Down Goes Brown: Four NHL GMs on smoking-hot seats

Brian Burke did not hold back when he talked about the media that follows Toronto sports.

• Canadiens’ Bergevin among GMs in most danger
• Did Sakic stave off a move with Duchene deal?
• Plus, which GM seats are coldest?

We’re closing on the quarter mark of the NHL season. How secure is your favourite team’s front office feeling?

Unlike with coaches, it’s exceedingly rare to see a team make a mid-season GM change. While the Panthers shifted Tom Rowe behind the bench last year, you’d have to go back to Calgary’s Jay Feaster and Buffalo’s Darcy Regier in 2013 for the last time a GM was outright fired during a season. So when we talk about GMs being on the hot seat, that’s not to say they’re a bad week away from cleaning out their offices.


But it’s still true that some GMs are in better shape than others. Some guys are so secure that it’s almost impossible to imagine their team with someone else at the helm anytime soon; others might need a big season to save their jobs.

Today, let’s run through the entire league and take our best guess at whose seat might be feeling frosty, and whose could be starting to smoke.

Group No. 1: The ice-cold seats

These are the GMs who are basically untouchable right now, based on their team’s recent track record of success. We’re including them for the sake of completeness, but barring something ridiculous happening they’re not worth worrying about. That group includes Jim Rutherford (Penguins), David Poile (Predators), Stan Bowman (Blackhawks) and Steve Yzerman (Lightning).

We’ll also include the three GMs who are in their first season with a new team, since unless you’re Neil Smith and the Islanders, you don’t see GMs ousted before they even have a chance to settle into the job. So that’s George McPhee (Golden Knights), Rob Blake (Kings) and Jason Botterill (Sabres).

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Group No. 2: The chilled seats

These guys don’t quite fit into the same totally-safe category as the guys above, but they’re close. We’ll list them as a group, because otherwise it would just be me trying to find five slightly different ways to write “He’s OK unless the team really goes off the rails — in which case maybe he’d be in trouble but probably not.”

This group includes Brad Treliving (Flames), Ron Hextall (Flyers), Ray Shero (Devils) and Jarmo Kekalainen (Blue Jackets). And we’ll also add Doug Armstrong of the Blues based on his team’s hot start, even though he may have been further down the list if we’d done this a few months ago.

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Group No. 3: Warm, but getting better

These are the guys who came into the season with at least some degree of risk, but so far their teams are on track and they can probably breathe a little easier.

For example, Doug Wilson’s been around forever and there was a time when he seemed to be on shaky ground in San Jose. (Remember when Joe Thornton told him to “shut his mouth”?) But the Sharks have looked good so far this season, even as they transition from the Thornton/Marleau era to the next generation.

Three Canadian GMs would fall into this category, too. Kevin Chevaldayoff came into the year with a (slightly puzzling) contract extension, but also plenty of pressure to finally see his young Jets look like a contender. So far, they’ve delivered, so he’s in good shape.

Vancouver’s Jim Benning might be on shakier ground. Rebuilds are notoriously tough on GMs; they often end up doing the dirty work of a teardown only to see someone else step in when it’s time to reap the rewards. Benning hadn’t exactly earned rave reviews heading into the season, so it wouldn’t take much for his seat to flare up. But for now, the Canucks have been a little bit better than most of us expected and their youth is leading the way, so Benning looks safer.

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Then there’s Pierre Dorion. Now that’s he’s pulled off the biggest – and gutsiest – trade of the season, he’s carrying at least a little bit of risk. If the Matt Duchene deal flops and the Senators look like they might miss the playoffs, Dorion will feel the heat. But it’s early, and for now Ottawa fans are happy with their shiny new toy and the GM who delivered him.

Finally, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton would have probably found himself a few spots further down the list if we’d made it two weeks ago. But now that the Rangers are hot and back in the playoff race, his seat has cooled. There’s probably a lesson there about judging GMs too early in a season, but here we are.

Group No. 4: Warm, and getting worse

Chances are, most or even all of these guys make it through the next year and beyond. But the way their seasons are going so far, it’s no sure thing.

