Who is the NHL’s best GM?
Tampa’s Julien BriseBois certainly deserves a lot of credit. After all, his team just won the Stanley Cup last season and is back in the semifinal right now. The salary cap has been no friend of the Lightning’s for a few years, but BriseBois has worked to stay in compliance and still find a way to add to his team — and, sure, the whole Nikita Kucherov thing helped that situation this season.
Kucherov’s injury that kept him out the entire regular season gets all the attention, but there’s more to BriseBois’ full body of work. He also masterfully managed to re-sign Brayden Point in 2019 to a bridge deal without having to lose key pieces of his core. He re-signed everyone he needed to, in fact, though with Kucherov back on the books Tampa is already projected to be over the cap next season. Now BriseBois has to navigate through another off-season of balancing the cap and maintaining as much of his roster as possible. Sure, Steve Yzerman still has a hand in today’s Lightning, but BriseBois has only improved the situation.
How about Joe Sakic in Colorado? Remember the criticism lobbed his way when it was taking so long to trade Matt Duchene? The move eventually went down about a month into the 2017-18 season and Sakic was the undisputed winner of it: Sam Girard is a big piece of the Avs today and the first-round draft pick Sakic received eventually became Bo Byram, who will be a fixture on Colorado’s blue line for years to come. That’s half of Colorado’s long-term, top-four defencemen acquired in one deal.
Sakic morphed Colorado from a historically terrible team in 2016-17 to one of the league’s best in the past couple of seasons. He, too, will face a challenging summer, with captain Gabriel Landeskog and goalie Philipp Grubauer UFAs, sensational defenceman Cale Makar an RFA and, perhaps, a decision to make on what to do with Nazem Kadri.
Don Waddell in Carolina? They’ve only gotten better under his guidance. Don Sweeney in Boston? He won the GM of the Year Award in 2019, has balanced an ageing team with a narrowing window and its future, and picked up the best acquisition at this year’s trade deadline for a bargain. The hardest lifting is ahead, though, as Boston does face an inevitable changing of the guard in the coming years. It started last off-season when Zdeno Chara walked, and now similar calls must be made on UFAs Tuukka Rask and David Krejci.
The finalists for this year’s Jim Gregory Award, given annually to the league’s GM of the Year, were announced Thursday and none of those names were included. Montreal’s Marc Bergevin, Florida’s Bill Zito and the Islanders’ Lou Lamoriello are the three up for the award this season.
When we talk about who the best GM is in the game, we really have to take the long view into consideration, but this is a yearly award that acknowledges what these GMs have done to set their teams up for success this season. So how do these three measure up, and who could we put in the “snub” category?
Marc Bergevin, Montreal
Bergevin went all-in on these Habs. The signing of Tyler Toffoli at a $4.25 million AAV has turned out to be an incredible bargain. The trade for, and then signing of, Josh Anderson has mostly worked out and he’s definitely been an upgrade from Max Domi. Jake Allen was a key addition and the better regular-season goalie for Montreal, while acquiring veteran Corey Perry has really started paying off in the playoffs especially.
Bergevin also saw rookies Alex Romanov and Cole Caufield graduate to the NHL lineup, two draft picks of his who will be big factors for the Canadiens in the years ahead. The fact the GM of The Year Award is voted on after Round 2 of the playoffs (instead of before the playoffs like the other major awards) is a huge reason why Bergevin is here — his team did not meet expectations in the regular season, but they’re showing why they believed they were built for the playoffs.
“The work Marc Bergevin did leading up to this season is the best he has done since he arrived in Montreal…”@LouisJeanTVAS discusses Marc Bergevin being up for GM of the Year w/ @JeffMarek @jtbourne and @StuMunrue #HockeyCentral #GoHabsGo.
Full pod:https://t.co/HiQODTRlSo pic.twitter.com/9s31lsx73y
— Sportsnet 590 The FAN (@FAN590) June 17, 2021
Is Bergevin among the best GMs in the game? It’s a complicated question. This is his ninth season on the job and he’s already been granted the leeway to re-tool this team once, and those efforts began to mature this year. He’s been bold. He won the P.K. Subban-Shea Weber trade that was largely panned at the time, and in acquiring Nick Suzuki he also came away as a mutual winner in a trade that was difficult to make. His teams have made the playoffs six of nine seasons, won three division titles, and this year is the second time Bergevin’s Habs have reached the third round of the playoffs.
Bill Zito, Florida Panthers
Zito is the finalist with the shortest tenure so far, but who had a huge impact on Florida’s fortunes.
