahead of Greg Sherman on the Avs’ org chart. But the years before had been unusually stable, with just one new GM each in 2011 and 2012, so there was some pent-up demand for change. That feels a little like the situation right now, with only six GM changes (including the first hire for the expansion Golden Knights) since July 2015. That’s not quite as extreme as the situation heading into 2013 and 2014, but it’s not far off, so we could be in for a rocky few months ahead.

Of those eight GMs hired in 2014, seven are still on the job. (We pause here to sadly pour one out for Tim Murray.) But the clock may be ticking on them. We often say that a new GM deserves five years to implement a plan, and the Class of 2014 is about to head into year five. And history suggests that we should expect at least a few to not even make it that far – from that busy class of 2013, only Jim Nill and Jarmo Kekalainen are still employed.

So which of the 2014 GMs is in the most danger of not making it to 2019? And who’s got the best shot of being remembered as the class of the, uh, class? Let’s run through the seven names and see if we can figure it out.

Jim Benning, Canucks

The hiring: After missing the playoffs and firing Mike Gillis at the end of the season, the Canucks hired Benning away from the Boston Bruins, where he’d served as assistant GM, on May 21.

Record since: 133-142-36, one playoff appearance

Best moves: Benning came into the job with a reputation for drafting well, and he’s largely lived up to that. Getting Brock Boeser 23rd overall in 2015 was a major win, and 2017 fifth-overall pick Elias Pettersson looks like the real deal. Benning also landed a good prospect from Ottawa for the husk of Alex Burrows, and turned Sven Baertschi into a reasonably successful reclamation project from the Flames.

Worst moves: Given Benning’s image as a draft guru, 2016 pick Olli Juolevi looks like a miss. Worse, the Loui Eriksson signing felt like a flat-out disaster from day one. But the biggest objection to Benning’s tenure in Vancouver is probably the moves he didn’t make. From rarely acquiring draft picks to re-signing Erik Gudbranson to holding onto Chris Tanev, Benning hasn’t tried for the sort of full-scale teardown many fans seem to want to see.

Current outlook: A lot better than it was a month ago, thanks to the three-year extension he signed in February. That move came as a bit of a surprise, with the team on track to finish in the bottom five for the third straight year. Rebuilds take time, sure, but often it doesn’t seem like Benning knows the Canucks are rebuilding.

Odds of seeing 2019: Excellent. The importance of GM extensions can be overstated – remember when Dave Nonis got a five-year deal in 2013, Leafs fans freaked out, and then he was gone less than two years later? – but the vote of confidence from ownership and Trevor Linden means Benning will make it to the new year. Will he see his five-year anniversary in May? That looks likely, too, but another year without progress could call it into question.

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Jim Rutherford, Penguins

The hiring: The Penguins hired Rutherford on June 6, replacing Ray Shero. The move came as a minor surprise; Rutherford had just finished a 20-year stint as GM in Carolina and Hartford, a role he’d relinquished in April.

Record since: 178-99-35, three playoff appearances, two Stanley Cup wins (and counting). He was also named GM of the Year in 2016.

Best moves: Rutherford’s been one of the league’s most active traders since taking the job, with far more hits than misses. Trades for Nick Bonino and Justin Schultz worked out well, and Rutherford managed to stickhandle through the Marc-Andre Fleury expansion dilemma. But his biggest and best trade was landing Phil Kessel in 2015, a move that paid off with 45 points in two Cup-winning playoff runs.

Worst moves: He was criticized for the James Neal trade at the time, although Patric Hornqvist has worked out well. More recently, moving a first-round pick for Ryan Reaves was a head-scratcher, especially given Reaves didn’t even last the year in Pittsburgh. Rutherford’s biggest miss was probably hiring Mike Johnston as his first coach, although he corrected that mistake quickly by switching to Mike Sullivan after a season and a half.

Current outlook: This one gets interesting. Clearly, Rutherford has easily been the most successful GM of the Class of 2014, and his chances of getting fired any time soon are roughly zero. But he also just turned 69 years old, and when he was hired in Pittsburgh he said he only expected to hold the job for two or three years before stepping aside for a successor. Then again, that successor was presumed to be assistant GM Jason Botterill, who’s now in Buffalo, and Rutherford signed a three-year extension in 2016.

Odds of seeing 2019: Rutherford will probably hold the job as long as he wants to, but we’re not sure how long that will be. It’s at least possible he decides to step aside this summer, but it seems more likely that he at least finishes off his current deal.

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Joe Sakic, Avalanche

The hiring: This one’s a little tricky. Sakic had been holding the final say on moves in Colorado for a while, but didn’t officially get the GM’s title until sometime during the 2014 off-season when Greg Sherman was demoted to assistant GM. The Avalanche didn’t make an official announcement about the switch, but it became public on Sept. 19.

Record since: 135-150-25 and no playoff appearances since he officially got the job, although the Avs did make the post-season in 2013-14 when he was kind-of sort-of the GM

Best moves: After being widely criticized for not making the move sooner, Sakic did surprisingly well on the Matt Duchene trade, landing some solid prospects and a first-rounder from the Senators that figures to be a high one.

