Washington Capitals, 1982-1997
Nashville Predators, 1998-present
Patrick Division Title, 1988-1989
Playoff Appearances: 1983-1996, 2004-2008, 2010-2012
With the exception of a one season hiccup (1996/97) Nashville Predators General Manager David Poile has been one of the longest serving active GMs in NHL history. This present season marks his 29th year of service as a general manager. (As of 2013 only Jack Adams, Art Ross, Conn Smythe, and Glen Sather have served longer). He took two expansion franchises and helped them achieve legitimacy and competitiveness through his unstinting efforts.
He has brought many a young talent into the NHL with his keen and wizened eye for amateur talent; and has supplemented those young talents with brilliant, slick trades and/or free agent acquisitions of veteran players.
According to my rating system (and not counting this present season) David Poile is ranked sixth among all active NHL GMS in career value (between Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero and Vancouver’s Mike Gillis) but only 15th in Average Season Rating (between Philadelphia’s Paul Holmgren and Buffalo’s Darcy Regier); and given Nashville’s shaky performance this present season it is a distinct possibility that Poile’s career value and ASR will decline once this present season is completed and Nashville fails to have a winning season and make the playoffs.
Despite the longevity of his NHL managerial career, David Poile never dominated the NHL managerial ranks in terms of performance. Using my rating system to calculate his managerial performance during the past 30 years, we find that Poile was tied for 8th place with the late Keith Allen during the 1980s; he ranked 20th (between Pat Quinn and Bobby Smith) during the 1990s; he was tied for 28th with Jacques Martin during the 2000s; and is presently ranked 11th during the 2010s—between Don Maloney and Glen Sather—although, again, this will change once this present season is completed.
To place David Poile’s managerial performance in even greater historical context, he was the 7th best GM during the Second Expansion Era of the NHL (1979-1991) between Bobby Clarke and Irving Grundman; he was the 29th best GM during the Third Expansion era (1991-2001); and he is presently the 12th best GM during the 21st century (between Pierre Lacroix and Darryl Sutter) in terms of performance.
What is the secret to Poile’s NHL longevity? One factor was that he was born to the role. His father is the late Norman “Bud” Poile who played in the NHL and served as the inaugural GMs for both the Philadelphia Flyers and the Vancouver Canucks; and worked as an executive in the WHA until 1976. Bud became an HHOF inductee in 1990.
In short, David Poile had the genes to become an NHL manager. He played NCAA hockey at Northeastern University (where he was team captain; their best scorer; and team MVP for two years). Denied an NHL playing career, David Poile sought front office work in the NHL; landing a job in 1972 with the Atlanta (later to become Calgary) Flames. He was an administrative assistant to the esteemed Cliff Fletcher.
One can easily surmise that Cliff Fletcher (no mean GM in his own right) saw the potential in the young David Poile. Five years after he hired the young lad, David Poile became assistant general manager of the Flames (while serving as manager and coordinator for the Flames top farm club).
Poile had too much potential bronco talent to remain a second banana for too long. In 1982 he had his pick of two NHL clubs that desperately needed help: the Detroit Red Wings and the Washington Capitals.
When the Ilitch Family needed someone to clean the Augean Stables which were the Red Wings they boiled down their search to two potential candidates: Poile and Jim Devellano. Eventually they settled on Devellano (because Devellano had come from the Islanders dynasty that dominated the NHL). Therefore Poile opted instead for the equally hapless Caps.
(That is an interesting hockey what if. How would the mutual destinies of both the Wings and Caps franchises have been altered if the Ilitch family had opted for Poile instead Devellano?)
David Poile assumed the managerial mantle of a team that was a travesty to hockey. By 1982 the Caps had existed for eight seasons and still had not had a winning season or a playoff appearance. They had finished last six out of eight seasons (the other two seasons they finished fourth ahead of the Detroit Red Wings).
Channeling his keen eye for young talent, Poile drafted future HHOF member Scott Stevens in his first draft in 1982; Kevin Hatcher followed in 1984; goalie Olaf Kolzig in 1989; Peter Bondra in 1990; and Sergei Gonchar in 1992.
And yet there were fallow drafts when the results were less than promising.
What Poile could not draft he stole from other NHL teams. His 1982 blockbuster trade that acquired Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis, Rod Langway, and Craig Laughlin was a boon to the franchise. Englblom, Jarvis, and Langway gave the Caps defensive strength and team character which they had never ever possessed before.
In 1985 Poile swiped Pete Peeters from the Boston Bruins and in 1987 he got Dale Hunter from Quebec.
The man who led these sterling talents was already in place when Poile took over as GM. Bryan Murray took these new acquisitions and made them into winners. The Caps began a string of 13 winning seasons and 14 playoff appearances. They were no longer playing like an expansion team. They finally earned legitimacy.
But there were clouds that darkened the ice.
Yes, the Caps earned 14 playoff appearances but they were cursed by the fact that David Poile was beginning a streak that would eventually make him the greatest heartbreak general manager in NHL history. Yes, hockey fans, I have made allusions before to other heartbreak general managers who can manage their teams to the playoffs but are incapable of reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
Out of sixteen NHL GMs (past and present) who have earned at least playoff appearances without reaching the finals, David Poile leads them all. Twenty times in his managerial career his teams have reached the playoffs but they have never reached the Stanley Cup finals. The closest David Poile ever came was in 1990 when the Caps reached the conference finals only to be swept by the Boston Bruins.
Fifteen years of futility took its toll on Poile. When the Nashville Predators were formed they hired Poile to be their first (and so far only) general manager.
Once again he set about building an NHL team from scratch. It took him longer to do so. Nashville (a small market team) was in no position to spend heavily for free agent talent or expensive quick fixes. Instead, husbanding the team’s slender financial resources Poile slowly and patiently crafted a team through shrewd drafting and cost effective trades.
He hired Barry Trotz to teach these young talents the proper fundamentals of how to play NHL hockey and he has demonstrated the infinite patience to allow these young Turks to grow slowly but surely into NHL manhood.
By their sixth season they were winners and playoff contenders. By 2011 they made their first second round playoff appearance.
The Predators possess two great talents: Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne.
In 2012 a key milestone was reached. When the Philadelphia Flyers (desperately seeking a replacement for the injured Chris Pronger) made a humongous offer to free agent Shea Weber everyone (including myself) thought that Nashville (and David Poile) would refuse to match the offer.
Instead Poile did match the offer thus making a statement that the team was now dedicated towards retaining its young talents and were committed to moving further up the NHL ladder and hopefully reaching the Stanley Cup finals.
Sadly the 2012/13 Season has been an enormous disappointment for the entire Predators organization. The team is presently in last place in the Central Division and will likely suffer its first losing season since 2003.
Instead of another step forward the team has retrogressed and one wonders what steps David Poile and Barry Trotz will take to recover what has been lost this season?
(My next column will feature Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero.)