Anaheim's Brian Burke tops THN's list of the best GMs in the NHL. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
In the April 1 edition of The Hockey News magazine, senior writer Ken Campbell, after speaking with several industry insiders and experts, ranked each NHL GM 1-30. Below you will find the rankings and the cover story from the issue on the No. 1-ranked Brian Burke. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
There was a time when Brian Burke was one of the primary architects of the collective bargaining agreement. These days, however, his command of the document is so suspect he has to have others decipher the finer points of it for him.
And therein lies the genius of the Anaheim Ducks GM, ranked No. 1 in the NHL by The Hockey News this season. Burke believes a GM’s role is far too demanding to be preoccupied with the minutiae of the CBA, particularly when he has a Stanley Cup to defend.
“You don’t need to master the cap because I really don’t think it’s a good use of a GM’s time spending hours poring over a CBA and spreadsheets to see where things fit,” Burke said. “Get someone to do that. Just like I don’t drive the Zamboni, either. I have someone do it. It’s a fairly important part of our game production, but I don’t do it.”
We don’t know who the Zamboni driver is at the Honda Center these days, but when it comes to surviving in the salary cap world, Burke leaves that to assistant GM David McNab. It was McNab who navigated the Ducks around the whole “tagging” phenomenon when they were fitting Scott Niedermayer’s salary back into the equation this season.
They did, and somewhere along the line, the Ducks got even better. When it looked as though Niedermayer might retire, Burke boldly went out and got Mathieu Schneider to replace him and worried about the ramifications later. He replaced Teemu Selanne with Todd Bertuzzi. In bringing back Niedermayer and Selanne, he managed to get both future Hall of Famers into the lineup without losing, with apologies to center Andy McDonald, any key components.
“We’re lucky we have an owner (in Henry Samueli) who was willing to step up to replace those guys when they came back,” Burke said. “We’re way over budget, but Henry stepped up. I thought Teemu was going to retire. When he hugged me on the ice after we won, I thought he was going to tell me right there. Scotty, I wasn’t ready for. It was nice they both came back, but we felt we had to replace them.”
It was basically assumed the Ducks were going to lose Schneider once Niedermayer returned. But Burke is a firm believer that defense wins championships, so he set out to find another way. That’s when he and his staff began working their way through the “tagging” concept, which is predicated on creating cap room by having expiring contracts.
And it was in that area McNab and the league office were godsends for Burke.
“I’ve read the agreement and I knew the concept as far as how it worked,” Burke said. “But I didn’t know (the specifics). I think any GM who tells you he did going into this season is lying.”
It’s no coincidence the top three GMs both last season and this season have a track record of surrounding themselves with good people and giving those people the latitude to do their jobs. Instead of feeling threatened, Burke, Lou Lamoriello and Ken Holland are secure enough with their own skills that they aren’t worried one of their employees is clandestinely undermining their efforts.
For Burke, it’s McNab and hockey operations director Bob Murray upon whom he leans. Both men have a very strong background in player personnel matters.
Their work allows Burke to do his, much of which is encompassed by working the telephones constantly in an effort to see if there can be anything done to enhance his roster.
But Burke said his most crucial move was one he made fewer than two months into his tenure in 2005. That was when he pulled Randy Carlyle out of the AHL instead of recycling another coach from around the league.
“The single most important thing a GM does, and it’s miles ahead of anything else, is hire a coach,” Burke said. “You need to find a guy who can get the team to where it needs to be and then get out of the way. If I talked to Randy Carlyle 10 times last summer, that would be a shock to me. The one decision that will get you famous or get you fired, is who will coach your team.”
While a GM’s career body of work carries significant weight, our rankings focus more on performance over the past year, including at the recent trade deadline.
1. Brian Burke, Anaheim
The only thing missing from Burke’s portfolio was a Stanley Cup, which he accomplished last season with the Ducks. Burke has helped build one of the NHL’s top teams, but what’s even more impressive is how he took a very uncertain Scott Niedermayer situation and made his team better. Instead of waiting to see whether Niedermayer would retire, he went out and signed Mathieu Schneider, then managed to juggle his payroll. Burke is unafraid to make big, high-risk moves if he thinks it will improve his team. In Vancouver, he managed to cut payroll, make the Canucks better and fill the building. Burke can be confrontational and brash, but he’s also terrific at what he does.
