“Iron” Mike Keenan
Chicago Blackhawks, 1990-1992
St. Louis Blues, 1994-1996
Florida Panthers, 2004-2006
Norris Division Title: 1990-1991
Playoff Appearances: 1991, 1995-1996
Stanley Cup Finals Appearance: 1992
As of the end of the 2011/12 NHL season Mike Keenan is one of twelve NHL GMs who not only rank among the top fifty GMs of all time (according to my rating system) but also rank among the top fifty greatest hockey coaches of all time. Whether he will remain among the top fifty GMs is doubtful. Like Doug Risebrough, he is on the cusp of being surpassed by other active (and future) NHL GMs to come. Although his managerial career has been brief (only six seasons) Mike Keenan (especially during his years with the Blackhawks) generated enough plus points to place him among the elite ranks for the time being.
By 1990 Mike Keenan was one of the finest head coaches in the NHL. He had led the Philadelphia Flyers to two Stanley Cup finals appearances that went the full seven games. He was in the process of rebuilding the Chicago Blackhawks; leading the Hawks to the conference finals in his only his second season of coaching there. It was then he got the offer to do double duty; not only as head coach but general manager as well. Long-time GM Bob Pulford wanted to step aside while giving Mike Keenan (much like his idol Scotty Bowman) the opportunity to dictate club personnel policy.
Keenan while carrying both portfolios led the Hawks to their first Stanley Cup final since 1973, losing the 1992 Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Ten of Keenan’s 21 plus points come from that specific season). It was in the aftermath of that defeat that Keenan had his Waterloo. Bob Pulford although no longer the Hawks GM was still a presence in the Hawks front office; retaining his influence with Chicago owner Bill Wirtz.
One of Mike Keenan’s assistant coaches was Darryl Sutter who had shown great promise and leadership potential while serving under him. When other teams expressed an interest in Sutter; Wirtz and Pulford intervened: demanding that Keenan surrender his head coaching role to Sutter while remaining as GM.
Keenan would later tell Dick Irvin Jr. that he asked Wirtz and Pulford for more time to consider the decision but they were adamant about making the move now. Keenan bowed to the pressure and stepped down as head coach.
(Mike Keenan should be given high marks for encouraging Darryl Sutter to pursue a coaching career and doing everything he could to further it. In 1992 Sutter began an NHL coaching career that does honor to the game and to the coaching profession itself. In 2012 Darryl Sutter rewarded Mike Keenan’s faith in him by leading the L.A. Kings to their first Stanley Cup victory—all the while ranking among the top 50 greatest head coaches in hockey history. Sutter’s coaching career is Mike Keenan’s greatest contribution to the game as a general manager).
Not content to abandon NHL coaching altogether, it took Keenan only one month to lose his managerial job as well, resigning in November 1992 (Bob Pulford took his place).
Before he became GM (and head coach) of the St. Louis Blues in 1994, Keenan tried for both the head coaching and managerial jobs for the Detroit Red Wings and failed. (Former Wings GM Jim Devellano devotes several pages in his memoirs discussing his Herculean efforts to make sure that didn’t happen). He served as head coach of the New York Rangers and broke their 54 year Stanley Cup drought but once more wore out his welcome and took his act to St. Louis.
What Blues fans didn’t know was that Keenan was entering the vagabond phase of his hockey career where he failed more than he succeeded; where he demolished more than he built; where he aggravated more than he healed. Keenan started off badly where he dealt away fan favorites Petr Nedved, Craig Janney, and Brendan Shanahan. The Shanahan trade was particularly galling. Beloved by Blues fans and press alike, active in the community Shanahan’s departure lowered Keenan’s stock in the eyes of Blues fans. Even though Keenan got Chris Pronger in exchange for Shanahan, it time before Pronger fulfilled his great potential. (Brendan Shanahan had the last laugh; playing on three Stanley Cup winners with the Wings before retiring as a player in 2009).
That was not the only clunker in Mike Keenan’s managerial career. Months before his departure from Chicago in 1992, Keenan dealt goalie Dominik Hasek to Buffalo. Hasek became the Dominator while Keenan got the gate.
In addition to trading away the hearts and souls of the Blues franchise, Keenan engaged in his penchant for feuding with his players. Brett Hull and Keenan locked horns throughout Iron Mike’s brief stay in St. Louis. After two full and one partial season’s worth of consternation Mike Keenan was fired in December 1996.
It would be eight years before another team trusted Mike Keenan with the keys to the kingdom. In 2004 the hapless Florida Panthers hired Keenan to be their GM. He had been their head coach since 2001. Keenan left the bench and focused solely on the front office. He still hadn’t lost his knack for making lousy trades. His sending Roberto Luongo, Lukas Krajicek, and a draft pick to Vancouver for Todd Bertuzzi and two other players remains in the eyes of many hockey experts as one of the worst trades in hockey history.
The Panthers underperformed as always. Although they had a winning season they failed to make the playoffs in 2005/06. Keenan resigned in September 2006 and since that time has never been offered a managerial position (although he did coach the Calgary Flames under GM Darryl Sutter).
Readers may wonder why Keenan ranks among the top fifty given the managerial mistakes he made. The answer is simple. Keenan’s mistakes are significant but there are a lot more hockey GMs in the course of NHL history that did far worse jobs than Keenan ever did.
(My next column will feature Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke.)