Friday, June 15, 2007

Legos, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets...

How does one build a winning team? Well, not having room to go into an entire dissertation on the subject, let’s look at two teams – the finalists for the Stanley Cup this year. How were the rosters for the final game built?

Ottawa (final game roster):

Daniel Alfredsson: drafted by Ottawa (1994/6th round)
Mike Fisher: Ottawa (1998/2nd)
Chris Philips: Ottawa (1996/1st)
Wade Redden: NY Islanders (1995/1st), obtained via trade (1996)
Oleg Saprykin: Calgary (1999/1st), trade (2007)
Peter Schafer: Vancouver (1995/3rd), trade (2002)
Mike Comrie: Edmonton (1999/3rd), trade (2007)
Dany Heatley: Atlanta (2000/1st), trade (2005)
Jason Spezza: Ottawa (2001/1st)
Chris Neil: Ottawa (1998/6th)
Joe Corvo: Los Angeles (1997/4th), UFA (2006)
Christoph Schubert: Ottawa (2001/4th)
Anton Volchenkov: Ottawa (2000/1st)
Chris Kelly: Ottawa (1999/3rd)
Antoine Vermette: Ottawa (2000/2nd)
Tom Preissing: San Jose (2003/undrafted free agent), trade (2006)
Patrick Eaves: Ottawa (2003/1st)
Andrej Meszaros: Ottawa (2004/1st)
Ray Emery: Ottawa (2001/4th)
Martin Gerber: Anaheim (2001/8th), UFA (2006)

Drafted by club: 12

Drafted by club, by year: 1994 (1), 1996 (1), 1998 (2), 1999 (1), 2000 (2), 2001 (3), 2003 (1), 2004 (1)

Drafted by others: 8

Others obtained: via trade (6); UFA (2)

Anaheim (final game roster):

Todd Marchant: NY Rangers (1993/7th), waivers (2005)
Brad May: Buffalo (1990/1st), trade (2007)
Andy McDonald: Anaheim (2000/undrafted free agent)
Rob Niedermayer: Florida (1993/1st), trade (2003)
Scott Niedermayer: New Jersey (1991/1st), UFA (2005)
Sean O'Donnell: Buffalo (1991/6th), trade (2006)
Samuel Pahlsson: Colorado (1996/7th), trade (2000)
Chris Pronger: Hartford (1993/1st), trade (2006)
Teemu Selanne: Winnipeg (1988/1st), UFA (2005)
Kent Huskins: Chicago (1998/6th), UFA (2005)
Francois Beauchemin: Montreal (1998/3rd), trade (2005)
Joe DiPenta: Florida (1998/3rd), UFA (2005)
Shawn Thornton: Toronto (1997/7th), UFA (2006)
Travis Moen: Calgary (2000/5th), trade (2005)
Chris Kunitz: Anaheim (2003/undrafted free agent)
Corey Perry: Anaheim (2003/1st)
Ryan Getzlaf: Anaheim (2003/1st)
Dustin Penner: Anaheim (2004/undrafted free agent)
Jean-Sebastien Giguere: Hartford (1st), trade (2000)
Ilya Bryzgalov: Anaheim (2000/2nd)

Drafted by club: 3

Drafted by club, by year: 2000 (1), 2003 (2)

Signed as undrafted free agent: 3

Drafted by others: 14

Others obtained: via trade (8), UFA (5), claimed off waivers (1)

Can you imagine any more different ways to build a team than these two? Ottawa is essentially “home grown,” with 12 of the 20 dressed players in the season’s last game drafted by the club over a period of 11 years. The club also does not have a very large free agent footprint, with only two of 20 players having been obtained via free agency. Neither of those players can be considered to have been “high end” signings, but while Martin Gerber has been somewhat disappointing, Joe Corvo was a useful cog on the Senator blue line.

On the other hand, Anaheim is the great melting pot of a team. Six players among the 20 who dressed in the last game against Ottawa are home grown – three via draft, three as undrafted free agent signings. 14 found their way to Anaheim from other places. While the Ducks are represented more heavily by unrestricted free agents (five, versus two for Ottawa), it is not a large group. Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer are, of course, the notables in this group.

What is common between these teams is the use of trades. 14 of the 22 players obtained from other organizations were acquired by this method. There is a logic in this that The Peerless can see. All other things equal, trades are, and almost always will be, cap-friendlier than signings via unrestricted free agency. The nature of bidding for UFAs creates far more upward pressure on contract prices than trades. Trades, conversely, permit clubs to use money saved to enter into the free-agent market more judiciously. Without long-term free agent contracts tying up money, the Ducks under Brian Burke could pursue a Teemu Selanne and a Scott Niedermayer in 2005 and could trade for a contract such as Chris Pronger’s in 2006. Those were the big final pieces of the puzzle, and the Ducks had room to accommodate them.

