Ranking the 10 Worst General Managing Stints in NHL History
There are still a few substantially long-tenured GMs today who have had mixed runs. But it is not commonplace like it was when the likes of Jack Adams, Tommy Ivan, Lester Patrick, Art Ross, Frank Selke and Conn Smythe ran Original Six front offices.
Instead, the presence of more teams has allowed general managers to charge up more noticeably mixed transcripts by virtue of a great run with one franchise and an egregious stint with another. For instance, Brian Burke helped to bring a Stanley Cup to Anaheim in 2007, but later failed to end Toronto’s protracted playoff drought after three-plus years of trying.
More teams equals a greater quantity of established and aspiring executives, just as it is with players and coaches. Everyone is easier to replace than they were in the six-team days.
In turn, it is easier for GMs to pay a price in the form of their job. They now stand out like a prom night pimple when they set a team back by being too trigger-happy with a coach, making one questionable trade too many or standing idle too long to move a team forward.
Dating back as many as four decades, when expansion franchises started gaining traction, here are the 10 NHL GMs who have had the most forgettable stints with a specific team.
10. Jack Ferreira, Anaheim Mighty Ducks
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As soon as the expansion Mighty Ducks made their first major stride, namely their first playoff appearance and first playoff series victory in 1997, inaugural general manager Jack Ferreira opted to fire the inaugural coaching staff.
The eye-rolling term “philosophical differences” even came up at the time of the dismissal of head coach Ron Wilson, who immediately landed on his feet with assistant Tim Army in Washington. There, they helped the Capitals on a run to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.
Meanwhile, in the team’s fifth anniversary season and first in the post-Wilson era, the Ducks tripped and landed on their faces. The returned to irrelevance with another playoff no-show in 1997-98.
Afterwards, Ferreira stayed in the organization for two more seasons, though he had given way to Pierre Gauthier as general manager. Ferreira’s second coaching hire, Pierre Page, was also his last and was gone after just that one season in 1998.
When Ferreira transferred to Atlanta to assume a less prominent role with the Thrashers in 2000, Elliott Teaford of the Los Angeles Times wrote this of the former Duck GM’s legacy: “After four seasons building the organization's credibility by drafting standouts such as left wing Paul Kariya and defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky and trading for high-scoring winger Teemu Selanne, Ferreira torpedoed all he had accomplished with his decision to sack Wilson.”
Translation: Ferreira could have had a good-to-great managing stint, but egregiously squandered that opportunity and turned it all sour.
9. John Muckler, Buffalo Sabres
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In 1997, Ferreira was not the only NHL executive to mess with success by letting personal differences get in the way. Friction between general manager John Muckler and head coach Ted Nolan sullied the memory of an otherwise progressive season for the Buffalo Sabres.
In mid-May of that year, the New York Times quoted Sabres president Larry Quinn as follows after he removed Muckler as GM: “We have some improvement we have to make in the organization and get into a position where we're stronger in our communication…We felt that John, given the circumstances, was not in position to get it done.”
This came less than a week after the Northeast Division champion Sabres had lost in the second round of the playoffs, 4-1. It came roughly a month before Nolan, who in his second season had orchestrated a 19-point improvement and jump from fifth to first in the division, garnered the Jack Adams Award.
Years after the fact, Western New York reporters continue to refer back to this infamous front office fallout. In 2011, Matt Spielman’s column in the Jamestown Post-Journal referenced “the Ted Nolan-Dominik Hasek feud in the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs that resulted in John Muckler’s firing, Ted Nolan’s low-ball offer and consequently the hiring of Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff.”
Muckler implicitly sided with Hasek in opposition to Nolan when the otherworldly goaltender’s temper repeatedly flared. Not letting the coach tame his players may have factored in to Buffalo’s inability to have a longer, more competitive 1997 postseason.
8. Mike Milbury, New York Islanders
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The New York Islanders last won a playoff series in 1993, late in Al Arbour’s career. Two full decades have since passed and Mike Milbury was in charge for essentially half of the ongoing time line of tribulation.
In the midst of his first full season as the Islanders head coach, Milbury added another bill to his front office hat by plugging the GM vacancy in December of 1995. A little more than a full decade later, he vacated that post at midseason in 2005-06.
