It’s those on the ice night in and night out who do the heavy lifting that propels a team to victory, but it’s the architects behind the scenes that do the tinkering, tweaking and tuning to a roster in an effort to give a collective group of players the best shot at success.
So, given the St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes are the four teams that had the greatest triumphs this season, each team advancing to their respective conference finals and making up the NHL’s final four, it’s no wonder that three of the four team-builders have found themselves as finalists for the GM of the Year Award. The finalists, announced Thursday, are St. Louis’ Doug Armstrong, Boston’s Don Sweeney and Carolina’s Don Waddell.
Make no mistake, either, that post-season results heavily influenced the voting. Unlike the rest of the end-of-campaign hardware, the GM of the Year award, as you might have noted by the timing of the league’s announcement of the finalists, is the lone award that takes into account more than regular season performance. Thus, the Blues, Bruins and Hurricanes earning spots in the third round vaulted their respective GMs into award-contender status.
But which GM actually captures the crown? And which GM(s) outside of the top-three should have been included?
THE CASE FOR ARMSTRONG
Armstrong’s big move wasn’t a deadline deal, nor was it a major off-season signing, though he did make a few of those. What puts Armstrong in position to win the GM of the Year Award is his July 1 acquisition of Ryan O’Reilly. Executing that swap with the Buffalo Sabres, a deal that saw St. Louis offload some dead weight financially at the expense of moving out prospect Tage Thompson, a 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round selection, brought the Blues a legitimate top-line center and one who, by season’s end, was nominated for the Selke Trophy and was almost inarguably St. Louis’ most valuable player from the beginning of the campaign through to present day.
O’Reilly was Armstrong’s masterpiece this summer, no doubt, but the Blues GM also made some astute moves on the free agent market. With O’Reilly aboard to replace what was lost with the trade of Paul Stastny only months prior, Armstrong further bolstered his center depth with the signing of Tyler Bozak, added top-six scoring on the wing in David Perron and capped an excellent free agency period by handing hometown boy Patrick Maroon a one-year pact at an incredible discount.
But Armstrong made a few of his shrewdest moves during the regular season. The first was the choice not to second guess himself when it came to changing coaches, as the firing of Mike Yeo and installation of Craig Berube behind the bench was the impetus for a sudden and much-needed turnaround in St. Louis. The second was calling up Jordan Binnington, who stepped into the crease and provided the Blues with the goaltending they needed to get back on track. And the third was patience. Many outside of the organization believed the Blues had to blow things up, particularly around the time they were a last-place club in early January, but Armstrong stood pat and was patient with the group. He was rewarded when his roster earned a divisional playoff spot, upset the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round, snuck past the Dallas Stars in Round 2 and earned a place in the conference final.
THE CASE FOR SWEENEY
Truth be told, there isn’t all that much that Sweeney did through free agency and the early portion of the campaign that really changed the complexion of his group. Among his free agent acquisitions were backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak, depth defenseman John Moore, bottom-six forwards Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner and not a whole lot else. And it’s not as if Sweeney greatly overhauled his roster on the trade market, either. Prior to the deadline, Boston had executed two relatively minor trades, too. So, not much in the way of action.
Where Sweeney did his best work, though, was at the deadline, and it’s the two deals he pulled off heading into the home stretch and post-season that have put him in position to earn the award. First, seeking size and consistent depth scoring, Sweeney pulled off a swap with Minnesota that sent youngster Ryan Donato and a conditional fifth-round selection the Wild’s way in exchange for versatile forward Charlie Coyle. Days later, Sweeney flipped a pair of picks – a second-rounder in 2019 and a fourth-round choice in 2020 – to the New Jersey Devils for Marcus Johansson. In a matter of days, the Bruins’ depth was elevated significantly, and with an already powerful top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, Boston’s offense was solidified entering the post-season.
The acquisitions have paid dividends in the playoffs, too. Johansson has done his part, posting three goals and nine points through 15 post-season contests, while Coyle has been a standout. In 17 games, he has six goals and 12 points, which puts him fifth in scoring among all Bruins this post-season. The added depth scoring has gone a long way, and Boston is on its way to the Stanley Cup final after sweeping the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference final.
THE CASE FOR WADDELL
Funny how things work out. Waddell’s hiring was lampooned by a number of onlookers in the wake of Ron Francis’ departure, but here the Hurricanes GM is in the running as the top team-builder of the season. Next to no one saw this coming. Then again, next to no one saw Carolina fighting its way to the Eastern Conference final.
Among the first moves Waddell made this summer was a no-brainer at the draft. With the second-overall pick in the Hurricanes’ back pocket, Carolina selected top prospect Andrei Svechnikov, and the rookie made his way into the lineup straight out of training camp. What came in the days and weeks following were a few impactful off-season moves, beginning with the acquisitions of Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland from the Calgary Flames in a blockbuster that sent Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin the other way. (Also acquired in that deal was Adam Fox, who has since been flipped to the New York Rangers for a second-round pick in 2019 and a conditional third-round selection in 2020.) Additionally, Waddell made the signings of netminder Petr Mrazek and defender Calvin de Haan.
But Waddell, who was maligned for the weak return for trading cornerstone scorer Jeff Skinner late in the off-season, completed a few of his best moves once the campaign had begun. Already having signed Mrazek in the off-season, Waddell scooped up netminder Curtis McElhinney off the waiver wire to address Carolina’s goaltending situation and the tandem did wonders for the Hurricanes. And with Carolina was in need of an offensive boost heading into the stretch run, Waddell went out and bought low on Nino Niederreiter, acquiring him from the Wild for Victor Rask, who had fallen out of favor with the Hurricanes.
Carolina embarked on a remarkable run over the back half of the regular season and into the post-season, and the Hurricanes have hope for a brighter future in part because of Waddell’s signings and dealings this season.
WHO WAS SNUBBED?
Even if post-season performance wasn’t a part of the equation, San Jose Sharks GM Doug Wilson should have been one of the three finalists for the award. And given post-season performance does matter, that Wilson isn’t included is tough to understand. Consider the work he’s done this season. He re-signed Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl and Joe Thornton, among other current roster players. Wilson bought out Paul Martin to free up cap space within the organization. The Sharks GM then went out and acquired Erik freakin’ Karlsson before the season began, and then he added to an already-deep team and loaded up for the playoffs by adding Gustav Nyquist to the mix. That’s a busy, busy season, and Wilson’s Sharks are two wins from the Stanley Cup final. Finalist? You can make a case that he should be the winner.
If post-season success was of no consequence, too, one has to think Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee enters the conversation. McPhee’s signing of Paul Stastny last summer gave Vegas among the most dangerous and complete top-sixes in the entire NHL, and the Golden Knights’ post-season preparation included adding Mark Stone, the top trade chip at the deadline.
Finally, it would have been great to see Jarmo Kekalainen get some GM of the Year-type praise for his boldness. The Columbus Blue Jackets GM could have played it safe at the deadline and offloaded Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky before one or both walk in free agency. Instead, Kekalainen went all-in and bought big at the deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from the Ottawa Senators. It didn’t work out in the end, but Kekalainen’s Blue Jackets did deliver a monumental upset sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 1. That’s worth something.
It’s a tough field, but based solely on the effort put in to changing up the roster and modifying the group, the nod should probably go to Armstrong. He overhauled the Blues more than either Sweeney or Waddell altered their respective organizations, and Armstrong even made a coaching change that helped his group get on track. The margin between winning and losing here, though? It’s going to be awfully thin.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.