This is the time of season when a top-line general manager figures out how to turn a team that is almost there into a true championship contender.
Whether it's adding a missing piece via a trade, calling up a young player who is ready to contribute at the NHL level or simply motivating his team by letting it know he believes everything needed to compete for the Stanley Cup is already there, the cream of the crop in terms of executives are often determined this time of year.
Last season's Stanley Cup winner, the Chicago Blackhawks
, remain on the playoff bubble as the regular season enters its final stretch. The team they beat, the Philadelphia Flyers
, appear lock and loaded for another run at a championship. Here's a look at NHL.com's leaders for GM of the Year at the three-quarter pole:
Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia Flyers --
Holmgren knows his Flyers are good enough to win the Stanley Cup. He's so close, he can taste it. And that's why he's going for it.
"We're happy where we are, but it's a long year and a tough League. Our goal is to get into the playoffs. Last year, we snuck in (and showed) anything can happen." -- Flyers GM Paul Holmgren
Holmgren, who watched his team come within two victories of winning its first championship since 1975 last June, doesn't want to experience last year's disappointment again. Despite the fact that his club is already atop the Eastern Conference standings, Holmgren shipped a first- and a third-round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs
on Feb. 15 in exchange for 24-year-old winger Kris Versteeg
Versteeg, you'll recall, played a role in Philadelphia's demise last June as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks
It's just such an acquisition, combined with the signing of rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky
last May, that explains why Holmgren is our top choice. Sixty games into the campaign, the Flyers had built a nine-point lead in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East and a seven-point lead on Pittsburgh atop the Atlantic Division.
"We're happy where we are, but it's a long year and a tough League," Holmgren said. "Our goal is to get into the playoffs. Last year, we snuck in (and showed) anything can happen."
Steve Yzerman, Tampa Bay Lightning --
He might only be a rookie general manager, but Yzerman is performing his duties like a seasoned veteran.
Three-quarters through his first season at the helm in Tampa Bay, Yzerman has the Lightning atop the Southeast Division with 34 wins in the team's first 59 games. His hiring of Guy Boucher
, while perhaps bold at the time, has proven to be a tremendous move. Just 39 years old, Boucher is primed to be the coach in Tampa Bay for a long time.
Yzerman has made some solid acquisitions since the calendar turned to 2011. On New Year's Day, he acquired goaltender Dwayne Roloson
from the New York Islanders
for defenseman Ty Wishart
. Since then, he's also signed Marc-Andre Bergeron
as a free agent and landed Eric Brewer
from the St. Louis Blues
"Once you take a job, or take on a challenge, I think the natural instinct is to want to do well," Yzerman said. "We have lofty goals for the organization. I've got a great responsibility and I’ve got goals and things I want to accomplish as a manager of the Lightning."
Peter Chiarelli, Boston Bruins --
It can't be easy to overcome the loss of a player as talented as Marc Savard
, but Chiarelli has done his best in recent weeks to make sure his squad has the resources to go on a long playoff run.
Chiarelli has been active over the past month and made a huge splash on Feb. 19 when he acquired Tomas Kaberle
from the Toronto Maple Leafs
in exchange for prospect Joe Colborne
and two draft picks.
In search of more depth up the middle, Chiarelli also recently landed Chris Kelly
from the Ottawa Senators
and Rich Peverley
from the Atlanta Thrashers
But it's the Kaberle deal that puts Chiarelli in the top three.
"We felt that we needed a player like Tomas -- a player with good vision, a good skater who can quarterback a power play, and has played many, many games in the League," Chiarelli said.
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL