A general manager's importance to a team can't be understated.
It's the GM who drafts the players, the GM who makes the trades and the GM who is ultimately responsible for where his team goes.
Hockey fans have seen franchises turned around in a few short years by the right GM, and have also seen the destructive power a poor choice can have on a franchise. Simply put, the GM can make or break a franchise.
These five GMs have proven themselves to be more than just above-average; they are the premiere GMs of the NHL.
Before we get started, there's a few people who bear mentioning.
Some GMs make a lot deals, some of them very good and some extraordinarily bad, and work with the end result. I believe Paul Holmgren and Glen Sather might fall into that group.
In the end, they put out a quality team stocked with talent. However, it seems like they make a few bad deals for every decent one managed.
Other GMs simply haven't had a chance to prove themselves: Steve Tambellini has drafted a whole lot of great players—including three straight No. 1 overalls—but it's too early to see the real results of the players he's assembled.
The GMs that follow, since taking over their current team, seem to be perpetually bettering that team. There are no lulls and no whopping mistakes, just frugal choice after crafty decision.
Dave Tallon has been a GM for a long time, but his abilities were truly shown off when he took over for the Florida Panthers in 2010. After the 2011 season, the Panthers made a major offseason splash by signing a boatload of free agents on July 1, the day they became available.
That day, the Panthers signed Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Jose Theodore, Ed Jovanovski and Marcel Goc to multi-year contracts, while also trading with the Philadelphia Flyers for Kris Versteeg.
They also acquired UFA-to-be Tomas Kopecky and re-signed him just days before, and acquired Brian Campbell from the Chicago Blackhawks during the NHL entry draft.
It was about as large a single-season turnaround as fans are likely to see, and it paid off: the Panthers made it to the postseason for the first time since 2000 and came close to advancing, too, before losing at home in double overtime of Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils.
Prior to his time in Florida, Tallon was GM of the Chicago Blackhawks. While there, he was responsible for drafting phenoms Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, while also trading for Versteeg and Patrick Sharp and signing free agents Campbell and Marian Hossa.
Though he was not GM when the Hawks won the Cup, he is still recognized as a crucial member in building that team, and was rewarded with his name on the Cup.
In his time with the Los Angeles Kings, Dean Lombardi has stockpiled a humongous amount of talent through both trades and drafting.
Through the draft, he's picked good players in later rounds—Wayne Simmonds (61st overall), Alec Martinez (95th overall) and Dwight King (109th) just in 2007—while still picking up quality stars when given the opportunity (Drew Doughty, second overall 2008).
Trading, though, is what got the Kings to championship level. Lombardi acquired ex-Flyers Jeff Carter, Mike Richards through trades, complementing a roster already filled with great trades: Jarrett Stoll and Matt Greene joined the team from the Oilers in 2008.
He received Justin Williams from the Hurricanes in 2009, Dustin Penner near the end of the 2011 season and Colin Fraser during that offseason.
In free agency, Lombardi has also struck gold on valuable players, signing Willie Mitchell in 2008 and Simon Gagne in 2011.
And while the Kings are in the spotlight now because they won the Cup, Lombardi has in place a roster than will contend for many years to come: Richards, Carter, Doughty and Quick all have long-term deals in place, while Stoll, Kopitar and Williams will all be locked up for at least another three years.
David Poile is the only GM the Nashville Predators have ever known, and boy, has he done right by them.
It's tough to take over for an expansion team—and especially when the team is based is a city as hockey-centric as Nashville—and even harder to manage a team that is working on a tight budget, but Poile has done his job perfectly, building the Predators into a powerhouse.
In arguably the greatest draft class ever, he nabbed two of the year's top defensemen with Ryan Suter an No. 7 overall and Shea Weber at 51st. In 2004, he stole perennial Vezina challenger Pekka Rinne at 258th overall.
Besides the biggest names, he's also churned out a lot of other very good players: He took Martin Erat 191st overall in 1999, Dan Hamhuis 12th and Jordin Tootoo 98th overall in 2001 and Patric Hornqvist with the last pick (230th) in the 2005 draft.
Poile was faced with a huge decision this offseason when the Flyers made a larger-than-life offer sheet on Weber, but Poile rightfully matched the offer and kept his franchise player in town. He'll likely continue to strengthen his team despite rivals with more than $10 million in extra salary available each year.
Lou Lamoriello is currently the longest-serving one-term GM in the NHL. Looking at his accomplishments, it's easy to see why.
Lou was hired as President of the Devils in 1987, and named himself GM—despite no previous NHL experience of any kind. In his first season, the franchise recorded its first winning record ever.
In the years that followed, Lamoriello built up a previously-unknown team to a champion. The Devils made their first Finals appearance in 1995, sweeping the Detroit Red Wings. Since then, the Devils have made four more Finals appearances, winning in 2000 and 2003 and losing in 2001 and 2012.
He's shown time and again that he knows what he's doing when drafting, scoring great picks both super-early in the draft—Scott Niedermayer at third overall in 1991, Bill Guerin fifth overall in 1989—and in later rounds: Patrik Elias (51st overall in 1994), Brian Gionta (82nd overall in 1998) and Adam Henrique (83rd overall in 2008).
In the '90s, Lamoriello seemed to hit his stride of drafting in very late rounds and finding gems for other teams; among those drafted by Lou were Stephane Yelle (186th overall 1992), Valeri Zelepukin (221st overall 1990), Steve Sullivan (233rd overall 1994), Willie Mitchell (199th pick 1996) and Scott Clemmensen (215th overall 1997).
Lamoriello has also excelled with late first-round picks, trading up for Zach Parise in 2003 (17th overall), grabbing Petr Sykora 18th overall in 1995 and, of course, taking the all-time winningest goalie, Martin Brodeur, at 20th overall in 1990.
Additionally, he managed Travis Zajac with a 20th pick (2004), Scott Gomez with a 27th pick (1998) and Brian Rolston with an 11th pick in 1991.
He's also brought some highly talented, undrafted players into the league, including John Madden, David Clarkson and Brian Rafalski, and always seemed to know when to trade for a difference-maker: He acquired Claude Lemieux and Alex Mogilny in 2000, Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner for 2003 and for the team's most recent playoff run, he got Alexei Ponikarovsky and Marek Zidlicky.
In 23 seasons as Devils GM, Lamoriello has only missed two playoffs in 1996 and 2011. He's been a picture of consistency and has given his team a chance to win every single year. He's done everything a GM could be asked to do, and he's done it well.
The Red Wings are the one team more consistent than the Devils under Lamoriello, and that has everything to do with Ken Holland.
No one seems to understand the draft like Holland; among his best late-round picks were:
- Pavel Datsyuk, 171st overall in 1998
- Henrik Zetterberg, 210th overall in 1999
- Jimmy Howard, 64th overall in 2003
- Johan Franzen, 97th overall in 2004
To get a player like Datsyuk that late in the draft is amazing. To get a player arguably just as good the next year, later in the draft is nearly unthinkable. The fact that he's kept it up since is just admirable.
In 2002, Holland got Jiri Hudler (58), Tomas Fleischmann (63), Valtteri Filppula (95) and Jonathan Ericsson with the last pick of the draft, No. 230.
Holland has led his team to countless accolades, including Stanley Cups in 1998 (his first season as GM), 2002 and 2008, eight division titles and four Presidents' Trophies. His Wings have also made the playoffs every year he's been general manager (and a few before that as well).
The Red Wings have become the team in the NHL that makes the playoffs, that contends year after year, and that keeps churning out great players who want to play great hockey, and the man behind the scenes of all of that is Ken Holland.