The Wilke Weekly | NHL GM hot seat edition

Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning announces Jake Virtanen (not pictured) as the number six overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As most fans know, managing an NHL team is a hard job to get and an easy one to lose. The expectations are different for every club – some are expected to be contenders, others hope to make the playoffs, and a few just want to avoid dead last in the standings.

But no matter what the expectations are, there’s one thing for sure that can put a general manager on the hot seat: finishing in the bottom of the league. Today, I’ll look at those general managers who, despite awful finishes last year, survived the offseason, and whether they are likely to survive another.

Joe Sakic – Colorado Avalanche

Finish last season: 30

Standing as of 12/6: 25

After a historically bad 2016-17, there was nowhere to go but up for Sakic’s team, right? Well, not exactly. Thin on defense with few blue-chip prospects, the Avalanche looked just as ragged this season, especially with the potential Matt Duchene trade haunting the team.

Sakic took a lot of heat over the decision to wait on trading Duchene, but in the end, it turned out to be the right move, netting them several picks, including a first-rounder, and high-end prospects Samuel Girard and Vladislav Kamenev.

Sakic has also made some smaller deals that have flown under the radar but become very good. The first was landing college UFA Alex Kerfoot in the offseason. Through his first 26 games, Kerfoot has put up 20 points. Not too shabby. Sakic also snagged Patrik Nemeth off the waiver wire, and while he’s been on IR for a while, he has produced in the 12 games he played for Colorado: six points and over 17 minutes of ice time per game.

Verdict: Safe… for now. This is a prove-it season for coach Jared Bednar, and expectations are low, but Sakic will have to make a lot of savvy moves to see this team through the full-on rebuild it needs. His leash is short, and one slip-up could be his last.

Jim Benning – Vancouver Canucks

Finish last season: 29

Standing as of 12/6: 15

The Canucks were a popular pick to land last in the league this year, with the Sedin twins starting to fade with age and a defense that is not particularly fast or skilled. They did make a change in coaching, with Travis Green getting the promotion from their AHL affiliate.

However, from a team management perspective, Benning’s 2017 is an intriguing one to analyze. The moves he made have all been reasonable. He had a good draft and he signed Sam Gagner, Thomas Vanek, and Michael Del Zotto to unobjectionable contracts.

But the main issue is, as always, what are the Canucks trying to do? Prior to game play Wednesday, Vancouver was sitting in the Pacific’s last playoff spot – but there is no doubt that this is a team anyone would love to face in the first round.

Rookie Brock Boeser has been on fire, and 22-year-old Bo Horvat is right behind him, but aside from those two, no one else on the team has even cracked 10 goals so far. What is keeping them afloat is the surprisingly excellent goaltending from the duo of Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson. But one rookie and some quality netminding does not a contender make.

Benning again seems caught in “rebuild on the fly” mode, which, in his three years in Vancouver, he has never mastered. He also has one hurdle many of the other GMs on this list don’t: His contract is up at the end of the year.

Verdict: Extended, but no one can explain why. Benning seems content to go along with ownership’s plans to pretend like the Canucks are a playoff team. They’re the ones who sign the paychecks.

Ray Shero – New Jersey Devils

Finish last year: 28

Standing as of 12/6: 6

Do I even need to talk about this one? The New Jersey Devils, yes, you read that right, are in sixth place in the entire league.

As GMs go, Shero joined New Jersey with a dark cloud trailing behind him. He’d had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on his team for years and only brought home a single Stanley Cup. He’d traded away top prospects over and over to bring in “depth” signings, and gave out some contracts that put the team in a cap crunch.

But one thing Shero can’t be faulted for is evaluation of young talent. He found the Penguins Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary. For New Jersey, he found a diamond in Jesper Bratt, an out-of-nowhere sixth-round pick who currently has 19 points on the season.

Oh, and there’s that whole Taylor Hall trade. And now the Sami Vatanen trade.

Verdict: Safe as can be.

John Chayka – Arizona Coyotes

Finish last year: 27

Standing as of 12/6: 30

The Coyotes are the only team on this list doing worse than last season. That’s surprising, given how many people (myself included) loved the moves they made in the offseason. John Chayka has been one of the most active GMs in the league, trying to wheel and deal as he guides his team through a massive rebuild.

There is a lot of young talent to like on the Coyotes – Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Clayton Keller, Dylan Strome – and the blue line seems stronger than ever with the additions of Nik Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers, but they can’t seem to put it all together.

Verdict: Safe. Chayka clearly has a vision for the Coyotes, and isn’t afraid to execute it. With a brand-new coach, and only a year of managing under his belt, the new ownership is likely willing to see more.

Ken Holland – Detroit Red Wings

Finish last year: 25

Standing as of 12/6: 24

Much like the Canucks, the Detroit Red Wings have too much pride to admit they need to rebuild. Much of that hesitance is coming not from ownership, but from the front office and Ken Holland himself.

Devoid of true youth (the Red Wings have an average age of 29.9 compared to the league at 27.6) and high-end talent (Dylan Larkin leads the team with 23 points in 28 games), and saddled with several bloated contracts, getting the Red Wings back into competitive shape will be a massive undertaking.

Much like Benning, Holland is also in the last year of his contract.

Verdict: Promoted out of harm’s way. Don’t be surprised to see Holland move into an “advisory” role. He’s a Detroit institution at this point, but the organization can’t afford to have him in a decision-making capacity any longer.


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