During that 10-year span, the Isles went through five different head coaches, besides Milbury himself. Of those coaches, Rick Bowness, Bill Stewart and Steve Stirling did not make it through two full seasons while neither Butch Goring nor Peter Laviolette returned for a third.
Laviolette left the organization after the 2002-03 season, in which the team garnered 12 fewer regular-season points than the year prior and made no postseason progress. But in 2001-02, he engineered a 44-point turnaround from 2000-01 and picked up the Islanders’ first postseason passport since 1994.
The puzzling lack of patience with the best coach he ever hired clashed with Milbury’s willingness to overpay Alexei Yashin on a long-term deal.
Yashin’s buyout under new management in 2007 clouded the fact that he had led or co-led the Islanders in scoring in 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2005-06. Furthermore, the fact that he came in exchange for Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza gives him a spot among a host of Milbury trades that didn’t exactly favor the Isles.
7. Russ Farwell, Philadelphia Flyers
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By the end of the 1993-94 season, Philadelphia’s fifth straight season with no playoff action, Simpson and Farwell were both out of their respective posts.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Flyers immediately rebounded when Farwell’s predecessor, Bobby Clarke, returned for yet another term as GM. In each of the first three years of the post-Farwell era, Philadelphia won at least one playoff round, reaching the conference finals in 1995 and the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997.
One part of the three-headed face of that era, namely the Legion of Doom line, was a post-Farwell acquisition in John LeClair. Naturally, so too was newly hired coach Terry Murray, who finally got the most out of Eric Lindros and other Farwell era imports.
6. Eddie Johnston, Hartford Whalers
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The Hartford Whalers severed ties with general manager Eddie Johnston in May of 1992 after he served three years at that post.
All three of those seasons ended in defeat in the first round of the playoffs, which at the time were division semifinals.
Those were the exact same results in each of Hartford’s three playoff runs―in 1987, 1988 and 1989―immediately before the franchise hired Johnston. In other words, his tenure was manifestly defined by maintaining a status quo that was mediocre at best.
As it happened, those would be the last servings of Stanley Cup tournament action ever conducted in Hartford. The Whalers lasted five more years after Johnston’s exit before they bolted the Connecticut capital themselves and morphed into the Carolina Hurricanes.
A year after that relocation, the newfangled Hurricanes brought back former Hartford franchise face Ron Francis, who had been dealt to Pittsburgh in 1991. It was an unpopular swap made by Johnston, who had clashed with Francis during their overlapping tenures with the Whalers.
To be fair, a new skipper was warranted at the time and Roberts was coming off back-to-back Calder Cup championships as head coach of the Springfield Indians. But he could not remotely translate his success to the major league.
Instead, the Whalers finished 1991-92 with a lower winning percentage than each of the previous two campaigns and Johnston and Roberts left simultaneously.
5. John Ferguson, Jr., Toronto Maple Leafs
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At least Brian Burke hired current Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle, who snapped Toronto’s nine-year playoff drought in his first start-to-finish campaign on the job and the team’s first since firing Burke.
Burke’s predecessor as general manager, John Ferguson Jr., did oversee a playoff season with the Maple Leafs, but it was his first year in 2003-04, meaning the team was largely in place when he arrived.
The Canadian network Sportsnet has a comprehensive capsule of Ferguson’s highlights and lowlights, the latter of which there were plenty.
As the Sportsnet list recounts, shortly before the 2005-06 season, his second on the job, Ferguson rolled the dice on declining and fragile veterans in Jason Allison and Eric Lindros. After the Leafs missed the 2006 playoffs, he made a deal with Boston that had goaltending prospect Tuukka Rask exported in exchange for Andrew Raycroft.
At this point, it is safe to conclude that that deal was more lopsided against the Leafs than the Phil Kessel deal that Burke orchestrated with the Bruins.
Sportsnet also noted that, in May of 2007, on the heels of a second straight non-playoff run, higher-ups in Toronto contemplated hiring “a mentor to help Ferguson.”
Six months thereafter, and two months before finally cutting him loose, club president Richard Peddie told the press that “it was a mistake on my part” to hire Ferguson.
Ferguson was finished by January of 2008, when the Leafs were on their way to another early spring cleaning.