CAREER 375-305-132 (.543)
PLAYOFFS 7-5 series record
2. Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey
Pat Quinn once referred to Lamoriello as a “coach killer” and for a while, it was difficult to argue with that description. But when Lamoriello needed another coach last summer, instead of recycling a retread, he went out and hired the best one outside the NHL in Brent Sutter. Lamoriello initially had trouble managing his salary cap, but he has stickhandled around it quite nicely, all the while providing more fodder to those who believe he actually runs the league. Lamoriello oversees a ruthlessly efficient operation and can be difficult to work for, but the reward is you get to be part of an organization singularly dedicated to winning. How the Devils are winning after losing Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski is one of hockey’s enduring mysteries.
CAREER 816-552-223 (.583)
PLAYOFFS 22-14 series record
3. Ken Holland, Detroit
One great story about Holland occurred when he was GM of the Red Wings’ farm team in Glens Falls, N.Y. He was at the AHL governors’ meetings and the board was considering awarding zero points for a tie. “Let me get this straight,” Holland said. “We’re telling people, ‘What you just saw, nothing happened. (Expletive) off, go home. By the way, we play again next Tuesday.’ ” Holland doesn’t have the academic credentials of GMs such as Burke and Lamoriello, but there might not be a brighter mind in the game. His player-procurement abilities are legendary and he continues to keep players in Detroit for less than market value. Trading terrific prospect Shawn Matthias for Todd Bertuzzi last season is one of his few clunkers.
CAREER 485-210-115 (.670)
PLAYOFFS 13-7 series record
4. Bob Gainey, Montreal
Gainey took a considerable amount of heat for not landing a big-name player at the trade deadline and for dealing away No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet for a second round pick. But Gainey doesn’t take his morning coffee without ruminating on what effect it will have, so he didn’t take his actions/non-actions at the deadline cavalierly either. First, he decided Huet would never carry the Habs to a championship and dispatched him. It’s called being decisive. He also realized Marian Hossa wasn’t worth the package Atlanta was demanding. Gainey surrounds himself with competent people and, while a consensus builder, he also allows them the freedom to do their jobs without meddling. He remains one of just seven current GMs to have won a Stanley Cup.
CAREER 546-380-149 (.577)
PLAYOFFS 12-8 series record
5. Darryl Sutter, Calgary
Having Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Dion Phaneuf and Miikka Kiprusoff under contract for the next five seasons at a combined salary cap hit of $23.3 million ensures the Flames will be a force and also have enough cap room to fill out their roster with a good balance of players. Hiring Mike Keenan last summer was a bold move fraught with the potential for disaster, but Sutter also had the good mind to hire a coach he knows shares his values and philosophies. The only problem is, aside from the Flames’ unlikely run to the Stanley Cup final in Sutter’s first year as GM, Calgary has underachieved in a big way and must make a playoff push now.
CAREER 167-108-41 (.593)
PLAYOFFS 3-3 series record
6. Doug Risebrough, Minnesota
Risebrough is another GM who would be ranked even higher if his teams ever had a long, successful playoff run. But you cannot diminish the job he has done with the Wild from the ground up. In Jacques Lemaire, the Wild has one of the best coaches in the NHL. They have drafted well and are not afraid to let their young prospects develop in the NHL as evidenced by Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Brent Burns and James Sheppard. Risebrough has assembled a very good roster – with a lot of cap room to spare – and has emerging young stars in Miikko Koivu, Nick Schultz and Burns committed long-term for reasonable money.