We’ll start with Anaheim’s Bob Murray, who’s been on and off the hot seat for years. The Ducks are having a rough start, but they’ve also been decimated by injuries, which is hardly the GM’s fault. Still, if they miss the playoffs or make a quick exit, it’s at least possible that Murray has to answer for it.

In Dallas, Jim Nill’s wheeling and dealing had him near the top of most GM rankings heading into last season. But then the Stars missed the playoffs, partly because Nill never got around to fixing the goaltending. He went out and got Ben Bishop this summer, but the Stars are only off to a so-so start. A second straight playoff miss would be another dent in Nill’s once-stellar reputation.

Then there’s Edmonton’s Peter Chiarelli. After last year’s success, he headed into this season as one of the league’s sure things. But with the Oilers starting slow, and several of his recent moves coming in for heavy criticism, Chiarelli doesn’t seem quite so invincible anymore. Still, it would take a disaster of a season for him to be in any real danger anytime soon.

Ron Francis is a tough call. His Hurricanes are off to a slow start, at risk of making it nine straight years without a playoff spot. Most GMs would be under major heat for that kind of scenario. But this is Ron Francis. He’s literally the franchise. The Hurricanes wouldn’t actually fire him… would they?

If things stay bad, it’s far more likely that Bill Peters pays the price, but Francis can’t be completely safe, even if he’s at more risk of being kicked upstairs than outright fired.

And finally, there’s Dale Tallon. The Panthers look awful, slipping all the way to last place in the East. Tallon regained his job after a front-office power struggle last year, so seeing him ousted again this quickly would be a surprise. But if the last few years have taught us anything in Florida, it’s that you never know what this franchise will do.

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Group No. 5: Lou Lamoriello

Let’s be clear: Lamoriello isn’t getting fired. Brendan Shanahan may have once thrown himself face-first into a midair collision with an enraged Patrick Roy, but he’s not crazy.

So no, you don’t fire Lou, and there’d be no reason for the Leafs to even consider it given how their season is unfolding. But Lamoriello still needs his own section, because his situation is unique. His contract is reportedly up at the end of the year, and at 75 years old there’s no guarantee he’ll be back. He could retire. He could move upstairs and serve as a mentor to a replacement like Mark Hunter or Kyle Dubas. He could shock everyone and head somewhere else, like he did when the Devils tried to shuffle him out of day-to-day decision-making. Or he could decide to sign an extension and stick around.

Right now, the future in uncertain. The only thing we know is that Lamoriello will do his best to make sure nobody knows what’s going on until the situation is settled – and maybe not even then.

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Group No. 6: The hot seats

Now we’re into the danger zone, so it’s time to start breaking out the individual bolded sections.

Don Sweeney, Bruins: It feels like Sweeney’s been on the hot seat almost since the day he started in Boston. He’s in only his third season, and he did get the Bruins back to the playoffs last year. But they won’t be back this year unless they can turn around a slow start. Sweeney’s already played his coaching card, and there have been rumours of ownership looking to shake up the front office. If the Bruins miss the playoffs, Sweeney’s in danger.

Brian MacLellan, Capitals: Usually, if you win the Presidents’ Trophy in two of your first three seasons, you’re doing a good job. But this is Washington, where fans are tired of hearing about regular-season wins. They want results in the playoffs. And so far, MacLellan’s Caps haven’t been able to deliver.

Washington went through a tough off-season, one largely caused by the salary cap but for which MacLellan wasn’t given especially high grades. Now the team is off to an underwhelming start that has them on the playoff bubble. They’ve got an aging franchise player, a tight cap and an owner who really wants to win right now. That’s a bad combination if you’re a GM.

Garth Snow, Islanders: No GM has had a stranger career than Snow. When he was first hired, we all figured it was some sort of joke and he’d be lucky to last the season. Over a decade later, he’s the fourth-longest-serving GM in the league. And he’s made some pretty darn savvy moves along the way.

What he hasn’t made, at least not very often, is the playoffs; the Islanders have only three appearances (and just one series win) during Snow’s time. That would spell trouble for most teams, but Snow always seems strangely secure with the Islanders.

Maybe that continues. But with all the drama surrounding the Islanders this year, including the John Tavares situation and the fight for a new arena, you’d have to think Snow will be under pressure to deliver at least a playoff spot. The Islanders are in one now, barely. But if they fade, or (more importantly) Tavares bolts, Snow could pay the price.

