As we understand the workings of “The Plan” as it applies to the Washington Capitals, it includes three pieces – the same three pieces any other team might use, albeit in ways not employed by all teams (cough…”Lightning”) – draft, trades, and free agents.
The draft is the core of the exercise. You draft well, you draft deep, you draft the players around whom you want to build your team. They are “The Core.” For the Capitals, that would include Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin, for starters (you may quibble on the margins for additional players).
Trades and free agents are similar in that you’re acquiring components from other “brands.” Trades are generally cheaper than comparably skilled free agents (salary-wise), who can be obtained to fill any number of roles (scorer, checking forward, defensive defenseman) and can be high-end skill players or tightly defined role players. They are the “mortar” to be used around the “bricks” of the core that was drafted.
In focusing on the draft as the core of the enterprise, the object is not just to be competitive, but to sustain a competitive level of play. Some teams (cough…”Lightning”) appear to want to write checks to buy competitiveness in the short term, but in looking at the longer term prospects for such a team, they are iffy. They will have salary issues, and the league has a history of teams failing to achieve the expected level of success through the “acquisition” route (particularly with respect to free agents).
We took a look at each of the six divisions since the 1990-1991 season and selected one team from each that enjoyed some lean times before achieving success. There are some patterns to be found in them.
Atlantic Division – New Jersey Devils
"They're putting a Mickey-Mouse operation on the ice. It's ruining hockey."
-- Wayne Gretzky, after the Oilers clubbed the Devils 13-4, November 19, 1983.
And so they were – a “Mickey Mouse operation,” that is. Although they would reach the playoffs in five of the next ten seasons, they would not so much as reach 90 points in doing it. Their high water mark was 87 points reached in both the 1991-1992 and 1992-1993 seasons. In those two seasons, though, there was something brewing. They had a couple of mid-20-something forwards in Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer, a 20-year old rookie (in the second of those seasons) in Bill Guerin, a mid-20’s defenseman of some skill by the name of “Stevens” (in his first two years in New Jersey), another defenseman in the early stages of his career by the name of “Niedermayer,” and a goalie who played only four games in that 1991-1992 season, but who would play a lot more later – Martin Brodeur.
In 1993-1994, the Devils took a big leap. They went 47-25-12, their 106 points being a 19-point improvement on the previous year – and went all the way to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers. The Devils won it all the following year, with a club that had added a young Bobby Holik (obtained from Hartford), a young Brian Rolston, and veterans Neal Broten (from Minnesota) and Bob Carpenter (from Washington).
Since then, the Devils have averaged 102 points per season and have finished with less than 95 only once. They have been able to sustain their success through the personnel skills of GM Lou Lamoriello, who has plugged holes and changed parts adroitly. If there has been a “core” (as we defined it) for the Devils over the past dozen seasons since they first won a Stanley Cup, it might include Patrik Elias (drafted in 1994), Brodeur (drafted in 1990), Scott Niedermayer (drafted in 1991, left after the 2003-2004 season), and Sergei Brylin (drafted in 1992). Added to that later, there might be included such players as John Madden (undrafted free agent who has been with the club since 1998), Jay Pandolfo (drafted in 1993, still with the club), Brian Rafalski (another undrafted free agent who was with the Devils from 1999-2000 through 2007-2007), and Scott Gomez (drafted in 1998 and left after the 2006-2007 season).
The Devils managed to pick up in trade or via free agency a number of players to fill roles for shorter periods of time – an Alexander Mogilny or a Joe Nieuwendyk, a Viktor Kozlov or a Richard Matvichuk, for example, to play a year or two at a time.
The Devils might not announce a “build from within” philosophy, but they have employed one of sorts, with an eye toward filling the missing pieces via trade or free agency. Of course, it helps to have that Lamoriello guy in the front office, too.
Northeast Division – Ottawa Senators
Once upon a time, this team was bad. No…really, really bad. Ten wins and 24 points bad…in an 84-game season in 1992-1993 (the Caps had an 8-67-5 season…21 points in 80 games in 1973-1974). As late as 1996-1997, they were only a 77-point team, although they did make the playoffs in that year.
The following year – 1997-1998 – one could now see the good team they would become, even if they had only 83 points in that year. They made the playoffs (losing to Washington in the second round), and did it with a youthful core – Daniel Alfredsson (drafted in 1994, still with the club), Wade Redden (drafted by the Islanders in 1995, but never playing a game in that organization), Chris Phillips (drafted in 1996), Magnus Arvedson (drafted in 1997).