CAREER 387-341-141 (.528)
PLAYOFFS 2-5 series record
7. David Poile, Nashville
If there is any man better at building an organization than Poile, let us know where to find him. All Poile has done throughout his career is draft incredibly well, quietly make blockbuster deals and maintain franchise stability that is almost impossible to find in today’s NHL. Because of circumstances beyond his control, Poile lost Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Tomas Vokoun, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell over the summer, but plugged the holes, mostly from within, to keep his team competitive in the ultra-tough Western Conference. The lack of a Stanley Cup remains a huge void in his portfolio. Not only that, with a couple of rare exceptions, his teams have not been built for success in the playoffs.
CAREER 912-758-197 (.541)
PLAYOFFS 7-17 series record
8. Brett Hull/Les Jackson, Dallas
A tandem that had potential for disaster when it replaced Doug Armstrong earlier this season has worked out splendidly for the Stars. Not only have Jackson and Hull changed the culture surrounding the team, they’ve also worked a number of young players into the lineup without sacrificing victories. Jackson and Hull won the day at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Brad Richards; they were clear winners of the sweepstakes because they weren’t afraid to step up and offer market value from the start. Jackson is pensive and thoughtful, while Hull is brash, outgoing and quotable, but both men are intensely competitive. It will be interesting to see whether they can co-exist under the current arrangement over the long term.
CAREER 35-18-5 (.647)
9. Doug Wilson, San Jose
When Wilson acquired Brian Campbell at the trade deadline, he finally got a player with a significant post-season pedigree. For the most part, however, Wilson has yet to address the major flaw in his organization – the lack of a bona fide winner with a successful history who can help the Sharks’ young players through the adversity the playoffs always bring. Getting a first round pick for Vesa Toskala was a good transaction, but the best move in the deal was convincing the Leafs to take $2-million fringe player Mark Bell as well. The Sharks continue to have a lot of young assets, which gives Wilson a certain amount of latitude to make deals without damaging the future of the franchise.
CAREER 179-95-42 (.633)
PLAYOFFS 4-3 series record
10. Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia
For all of the changes Holmgren has made to the Flyers’ roster, they still might not make the playoffs this year. But that is light years removed from the colossal morass he inherited when he took over the team early last season. His return on the Peter Forsberg trade alone gives him high marks, but he also showed some real ingenuity this summer when he traded the first-rounder in that deal back to Nashville to obtain Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Some have justifiably questioned the wisdom of signing Daniel Briere, Mike Richards, Hartnell and Timonen to such long deals at guaranteed money and Holmgren’s stock will drop significantly if it turns out the Flyers are saddled with a bunch of bad contracts.
CAREER 81-112-29 (.430)
11. Jim Rutherford, Carolina
Say what you will about Rutherford, but the man is not afraid to make significant changes if he sees a weakness in his roster. However, he’s constantly having to plug holes by making trades to make up for his organization’s spotty drafting record. The man who traded Chris Pronger and ultimately turned him into Rod Brind’Amour has never been afraid to make a bold move at the trade deadline – or any other time. Getting Matt Cullen back from the Rangers in the off-season was a good move. He also has the core of a pretty good team under long-term contracts.
CAREER 441-428-152 (.506)
PLAYOFFS 7-3 series record
12. Francois Giguere, Colorado
Giguere inherited a franchise on the decline more than a year ago and while he hasn’t exactly vaulted it back into contender status, he has done an admirable job of righting things in Colorado. Despite his inexperience, he showed a certain amount of veteran savvy last summer when he identified Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan as the two unrestricted free agents he wanted and proceeded to go out and get them. Getting Forsberg and Adam Foote at the deadline were easy moves given their history with the Avs. Giving Brett Clark a $2-million raise and making him a $3.5-million-a-year defenseman was the mother of all head-scratchers.
CAREER 81-58-13 (.576)
13. Ray Shero, Pittsburgh
Opinions among hockey people vary wildly on whether or not Shero overpaid at the trade deadline for Marian Hossa, a player he has almost no chance of signing long-term if he wants to keep the rest of his current roster intact. It says here he did not overpay, but even if he did, you have to admire the gumption he showed in committing so much to a rental player. Unless, of course, you believe ownership or other outside forces were driving the bus on this deal. Shero obviously inherited a very good situation, but GMs with bigger egos would have been determined to put their stamp on the team and risk ruining a good thing. Shero has not done that, all the while tweaking things for the better.