While Anaheim’s progress was stark (they went from 76 points in 2003-2004, to 98 points in 2005-2006, to 110 points and a Stanley Cup in 2006-2007), Ottawa’s has been more “nurturing.” Although the Senators have swapped out a lot of players over the years (only Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden remain from the Senators’ first playoff team in 1996-1997), it has been consistent for the most part in relying on development from within. It has made them a consistent contender – 10 consecutive years in the playoffs.

What the point of this is, is that as the old saying goes, “there is more than one way to skin a cat” (with apologies to cat-lovers). The trick is having a plan, sticking to it, and being good at it. Brian Burke, who snared the last pieces of the puzzle, is very good at what he does. John Muckler and Bryan Murray have done well with their method.

And that’s the issue here as the draft approaches for the Caps. It is nice to say, “we’ve got a plan,” but that goes only so far. Do the Capitals have in place the experience and the talent to execute that plan successfully?

We’re going to start finding out pretty soon.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I'll bite...what's the plan??? GMGM's work during his tenure has been marked with manic-depresive tendencies and has been all over the place. This may have been the result of a meddlesome owner, but even today, I couldn't tell you what the "plan" is for the Caps. Is it like pornography in that you'll know it when you see it? Given GMGM's recent interviews, is it too must for the MSM and the bloggers to ask him exactly what the plan is and to follow up when he mumbles sonething like "we are just trying to improve the team, whether it's via trades, FA signings, or letting teh prospects mature, everything is on the table." That's just PR BS, which is exactly what has gotten Ted (the man with the [repeated] five-year plans) into trouble with the fanbase. The identiy and character of the Caps is unclear and the club seems to be floundering. Yes, GMGM and Ted may have a "plan," but they sure haven't shared it with the (dwindling) fanbase, which has been a growing source of frustration over the past season.


The Peerless said...

If you take the 2001-2003 period out of what you're looking at (that would correspond to the Jagr/Lang signings for $102 million), then it seems to me the "plan" is more similar to Ottawa's than Anaheim's. You can argue about the results, but the "plan" would have been to insert Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk into the lineup at some point, not trade them all for Jagr. Then add to that, primarily through the draft.

The Caps -- and this I put at the feet of Leonsis, not McPhee -- tried to short cut their own plan, and it blew up in their faces spectacularly.

What I see going forward is the Caps relying on the draft. I don't ever see them doing much in terms of top-end FAs; if the plan works, and kids develop, they it happens maybe once every four or five years. I suspect that the club would be more inclined to look a "second-tier" or role players as free agent additions.

This has the charm, in my opinion, of being more sustainable over the long run (providing you draft well) and more economical (your own kids are cheaper than someone else's FA).

As for McPhee? He's never going to lay out the plan in much detail. Frankly, I think that would be silly on his part. He's in a competitive environment with 29 other front offices. Telegraphing his intentions, even in the most innocent of terms? Not going to happen. I think he's temperamentally incapable of being that forthcoming, anyway. Close to the vest?...He's holding his cards inside his vest.

exwhaler said...

Ask any reporter, and you'll discover that the Capitals are one of the most tight-lipped organizations in the NHL. Other teams have leaks, the Caps don't. Expecting McPhee to lay out the plan in detail is a fool's request, in my opinion. For months, the media thought Fehr's injury was his back, when, by chance, Tarik discovered that it actually was his hip.

I'm with fjc in laying the Caps' failure in the first half of McPhee's tenure at Leonsis's feet, but it goes much deeper than just short-circuiting any "building by the draft." Despite McPhee's own stated desire to do a complete rebuild after the Caps bottomed-out in 1998-1999, Leonsis introduced his infamous "five-year plan," which turned out to be more of a marketing plan than a hockey one--especially in that it required real improvement from season-to-season, with playoffs in the first or second season. With no real trade assists or good draft position (due to the team making the playoffs as per Leonsis's plan), McPhee retooled the Capitals into a grinding, defensive squad with a bunch of journeymen, finds (Dahlen), and a talented core group. That group chemistry unravelled with Jagr, who was acquired at the insistence of Leonsis. And at a time when the team needed to be completely remade in Jagr's image, Leonsis tightened the purse strings and limited McPhee to one big free agent signing (which turned out to be Robert Lang).

There was no real hockey plan from 1999-2003, only Leonsis's own changing requirements. Since the firesale, the plan has been McPhee's complete and total rebuild, which, given what's come before, many fans don't believe. But from where I stand, that's exactly what McPhee has been doing the last two or three seasons. The talk from ownership and management about being aggressive to bring in some select real NHL veterans this year is part of that, and goes back to McPhee's comments last year about how they were further along than expected, given the performance of the young players. The core has been rebuilt by the likes of Ovechkin, Gordon, Pettinger, Morrisonn, et. al., and a feeder system loaded with young talent at all levels has been re-established. This off-season, the Capitals should be targeting players who will both fill urgent needs that can't be met by the system right now, bring some veteran leadership, and help them get to the next level, which is the rumblings I'm seeing from the Caps organization.