Easier said than done
Building NHL winner not simple
STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
|The notion that Leafs GM Brian Burke messed up by trading away two first-round picks for Phil Kessel is a wonderful debating point. (QMI Agency/Dave Abel)
TORONTO - At the halfway point of another frustrating Maple Leafs season, it is far too easy and much too inaccurate to point to the Phil Kessel trade as the philosophical reason for the organizational stagnancy.
The other night, when the Leafs were playing the Los Angeles Kings, the obvious comparisons were made: One team building patiently through the draft. The other trying to fast track. One team doing it right, the story went. The other, missing all the cues.
If only building hockey teams were so simple.
While the Kings may seem to be a model for managerial patience and bottoming out — building through the draft being the catch phrase — understand this: The Kings missed the playoffs six straight years to get the draft picks necessary to compete. In the seventh building year, they made the playoffs and were eliminated in six games. This is Year 8. If the season ended today, the Kings would not be in the playoffs. So for all their patience, all their doing things the “right way” you can ask yourself a question: Where exactly are they?
It isn’t just the Los Angeles Kings, although they have the nicest roster of the recent rebuilds. The notion that Brian Burke messed up by trading away two first-round picks for Kessel is a wonderful debating point — but the evidence of successful teams building through the draft is not entirely clear.
The model franchise in all of hockey is the Detroit Red Wings. They’ve had 10 straight 100-point seasons. Almost everything they do seems like the right thing. Their team was built around three draft choices — Niklas Lidstrom, a third-round pick; Pavel Datsyuk, a sixth-round pick; Henrik Zetterberg, a late seventh-round pick. The Red Wings have traded their first-round picks away in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006. Only one important player on their team, Niklas Kronwall was their own first-round pick.
Which means what? It means there is no one way to find success in the NHL.
The Atlanta Thrashers have played 10 full seasons and have never won a playoff game. They have drafted first twice, second twice, third and fourth in their history: How has any of that helped them get to where they are today?
The Columbus Blue Jackets have played in one playoff round in 10 years of existence. They’ve had top 10 draft picks 10 different times. It hasn’t taken them anywhere near contender status.
The Florida Panthers have missed the playoffs 11 of the past 12 years and drafted top 10 on occasions. Their top picks produced Nathan Horton, Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester, all decent NHL players, none of them about to challenge for all-star status.
Even the New York Islanders, who have picked first twice, second once, and chosen third, fourth and fifth twice in the draft, remain the most dysfunctional franchise in all of hockey.
It works to build through the draft when you have early picks and they turn out to be Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. You can do it when you get lucky and win the Sidney Crosby lottery just after Evgeny Malkin had been selected. You can do it when you end up with Alex Ovechkin, and Nick Backstrom and Mike Green in a few short drafts.
But for every Chicago story, every Pittsburgh, every Washington, there’s an Atlanta, a Florida, a Columbus, and yes, even an Edmonton.
Even the Phoenix Coyotes are an example that questions that notion that drafting early means everything: The Coyotes missed the playoffs six years in a row in the Wayne Gretzky era. In that time, they drafted early five different times. Not one of the five picks has turned into a high-end NHL player. The Coyotes turned their team around in a completely non-conventional way, beginning with the hiring of coach Dave Tippett and the claiming of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers. Only five of the regulars who play for the Coyotes were drafted by the team and the best first-round pick, Shane Doan, was selected by Winnipeg, if you believe that.