CAREER 87-47-18 (.631)
PLAYOFFS 0-1 series record
14. Peter Chiarelli, Boston
Chiarelli has done a credible job of rebuilding the Bruins and has iced a team that many (all right, The Hockey News) picked to finish last overall in the Eastern Conference. Even though Chiarelli signed Zdeno Chara as a free agent two summers ago, his best moves have been behind the bench. First he hired Claude Julien as coach and, in a very good, but underrated move, hired Craig Ramsay as an assistant coach. The Manny Fernandez signing can’t be properly evaluated until Fernandez gets healthy, but so far it has been a washout. Trading Brad Boyes for Dennis Wideman…not such a great move. But picking up the useful Glen Metropolit was a coup by Chiarelli.
CAREER 71-66-14 (.517)
15. Darcy Regier, Buffalo
How can we rate Regier so highly when he has: a) failed to come to terms with his team’s three best players?; b) let two of them get away and got nothing in return?; c) traded his best defenseman while his team was fighting for a playoff spot?; d) dismantled one of the best scouting staffs in the league?; and, e) has presided over the Sabres as they’ve gone from Stanley Cup contender to barely middle-of-the-pack? Because he’s taking the bullet for an owner (Thomas Golisano) who refuses to spend money despite the fact the Sabres have essentially sold out every game the past two seasons and have gone on long, lucrative playoff runs. Regier is a good hockey man and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him leave at the first opportunity.
CAREER 390-299-120 (.556)
PLAYOFFS 10-6 series record
16. David Nonis, Vancouver
Through his entire tenure with the Canucks, Nonis has been unable to address the team’s most glaring weakness – secondary scoring beyond the Sedin twins and Markus Naslund – and it may cost the club a playoff spot this season. But Nonis has had his brilliant moments, too. His acquisition of Roberto Luongo for Todd Bertuzzi will go down as one of the greatest ripoffs of all-time and his defense corps is solid (too bad about Mattias Ohlund’s late-season knee surgery, but you can’t blame the GM for that). Not getting Brad Richards at the deadline was bad enough, but not getting him because Nonis was unwilling to part with Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler borders on inexcusable.
CAREER 125-83-25 (.590)
PLAYOFFS 1-1 series record
17. Glen Sather, New York Rangers
What to make of Sather? He had a Hall of Fame career followed by a hall of shame career during his tenure with the Edmonton Oilers. When he got the unlimited budget with the Rangers he had been craving, he very nearly ran the team into the ground. Now that he has to work within the confines of a salary cap, Sather has built a good roster largely from within and has still managed to sign big-time players in Gomez and Chris Drury without getting into cap trouble. He has also exhibited the patience and acumen for player development he had in his early days with the Oilers. Getting Christian Backman from the Blues on deadline day was a very underrated deal.
CAREER 1,011-850-276 (.538)
PLAYOFFS 32-13 series record
18. Don Maloney, Phoenix Coyotes
Maloney doesn’t have a huge body of work with the Coyotes, but the fact they were competing for a playoff spot and not the No. 1 overall draft pick is nothing short of amazing. Of course, much of that has to do with the acquisition of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov from Anaheim, which he simply did by putting in a waiver claim. Not a very difficult decision. But Maloney also signed Bryzgalov to a three-year deal and, for the first time in a while, there are signs of hope in the desert. Look for Maloney to insert 2007 No. 3 overall draft pick Kyle Turris into the lineup after the college season comes to an end. Turris ranked No. 2 in our Future Watch 2008 issue of prospect rankings, behind only Carey Price.
