My top general manager candidates

Updated: April 17, 2006, 2:41 PM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

This offseason, we could see more front office movement than we have in recent memory.

The Islanders and Bruins already have started the process of filling their vacant general manager positions, but they won't be the only teams seeking a new GM. The Kings, Blues and Penguins likely will be making changes, and don't be stunned if the Canucks, Leafs or Blackhawks decide to go back to the drawing board.

Neil Smith
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesE.J. Hradek believes that Neil Smith's experiences makes him a solid GM candidate.

In recent weeks, former Sharks GM Dean Lombardi has emerged as the flavor of the month. He is a frontrunner for both the Isles and Bruins jobs, and if the Kings fire Dave Taylor (which is expected), Lombardi will interview in Southern California, as well.

Based on his solid seven-year record in San Jose, Lombardi is a must-interview candidate for any GM position. And, it seems, the current Flyers scout will be able to choose where he'd like to work.

After Lombardi, however, I really haven't been impressed by some of the other so-called "candidates." With that in mind, here are some names that merit serious consideration for any current or future vacancy. I prefer candidates with previous GM experience -- they are less likely to make the rookie mistakes that can set back a franchise.

Neil Smith
Can someone please tell me why Smith hasn't gotten another chance? "That's a great question," said one veteran NHL exec. "I don't understand why he hasn't gotten another opportunity. He did a very good job in New York."

The former Rangers GM definitely deserves a second kick at the can. He spent 11 seasons in New York, helping the franchise end a 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994. Smith started his career as a scout in the Islanders organization before going to Detroit, where he moved up the ladder to run the Red Wings' scouting department. He is currently a TV analyst for OLN.

He knows what it takes to build a successful organization. Smith's experience, and the fact that he is among a handful that has built a Cup winner, makes him a top candidate.

Craig Button
The former Flames GM gained valuable experience during his three-year stint in Calgary. The team he built advanced to the Cup finals in the season after his departure. That's somewhat unusual because franchises that change GMs rarely show immediate improvement. The fact that the Flames came within a game of winning the Cup says that Button had the club on the right track.

Prior to arriving in Calgary, Button helped build a winner in Dallas. He spent 12 seasons in the Stars organization, working under hockey icon Bob Gainey. Button was the club's director of player personnel when they won the Cup in 1999. Currently, he's working as a pro scout for the Maple Leafs. Button's experience and team-building skills make him a strong candidate.

Jim Nill
Ken Holland's right-hand man in Hockeytown, Nill is ready to run his own show. After a nine-year NHL playing career, Nill became a scout for the expansion Senators. After three years in Ottawa, Nill joined the Red Wings. He has spent the last 12 seasons in Detroit, contributing to three Stanley Cup winning teams. For the past eight seasons, Nill has been the club's assistant GM. In 2004, he was named GM for Team Canada's World Championship team, and under his leadership, Canada won the gold medal. Nill is clearly the best candidate that hasn't already held a GM position.

David Conte
The Devils' longtime scouting guru seems very comfortable working for Lou Lamoriello, so he might not be interested in a GM job. Still, a smart owner would be wise to give him a call. In the right situation, Conte might consider making a move. In his 22 seasons with the Devils, Conte has been involved with the selection of such stars as Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Gomez, Brian Rolston, and Patrik Elias, among others. With that kind of track record, Conte should be on anyone's search list.

Ray Shero
After 14 seasons as an assistant GM (six in Ottawa and the last eight in Nashville), Shero has earned an opportunity to run a team. During his time in Nashville, he has been able to work and learn under veteran David Poile, who has done a nice job building the Predators from expansion team to playoff contender. If he's interested, Shero seems ready to take the next step.

And, those five aren't the only ones I'd put on my search list. Interested teams would do well to solicit interest from Avalanche director of player personnel Brad Smith, Stars assistant GMs Les Jackson and Francois Giguere, or Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney. All of these guys bring a depth of strong experience to the rink. In the right spot, any one of them could do a terrific job managing an NHL franchise.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.