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

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The NHL hit the midway mark on its schedule a few weeks ago. But for many, the true halfway point of the season is the all-star weekend. That’s the event that closes the book on the first half, and officially sends us towards the homestretch.

For some teams around the league, that’s good news. The season is going well and the roster is largely set, so bring on the playoffs. But most teams still have some work cut out for them. And those are the teams whose GMs will find themselves in the spotlight with the trade deadline just four weeks away.

Are they buying? Selling? Standing pat? If prices start rising, how long can they stay at the table before folding their hand?

And maybe even more importantly: Can they afford to be wrong?

Some of these guys have a tougher few weeks ahead of them than others. So let’s take a look around the league at all 31 GMs, and figure out which ones are under the most pressure as we head towards the deadline.

We’ll start with the Western Conference today; we’ll be back tomorrow with the East.

Peter Chiarelli, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers are finally headed back to the playoffs for the first time in a decade, and Chiarelli gets a big chunk of the credit for that. We can argue over how much credit he should get, but that’s not really the point. He pulled off the Taylor Hall/Adam Larsson trade and landed Milan Lucic and Kris Russell, and now the Oilers are good again.

Could they be better? Sure. And you could make a case that this year’s Western Conference is there for the taking, and the Oilers have as good a shot as anyone. But the team is finally headed in the right direction, and even an early exit this year wouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Chiarelli can pick his spots; in the eyes of the fans, his big moves have already paid off.

Pressure rating: 2/10

Stan Bowman, Chicago Blackhawks

In theory, Bowman won’t be under much pressure at all. His Blackhawks are already good, if flawed, and they’re sitting solidly in a playoff spot and still within range of the Wild for a division title. And they’ve won three of the last seven Stanley Cups, so nobody will be calling for his head even if the rest of the season goes bad.

Will that matter to Bowman? Probably not — he’s long been one of the more aggressive GMs in the league, which is a big part of why his teams are always so good.

So sure, Bowman will probably be front and centre over the next weeks. Not because he has to, but because that’s just how he operates.

Pressure rating: 3/10

Doug Wilson, San Jose Sharks

The Sharks are facing what could be the end of an era, with both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau heading to UFA status in the summer. In a perfect world, they’d load up and make one last run before losing one or both of their longest-serving players. They’ve got the cap room to add some help, so it will be interesting to see how Wilson plays it. But with the team playing well and no obvious weak spots in the lineup, it’s unlikely to be anything major.

Pressure rating: 3/10

George McPhee, Vegas Golden Knights

Sure, the team doesn’t exist yet. But the league has ruled that the Golden Knights will be able to start making trades as soon as their final payment has been made, which should be in early March. That’s after the trade deadline, but the types of moves the Knights will be making — those involving draft picks, prospects or expansion draft considerations — wouldn’t be affected by that.

That doesn’t mean that McPhee will be pulling off any blockbusters quite yet, and he can’t make any moves at all until that last check clears. But at the very least, he’s going to be very busy laying the groundwork for the Knights earliest days, and the decisions he makes now could have an impact for years to come.

Pressure rating: 3/10

Dean Lombardi, Los Angeles Kings

To some extent, Lombardi falls into the same category as Bowman. He and the Kings have their Cups, so it will be hard for anyone to call them a failure if they don’t make a deep run this year.

But not making a deep run is one thing; not making one at all is another. Right now, the Kings are in danger of missing the playoffs entirely, which would sting. There’s a bit of a built-in excuse here with Jonathan Quick’s long-term injury, but that only goes so far.

Lombardi has sacrificed plenty of future to get the Kings where they are today and he’s reaped the rewards. Whether or not he tries that angle again will make for an interesting call.

Pressure rating: 4/10

Jim Benning, Vancouver Canucks

You have to hand it to Benning. He took a lot of heat for insisting that the Canucks could contend for a playoff spot when everyone else could plainly see that they were one of the worst teams in the league. But here we are heading into February, and they’re still right in the mix. Those calls to tear the whole thing down and start over aren’t quite so loud anymore.