CAREER 133-148-32 (.476)
PLAYOFFS 2-2 series record
19. Garth Snow, New York Islanders
Snow gambled and lost at the trade deadline last year when he dealt for Ryan Smyth, only to win one game in the playoffs and watch Smyth bolt as an unrestricted free agent in the summer. Snow has made some pretty solid moves, although it wasn’t as if Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie and Ruslan Fedotenko were flooded with free agent offers last July. He had nothing to do with the hiring of Ted Nolan as coach and the signing of goalie Rick DiPietro to that 15-year deal. Aside from the DiPietro contract, however, Snow has done a reasonably good job of giving himself latitude by keeping his players on short-term contracts, particularly veterans who can sometimes become albatrosses.
CAREER 72-62-19 (.533)
PLAYOFFS 0-1 series record
20. Jacques Martin, Florida
Martin continues to clean up the wreckage left by Mike Keenan, but the feeling is his personality is such that he’ll never do anything that carries much of a risk to it. Center Shawn Matthias, whom Martin got in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi, is showing signs of being a great prospect. He ranked No. 12 in Future Watch. Martin gave up a good chunk of the Panthers’ future in the form of draft picks when he acquired Tomas Vokoun from Nashville. He and his people acquired Chad Kilger from Toronto without doing much of a background check, then were forced to suspend Kilger because personal issues prevented the winger from reporting to the team. Martin has the Panthers going in the right direction, just not quickly enough.
CAREER 67-62-24 (.516)
21. George McPhee, Washington
McPhee’s Capitals went to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, the first season he was GM, but have yet to win a playoff series since and could miss the playoffs this season for the fourth straight year. McPhee has spent much of his energies keeping payroll at a reasonable level and building for the future, but sooner or later this group is going to have to achieve something tangible. Getting Mike Green 29th overall in 2004 is one of those renowned draft selections. McPhee was bold at the trade deadline, picking up Cristobal Huet, Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke. He fired Glen Hanlon as coach and was lucky with Bruce Boudreau. If McPhee and all the other GMs knew Boudreau would be this good, Boudreau wouldn’t have coached 1,000 games in the minors.
CAREER 344-345-120 (.499)
PLAYOFFS 3-4 series record
22. Dale Tallon, Chicago
For all of the positive changes the Blackhawks have made since the death of owner Bill Wirtz, they find themselves on the outside looking in for a fifth straight season when it comes to the playoffs. Sooner or later, all of those high picks in Chicago – 17 first- and second-rounders in the past five drafts – are going to have to start delivering instead of just showing promise. The decision not to send Patrick Kane back to major junior was a good one, as was the move to get Jonathan Toews out of college and into the NHL. We like Patrick Sharp and all, but he looks like he might be one of those good bad-team players who isn’t worth a $3.9-million cap hit for each of the next four seasons.
CAREER 90-116-29 (.445)
23. Cliff Fletcher, Toronto
Fletcher inherited the mess left by deposed John Ferguson and while he was marginally successful at doing some surface cleaning, no-trade clauses prevented him from making the sweeping changes the organization needs to get back on track. There are a number of theories on how Fletcher could have handled the no-trades and one of them would have been to play hardball with those who refused to be dealt. That, however, isn’t Fletcher’s style and he’s still stuck with some overpaid veterans. Even though he was brought in as a custodian until the new GM is hired, doubling the salary of an underachieving Alex Steen was a curious move to say the least.
CAREER 1,011-851-325 (.537)
PLAYOFFS 15-20 series record
24. Bryan Murray, Ottawa
There is little recent history upon which to judge Murray, but his handling of the Sens’ goaltending and coaching situations has been the target of well-deserved criticism. First, he signed Ray Emery to a three-year deal worth $9.5 million and allowed Emery to bring in his own goalie coach. Murray could have, instead, allowed Emery to take the team to arbitration and the award would have only been for one season. Then, despite the fact there is little history to suggest promoting an in-house assistant to the head job results in success, Murray handpicked John Paddock as his replacement, then was forced to fire him after the trade deadline. Murray’s entire body of work as a GM is respectable, but his recent performance has been spotty.
