With this column we welcome Ken Campbell back into the The Hockey News folds. Campbell spent a decade at THN before taking a position with the Toronto Star in 1998, where he forged a reputation as one of the premier hockey writers in North America. He returns to replace Mark Brender as one of the magazine’s senior writers.
No sooner had Mike Keenan been thrown out of Florida on his ear than rumors began circulating he could be headed to the Toronto Maple Leafs should John Ferguson’s rebuilding plan in the Center of the Hockey Universe land with a thud among the corporate welfare bums in the platinums.
It’s no surprise, really. The Maple Leafs could win an environmental award for their reclamation efforts Â– yes, it’s true, they were considering bringing Jason Allison to training camp on a tryout Â– and Keenan is nothing if not recycled. Including his two stints in Florida, that makes eight in the NHL and everyone knows a cat has nine lives.
There are those who will rejoice over Keenan’s fall from grace in Florida. Others would be thrilled if Keenan never again surfaced in the NHL. Some will take a cursory look at his record as a GM and decide he doesn’t deserve yet another chance.
That’s a shame, one almost as devastating as losing a power struggle to Jacques Martin. It’s also a shame that what could turn out to be the last trade of consequence that Keenan ever makes as a GM in the NHL is fraught with landmines and could set the Panthers back for years. Yeah, like they really had a good thing going there, didn’t they?
(Make no mistake, it really was an awful trade no matter how Todd Bertuzzi turns out. The Vancouver Canucks were hoping to maybe get a serviceable player in return for Bertuzzi’s baggage and $5.3 million salary and ended up with one of the best young goalies in the game.)
Because the fact remains, despite his obvious flaws, Keenan is an outstanding hockey mind and a keen judge of talent who has the cojones to make bold decisions and even bolder moves. His reputation as a GM has been sullied by the fact he has left more messes than a three-year-old with anger management problems, but he nevertheless has made some brilliant moves as both a coach and GM.
Check out Joe Thornton’s career trajectory. It’s no coincidence he scored a career-high 37 goals and truly became an offensive force during his one year playing for Mike Keenan with the Boston Bruins. As coach of the Panthers, he got into Olli Jokinen’s face and challenged him to be more than an overweight underachiever. Jokinen responded by leading the Panthers in scoring three straight seasons.
When Keenan wasn’t busy undermining himself with flurries of head-scratching moves, he found time to make some of the shrewdest trades of the past decade. Much of the kudos for the Vancouver Canucks success rightly goes to Brian Burke, but it was Keenan who had the gumption to trade Trevor Linden to the New York Islanders in exchange for Bertuzzi and Bryan McCabe, a move that set the Canucks on the road to prosperity.
In St. Louis, he traded local legend and 50-goal scorer Brendan Shanahan for a shaky youngster named Chris Pronger and helped develop Pronger into one of the best defensemen of his generation. Remember Chris Chelios for Denis Savard? Pierre Turgeon, Craig Conroy and Rory Fitzpatrick for Shayne Corson, Murray Baron and a draft pick? Michel Goulet and Greg Millen for Mario Doyon, Everett Sanipass and Dan Vincelette?
A lot of GMs in this league would love to be that awful.
In the summer of ’05, when he faced the prospect of a nasty contract dispute with goalie Roberto Luongo, he used the new collective bargaining agreement and became the first GM in NHL history to take a player to arbitration. Then he traded Luongo when it became clear the goalie had no desire to stay long-term with the Panthers, a notion Luongo all but confirmed when he signed for less in Vancouver than he would have made in tax-free Florida.
The New York Rangers, meanwhile, have gone through seven coaches since Keenan bolted after winning the Stanley Cup in 1994 and none of them has even approached Keenan’s success. The University of Toronto hasn’t won a championship since Keenan did it in 1984 and the 1987 Canada Cup team that was led by Keenan might be the best hockey team ever assembled.
And this says way more about the Panthers than it does about Keenan, but please do the following: Look at the roster Florida will put on the ice this season and find a more talented one in the previous 12 seasons of the Panthers’ franchise history.
Don’t laugh. You won’t be able to find one.
In the end, what made Keenan such an outstanding coach over the course of his career Â– his strong will, uncompromising attitude and a need to keep people around him on the edge Â– has submarined him as a GM. If Keenan could ever learn to leave well enough alone, he would go down as one of the greatest team builders in the history of the game.
But in 18 years as both a coach and GM he has clearly shown he can’t and the next team that takes a chance on him Â– if anyone does Â– will know exactly what it is getting.
Ken Campbell’s Cuts appears regularly only on The Hockey News.com. Want to get the inside edge from Ken himself? You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of THN’s senior writers, Ken Campbell gives you insight and opinion on the world of hockey like no one else. Subscribe to The Hockey News to get Ken’s expertise delivered to you every issue.