Of course, it’s possible that all of that could turn out to be a bad thing; the Canucks could fade, miss the playoffs, and then look back on the 2016–17 season as a chance to start rebuilding that slipped away because the team’s record disguised its weaknesses.

But for now, Benning isn’t feeling the heat the way most of us thought he would be. As long as he doesn’t get crazy and start trading future assets for immediate help, he should be OK until the off-season.

Pressure rating: 5/10

David Poile, Nashville Predators

A month ago, this rating would have been higher. The Predators spent most of the first half looking like a team that could miss the playoffs, which would be a disastrous result after trading away the franchise player in a controversial deal.

But since then, the Predators have heated up and now hold down a playoff spot with at least a little bit of room to spare. It’s not enough for anyone to relax, and it’s worth remembering that Nashville went into the season as some people’s Cup pick, so just sneaking into the post-season won’t be a victory. But Poile’s still in a position where he doesn’t need to panic… for now.

Pressure rating: 6/10

Kevin Cheveldayoff, Winnipeg Jets

By now, we know the drill in Winnipeg: Cheveldayoff just isn’t a trader. He’d famously never made a player-for-player trade until the 2015 blockbuster that sent Evander Kane to Buffalo. And since the 2015 deadline, he’s made only one trade involving players in nearly 23 months. Everyone has their own team-building philosophy, and Cheveldayoff’s clearly doesn’t involve the swap meet.

In a way, that takes some pressure off of him. Jets fans know what they’ve got, and should know what to expect. But with the team barely hanging in the playoff race and still searching for their first post-season win since returning to Winnipeg in 2011, you’d think that something has to give at some point. If the deadline nears and the other teams on the bubble are making moves, you could forgive frustrated Jets fans for expecting their team to do the same.

Pressure rating: 6/10

Chuck Fletcher, Minnesota Wild

Heading into the season, Fletcher seemed like a GM on the hot seat. The Wild had spent big, but hadn’t emerged as the legitimate Cup contenders they’d expected to be. After playing his coach card, it looked like Fletcher’s neck was on the line.

So far, so good. The Wild are on top of the West and looking like the favourites to come out of the conference. That takes some of the pressure off of Fletcher, but maybe not as much as you might think. Wild fans have been patiently waiting for a season like this for a long time, and they’re unlikely to be satisfied with a strong regular season followed by an early playoff exit.

True, Fletcher would argue that he doesn’t want to upset the chemistry by making any major moves. But this feels like one of those years where everything is finally falling into place for a big run. Do you really want to play it conservative now?

Pressure rating: 6/10

John Chayka, Arizona Coyotes

Chayka’s first year with the Coyotes has been a disappointment. The Coyotes’ off-season implied that they were looking to move up the standings, but instead they’ve dropped back near the basement. That would put any GM in a tough spot, let alone a 27-year-old rookie whose well-respected predecessor had been on the job for nearly a decade.

That said, there’s only so much Chayka is going to be able to do over the next few weeks. This team is still in rebuilding mode, even if they’d hoped to be further along than they are. He has a handful of guys like Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata who look like classic rentals, although Chayka’s reported asking price is… interesting. Beyond that, the Coyotes seem more like a team whose big moves will come in the off-season.

Pressure rating: 6/10

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Brad Treliving, Calgary Flames

The Flames are right on the edge of the Western playoff race; they’re holding down the last wildcard spot based on total points, but the Kings and Canucks are right behind and both have games in hand. With his team struggling, fans will want to see Treliving do something to turn things around, and so far his big off-season trade hasn’t worked out.

On top of that, Treliving is the only NHL GM who doesn’t have a contract heading into next year. Even if he doesn’t need a playoff spot to keep his job, his work over the next few weeks could determine where he stands when it’s time to sit down and negotiate a new deal.