As he was hired in September of 2020, we don’t have a long view of Zito’s work, but he made several key additions to this year’s team. Carter Verhaeghe had good scoring-rate numbers in Tampa Bay, but just wasn’t given much ice time. Zito swooped in, signed him for $1 million and watched the player finish third in team scoring. He also signed Patric Hornqvist — a key veteran contributor who had one of his most productive seasons — Anthony Duclair and Alexander Wennberg.
Zito’s big move at the trade deadline was to acquire Sam Bennett, who was an absolute monster down the stretch and then scored five points in five playoff games, though he was suspended for one. Bennett helped make the Panthers a harder team to play against with his physical nature and is known for turning up his offensive game come playoff time — that’s what Zito was counting on, and it worked, even if the Panthers failed to get their first playoff series win since 1996.
Lou Lamoriello, NY Islanders
Lamoriello will be included in any conversation to do with who the best GM in the game is. His accomplishments in New Jersey are legendary. He helped build up the Leafs, and some in that market rue the day the team let him go. Now he’s built out an Islanders team defined by its process, and found players to fit within it.
The Islanders lost their captain and leading goal scorer Anders Lee midway through the season, so Lamoriello traded for goal-scorer Kyle Palmieri and depth veteran Travis Zajac for the playoff push. Neither produced all that much post-deadline, but both have come up big in the playoffs as the Islanders reached the semifinal two years in a row.
Lamoriello won this award last season for similar reasons — he added J-G Pageau via trade and the forward turned into a key cog in last season’s run. The Isles GM could become the first two-time winner of the award.
So those are the finalists. Again, the voting for this occurred after Round 2 of the playoffs. How different would the results have been if this were voted after the regular season ended, as every other award is?
Who was snubbed for doing an excellent job building up their teams? We’ll start with a couple of guys mentioned off the top. As can be the problem with Jack Adams voting, the results can often favour a winner whose team overachieved the most, instead of rewarding the truly best at the position. Sakic and BriseBois have a track record a few years long of doing good work from the GM’s chair and neither have won the GM of the Year Award yet. Both would have been worthy finalists in 2021.
Joe Sakic, Colorado Avalanche
Sakic has the history of putting together a contending team over a few years, but his work even just for this season is worth a finalist nod here.
His acquisition of Devon Toews for two second-round picks may have been the best trade of the year, folks. In the RFA of the Islanders’, Sakic added a solid top-four defender for peanuts and has him under contract for a very reasonable $4.1 million another three seasons. He’s a value at that number and when you consider Girard ($5 million) is signed long-term and Byram has two more years on his entry-level deal, it opens up more room than there should be to re-sign Makar and continue on with a lethal defence corps.
Sakic also found a short-term upgrade by trading Nikita Zadorov to Chicago for Brandon Saad before the season began. Zadorov was pushed out of relevance on this team by the rise of the younger puck-movers and Saad brought a 15-goal season followed by a seven-goal playoff in 10 games. Alex Newhook, a Sakic draft pick, came late after his NCAA season ended and started to show flashes.
For a GM in Sakic’s position, who has already done most of the build-up work, finding value and winning trades that give your team an incremental boost is all you’re really after now. He hit those out of the park.
Julien BriseBois, Tampa Bay Lightning
First off, no rules were broken by Kucherov sitting out the regular season and the NHL didn’t find any wrongdoing, so BriseBois deserves no penalty for the fact he spent nearly $100 million on this team. A GM’s ability to work with and around the cap is part of the job — that Tampa was still one of the best teams without Kucherov is a credit to how this team has been built.
That cap management allowed BriseBois to splurge at the deadline again, acquiring the top defenceman available in David Savard and adding a heck of an asset to the third defence pair.
There doesn’t appear to be much room for the Lightning to work around the cap for next season and they’ll lose a quality player to Seattle in all likelihood — so perhaps BriseBois will get more credit if he gets through all these questions again and the Lightning remain a force in 2021-22.
Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Many people won’t like this, but it’s true. Had the GM of the Year Award been voted on before the playoffs started, Dubas would have gotten plenty of consideration.
Prior to this season, one of the top critiques of Dubas’ work was that he wasn’t open enough to adding “grit” or “leadership” — certain elements that maybe can’t be measured, but are important in the locker room and in specific, big-game moments. He addressed those issues on this year’s Leafs, bringing in a multitude of veterans, targeting defensive commitment at the deadline and upgrading the blue line to the point where it’s hardly an issue anymore.
The regular-season results were absolutely there and it looked as though at least one playoff series win was coming. Then the meltdown happened, panic ensued from the fanbase, and all of those decisions from the GM were questioned again. Watching Lamoriello’s team thrive in the playoffs again made none of this easier in Leafs Nation.
There’s a good team here and Dubas has tried to complement his stars in a variety of different ways. That his top players did not meet expectations is hardly on the GM, who put together a roster that really was far and away the best regular-season team in Canada.