Ranking the NHL’s best, worst general manager-coach combinations
The three-year contract extension handed to Stan Bowman on Tuesday inspired a steady stream of praise for the Chicago Blackhawks general manager. It’s clear that he’s widely regarded as one of the best in the business, if not the best.
The same can be said of Joel Quenneville, who earlier this month became the second-winningest coach in NHL history. And with three Stanley Cup championships in five years, it’s safe to say they form the most effective partnership in the league.
Which gets us thinking: What other combos rank among the best ... and which are the least effective?
We weighed a variety of factors, including team success, cap management, trade/free agent history, player development and deployment, and organizational depth to come up with four runners-up to Bowman/Quenneville.
2. Los Angeles Kings (Dean Lombardi GM, Darryl Sutter coach)
A pair nearly as simpatico as Bowman and Quenneville, they’ve combined for two Stanley Cups in the past four years. Proof of their genius: say “LA Kings hockey” and everyone knows exactly what it means. Lombardi is an astute judge of talent, loading up on size and skill through the draft (Drew Doughty, Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson) and the trade market (Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Vincent Lecavalier) then filling the holes with capable, heavy bangers. Last year’s stumbles notwithstanding, Sutter knows how to deliver a message and keep the group focused. Another Cup is well within their reach.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (Steve Yzerman GM, Jon Cooper coach)
Yzerman learned from one of the masters of the game in Detroit GM Kenny Holland and it shows in every deliberate move he makes. Gifted with a pair of foundational players in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, he tore down and rebuilt the Lightning roster. His drafts have unearthed several late-round gems, including Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette, and he’s repeatedly struck gold in free agency, signing Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Tyler Johnson and Cory Conacher, who later was dealt for goaltender Ben Bishop. And he’s not afraid to make to make the tough call (see: St. Louis, Martin). He has his hands full at the moment dealing with the Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin contract/trade dramas, but Lightning fans feel secure that he’ll do the right thing.
Cooper was a relative unknown when Yzerman tabbed him to coach the Lightning in 2013, but he has slowly established himself one of the best in the league. He has that coveted knack for nurturing younger players but knows how to get the most out of veterans as well. Together, they have the Bolts positioned to be a top team for the next decade.
4. Dallas Stars (Jim Nill GM, Lindy Ruff coach)
Another Holland protege, Nill is the John Robie of NHL managers. His theft of Tyler Seguin from Boston just three months into his tenure caught everyone by surprise, and set up daring heists of Jason Spezza (Ottawa) and Patrick Sharp (Chicago). While adding those high-priced pieces, he’s kept the Stars in cap comfort by creating opportunities for youngsters like John Klingberg, Jyrkki Jokipakka and Mattias Janmark to make significant contributions. He’s also shown an individualist streak in the draft (Valeri Nichushkin, Julius Honka, Denis Gurianov) and has built a deep and experienced coaching staff. Ruff has been a surprise, proving to be a more agile coach than many expected. He left his dishwater dull defensive style back in Buffalo and embraced a bolder, puck possession game that’s made the Stars one of the most entertaining and successful teams in the league.
5. Buffalo Sabres (Tim Murray GM, Dan Bylsma coach)
Murray’s lack of patience since being hired just over two years ago has been exhilarating. He’s completely reshaped the Sabres into his image, making bold moves with his inherited assets to acquire seasoned performers like Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane and Jamie McGinn, and gambled on Robin Lehner as a future No. 1 in net. His decision to hire Bylsma looks golden as well. The results haven’t always been evident on the scoreboard—just one point separates the Sabres from a return to the NHL cellar—but he has this team playing better by any other measure. Case in point: the Sabres have scored 114 goals and allowed 136 through 51 games this season, a –22 differential. Last season, it was 97 and 181 (–84 respectively). Clearly both men have work to do. Murray needs to add a top-four defender and a top-six winger. Bylsma has to work on possession time and a miserable penalty kill. Still, they’ve combined to get this team moving in the right direction.
Of course, not every combo makes like Matthau and Lemmon. There are some cases where the GM is saddled with an underperforming coach, or vice versa, and some where neither is particularly effective. Here then are the bottom five ...