4. Joe Nieuwendyk, Dallas Stars
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Four regular seasons and zero playoff passports later, Nieuwendyk was let go the day after the 2012-13 campaign ended. As if that prolonged string of futility were not enough, one report from ESPN was apt to point out that Nieuwendyk might have thrown the towel in too early this past year.
Of the Stars, that ESPN report read, “They stayed in postseason contention even after longtime captain Brenden Morrow was traded, a week before 41-year-old points leader Jaromir Jagr and Derek Roy were dealt at the trading deadline.”
While Morrow was an on-ice elder statesman whose formative years in Dallas overlapped with Nieuwendyk’s own playing days, Jagr and Roy were among the summer 2012 acquisitions who figured to give the Stars a memorable bounce-back campaign. They could have rinsed out the local fanbase’s vinegar from the previous four seasons, especially a 2011-12 run that culminated in a collapse with regulation losses in each of the final five games.
They still had every chance to do that when the GM moved them out and effectively pulled the plug prematurely with three-plus weeks remaining. Dallas ultimately bowed out of playoff contention amidst another season-ending five-game winless skid, extending its postseason drought to five years, going on six.
3. Mike O’Connell, Boston Bruins
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In a biography of the late Pat Burns, Rosie DiManno quoted former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden as follows regarding Burns’ October 2000 dismissal after three-plus seasons: “Mike O’Connell was the guy really pushing for it. He felt we had to make a change.”
O’Connell was the assistant GM at the time, but on the cusp of succeeding Sinden around the same time that Mike Keenan supplanted Burns behind the Boston bench. The Bruins were no better under Keenan, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
As O’Connell’s tenure continued, the Bruins hired and fired Robbie Ftorek in a matter of less than two seasons. In 2003, Mike Sullivan was next in succession after having just retired from playing and spent one year as a coach with AHL Providence.
Although Boston garnered its second Northeast Division title in three seasons under Sullivan in 2004, it amounted to as much as it had under Ftorek in 2002. In both cases, the Bruins fizzled in the first round of the postseason.
One the other side of the subsequent season-wiping lockout, O’Connell rashly and passively let a potential winning core get away in the form of Sergei Gonchar, Mike Knuble, Michael Nylander and Brian Rolston.
As a consequence, Sullivan’s second season as head coach exposed him for the unripe, unfit NHL skipper that he was. Meanwhile, after trading Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov, the man who enlisted Sullivan, O’Connell, did not make it through the end of 2005-06.
2. Sam McMaster, Los Angeles Kings
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No deal in McMaster’s moribund tenure underscored the going-nowhere state of the Kings franchise quite like the one with St. Louis in 1996. The incomparable, but slowly aging Wayne Gretzky asked his way out of L.A. late that winter in order to improve his odds of chasing another Stanley Cup.
For what it’s worth, Gretzky had reached the finals with the Kings in 1993, one year before McMaster assumed his post as general manager.
1. Ned Harkness, Detroit Red Wings
Before basketball had Rick Pitino, hockey had Ned Harkness, i.e. an accomplished college coach who could not translate his success to the professional game.
Coaching at three different institutions, Harkness compiled a career college record of 384-131-11. But after he tried his luck in the NHL, it was plain that the only similarities between the Harkness-led Cornell Big Red and Harkness-led Detroit Red Wings was the design of their laundry.
After the former Detroit coach and general manager’s passing in 2008, Stu Hackel of the New York Times wrote “Ned Harkness’s excellent collegiate legacy should never be forgotten. His NHL career is one long-time Red Wings fans would like to forget.”
That front office career, which spanned the early 1970s, went down in franchise history under the moniker “Darkness With Harkness.” It half-precipitated and half-prolonged an era in which bystanders looked down on the Red Wings as the “Dead Things.”
The only coach to help the Wings to a winning record in that span, Johnny Wilson, was the last coach that Harkness fired before leaving the team himself in February of 1974. Wilson had gone a cumulative 67-56-22, including 37-29-12 in his only start-to-finish campaign in 1972-73.
The Wings would subsequently make the playoffs merely once more until 1983-84 and did not post another winning record until 1987-88. That was how long it took to restore any light in the wake of the "Darkness."