5 NHL Teams That Continually Made Bad Front-Office Decisions

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistJune 13, 2021

5 NHL Teams That Continually Made Bad Front-Office Decisions

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    The hallmark of a successful NHL franchise is its front office, led by its general manager.

    A fine example is the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning under GM Julien BriseBois and his predecessor, Steve Yzerman. Since 2014-15, the Lightning reached the Cup Final twice (winning in 2020), won the Presidents' Trophy in 2019. This year also marks the fifth time they have reached the NHL postseason final four.

    On the other hand, there are some NHL teams with a long and ugly history of mismanagement.

    Some, like the Buffalo Sabres, made a series of questionable moves for a decade. A few are hopeful of forging new paths to emerge from the mistakes of previous management. Some have improved in recent years but still made puzzling moves with long-term consequences.

    Here's a look at five NHL clubs hampered by bad front-office decisions in recent years. Team performance, playoff appearances, postseason records, drafting, trades and free agency factored into this compilation.

Arizona Coyotes

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    Following a six-year playoff drought between 2002-03 to 2009-10, the Arizona Coyotes made three consecutive playoff appearances, culminating in reaching the Western Conference Final in 2012. In the years since, however, they have reached the playoffs just once.

    Having failed to garner much success with experienced management executives, the Coyotes surprised the hockey world in 2016 by hiring a 26-year-old John Chayka as their general manager. A hockey analytics guru, he was expected to provide a fresh approach to building a playoff contender in Arizona. Instead, his inexperience led to questionable moves that failed to improve the Coyotes.

    Chayka had a couple of early hits at the draft table, selecting winger Clayton Keller and defenseman Jakob Chychrun in 2016. He didn't fare as well over the following three drafts, with little to show for his selections. On Jan. 17, The Athletic's Scott Wheeler placed the Coyotes 25th in his annual ranking of NHL prospects.

    The young Coyotes GM made some decent trade acquisitions, bringing in Darcy Kuemper, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Schmaltz. He also made some blunders, such as swapping Max Domi for Alex Galchenyuk, acquiring aging winger Phil Kessel, and making a short-term gamble on Taylor Hall that failed when he departed months later as a free agent.

    He also had a mixed record in contract signings. While he inked young Coyotes like Schmaltz, Chychrun and Christian Dvorak to affordable deals, he overpaid Keller (eight years, $57.2 million) and veteran defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (eight years, $66 million).

    On Aug. 26, the Coyotes were sanctioned by the league for violating its 2020 draft combine rules. That cost them a second-round pick in 2020 and a first-rounder in 2021. By that point, however, Chayka had quit as GM prior to the 2020 playoffs.

    The Coyotes hired away Bill Armstrong from the St. Louis Blues in September as Chayka's replacement. It remains to be seen whether he'll succeed where Chayka failed.

Buffalo Sabres

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    Between the Buffalo Sabres' inaugural season of 1970-71 and their 31st season in 2000-01, they missed the playoffs just six times. Since 2001-02, they have reached the postseason just four times, the most recent being 2010-11. During that period the Sabres changed owners three times. The current ownership of Terry and Kim Pegula have had control of the club since 2011.

    The Pegulas inherited general manager Darcy Regier, who had been in the job since 1997. Having been kept to a strict budget by previous ownership, Regier watched star forwards Daniel Briere and Chris Drury depart via free agency and traded Brian Campbell to the San Jose Sharks rather than lose him to the free-agent market.

    Under the Pegulas, Regier was allowed to spend heavily on free agents, signing Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff to expensive deals. Leino and Ehrhoff were subsequently bought out by Tim Murray, who replaced Regier in 2014.

    The former assistant GM of the Ottawa Senators, Murray attempted to rebuild with young talent such as Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart and 2015 second overall pick Jack Eichel. He also acquired two-way center Ryan O'Reilly from the Colorado Avalanche. However, he made a big free-agent signing that failed to pan out by inking Kyle Okposo to a seven-year, $42 million deal in 2016.

    After three seasons without notable improvement, Murray was replaced in 2017 by Jason Botterill, a former assistant GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Under his watch, the Sabres selected promising defenseman Rasmus Dahlin first overall in the 2018 NHL draft.

    Botterill, however, got little in return for trading O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues. He also overpaid Jeff Skinner with an eight-year, $72 million contract. With the Sabres still spinning their wheels, Buffalo replaced Botterill in 2020 with Kevyn Adams. In his first season on the job, the Sabres finished at the bottom of the NHL standings. 

    Under those four general managers, the Sabres went through seven head coaches. With that much instability in the front office and behind the bench, it's little wonder this club is at perhaps the lowest point in its history with little sign of improvement.

Florida Panthers

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    Since their NHL debut in 1993-94, the Florida Panthers have reached the playoffs just seven times. One reason why is they have gone through 11 general managers during that period. Among them were Bobby Clarke, Bryan Murray, Bill Torrey, Chuck Fletcher, Mike Keenan and Jacques Martin. The longest-tenured was Dale Tallon, who held the position for 10 seasons until 2020.

