Down Goes Brown: Which Eastern GMs are under the most pressure?

Sportsnet's John Shannon talks about the news that the New York Islanders may be looking to move to a new stadium in the near future and names some possible places they could end including Madison Square Garden.

• NHL trade season is upon us
• Devils to shift into seller mode?
• Sweeney can’t afford to stand pat

Tomorrow marks the start of February. More importantly for hockey fans, it also marks four weeks until the trade deadline. With more teams than ever hanging around the playoff race, we could be in for a wild month.

Or maybe not. This is the NHL, after all, where most of the league’s GMs have proven very adept at coming up with reasons to stand pat. You can already hear the well-worn excuses being dusted off — the cap makes trading too hard, the market wasn’t quite right, we just couldn’t find the right deal. Most of these guys will probably figure out a way to tinker here and there and then call it a day.

And for some teams, that will make sense. Others, not so much. So this week, we’re going through the league team-by-team to figure out which GMs are under the most pressure over the next four weeks. Yesterday, we covered the Western Conference. Today, it’s onto the East.

Jim Rutherford, Pittsburgh Penguins

Rutherford’s Penguins are the defending Cup champs, they don’t have any obvious holes, and they’ve all but clinched a playoff spot already. It’s not all smooth-sailing; he does still need to figure out what to do about his goaltending and the upcoming expansion draft, although that can wait for the off-season. And the Metro is going to be tough, with the possibility that a deadline arms race could break out between the division’s top contenders. But for now, Rutherford’s in as good a shape as anyone.

Pressure rating: 2/10

Jarko Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

Few GMs came into the season on a hotter seat than Kekalainen. His cap was a mess, he’d made a controversial pick at the top of the draft, he hadn’t done much to improve over the off-season, and nobody expected his team to be any good. On opening night, Kekalainen looked like a guy who could be hard-pressed to make it through the season. Fast forward to today, and he’s probably in the running for GM of the Year. The Blue Jackets are going to make the playoffs, and they’ve even got a shot at a Presidents’ Trophy.

That doesn’t remove all the pressure from Kekalainen, since this is the time of year that Cup contenders are expected to load up, and the Blue Jackets have shown some signs of fading over recent weeks. If you’re a Columbus fan who’s been waiting nearly two decades for a playoff run, you might figure now’s the time to go all-in. But right now, Kekalainen’s job looks an awful lot easier — not to mention more secure — than it did just a few months ago.

Pressure rating: 4/10

Ray Shero, New Jersey Devils

Is anyone actually out of the playoff hunt in the East? If so, it’s New Jersey, and that’s a disappointing result for a team that seemed headed in the right direction. The good news is that it could position the Devils as one of the few sellers in the league, which in theory should drive up prices on anyone they want to move. That’s the kind of opportunity that a smart GM can take advantage of.

Pressure rating: 4/10

Pierre Dorion, Ottawa Senators

The Senators have been a pleasant surprise so far, and are holding down a reasonably firm grip on a playoff spot. In his first season as an NHL GM, Dorion has suggested that he’d like to add help at forward. The Senators have been linked to some of the bigger names out there, and given that the playoff format is likely to serve up a winnable first-round matchup, there’s been some talk that this might the year for Dorion to make a big push. It could happen, but right now the Senators don’t look like a team that absolutely needs to make a move.

Pressure rating: 4/10

Ron Francis, Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes have been a tough team to figure. They were a sneaky underdog for much of the first half, then seemed to have moved into the driver’s seat for a playoff spot as recently as a few weeks ago. But since then they’ve dropped five straight, and now they look like longshots again.

That might end up leaving them in that frustrating in-between — not quite contenders that should be buying, but not bad enough to throw in the towel and start selling. At this point, Francis is probably in wait-and-see mode, but he may not end up being especially busy.

Pressure rating: 4/10

Marc Bergevin, Montreal Canadiens

Bergevin made his big moves in the summer, and for the most part they’ve worked out. The Canadiens look like they’ve got the Atlantic all but wrapped up, and while it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bergevin try to bring in some reinforcements for a playoff run, there aren’t any glaring holes here that need to be addressed.

You can’t quite call in a low-pressure situation, because this is still Montreal. But it’s about as low as it can get.

Pressure rating: 4/10

Lou Lamoriello, Toronto Maple Leafs

Speaking of high-pressure cities, Lamoriello’s Leafs have been better than expected, and their push for a playoff spot has pushed their rebuild ahead of schedule. There are still holes, particularly on the blueline, but for the first time in over a decade things in Toronto are generally positive.

Of course, all that positivity brings questions of its own. Such as: Should the Leafs actually become buyers, and take a swing at a deep playoff run right now? There’s a decent argument that they should. But the betting is that Lamoriello and friends will stay patient. The Leafs’ time may be coming quicker than we thought, but it’s not here yet.

Pressure rating: 5/10

Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings

Holland is a GM who does virtually all of his trading near the deadline. And for nearly two decades, that’s meant being a buyer. This year, he should probably be selling.

But that might be easier said than done. The Red Wings’ 25-season playoff streak appears over, but conceding in February would be a tough admission to make. It will be fascinating to see whether Holland can bite the bullet and do what needs to be done.

