Rumours about Wayne Gretzky returning to a management position with an NHL team have been floating around for a little while now.
In late 2013 (and perhaps earlier), Gretzky was connected to a position with the Toronto Maple Leafs, just a few months after Tim Leiweke took over as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. While everything sputtered in Toronto, Gretzky and MLSE never did get anything worked out, leading to Leiweke calling on former NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan to take over as the team’s president.
Around that same time period, there were rumours about Gretzky possibly going to the Washington Capitals, as he maintains a relationship with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, and was seen watching a game from Leonsis’s owner’s box. With George McPhee out as Washington’s general manager, those reports have surfaced once again, with Gretzky being said to have high interest.
Adam Proteau of The Hockey News added an interesting thought to the mix, pitching the idea of Gretzky throwing a curveball at the NHL by taking over hockey operations for the New York Islanders.
With all these rumours in mind, here’s the question people should be asking: Can Wayne Gretzky be an effective executive in the National Hockey League?
Of course, Gretzky has some experience, having served as the head of hockey operations for the Phoenix Coyotes from 2001 through 2009. The franchise went through some lean years in that time, to put it gently, as they played a total of five playoff games in those eight seasons (2004-05 lockout figured into the total). With that said, you can’t talk about those years without referencing the ownership struggles in the desert, limiting Gretzky’s ability to go after the real high-end talent through free agency.
However, a closer look shows his drafting and player development record wasn’t the best, either. His first-ever draft pick, Fredrik Sjostrom in 2001, played four seasons in Phoenix (beginning with 2003-04) before being traded to the New York Rangers. After Sjostrom, you have to go all the way to Daniel Winnik, a ninth-round pick in 2004, to find a Coyotes pick who played more than one full season with the Coyotes (the qualifier is not being sent down to the San Antonio Rampage in that time.)
Furthermore, not one of Gretzky’s picks in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft played a single game in the NHL. If you remember, 2003 was arguably the most talented draft the NHL had seen since 1988, and with all due respect to Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, none have come close since. That draft alone set Phoenix’s development back by at least a couple years, as Jeff Carter would have accelerated Phoenix’s rise much faster than Daymond Langkow, who the Coyotes acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for the 11th pick in 2003, plus a second-round pick in the 2002 draft.
He followed that up by taking Blake Wheeler fifth overall in 2004, only to lose him to the Boston Bruins for nothing in the summer of 2008 after Phoenix was unable to sign him to an entry-level contract. The next two years were a bit better, as 2005 produced current alternate captains Martin Hanzal (17th overall) and Keith Yandle (105th overall), though neither player jumped into the lineup for a few seasons. 2006 started out promising enough, as Peter Mueller jumped to the NHL after one more season with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, but injuries and inconsistency got the best of him.
2007 first-rounder Kyle Turris made the jump after one more season with the Wisconsin Badgers, but he eventually grew disgruntled with his role and was shipped off to the Ottawa Senators, where he found chemistry with Jason Spezza. Meanwhile, the 2008 and 2009 drafts were another mixed bag for “The Great One.” While Mikkel Boedker, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Michael Stone (slowly) have become regulars in the Coyotes lineup, they lost Viktor Tikhonov to the KHL after just 61 games, while everyone else faded into NHL obscurity.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Coyotes returned to the playoffs in the 2009-10 season, their first appearance since 2001-02. In September 2009, Gretzky had resigned his position, as well as stepping down as the team’s head coach.
Now, anyone who just read through all of that will immediately come back and point to his work as executive director for Team Canada at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics. It’s a fair point, as Gretzky assembled the squad that captured Canada’s first men’s Olympic gold medal in ice hockey since 1952, and perhaps motivated them with his now-legendary press conference.
Of course, all that fell flat when Gretzky’s 2006 team lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals, keeping Canada from its first gold medal outside North America since 1952, a feat Steve Yzerman accomplished in Sochi a few months ago after winning gold in Vancouver in 2010.
The problem for Gretzky is that, wherever he goes, he won’t have the world’s greatest talent pool to build a team from as he did with Team Canada, perhaps exposing his lack of player development instincts. Unless he’s secretly become a clone of Ken Holland within the last five years, Gretzky will need to rely heavily on his scouting staff to give him an idea of who will give his team the best chance to succeed, and based on his past insistence of having general managers report directly to him, it’s not a route Gretzky would enjoy taking.