Chuck Fletcher, Wild: The Wild have had only two GMs in their history. Doug Risebrough handled the first decade, and Fletcher is closing in on matching that. But you have to wonder if he makes it that far unless the Wild can finally go on a deep playoff run. They’ve won just two rounds since Fletcher took over in 2009, and when you spend as much as Wild ownership has, you’d probably like to win a game in the conference final every couple decades or so.

Fletcher has been rumoured to be in danger before, and he has his defenders in Minnesota. He’s done a decent job over the years, but at some point good-but-not-great won’t be enough anymore.

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Group No. 7: Smoke, sparks and fire alarms

Finally, let’s close out with four guys who’d appear to be in the most danger as the season wears on.

Joe Sakic, Avalanche: First, the good news. Like Francis, Sakic is a franchise icon who’d probably be shifted upstairs before he was outright fired. More importantly, he did reasonably well on the long-awaited Matt Duchene trade, with more than a few observers declaring him the deal’s winner. And the Avalanche have looked better this year.

Still, “better” isn’t all that impressive when your baseline is 48 points, and the Duchene situation was one largely created by the Avs themselves. Sakic has officially been the team’s GM for three years (although he was making roster decisions before that as an executive VP), and the Avalanche have missed the playoffs all three. Remember, there were rumblings that the team was in the market for a new GM over the summer, so Sakic appears to be on thin ice. His team is better, but it may not be enough.

Ken Holland, Red Wings: Holland is tricky. Along with Poile, he’s the longest-serving GM in the league, with a tenure dating back to 1997. He’s won three Cups in that time, and pulled off the difficult feat of transitioning the Wings from the Yzerman era without missing a beat. He’s done a fantastic job.

But the one thing he hasn’t had to do in all of that time is rebuild, and that’s what the Red Wings need right now. It’s fair to ask whether Holland is the guy to do it. Right now, the Red Wings have lots of long-term cap headaches and not much in the way of blue-chip prospects. Granted, part of that was by design as the team tried to squeeze an extra few years of contending out of the Datsyuk/Zetterberg era, but there’s a strong case to be made for a fresh start top to bottom.

After all Holland has done in Detroit, he’s earned the right to have a say in how it ends. Some Detroit fans have been frustrated in recent years as guys like Yzerman and Nill have left the organization to take GM jobs elsewhere, but the time hadn’t come to make a change yet. That day may be coming sooner rather than later.

John Chayka, Coyotes: By contrast, this one is pretty simple. Chayka’s a smart guy with a modern approach to the job, and plenty of teams could learn a thing or two from him. But when you don’t have much of a track record at this level and your team is having one of the worst starts in history, you’re going to be in trouble. The Coyotes are putting a solid core in place, but at some point they’ll need to see results. If not, it may be some other GM who benefits from that foundation.

Marc Bergevin, Canadiens: And we end in Montreal, because of course we do.

Bergevin has basically been on the hot seat since he took the job five years ago. That’s how it works in Montreal. But Bergevin’s stint has been an especially newsworthy one. He traded P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, quite possibly the most controversial deal of the cap era. He signed Carey Price to a record-breaking contract. He hired Michel Therrien, then fired him and hired Claude Julien in a surprising mid-season move. He traded for Jonathan Drouin, but not for an established No. 1 centre.

And through it all, the Habs have four playoff appearances to show for it, including a trip to the conference final in 2014. They’ve been first in the division three times. And their only bad season came when Price was hurt and missed most of the year.

That’s a solid record, and in some markets it would be enough to let a guy settle in and fly under the radar for years to come. But not in Montreal. Bergevin’s job security has been a question mark for years, and recently it’s felt like he was one bad season away from serious danger. That bad season may have arrived, as this year’s Canadiens have struggled through the first month. They’ve been better lately, so that buys some time. But only so much.

In Montreal, they don’t settle for just making the playoffs. Instead, they talk about championships and history and the passing of torches. Right now, Bergevin’s seat is hot enough to help light those flaming torches, and that won’t change until the Canadiens are back near the top of the standings. Or until it’s somebody else’s turn to face the heat.

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