5. New York Islanders (Garth Snow GM, Jack Capuano coach)
Snow has staged one of the most unexpected career turnarounds in recent memory, transforming himself from a punch line into a widely admired exec with a canny series of cap-related deals and free-agent signings. And thanks to some sound drafting and clever asset management, he’s built a prospect pool that ranks among the best in the league. But while he’s gaining steam, Capuano seems to be running out of track. The Isles remain competitive but inconsistent under him and there’s a growing sense that he may have taken this team as far as he can. A fresh voice might be necessary to get New York over the hump and beyond the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
4. Boston Bruins (Don Sweeney GM, Claude Julien coach)
Julien is one of the best in the business, a Stanley Cup winner with defense in his heart but the smarts to adapt to the changing nature of the game. Give him the right pieces and he’ll give you a contender. The problem is that Sweeney hasn’t given him the pieces. To be fair, that’s not all on him. The rookie GM was charged with clearing the cap mess created by his predecessor Peter Chiarelli and he’s done that. The cost, though, was high, including the selling of future No. 1 Dougie Hamilton to Calgary for a handful of draft picks. After the dust settled, Sweeney left Julien with a defense that was too old and broken down (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg) or too green (Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow, Colin Miller, Kevan Miller) and too many forwards who can’t be trusted without the puck. Tough to believe these two are on the same page.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (Jim Rutherford GM, Mike Sullivan coach)
Rutherford was a curious hire coming off his stewardship in Carolina that yielded the Stanley Cup in 2006 but only one playoff appearance thereafter, and he’s done little to shake the rep he earned there. The Pens haven’t played up to their paper since his arrival, largely because of his decision to hire Mike Johnston as his first head coach. His one major acquisition, Phil Kessel, has been a disappointment, although to be fair, Rutherford got him at a discount and he may yet pay off. But with the ownership situation in turmoil, this team needed a steady, unifying presence at the helm. Rutherford hasn’t been that guy. He does get credit though for hiring Sullivan, who’s brought a wealth of bench experience and a knack for getting the most out of his players. His impact has been immediate. Sidney Crosby has rebounded from a brutal start since Sullivan took over and Evgeni Malkin has clawed his way up to join the league’s scoring leaders. Sullivan is proving himself capable and should stick around well after Rutherford is replaced.
2. Minnesota Wild (Chuck Fletcher GM, Mike Yeo coach)
It’s not that the Wild are bad. Rather, they’re a team that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. At times Fletcher’s been good (signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to free agency mega-deals back in 2012) and at others lucky (salvaging last season with the Devan Dubnyk trade), but he’s surrounded these core players with too many others whose potential he’s overestimated or who simply aren’t that good. Yeo’s been on the hot seat at one time or another each of the past three seasons, which speaks volumes about this team’s tendency to fall into lengthy tailspins. He can’t do anything about the talent, but he’s responsible for the effort and too often the Wild resemble a field of shrinking violets.
1. Winnipeg Jets (Kevin Cheveldayoff GM, Paul Maurice coach)
Cheveldayoff broke free from his Mr. Dithers persona in 2015 just long enough to consummate one of the year’s blockbuster deals, but he’s back to sitting on his hands while two of his key veterans, Dustin Byfuglien and captain Andrew Ladd, race headlong towards unrestricted free agency. And though he’s built an enviable base of young talent, much of it is years away from contributing at the NHL level. With the Jets stumbling to another playoff DNQ, it’s possible that he won’t be around to see that tree bear fruit. Meanwhile, the Jets play hard under Maurice, but they also play stupid. Winnipeg led the league in penalties last season and is on track to do it again. That lack of discipline, combined with bottom-five rankings in both the penalty kill and power play, are on him.
The numbers game
• Roberto Luongo, the NHL’s active leader in career wins (423), has tied Hall of Famer Tony Esposito for seventh place in NHL history and is now 14 victories away from joining Jacques Plante in sixth (437).
• Winnipeg’s Nik Ehlers scored his first career hat trick and at 19 years 347 days became the second-youngest player in Jets/Thrashers history to to do it after Ilya Kovalchuk (19 years 235 days on Dec. 6, 2002 at Washington). Ehlers is also became the third rookie in franchise history to hang a hat trick on an opponent. The others: Tomi Kallio (Nov. 4, 2000 at Boston) and Kamil Piros (April 6, 2003 vs. Tampa Bay).
• Penguins el capitano Sidney Crosby extended his points streak to seven games (5-5-10) and his home points streak to nine (9-6-15). His eight goals in January are tied for the NHL lead with Sam Bennett of the Flames.
• The utter unpredictability of 3-on-3 OT has made it the NHL's greatest rule change.
• Tampa's reported $8.5 million offer to Stamkos is seen as their opening gambit. So, how high are they prepared to go?
• The departure of four veterans in the offseason left the Kings with a leadership. This player stepped up to fill it.