Worst moves: Even putting Duchene aside, Sakic whiffed on the 2017 deadline in the midst of a miserable season. He also didn’t get much for Ryan O’Reilly, although his hand was forced on that one, and let pending UFA Paul Stastny walk for nothing.

Current outlook: A heck of a lot better than it was this time last year, when he was widely viewed as the league’s worst GM. There were reports that the Avalanche were looking at potential replacements as recently as last summer. But the success of the Duchene trade and a surprising run at a playoff spot have cooled his seat at least a little.

Odds of seeing 2019: Still dicey. While he’d be hard to fire given his playing career in Colorado, he could also be booted upstairs, and if the Avalanche miss the post-season again and the right candidate were to become available elsewhere, you’d have to figure Sakic’s tenure could come to an end.

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Ron Francis, Hurricanes

The hiring: Francis took the GM job in Carolina on April 28, after Rutherford stepped down.

Record since: 130-129-53, no playoff appearances

Best moves: Scooping Teuvo Teravainen from the Blackhawks in exchange for taking on Bryan Bickell‘s deal was a nice win, and the team was one of the few to come away from last year’s expansion in better shape than they went in.

Worst moves: The Hurricanes’ continue to struggle in the crease, with last year’s off-season acquisition of Scott Darling looking like a bust.

Current outlook: It’s hard to imagine Francis ever being fired, given his history in Carolina, and he signed an extension in 2016 that takes him through the end of next season. But could he be moved upstairs to make way for a new set of eyes? With new ownership in place and the Hurricanes on track to miss the playoffs for a league-high ninth straight year, it wouldn’t shock anyone.

Odds of seeing 2019: Decent, if the Hurricanes can come back to make the playoffs. If not, you have to wonder.

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Ron Hextall, Flyers

The hiring: After his old team hired him away from the Kings as assistant GM in 2013, everyone expected Hextall to eventually replace Paul Holmgren. That day came a season later on May 7, as the club “promoted” Holmgren to president and slid Hextall into the GM’s chair.

Record since: 147-112-53, one playoff appearance

Best moves: He had a decent 2015 deadline, shipping out Kimmo Timonem and Braydon Coburn for high picks, and has proven adept at finding takers for bad salaries (even Chris Pronger’s). But maybe his best move was resisting calls to fire Dave Hakstol when the team lost 10 straight earlier this season. Hakstol righted the ship, and the Flyers climbed all the way back into the running for top spot in the Metro.

Worst moves: Nothing really stands out as a major blunder, although last summer’s deal that sent Brayden Schenn to St. Louis was trending that way early in the season. If there’s a complaint about Hextall’s tenure, it’s that his wild-eyed playing days have given way to a management career that’s almost too conservative, as he sticks to the long-term plan even when you wonder if the Flyers could use a short-term boost.

Current outlook: Strong. The Flyers look like they’re just about a lock to return to the playoffs, and have a shot at doing some early damage once they’re there.

Odds of seeing 2019: Pretty much a sure thing.

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Brian MacLellan, Capitals

The hiring: MacLellan was promoted from assistant to GM on May 26, replacing George McPhee.

Record since: 193-84-34, two Presidents’ Trophies, three second-round exits

Best moves: MacLellan inherited a pretty good team from McPhee, but has made some solid moves of his own. Getting T.J. Oshie from St. Louis worked out well. But maybe his best decision has been resisting calls to blow up the roster after their annual early playoff exit.

Worst moves: Last year’s Kevin Shattenkirk deal was viewed as a strong move at the time, but didn’t work out. MacLellan was widely seen as mishandling the salary cap last summer, leading to the departure of players like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, and they lost Nate Schmidt to Vegas. And while the team’s success means MacLellan hasn’t had any high picks, his four drafts have yielded just two players who’ve so much as seen the NHL.

Current outlook: MacLellan was reportedly in the last year of his contract this season, leading to questions about whether his job was in jeopardy. But as Nick Kypreos reported on Satuday, MacLellan has apparently just signed a multi-year extension.

Odds of seeing 2019: That extension means he’s safe.

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Brad Treliving, Flames

The hiring: Treliving was hired away from the Coyotes, where he’d spent seven years as the assistant to Don Maloney, on April 28.

Record since: 157-128-27, one playoff appearance

Best moves: Treliving is an aggressive trader, with wins including getting Mike Smith from Arizona and Dougie Hamilton from Boston, as well as prying a decent package out of Dallas for Kris Russell. He also drafted Matthew Tkachuk and got franchise cornerstones Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan locked into long-term deals at a reasonable cap hit.

Worst moves: Last year’s Travis Hamonic deal hasn’t worked out, nor did the Brian Elliott trade in 2016. Troy Brouwer‘s contract was a predictable overpay. And while it’s still a little early to be declaring busts from the 2014 draft, fourth overall pick Sam Bennett could at least be called disappointing.

Current outlook: Treliving famously went through all of last season without an extension, but was finally given a new deal last May. That contract was for a reported three years, which gives him some job security. But only some – if the Flames miss the playoffs yet again, you’d have to think that everyone in the organization is facing some tough questions.

Odds of seeing 2019: More likely than not. But if the Flames miss the playoffs this year, 2018–19 would shape up as a make-or-break season for Treliving.

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