Wednesday, May 20, 2020

What was the single worst downgrade in every team’s history?

Let the record show that I tried to stay positive.

Last week, we look at the single biggest upgrade in the history of every NHL team. It was a celebration of smart moves, the sorts of trades, hirings and promotions that set teams on the path towards a championship. It was, by definition, all good.

And almost immediately, I started hearing from readers: Great, now do the biggest downgrades.

The customer is always right, so today is downgrade day. As with last week, we’re looking for direct downgrades in which one guy is clearly replaced by another. Every team has its share of bad trades, and those lists have been done to death, but just making a bad trade isn’t necessarily the sort of player-to-player downgrade we’re looking for. The same goes for coaches, GMs and even owners – who they replaced matters here, because going from a C+ to a C- isn’t much of a downgrade, even if the new guy is a dunce.

One more caveat: I didn’t include any cases of a star player retiring since that doesn’t seem to fit the spirit of the thing. Yes, if Johnny Superstar hangs them up and some career plug has to replace him, it’s a downgrade. But it’s not one anyone is choosing, so it doesn’t work quite as well. (Plus I don’t want this whole list to just be “I can name a guy that retired”.)

With all that in mind, let’s relive some of hockey history’s biggest steps backward.

Anaheim Ducks

The 2003 divorce from Paul Kariya was ugly, complicated and depressing. The Ducks had just made a miracle run to within one win of a Stanley Cup, only to see the front office walk away from the face of the franchise after he refused to take a pay cut. That was bad; watching him reunite with another Ducks icon to chase a Cup somewhere else (and for far cheaper) was worse. Ah well, at least the team will turn around use that money they just saved to land a new top-line left winger to lead the team into the next season and beyond, right? Oh.

The downgrade: Paul Kariya to Vinny Prospal, 2003 (first-line left winger)

Arizona Coyotes

I’m tempted to bend the rules enough to use “tanking an entire season to get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel and winding up with Dylan Strome instead,” but I don’t think it works. And no, I’m not going to say “Winnipeg to Phoenix.” But we do have to go with something ownership-related if only to pay tribute to the story that’s dominated the last 25 years of franchise history. How about the time a not-so-great owner named Jerry Moyes sold the team to, well, basically nobody.

The downgrade: Jerry Moyes to bankruptcy and a league bailout, 2009 (owner)

Boston Bruins

The answer is apparently Milt Schmidt to Harry Sinden, according to a lot of you.

OK, that’s not the answer, but let’s sidetrack for a second because I got a ton of pushback from Bruins’ fans about picking Sinden as an upgrade last week. I was surprised, but after hearing the arguments I can at least kind of get it. But only kind of, because there seem to be a lot of Bruins fans out there who are convinced that Sinden was a bad GM. No, he never won a Cup, but he made the playoffs almost every year, went to multiple finals, robbed the Kings of a first-round pick and then used it on Ray Bourque, stole Cam Neely from Vancouver and then stole Adam Oates to play with him. If you think that’s doing a bad job, you have some very high standards for your GM, and might want to ask a Leafs or Islanders fan what bad management really looks like.

Was Sinden cheap? Sure, but it wasn’t his money. If a team won’t spend, you blame the owner who cuts the checks, not the GM who has to work with the budget. I can concede that Sinden may have been the wrong pick as the Bruins’ biggest upgrade, but the idea that he did a bad job still seems crazy to me.

Anyway, the correct answer for a Bruins downgrade is new GM Peter Chiarelli firing future Cup-winner Mike Sullivan in 2006 to hire Dave Lewis.

The downgrade: Mike Sullivan to Dave Lewis, 2006 (coaching)

Buffalo Sabres

The first thought is losing Dominik Hasek, but he was old when he orchestrated his exit and they replaced him with Martin Biron, who matched him in save percentage in Year 1. But we’ve got other options to work with. One reader suggested the uniform change away from the classic logo, and yeah, that’s in the running. So is the coaching change from 16 years of Lindy Ruff to roughly 50 games of Ron Rolston.

But I’ll go higher up the org chart, with the ownership switch from the occasionally cheap but generally dependable Knox family to John Rigas, who put his son in charge before they both eventually wound up in jail.

The downgrade: Knox family to John Rigas, 1997 (owners)

Calgary Flames

From a personal standpoint as a Leafs fan, I have to say this one worked out great.

The downgrade: Cliff Fletcher to Doug Risebrough, 1991 (GM)

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