Pressure rating: 6/10

Ron Hextall, Philadelphia Flyers

It wasn’t that long ago that the Flyers were winning nine straight games and looking like a playoff lock. But since then they’ve struggled, and their grip on the East’s last wildcard spot looks shaky.

Hextall’s been on the job going on three years now, and he’s been surprisingly conservative so far. That includes last year’s deadline, when he stood pat even though the young Flyers were chasing a spot.

Philadelphia isn’t exactly known as a patient sports town, so at some point Hextall is going to need to get to work. Maybe that day doesn’t arrive this month, but it won’t be long.

Pressure rating: 6/10

Jeff Gorton, New York Rangers

The Rangers are a tough team to figure. It’s fair to say that they’ve exceeded expectations so far this year, spending most of the season near the top of the overall standings and being one of the league’s highest-scoring teams. But they still headed into the all-star break as the Metro’s fourth-best team, and the road out of the division is going to be a tough one.

Gorton’s most obvious job is to patch up the blueline, and in a nice change from how things typically look in New York, he actually has the cap space to do it. How aggressively he pursues that option will tell us a lot about whether he thinks this team really can be a Cup contender.

Pressure rating: 6/10

Brian MacLellan, Washington Capitals

Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners are in position for a repeat, something that’s only been done once in the salary-cap era (by the Canucks, in 2011 and 2012). That would be impressive, but we all know that Capitals fans aren’t interested in the regular season. If anything, the Caps’ recent surge has some of their fans worrying that they’re peaking too soon. This team is all about winning a Cup, or at least going deep into the playoffs. At this point, anything else is a waste of time.

So are they good enough? They sure seem to be.

With a rematch with the Penguins looming in the first or second round, the Capitals would love to add an impact player who could tip what figures to be a close series. But with limited cap space, not to mention a lack of big-name players who figure to be available, they’ll probably have to settle for some depth pieces.

Pressure rating: 7/10

Tim Murray, Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres have had a disappointing season; they came in expecting to contend for the franchise’s first playoff berth in six years, but fell out of the race quickly thanks to injuries and poor play. They’ve spent the last few months clawing their way back in, so the coming weeks will probably determine which direction Murray goes.

It’s a tough choice. If the Sabres can inch a little closer, there will be calls for Murray to sacrifice a bit of his stockpiled future to make a run right now. Others will want him to stay the course. And still others will want him to concede that the Sabres rebuild still has work to do, and make moves for picks or prospects. No matter how he handles things, somebody’s going to say he’s on the wrong path.

Pressure rating: 7/10

Tom Rowe/Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers

Rowe is technically still the GM, but nobody seems quite sure who exactly is calling the shots in Florida. Whoever it is will have some work to do, as the Panthers try to turn around what’s often felt like a nightmare season.

The good news is that they don’t have all that far to go; at four points back, they’re well within range to make a run at a post-season spot. You’d think that the front office will want to make an aggressive push, if only to prove to their long-suffering fan base that last year’s success wasn’t just a temporary fluke.

Pressure rating: 7/10

Don Sweeney, Boston Bruins

After a strong first half, the Bruins are fading, and their grip on a post-season spot seems tenuous. A miss would make it three straight seasons without a playoff appearance, which seems like the sort of result that would have heads rolling in Boston. That could include Sweeney himself, so the stakes are high here.

The Bruins have been included in many of the most prominent rumours over the last year, but Sweeney hasn’t actually made a player trade of any kind since last year’s deadline. When the Bruins looked like a playoff team, that cautious approach seemed wise. But unless the team turns things around quickly, Sweeney is going to have to do something. That could be a coaching change instead of a trade, but standing pat doesn’t look like an option.

Pressure rating: 8/10

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Garth Snow, New York Islanders

All but written off even a few weeks ago, the Islanders have pushed back into the playoff race. They’re five points out and have games in hand, and with a reasonably good schedule they have a legitimate shot at this thing.

That’s great news for Snow, who’s been on the job for a decade but has only delivered a single playoff series win. There’s plenty of work to be done, and the John Tavares situation hangs over everything, but at least the team has given Snow a chance. A post-season appearance might just be enough to save his job.

Pressure rating: 8/10

Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning

What the heck is happening in Tampa? It wasn’t that long ago that the Lightning looked like the best young team in the league, and once Yzerman was able to get Steven Stamkos back in the fold, there were plenty of fans figuring it was a question of if, not when, the Stanley Cup would return to Tampa.

Instead, the team is dangerously close to last place in the East, and at serious risk of missing the playoffs altogether. With a looming cap crunch on the way, Yzerman is watching what seemed like one of his team’s best chances at a championship slip away.

So what can he do about it? He doesn’t exactly have a track record of making major deals (with the exception of the Martin St. Louis trade, which was forced on him), and he didn’t do anything at all at last year’s deadline. But it will be tough to stand pat, given the talent on this team right now. Windows only stay open for so long, and this core can’t stay together forever. Their time is now… or at least, it was supposed to be.

Even if Yzerman does decide to take a knee, he still needs to deal with the Ben Bishop situation. So one way or another, he has his work cut out for him.

Pressure rating: 9/10

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