Pressure rating: 7/10

Bob Murray, Anaheim Ducks

Looking for a GM under the gun? Murray checks all the boxes. He’s got a contender, but it’s an aging one and the window may be closing. The team is coming off a string of playoff disappointments, so patience is wearing thin. And while they look like contenders in a wide-open West, they’re not the favourites, and Ducks fans may be expecting a move or two to put them in a better spot.

But if anything, Murray’s job is even more complicated this year thanks to the expansion draft. The Ducks are one of the few teams in the league with surplus depth on the blueline, and Kevin Bieksa’s NMC is going to make it tough to protect everyone. There’s a risk that they could face a choice between losing a good young blueliner like Cam Fowler, or using the 4-4-1 format and exposing forwards like Andrew Cogliano or Jakob Silfverberg.

Those are problems that Murray can deal with in the summer if he chooses. But with one eye on winning a Cup right now and one on protecting his assets in June, Murray has a lot on his plate, and not much margin for error.

Pressure rating: 8/10

Jim Nill, Dallas Stars

Last year, we all wondered whether Nill would gamble by letting an otherwise elite group of talent head into the playoffs with substandard goaltending. He did, and it cost him. Then we assumed that he’d address the position in the off-season. It never happened. After that, we figured he must be biding his time until something opened up during the season.

Now, with the Stars sitting outside the playoffs and the goaltending struggling yet again, we’re still waiting. Suddenly, what once seemed inconceivable is starting to feel possible: Is Nill really going to let the season slip away without addressing their biggest weakness?

The problem is, the Stars are no longer a team that needs help in just one area — injuries and blueline problems have both taken a toll — but this is still largely the same team that was the West’s top seed last year. With good goaltending, they can be a Cup contender. Nill can’t let yet another season of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin‘s prime slip away without giving them that chance… can he?

Pressure rating: 8/10

Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues

We covered the confusing Blues last week. Since then, they played quite possibly their best game of the year to beat the Penguins, then went into Minnesota and got thumped by the Wild. So that didn’t clarify much at all.

Instead, we’re left with a good team on paper that played that way for much of the first half, but has been fading lately and no longer seems like a playoff lock. The coach is on the way out. The young goaltender who was supposed to grab the starter’s job is struggling so badly he was left behind for a road trip. And now Kevin Shattenkirk may be back in play.

Add it all up, and Armstrong has some big decisions to make. Does he have a contender? If so, he’d better fix the goaltending and patch some other holes, and do it quickly. If not, he needs to move Shattenkirk for as much as possible before he walks away for nothing in the summer.

The one thing Armstrong can’t do is go all deer-in-the-headlights. His track record suggests that’s not his style, and he’ll make the tough calls that need to be made. He’s got four weeks to do it.

Pressure rating: 9/10

Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche

What a mess.

The Avalanche have easily been the season’s biggest disaster. The goaltending was bad before Semyon Varlamov got hurt, and might be worse now that he’s been shut down for the year. The blueline is awful. And the talented young core of forwards that the team has been built around looks like it needs a major shakeup.

And here’s Sakic in the middle of it as a relatively new GM who doesn’t have many major moves under his belt. The latest rumor is that Matt Duchene could be the one to go, with Gabriel Landeskog also a possibility. Those are tough deals to make, and they’re the sort of moves that a struggling team absolutely needs to hit a home run on.

The Avalanche don’t necessarily need to move a big piece right now; that can wait until the off-season. But even if they kick that can down the road, Sakic will still need to find a way to extract maximum value for Jarome Iginla as a deadline rental, while moving just about anything else that’s not nailed down for future assets.

There are so many holes here that there’s no way Sakic can fill them all over the course of a few weeks. But Avalanche fans need to see some signs that a team headed to its third-straight playoff miss can get back on track. Nobody in the conference is facing a bigger job.

Pressure rating: 10/10

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