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Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Trophy Tracker: GM award

By Scott Burnside

The NHL General Manager of the Year Award, which will be awarded for just the third time at the end of this season, is a bit of a dog’s breakfast of factors.

What kind of payroll does the GM have to work with? How does he draft? How are those draft picks developed? Has he added the right mix of free agents? Did he make an astute coaching change? In short, it’s a little of this and a little of that. But as we head fully into the second half of this NHL season, here are our top five GMs and some honorable mentions.

1. Doug Armstrong, St. Louis Blues

At the time of this writing, the Blues had the top winning percentage in the Western Conference, were third overall and were a point out of first place in both the Central Division and the Western Conference.

Not bad for a team that is 23rd in the NHL in payroll. Armstrong made the gutsy call 13 games into the season to can head coach Davis Payne in favor of veteran coach Ken Hitchcock, and the results have been stunning. Armstrong's acquisition of much-maligned netminder Brian Elliott in the offseason has turned out to be a stroke of genius; Elliott will travel to Ottawa (where he was essentially run out of town while playing for the Senators) for the All-Star Game next week.

Elliott, a bargain at $600,000 on a two-way deal, and colleague Jaroslav Halak are battling for a Jennings Trophy as the top goaltending tandem in the NHL. Armstrong also added veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who have helped stabilize the team despite injuries to top players like Alex Steen and Andy McDonald.

2. Peter Chiarelli, Boston Bruins

All Chiarelli has done for an encore after his team’s emotional run to the Stanley Cup last spring is assemble a team that is as good as any on the ice at the midway point of this NHL season. Perhaps most impressive is that Chiarelli has positioned himself nicely for the trade deadline with loads of cap space, if he chooses to make additions in preparation for what could be only the second successful Cup defense since 1992. The reason Chiarelli has such flexibility is that his homegrown players -- Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, Milan Lucic and David Krejci -- have turned into core players. In short, the Bruins have it all going on. Again.

3. David Poile, Nashville Predators

You have to go all the way to the very bottom of the NHL’s salary ladder to find the Nashville Predators. But you don’t have to go very far down the standings to find the team, which is why David Poile, in our books, remains one of the game’s very best at team building.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have some tough challenges ahead as he tries to keep both Ryan Suter, who missed Tuesday’s loss in New York to injury, and Shea Weber under contract -- or make sure the Predators get viable returns if they have to part with one of those significant assets. But Nashville is once again in the very thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt, having won five of six and eight of 11. Rarely a big-time player when it comes to the trade deadline or free agency, Poile is once again coaxing just enough offense out of his team to stay competitive while continuing to be one of the most difficult teams to play against. Don’t be surprised if Poile manages to make his team better at the deadline in spite of the challenges he faces.

4. Glen Sather, New York Rangers

There’s a little bit of the Howard Hughes thing going on with the Rangers’ GM. Did he ever appear on camera during the recent HBO 24/7 documentary? And there is always the notion, at least externally, that assistant GM Jim Schoenfeld is the key component to how the Rangers operate organizationally. Regardless, it’s Sather’s name behind the GM title, and no one can argue with the success the Rangers have had this season as they occupy the top spot in the conference and look like a team poised for a long playoff run. Credit Sather and the Rangers for drafting (or signing) and developing a strong, hard-nosed core of players, including captain Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, the undrafted Dan Girardi (who is off to the All-Star Game), Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan. This core and coach John Tortorella are responsible for the team’s personality, illustrated by the fact that the Rangers are tied with St. Louis in goals allowed per game. They also boast the top winning percentage in the league.

That core of players was also instrumental in attracting top free-agent center and former playoff MVP Brad Richards to Manhattan and making the Rangers as dangerous as they’ve been since the glory days of Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, et al.

5. Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators

Poor Murray. He’s in the middle of a rebuild and all of a sudden his team is so good he might end up having to rethink his strategy come trade deadline time. We’re being a bit facetious, but Murray has done an exemplary job of rebuilding this team on the fly. His acquisition of troubled former Phoenix Coyote Kyle Turris has paid immediate dividends, as witnessed by Turris' winning goal against Toronto on Tuesday.

Young players Jared Cowen and Erik Karlsson, who leads all NHL defensemen in points by a country mile, have accelerated the process of returning this team to playoff contender status. Perhaps Murray’s most important piece of work, however, was settling on Paul MacLean as head coach last summer. After a series of disastrous hires, the affable MacLean has quickly established a culture of winning and accountability without alienating his young players (or old ones, for that matter). The fact that the Senators have the fourth-lowest payroll in the league bodes well for the future in the Canadian capital.

Honorable Mention: Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia; Stan Bowman, Chicago; Dale Tallon, Florida; Dean Lombardi, Los Angeles; Mike Gillis, Vancouver

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.