Monday, May 11, 2020

What was the single biggest upgrade in every team’s history?

NHL franchises are constantly looking to improve, both on and off the ice. Whether it’s the first-line center, the starting goalie, the coach or GM, or even the owner, everyone has an important role to play. And the journey towards a Stanley Cup is a long, slow process of finding marginal improvements at every spot, hoping to get a little bit better with every change.

Sometimes. Other times, you can change everything by replacing one guy with somebody who’s just way better at their job.

That’s what we’re looking for today, as we ask a simple question: What’s the single biggest upgrade in franchise history for every NHL team?

First, let’s be clear about what we’re looking for. We don’t just want to find the most important person in a team’s history, because that’s only half of the equation. Who they replaced matters too because we’re looking at how big the gap was from old to new.

For example, I’m not sure anyone in NHL history has ever been as good at what they did as Montreal Canadiens GM Sam Pollock, but do you know who he replaced? Frank Selke, who held the job for nearly 20 years and won six Cups. That’s passing the torch from one legend to another, but it’s not a huge upgrade, so Pollock won’t be our pick in Montreal.

We’re also looking for cases where the upgrade is pretty much immediate. We’ll allow for a brief transition when it comes to owners or the occasional very short stint by an interim GM, but in general, we’re not interested in cases where there were several years or faces in between two names, or for situations where a new player took several years to evolve into a star. In fact, we won’t see many players on this list at all, because it’s rare to see a scenario where there’s a clear and immediate changing of the guard, especially for skaters. Connor McDavid is the best player in the world, but he was only third in team scoring in his first year in Edmonton. We want instant results, or at least something close. Out with the old, in with the new, and just like that everything changes.

You probably already have somebody in mind for your favorite team. Let’s see if I can land on the same name, as we work our way through the entire league.

Anaheim Ducks

We’re going alphabetically, but the Ducks are a good place to start since they’re not an especially easy call. I’m not sure any players fit, although maybe the arrival of Paul Kariya or Scott Niedermayer could work. They’ve typically had reasonably good coaches. They won a Cup with Brian Burke as GM, but predecessor Bryan Murray did a lot of the heavy lifting. Let’s look to the top, with the Samueli family taking over from Disney in 2005. Disney had been solid owners in the teams’ early years but had clearly lost interest in the franchise by the time the lockout rolled around, and relocation was even starting to seem possible. Instead, Henry Samueli arrived, signalling the franchise’s shift from walking advertisements for a movie series to a real hockey team.

The upgrade: Disney to the Samuelis, 2005 (owner)

Arizona Coyotes

As a player, there may have never been anyone better than Wayne Gretzky. As a coach … well, he was a heck of a player. He probably sold a few tickets in his four years behind the Coyotes’ bench, but he never got them into the playoffs and only barely cracked the .500 mark once. Replacing him with Dave Tippett led to an immediate 28-point jump, three straight years in the playoffs and the longest postseason run in franchise history.

The upgrade: Wayne Gretzky to Dave Tippett, 2009 (coach)

Boston Bruins

Our first Original Six team gives us nearly a century to work with, but we don’t need to overthink this one. Milt Schmidt did a decent job as GM for five years from 1967 to 1972, even winning two Cups. But he did that largely on the strength of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Gerry Cheevers, all of whom were on board before he arrived. Then he gave way to Harry Sinden, who held the job for almost 30 years during which the Bruins were playoff mainstays and perennial Cup contenders.

The upgrade: Milt Schmidt to Harry Sinden, 1972 (GM)

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres are a tough one. Dominik Hasek wasn’t much when he first arrived, and when he did blossom into a superstar he took over from another Hall-of-Famer in Grant Fuhr. Gilbert Perrault was there from Day 1. Lindy Ruff replaced a reigning Jack Adams winner. And while we’d probably have said the Pegulas a few years ago, that wouldn’t hold up as well today. I’m going to reach back to 1979, as the Sabres lure Scotty Bowman away from the Habs. He only lasted one year as coach, which was always the plan, but stayed for seven seasons as GM. He didn’t deliver a Cup or even much in the way of contending after the first few years, but the hire gave the decade-old franchise a huge dose of credibility (and helped short circuit a rival’s dynasty).

The upgrade: John Anderson to Scotty Bowman, 1979 (GM)

Calgary Flames

I don’t think the Jarome Iginla deal works; he wasn’t really replacing Joe Nieuwendyk and didn’t even debut in Calgary until months after the trade. Mike Vernon nudging out Reggie Lemelin? Maybe, but that was a gradual process. Most of the key parts of that 1989 Cup win were draft picks who were eased in. So I’m going to go with a different goaltending pick, one which didn’t result in a Cup but probably should have: landing Miikka Kiprusoff from San Jose, then watching him take over from Roman Turek a month into the season.

The upgrade: Roman Turek to Miikka Kiprusoff, 2003 (starting goaltender)

Carolina Hurricanes

Another tricky one – I’m still not sold on the Tom Dundon era – but we did say we were looking at franchise history, so the Whalers are in play. Let’s go with a pick that spans the Hartford and Carolina years, with the hiring of Jim Rutherford in 1994 to end Paul Holmgren’s brief and rocky stint as GM.

The upgrade: Paul Holmgren to Jim Rutherford, 1994 (GM)

Chicago Blackhawks

This is the easiest call on the entire list. Rocky Wirtz hasn’t been a perfect owner, and it would be simplistic to pretend that he deserves all the credit for the Hawks’ return to relevance and (eventually) championships. But as far as upgrades go, they don’t come any bigger than the ownership transition that followed the death of Bill Wirtz.

The upgrade: Bill Wirtz to Rocky Wirtz, 2007 (owner)

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