Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to build a winner in today's NHL

Building a championship team in the NHL is constantly evolving as the style of play and the type of player changes over time.  Now the existence of the salary cap is another factor to consider.

Prior to NHL expansion, the original six teams sponsored junior teams which feed players to the NHL clubs. Recruiting players for your junior teams (Toronto Marlies, St. Catherines Blackhawks, Hamilton Red Wings, etc.) was how you developed players for your NHL team and farm teams.  When the Amateur Draft was introduced and junior sponsorship ended, it put teams on an equal footing and ended the dominance of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens in signing players in Ontario and Quebec.

Since that time, general managers have had to use their wile to get a jump on the competition.  No surprise that the Maple Leafs and not been in a championship series since 1967.  In the 1970s the Flyers became the first expansion team to win a Stanley Cup by building a team that blended skill and physical intimidation. Soon other teams copied their style and they lost their advantage. In the 1980s the Oilers dominated not just because they owned Wayne Gretzky but because they were able to adapt the way the game was played in Europe to the NHL.  That style was adopted by others including the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

As expansion continued, coaches in expansion cities decided to adopt a defensive game to keep their teams competitive against skill teams and to save their jobs.  This style spread to small market teams who couldn't afford a team loaded with skill players.  The trap was born and the Devils became the model team. All you needed was a good system to stifle the opposition and a top notched goalie who doesn't give up soft goals.

The lockout and rule changes that followed killed the trap. Teams struggled to figure out how to put together a winner under a salary cap.  However, a pattern has begun to appear.  Just look at Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, Pittsburgh and Chicago.  Tampa Bay was 29th overall in both the 1999-00 and 2000-01 season and won the Stanley Cup in 2003-04.  Carolina was 30th overall in 2002-03 and won the Cup in 2005-06.  Anaheim was 26th overall in 2003-04 then won the Cup in 2006-07. Then Penguins finished 29th in 2002-03, 30th in 2003-04 and 29th in 2004-05 before going on to win the Cup in 2008-09. Finally Chicago finishes 29th in 2003-04, 28th in 2005-06 and 26th in 2006-07 yet won the Cup in 2009-10. 

The formula for a Stanley Cup is to move out your veterans, finish with lottery picks for 2 or 3 years, then bulk up by filling out your roster through free agency. Most of these team have won Cups with young stars (Staal, Perry, Geflatz, Crosby, Malkin, Toews, and Kane) well before their reach their prime.  The reason is economics.  While they are young, they are also cheap.  This allows teams to sign veterans to play with them.  However, as the young players sign more lucrative contracts, their teams must unload the secondary scoring which weakens the team and makes it next to impossible to repeat. Once you finish higher in the standings you don't get the opportunity to draft more impact players that can jump straight into your lineup with little economic impact.  Chicago must dump salaries next season which means a weaker lineup.  It happened to Pittsburgh and Anaheim.  Detroit tried to buck the trend by convincing players to stay with the organization and accepting contracts below their market value. However, this past season several players refused and signed elsewhere (Hossa, Kopecky, Samuelsson).

Which brings me to the Maple Leafs.  Brian Burke has decided to short circuit the process by using draft picks to bring in younger quality players.  So a 29th overall finish this season will not result in an impact player.  Instead the Leafs acquire Phil Kessel who is only 22 years old but is paid $5.4 million.  They bring in Dion Phaneuf who is only 24 years old but is paid $6.5 million.  When you are paying your young stars big dollars, it limits the players you can bring in to play around them.  Which means the likelihood of the Maple Leafs reaching the Stanley Cup finals is not good.

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