CAREER 471-393-157 (.538)
PLAYOFFS 7-8 series record
25. Scott Howson, Columbus
The 47-year-old former Oilers assistant GM, who took over a Columbus club seemingly in constant turmoil, will undoubtedly grow into his role as the boss. His inability to get Brad Richards at the trade deadline hurt his cause. There have been varying opinions on the Adam Foote deal to Colorado in which his team received a first round pick. In some corners, Howson has been applauded for getting so much for a veteran who, depending upon whom you believe, probably wasn’t going to stay in Columbus beyond this season. Others have vilified Howson for trading such a heart-and-soul player with the Jackets battling for a playoff spot. “He cut the ba--- off his team,” one NHL source said. All he could get for Sergei Fedorov was a marginal prospect in defender Theo Ruth.
CAREER 31-28-11 (.521)
26. Larry Pleau, St. Louis
Team president John Davidson has become so involved in player personnel decisions that none of Pleau’s latest work can be scrutinized without including Davidson. Davidson and Pleau continue to rebuild the Blues, but when all is said and done, this team won’t be much better than it was last season. Hiring Andy Murray to handle the Blues’ young players was a smart move. Trading a first round pick for Keith Tkachuk and signing Paul Kariya to a three-year deal worth $18 million? Not so much. The management duo received some criticism for how it handled Doug Weight’s situation – basically telling him to waive his no-trade clause or go home – but it took a certain amount of courage and it made the team better.
CAREER 404-335-149 (.539)
PLAYOFFS 5-7 series record
27. Dean Lombardi, Los Angeles
Lombardi is a good GM who is having a bad run lately. In San Jose, he built a very good organization and was moderately successful, but his foray into Los Angeles has seen him struggle mightily to try to bring the Kings back to respectability. It didn’t help that all of his off-season acquisitions with the possible exception of Tom Preissing – Kyle Calder, Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy and Brad Stuart – have been very expensive disasters. He placed his faith in Jason LaBarbera, which wasn’t a totally bad idea considering the promise the goaltender had exhibited. Failing to get Rob Blake to waive his no-trade clause so he could get some youth in return was a blow.
CAREER 292-318-116 (.482)
PLAYOFFS 2-5 series record
28. Don Waddell, Atlanta
When people thought Waddell overpaid for Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline last year, he said, “Talk to me after the playoffs.” Then his Thrashers bowed out meekly in four games in the first round and won’t make the playoffs this season. Unfortunately, the future doesn’t look terribly bright in Atlanta, though Waddell did manage to get a good return for Marian Hossa at the deadline. Tobias Enstrom is turning out to be a steal – the Swedish defenseman was drafted 239th in 2003 – but there are just far too many holes in the roster and far too little has been done to fill them. With very few notable exceptions, the Thrashers’ record at the entry draft has been dismal.
CAREER 234-319-92 (.434)
PLAYOFFS 0-1 series record
29. Kevin Lowe, Edmonton
No, you bunch of wisenheimers, Brian Burke was not doing these rankings. It’s simply a coincidence that Lowe’s stock has plummeted in part because of the Dustin Penner signing that Burke so resented. But Lowe’s offer sheets to Thomas Vanek and Penner did little more than drive up the cost of doing business, something the Oilers railed against for years. The Oilers lost Smyth over a difference of $100,000 and Lowe later admitted he regretted the move. He also wildly overpaid for players who got hot at the right time and brought the team to the Stanley Cup final in 2006. His return on the Chris Pronger trade, particularly since he dealt Joffrey Lupul last summer, was negligible.
CAREER 256-213-93 (.538)
PLAYOFFS 3-3 series record
30. Jay Feaster, Tampa Bay
With the demise of the Lightning almost complete, there have been few teams in history that have gone down the sinkhole faster than Tampa Bay. Of course, none of them had to deal with a salary cap, but the Lightning’s mismanagement of the cap has been spectacular. It all started when Feaster let Nikolai Khabibulin go and put his faith in John Grahame. The dominoes fell at a furious pace after that. Tying so much money up in three players was a death wish, particularly since the Lightning has done such a terrible job of drafting and developing players. The Lightning just finished dead last in THN’s Future Watch rankings of prospects for the third straight year.
CAREER 205-163-57 (.549)
PLAYOFFS 5-3 series record
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