The general manager hire in Columbus this week, Jarmo Kekalainen getting his first shot at last, made me think that there are other strong candidates awaiting promotion around the NHL. With that, I bring you a list of assistant GMs I believe deserve a GM job in the next few years.
1. Jim Nill, Detroit Red Wings: Now in his 15th season as assistant GM in Detroit, he has been GM material for a long time. And it just so happens that his contract will soon begin to present itself with annual six-week "out windows" when he can entertain GM offers from other teams, a source told ESPN.com. The first window comes this summer. With four Stanley Cup rings and a long list of late-draft gems on his resume, Nill is a top-notch candidate in waiting. It would have to be the right fit for him to leave Detroit, where he's happy and loyal to the Ilitch family, but it's a possibility. You can't go wrong if you name Nill as your GM. He'd be a superstar hire.
2. Ron Hextall, Los Angeles Kings: Hextall, 48, is in his seventh season as vice president/assistant GM of the Kings. As Dean Lombardi's right-hand man during that span, he was instrumental in the patient building of a Stanley Cup winner. He has overseen the franchise's top prospects during his time in L.A. and that's an impressive body of work. He has had his hands in all facets of the operations alongside Lombardi. And I think he's ready for the next step in his career. For a team that wants a throwback mentality with modern know-how, Hextall is the man.
3. Laurence Gilman, Vancouver Canucks: Armed with a law degree from the University of North Dakota, Gilman has seen both spectrums of the hockey universe, having spent 13 years in the Winnipeg/Phoenix organization and the past five years with the powerhouse Canucks. One franchise counted every dime. The other wants to win at all costs. In my mind that helps shape a well-rounded understanding of the business. As vice president of hockey operations and assistant GM in Vancouver, Gilman is the chief negotiator on all player contracts, knows the CBA inside and out and is the head of amateur scouting. Gilman, 48, is well liked around the industry, and I believe a team that takes a shot on him as GM will not regret it.
4. Paul Fenton, Nashville Predators: A day-oner with the Preds' franchise, Fenton was director of player personnel for the first eight years before being elevated to assistant GM in June 2006. Nashville GM David Poile has told me several times over the past few years that he believes Fenton has what it takes to be a good GM, and I wholeheartedly concur. Let's face it: Fenton has been front and center in the organization's drafting and developing of players, and if there's a team that relies heavily on developing its own talent, it's the Predators, who haven't had the luxury to spend like the big boys. They do things the right way and they don't rush talent. Fenton, 53, clearly has an eye for identifying and developing talent, and he'd make a fine GM.
5. Claude Loiselle, Toronto Maple Leafs: Armed with a law degree from McGill University, this is a guy who impresses me because he has varied his pedigree. He was an assistant GM with Tampa Bay from 2005-09. Before that, he spent seven years as associate director of hockey operations for the NHL and was involved in salary arbitration, discipline and collective bargaining. In Toronto, he has been assistant GM since 2010 and his chief responsibilities include all things CBA-related, contract negotiations and pro scouting. It's a well-rounded background, and when you talk to him, it shows. I'd take a chance on him if I ran an NHL team.
Other assistant GMs I believe are ready to be GMs: Julien Brisebois, Tampa Bay; Jim Benning, Boston; Jeff Gorton, N.Y. Rangers; Brad Treliving, Phoenix; Frank Provenzano, Dallas; Jason Botterill, Pittsburgh; David McNabb, Anaheim. I didn't mention Hall of Famer Ron Francis because, well, he's not going anywhere. He'll be GM in Carolina once veteran Jim Rutherford feels like kicking himself upstairs.