    That much front-office volatility hurt the Panthers' development, including some questionable trades. The worst occurred in 2006 when Keenan shipped goaltending superstar Roberto Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks. It also resulted in numerous coaching changes, with 16 bench bosses throughout their franchise history.

    The Panthers had their difficulties at the draft table between 1993 and 2010. During that period they selected noteworthy players such as Ed Jovanovski, Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, Erik Gudbranson and Jacob Markstrom. None of them, however, blossomed into franchise players or superstars. Most wound up enjoying their best seasons with other NHL clubs. 

    Only since 2011 after selecting Jonathan Huberdeau (2011), Aleksander Barkov (2013) and Aaron Ekblad (2014) have the Panthers finally drafted and developed players considered upper-echelon NHL stars. Nevertheless, it took years to surround them with a suitable supporting cast.

    Tallon may have brought a measure of stability to the Panthers' front office but he also had his share of mistakes. The most recent include giving up Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017 and signing goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million contract.

    Bill Zito replaced Tallon as general manager in September. The Panthers have also had longtime NHL coach Joel Quenneville as head coach since 2019-20. Under those two, the Panthers finished fourth in this season's overall standings. This could be a sign that Zito and Quenneville could be on the path toward reaching the franchise success their predecessors failed to achieve.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    It's been 54 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Between 1967-68 to 2003-04, however, they were a regular playoff contender, failing to qualify just 11 times. Between 2005-06 and 2015-16, they made just one trip to the postseason.

    Part of the reason was an aversion to rebuilding the roster. As the Leafs floundered, general managers from John Ferguson Jr. to Cliff Fletcher to Brian Burke to Dave Nonis put their faith in trades and free agency instead of drafting and developing young talent. Few of their deals panned out.

    Ferguson Jr. signed a fading Eric Lindros and traded the rights to Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft. During his brief tenure, Fletcher overpaid for free-agent defenseman Jeff Finger.

    Burke acquired Phil Kessel from the Bruins in exchange for two first-round picks that became Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. He also brought in defenseman Dion Phaneuf in a seven-player swap with the Calgary Flames and signed rearguard Mike Komisarek, but neither move bolstered the Leafs blue line. Nonis added David Clarkson and Stephane Robidas via free agency, but they couldn't improve the club's fortunes.  

    Under Lou Lamoriello and his successor, Kyle Dubas, the Leafs finally put the focus on a full-scale roster rebuild in 2015. They have reached the playoffs in each season since 2016-17 thanks to young stars such as Auston Matthews, Mitchell  Marner and William Nylander.

    Still, they couldn't resist making big free-agent signings to accelerate the rebuild. Lamoriello signed an aging Patrick Marleau to a three-year, $18.75 million contract in 2017. Two years later, Dubas had to package Marleau with a first-round pick to get the Carolina Hurricanes to take him off their hands.

    Dubas, however, made his own expensive mistake in 2018. Despite the Leafs finishing among the league's highest-scoring teams, he signed center John Tavares to a seven-year, $77 million contract. That deal has handcuffed the Leafs, leaving them little salary-cap space to bolster their roster depth. As a result, they are still seeking their first playoff series victory since 2004.

Vancouver Canucks

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    Hired by the Vancouver Canucks as general manager in 2014, Jim Benning set about attempting to retool a roster in decline since its march to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. With the club missing the playoffs in six of his eight years at the helm, there is little indication his efforts are working.

    Benning set about rebuilding in earnest after the Canucks failed to qualify for the postseason in 2015-16. He hit the jackpot at the draft table, landing young stars Brock Boeser (2015), Elias Pettersson (2017) and Quinn Hughes (2018).

    His trade record's been mixed. He acquired versatile forward Nick Bonino from the Anaheim Ducks in 2014 for Ryan Kesler but shipped him off to the Pittsburgh Penguins a year later for Brandon Sutter. Benning gave up two prospects and two draft picks for Tyler Toffoli at the 2020 NHL trade deadline, only to watch him head to the Montreal Canadiens later that year as a free agent.

    Benning's worst decisions, however, are his expensive free-agent signings who eat up valuable salary-cap space without improving the club's performance.

    The most egregious was winger Loui Eriksson's six-year, $36 million contract in 2016-17 with no-trade protection through the first four years. Brought in for his offensive skills, Eriksson's production steadily declined during his time in Vancouver.

    That didn't prevent Benning from other forays into the free-agent market.

    In 2017, he signed Sam Gagner to a three-year, $9.45 million contract and Michael Del Zotto to a two-year, $6 million deal. In 2018, it was Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel (four years, $12 million each). In 2019, defenseman Tyler Myers (five years, $30 million) and winger Micheal Ferland (four years, $14 million). Last year, Braden Holtby at two years, $8.6 million.

    Gagner and Del Zotto were traded away. Beagle, Ferland and Roussel have been sidelined by injuries and contributed little when healthy. Like Eriksson, Myers and Holtby are in decline.

    Every NHL general manager has made a free-agent signing or two they have come to regret. Benning, however, has made so many that they have slowed his efforts to build around his promising young nucleus. Those moves also gobbled up valuable salary-cap space.

                

    Salary info via CapFriendly. Additional information via HockeyDB and Hockey Reference. 

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