For most of the NHL’s awards, the regular season is all that matters. When it comes to the Hart, Norris, Vezina and even the Jack Adams, awarded to the league’s best coach, consideration ends on the final day of the season. It’s the 82-game campaign that helps voters decide who should be honored as the league’s best and brightest, not what happens when the post-season kicks off.
However, the same can’t be said for the GM of the Year award. Introduced in 2010, the award was created to celebrate the architects of the league’s 30 teams, and honor the GM who has constructed the best squad. Consideration, certainly, is given to what happened in the regular season, but the true test of a team’s merit is often what they accomplish when the games matter most. That’s why, unlike other awards, the playoffs help decide the finalists for the GM of the Year honor. It’s also why you won’t find Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan among the top-three vote-getters.
Despite building a team that was lethal in the regular season, winning a second-straight Presidents’ Trophy and finishing atop the toughest division in the league, MacLellan’s Capitals fell short in their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. And given that voting for the award takes place after the second round, it seems that being sent home early was enough that MacLellan was removed from the top GM conversation. Instead, in the running are two GMs who have built clubs that are still alive in the post-season, David Poile and Pierre Dorion, and one in Peter Chiarelli who helped turn a struggling franchise into a playoff team at long last.
So, after a year of building, tweaking and fine-tuning, which GM is set to be celebrated for his clever maneuvering?
David Poile, Nashville Predators
None of the GMs up for the award this season have ever won the hardware, but it feels as though Poile should have at some point. The Predators GM is usually in the conversation when there’s talk about the best team-builders in the league, and it’s been that way for years now. In fact, Poile has been around since the humble beginnings in Nashville, and it feels like there’s never really been any doubt about his job security. In recent years, he has continuously taken a team with a tight budget and turned it into a competitive club. It helps when the scouting staff is strong enough to land some excellent young players in the draft to help refresh the roster, but Poile has also been bold enough to take risks where he sees fit and most of those have paid off.
His Case: The P.K. Subban acquisition. That alone could be Poile's case. Seeing the need to make his team faster and more skilled with the puck, Poile helped orchestrate a trade that shocked the hockey world, sending longtime captain Shea Weber to Montreal for Subban in a one-for-one deal. Trading an Olympian and one of the most respected defenders in the league takes some serious confidence, but Poile pulled the trigger. Though it took Subban a while to get up to speed in Nashville, he’s since become a massive part of what is almost inarguably the best blueline in hockey. You can’t stop there with Poile, though. He signed Filip Forsberg, who was acquired in another Poile masterstroke, to a six-year, $36-million deal that works well for both team and player, and then somehow managed to sign Calle Jarnkrok to a six-year, $12-million deal. Two underrated moves of the off-season, though, were the signings of Yannick Weber and Matt Irwin to round out the defense. Both defenders are making $575,000 this season, a combined $1.15 million, and have played in every single Predators playoff outing. Talk about finding good value. Poile is an expert at that, though. He’s created a true-blue contender, one that is six wins from the Stanley Cup, despite having the seventh-lowest end-of-season cap hit.
Peter Chiarelli, Edmonton Oilers
After winning a Stanley Cup in Boston and building a team that got back to the final once again in 2012-13, the belief when Chiarelli was fired by the Bruins was that he’d only be out of work for a short while. Even the most positive person couldn’t have guessed it would take only nine days for him to be hired by the Oilers, though. In his first season, Chiarelli helped put his stamp on the team, most notably by shipping out a package of picks to bring in goaltender Cam Talbot. The 2015-16 season was a tough one for Chiarelli, though, as an injury to Connor McDavid damaged Edmonton’s post-season chances. However, some wheeling and dealing this past off-season completely changed the Oilers’ fortunes, and Edmonton headed for the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
His Case: Like Poile, Chiarelli saw a way to improve his team and made a bold move to do so. On the same day Nashville completed the Subban trade, Edmonton was also active, shipping Taylor Hall to New Jersey in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson. The trade was instantly criticized as a loss for the Oilers, who had given up a talented scorer for a defenseman who hadn’t yet developed into a top-pairing guy. Larsson sure made the deal look much more even than most believed it to be, though. He skated 20 minutes a night in the regular season and took on more ice time than any other Oilers rearguard in the playoffs. More importantly, however, he offered Edmonton some much needed stability on the blueline. But Chiarelli didn’t stop at Larsson. He also chased down defenseman Kris Russell in free agency, signing him to a one-year deal to further solidify the back end, while making a big splash by signing hulking winger Milan Lucic to a seven-year, $42-million deal. And, with the Oilers in a playoff position, Chiarelli added center David Desharnais to try to shore up the middle of the ice for a post-season run. That run lasted far longer than most would have expected, with Edmonton pushing Anaheim to seven games in the second round before bowing out of the playoffs. It sure looks like the Oilers will be a force in the coming years, though.
Pierre Dorion, Ottawa Senators
With Bryan Murray stepping aside following the 2015-16 season, Dorion was handed the reins as the club’s GM after spending nearly a decade in the organization. In 2007-08, Dorion came in as the director of amateur scouting and, by 2009-10, had moved up to become the director of player personnel. He became an assistant GM midway through the 2013-14 campaign and stayed in that role until his promotion to the top job. He wasn’t taking on an easy task, though. The Senators looked to be moving in the wrong direction, having suffered a 14-point decrease from the 2014-15 season, and Dorion was coming into an organization that was looking for some much needed guidance behind the bench.
His Case: Unlike the other finalists, Dorion’s biggest move wasn’t a trade. Rather, it was the hiring of coach Guy Boucher. The one thing the Senators had struggled with dearly in 2015-16 was keeping the puck out of their net, as they finished 26th in the NHL with 241 goals against. In just one year, though, Boucher made Ottawa the 10th best defensive squad in the league and a club that allowed 210 goals against. That comes from the stifling defensive structure Boucher has instituted. And while some will argue it’s dreadful to watch, that doesn’t change the fact it has helped the Senators earn a berth in the Eastern Conference final. Dorion didn’t make any big splashes in free agency as the Senators continued to operate with a tight budget, but he did make one notable deal to help spark a turnaround, landing Derick Brassard from the Rangers in exchange for Mika Zibanejad. The swap gave Ottawa a more experienced center to bolster the team’s top six. Dorion also went out and acquired goaltender Mike Condon when the Senators desperately needed another hand in net, as well as making swaps to acquire Tommy Wingels, Alexandre Burrows and Viktor Stalberg, each of whom have contributed to the post-season run.
The Winner: Hiring Boucher was a savvy decision by Dorion and Chiarelli’s Hall-Larsson swap was a bold move that worked out well for the Oilers. That said, neither Dorion or Chiarelli can really hold a candle to what Poile has done this season. The Subban-Weber trade was a genius trade to bring more youth, speed and skill to an already young, fast and talented defense, and that Poile managed to improve the defense further by spending a mere $1.15 million is incredible considering the Oilers paid Russell almost three times that amount. And in everything that was mentioned about Poile’s great season, left out were the in-season acquisitions of P-A Parenteau, Vernon Fiddler and Cody McLeod. Small or big, all three have played at least some part in this playoff run. Poile is running a masterclass in building a top team on a budget right now and he deserves to be recognized for it.
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