Thursday December 18th, 2014

In the NHL, as in life, change is inevitable.

Make a trade, sign a free agent, swap out a decision maker. These are the difficult calls that are routinely made by those who keep an eye on salary cap issues, building a contender or simply trying to stay one step ahead of the inevitable pink slip.

Not all choices are significant. Not all of them even work. But every so often a move is made that can change a team's fortunes. Here are the ones  made in 2014 that we believe were, or will be, the most impactful. Disagree with our choices or think we overlooked an obvious choice? Let us know below.

Blues sign Martin Brodeur (Dec. 2)

Scott Rovak/Getty Images

SI's favorite hockey stories of 2014

Cut loose by the Devils, with whom he'd spent his entire record-setting NHL career, Brodeur said he wanted to continue playing ... but only for a Stanley Cup contender. It was an unlikely scenario until an injury to starter Brian Elliott left the Blues with rookie Jake Allen between the pipes and in desperate need of a proven veteran presence. Brodeur now has a second chance to become the first goalie to win 700 games—and the first to lose 400. It remains to be seen what kind of impact this signing will have on the team's championship aspirations, but it adds an intriguing coda to one of the greatest careers in NHL history.

Canucks hire Jim Benning as GM (May 9)

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Now we know why Benning's name always came up in discussions about the league's next great GM-in-waiting. In a matter of weeks he took a club that many viewed as a tear-down and remodeled it into one of the biggest surprises of the new season. His first move was hiring Willie Desjardins, a man who'd proved that he could win at several levels, as his head coach. Benning then went out and signed free agents Ryan Miller and Radim Vrbata, stabilizing the team in net and adding the missing piece to the Sedins' line.

But he really proved his moxie during the forced sale of Ryan Kesler to Anaheim. Unlike his predecessor Mike Gillis, Benning struck quickly and shrewdly, adding Nick Bonino to anchor the second line and Luca Sbisa who has played regularly on defense along with a first-round pick that was used to acquire center Jared McCann.

Vision, and the ability to implement it, make Benning one of the best newcomers of the season.

Stars acquire Jason Spezza (July 1)

Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

GM Jim Nill keeps shaking trees and first-line centers keep falling out. A year after spiriting Tyler Seguin out of Boston, Nill convinced Spezza, a malcontent in Ottawa, to waive his no-trade clause and come to Dallas. Soon after, Nill signed the pending UFA to a four-year extension worth $7.5 million per season, ensuring that the Stars will have two elite centers for years to come. The early results have been mixed for the team but not because of a lack of effort from Spezza, who remains one of the game's most creative playmakers.

Sabres hire Tim Murray as GM (Jan. 9)

Bill Wippert/Getty Images

More Sports
Sports Illustrated Media Awards: The best and worst of 2014

After distancing themselves from Dithering Darcy Regier, the Sabres made a bold move to bring in Murray from divisional rival Ottawa. Widely respected for his player assessment skills, he wasted little time in evaluating his new assets and the team's many needs both long term and short. In a matter of months he made seven trades, including a blockbuster that sent Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis for picks and prospects. Murray was among the most active managers during free agency, signing Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson and Josh Gorges to fill gaping roster holes and provide veteran leadership to a group that was just learning how to play the game at the NHL level. The Sabres are still in transition but after years of aimless leadership they're finally headed in the right direction.

Jets hire Paul Maurice (Jan. 12)

Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

After three years of bad defense and little forward momentum, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff finally pulled the plug on coach Claude Noel and, with the hiring of Maurice, made the first truly inspired move of his tenure in Winnipeg. A veteran of more than 1,000 games behind the bench, Maurice soon had the Jets focusing on a more disciplined approach to the game and after demanding an intensified commitment to conditioning during the off-season, he has them playing a faster, more aggressive style in 2014-15.

The success of his system is clear. Suddenly the goaltending looks good, the Jets have survived an inconsistent offense and a series of significant injuries on the back end and they're in the hunt for their first playoff berth since moving to Manitoba. Can the man please get some Jack Adams love?

Islanders acquire Jaroslav Halak (May 1)

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After watching his team finish in the league's bottom four in goals-allowed during each of the past five full seasons, GM Garth Snow finally wised up to the fact that his goalies were brutal. Wisely, he picked up Halak on the cheap, sending a 2014 fourth rounder previously acquired from Chicago to Washington in exchange for the rights to the pending UFA. The sides agreed on a four-year deal ahead of free agency, setting up Halak as the No. 1 backstop for key transitional years as the young Isles learn how to win. So far he's been worth every penny, setting a franchise record with 11 consecutive victories and providing a stabilizing presence whose value goes well beyond the numbers.

Isles land Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy (Oct. 4)

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Garth Snow (above, right) had himself a pretty nice off-season, shoring up his forward depth with free agents Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin and adding a solid No. 1 keeper in Halak. But it was the courage he showed in shipping out picks and prospects for a pair of salary cap casualties that stabilized New York's inconsistent blueline and put the Islanders on the path to the playoffs. Boychuk brought veteran experience, a heavy shot and a nasty disposition from Boston; Leddy, blazing speed and transition skills from Chicago. Together, they've given the Isles a sense of confidence that has informed their play throughout their team record-setting start to the season.

Penguins trade James Neal for Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling (June 27)

John Russell/Getty Images

This was one of those rare deals that seems to have worked out equally well for both sides and promises to deliver value to each for years to come.

After another frustrating playoff loss, the Pens were looking to shake up their chemistry, add some net front presence and improve the quality of their bottom six. Former Predator Hornqvist (left) has been that heavy body, wreaking havoc down low and creating space for Sidney Crosby. Spaling has played up and down the lineup, displaying versatility while upgrading the team's depth. Neal's delivered as promised as well, bringing physicality and world-class hands to Nashville's new lethal first line that has quickly established itself as one of the best in the league.

Lightning trade Martin St. Louis for Ryan Callahan (March 5)

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

More Sports
Most memorable sports moments of 2014: Highs & lows, from 114 to 1

Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman relied on the courage of his convictions. He knew it was the right call to leave St. Louis off of Team Canada's roster for the Sochi Winter Olympics and so that's what he did ... even at the expense of a soured relationship that led his captain and leading scorer in the franchise's history to demand a trade out of town. His integrity intact, Yzerman then managed to swing a remarkably favorable deal under almost impossible circumstances, squeezing an excellent character player in Callahan (right) and two (!) first-round picks out of the one team to which St. Louis would accept a move.

The swap worked fairly well for the Blueshirts. The lightly regarded club made a thrilling dash all the way to the Stanley Cup Final with St. Louis playing a significant role. But it was a massive win for the Bolts, who not only re-signed Callahan to an extension over the summer, but stand to reap long-term benefits with those high selections as well.

Kings acquire Marian Gaborik (March 5)

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Expectations were muted when the Kings made their “big” deadline move. Gaborik was picked up in a scratch 'n dent sale, bargain priced at Matt Frattin and a pair of conditional picks because of a collarbone injury that had limited him to just 22 games before the swap. There were questions about his ability to succeed in coach Darryl Sutter's demanding system but those were quickly answered. Gaborik settled in comfortably alongside Anze Kopitar on the top line, scoring 16 points in 19 regular season games before tallying an NHL-best 14 goals to power the Kings to their second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons. He later signed a seven-year extension during the off-season, ensuring that GM Dean Lombardi's wily deadline move will impact this team well into the future.



SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.