We’re a week into the NHL season, which is nowhere near enough time for any reasonable person to start talking about anyone’s job being on the line. Luckily, we’re hockey fans and reasonable has nothing to do with it, so let’s get to the speculation.
Usually when we talk about hot seats, we look at the league’s coaches. After all, as the old saying goes, they’re hired to be fired, and as Todd Richards found out last year, it doesn’t take too many losses at the start of the season to cost a coach his job. But today, let’s aim a level higher. NHL GMs tend to have a little more job security, and most get at least a few years to show progress before they come under fire. And when things get bad, they can often offer up their coach as a scapegoat first. But through all that, at some point, the buck stops with the boss.
Plenty of GMs around the league are probably safe no matter what happens. Guys like Jeff Gorton and Peter Chiarelli have only been on the job for a little over a year. Dean Lombardi and Stan Bowman both have a handful of Stanley Cup rings to ward off any criticism. And John Chayka can’t legally be fired due to child labor laws. But others are facing more uncertainty.
I’ve already singled out on GM for hot seat honors – in Sportsnet’s preseason predictions, I chose Chuck Fletcher as being on the shakiest ground, given that the Wild were old, expensive, hadn’t made a conference final under his watch and had already fired their coach. I won’t pick on him again today, so here are five more GMs who could use a strong season to take some of the heat off.
Jarmo Kekalainen, Blue Jackets
On the one hand, you could argue that Kekalainen hasn’t been given enough time in Columbus. He’s only been on the job since February 2013, and while that actually puts him in the upper half of the league’s GMs in terms of seniority, it’s still less time than you’d ideally give a GM.
On the other hand… well, how much time have you got? The Blue Jackets haven’t won a playoff round under Kekalainen (or anyone else), and they missed the playoffs in each of the last two years. The roster is clogged with bad contracts. Kekalainen made a controversial decision at the draft, grabbing Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Jesse Puljujarvi. And he’s already played his coaching card, having replaced Todd Richards with John Tortorella around this time last year.
Add it all up, and the Blue Jackets are under plenty of pressure to get off to a good start this year. Instead, Tortorella is telling the media that they’re not even close. That’s not a good combination, and you have to wonder how long it might be before president of hockey ops John Davidson gets the urge to clean house and start all over again.
Garth Snow, Islanders
Remember when Islanders’ owner Charles Wang shocked everyone by firing Neil Smith after less than six weeks on the job, then replaced him by promoting the team’s backup goaltender to the GM’s job? It was one of the most bizarre front office moves in NHL history, and we all had a good laugh while wondering how long Snow would last before Wang replaced him with a popcorn vendor.
As hard as it is to believe, that all happened over ten years ago, and Snow is now the fifth longest serving GM in the league. And he’s done a good job, building around John Tavares and putting together a decent young team while weathering off-ice distractions like changes in the ownership ranks and a move to Brooklyn.
But while the Islanders have been good under Snow, they’ve yet to be great, winning just one playoff round and heading into this season well back of the Penguins and Capitals in most Metro power rankings. Most GMs who get a decade at the helm are expected to accomplish a bit more than that, and even given the limitations Snow’s had to deal with, you wonder how long he can last before expectations will climb. Remember, Wang isn’t calling the shots anymore, and the new owners have talked about wanting a championship.
Snow hasn’t changed coaches since 2010, so he may have that option available if things go bad. But at some point, you’d think he’ll need his Islanders to look like true Cup contenders at least once.
Jim Benning, Canucks
Hey, you knew we couldn’t have an early-season doom-and-gloom post without finding room for the Canucks.
Strong start aside, the Canucks were widely picked to be one of the league’s worst teams, even though they don’t seem to think they’re rebuilding. That puts Benning in a rough spot if things go bad, especially given his previous comments about how quickly things could be turned around. Signing a veteran free agent to a long-term deal and trading picks and a top prospect for immediate blueline help only cemented the idea that Benning believes he has a contender right now.
That doesn’t seem completely fair – you get the sense that the “win now” attitude in Vancouver could be driven from ownership more than the front office – but that’s life in the NHL. It’s possible that the Canucks surprise us all with a playoff season, at which point Benning can laugh at all the doubters. But if they miss the postseason, or even end up scraping the cellar, then that rebuild will need to come eventually. And the history of GMs of bad teams being allowed to stick around for the cleanup process isn’t a very long one.
Ken Holland, Red Wings
Wait, that can’t be right.
Ask any fan outside Detroit to put together a list of the five best GMs in the league, and there’s a good chance that Holland’s on it. Since taking over the Red Wings’ job in 1997, he’s won three Cup rings and led the team to the playoffs each and every season. He’s a fixture in Detroit, and the idea of him being on any sort of shaky ground seems unfathomable.
And yet, here we are. This year’s Red Wings aren’t expected to be all that good; they have a shot at extending their playoff streak, sure, but nobody is calling them Cup contenders. Several key players are nearing the end of the line, and while the team has some decent young talent ready to play bigger roles, there’s not enough there for a full-scale youth movement. The franchise no longer seems to be the destination it once was for big-name talent, and there’s a realistic chance that they’ll head into a new arena next year with the worst team they’ve had in decades.
Is all of that Holland’s fault? Hardly, although he hasn’t helped matters by continually throwing big contracts at questionable veteran free agents every summer. But at some point you wonder if the Red Wings don’t decide that it’s time for a change in direction, much as they did a year ago when they walked away from Mike Babcock after he’d spent 10 years behind their bench.
All that said, the idea of Holland actually being fired still seems far-fetched. But could there be pressure for him to step aside, perhaps into a more senior or advisory role, while allowing the organization to transition to some new blood? For the first time in nearly two decades, a change could start to make sense.
Marc Bergevin, Canadiens
There are different kinds of hot seats. There’s the kind where you’ve lost the confidence of your ownership, at which point it’s really only a matter of time until you’re packing up your office. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Montreal, where Geoff Molson has always had Bergevin’s back, at least publicly.
But then there’s the kind of hot seat where the team’s fans lose faith and start to turn on you. Sometimes, you can ride that out, but at some point the calls for your head can get tough to ignore. Perception matters, and if it looks like the customers aren’t happy with the direction the product is going in, management can eventually be left with no choice but to make a change.
It’s fair to say that Bergevin fits firmly into that second category. Granted, this is Montreal, where everyone’s seat is already lukewarm on the day they’re hired. But after a bizarre offseason that included the controversial P.K. Subban trade and Bergevin’s continued insistence on sticking by Michel Therrien, the GM might not fare especially well in a vote of no-confidence among the fan base.
Of course, Carey Price can fix all of this by getting healthy and playing like a Hart candidate again. But if the Habs struggle at any point this season, calls for change are going to come in loudly. You’d have to think that Therrien would be the first on the block, and Bergevin might have no choice but to make a coaching change. But either way, he’ll be under a spotlight all season long – even more than usual in Montreal.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.