After the Senators dipped their toes into the water in the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons, they would reel off nine seasons over which they averaged 103 points a year and never achieved fewer than 94 points in any of them. They did it largely with that core (Arvedson left the Senators after the 2002-2003 season), but managed to add a Marian Hossa (drafted in 1997), a Martin Havlat (drafted in 1999, left after the 2005-2006 season), a Jason Spezza (drafted in 2001), a Chris Neil (drafted in 1998), a Mike Fisher (drafted in 1998), and an Anton Volchenkov (drafted in 2000).
To that, the Senators added their own pieces of the puzzle from other organizations…a Vaclav Varada, a Zdeno Chara, a Todd White, or a Dany Heatley.
Ottawa has been more dependent (or successful, if you prefer) than most clubs, even the Devils, with respect to the draft. But it has allowed them to build and keep a core group of players. They haven’t had to dip into trades or free agency a lot, but they have engaged in the practice with some success. However, it hasn’t allowed them to get that franchise goalie that they always seem to lack (ok, they had Dominik Hasek for a year).
Southeast Division – Tampa Bay Lightning
The history of teams in this division since Y2K won’t make the histories of NHL legendary teams. Tampa Bay is probably the best of the lot over the past half-dozen years, and their tale is instructive.
In their first ten seasons, the Lightning peeked above the 75-point level only once (88 points in 1995-1996, when they made their only playoff appearance in their first decade). But between 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, when they leaped from 69 to 93 points, the light went on. That 2001-2002 team had its own core of precocious home-grown under-25 kids – Brad Richards (drafted in 1998), Pavel Kubina (drafted in 1996), and Vincent Lecavalier (drafted in 1998). They’d already added players such as Fredrik Modin (from Toronto), Vaclav Prospal (from Florida), Dave Andreychuk (from Buffalo), and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin (from Phoenix after he spent an entire year in the IHL in a contract dispute), and would add defenseman Dan Boyle (from Florida) midway through that 2001-2002 season. Martin St. Louis had already come over from Calgary in 2000-2001.
By the following season, they could make use of veterans added to their young core and make the leap to 93 points. A year after that they dipped into the veteran pool once more, adding Cory Stillman (from St. Louis) and Darryl Sydor (from Columbus). The pieces were sufficiently positioned to earn the Lightning a Stanley Cup.
The Lightning were not able to sustain their success as had New Jersey or Ottawa, in part because of contract deals that paid Lecavalier, Richards, and St. Louis handsomely, but left the club with little else to fill out a competitive roster. The house came crashing down last year when the Lightning sank to 71 points and 30th place in the league. But for four years, at least, the Lightning averaged 96 points and were a formidable squad, largely a product of the home-grown Lecavalier and Richards, and the pieces they added later (most notably Boyle, Prospal, and Khabibulin).
Central Division – Detroit Red Wings
These days, the defending Stanley Cup champion is looked at as the platinum standard for talent and management in the NHL. Such has not always been the case. In 1990-1991, the Wings were a 76-point team that ended a 17-year period in which they exceeded 80 points just once.
However, that 1990-1991 team had two home-grown players who would be essential to the Red Wings’ ascent to the highest tier of teams through the rest of the 1990’s and beyond – Steve Yzerman (drafted in 1983, but still only 25 years old that season) and Sergei Fedorov (drafted in 1989). They were the leading scorers on that team, with 108 and 79 points, respectively.
The following year, the Wings added two more players essential to their core – Nicklas Lidstrom and Vladimir Konstantinov on the blue line – both of whom were drafted in 1989 (that 1989 draft ranks as one of the great ones in terms of nailing the amateur evaluations for the Wings – five players played at least 630 NHL games, and Konstantinov certainly would have played far in excess of that had his career not been cut short after an auto accident). The Wings also added Vyacheslav Kozlov (drafted in 1990) for a cup of coffee with the club that year, and he would be a large player in future Wings’ success down the road.
For the Wings, the core was in place so that when it came to 1996-1997 (the year they would win their first Stanley Cup in 42 years), they could add a Brendan Shanhan (from Hartford early that season), Tomas Sandstrom (from Pittsburgh later that year), and Larry Murphy (from Toronto late in the year). It made for a formidable group and cemented the Wings as a perennial contender.
They would add pieces to their core in years to follow – a Tomas Holmstron (drafted in 1994), a Pavel Datsyuk (drafted in 1998), a Henrik Zetterberg (drafted in 1999). But they also would add players intelligently from other organizations to supplement that core – a Chris Chelios (from Chicago in 1998-1999), a Brett Hull (from Dallas in 2001-2002), Luc Robitaille (from Los Angeles, also in 2001-2002), a Robert Lang (from Washington in 2003-2004). It has made Detroit the embodiment of the phrase, “we don’t rebuild, we reload.”
Northwest Division – Colorado Avalanche
Maybe it’s the snow. It snows in Quebec; it snows in Denver. But while the Quebec Nordiques suffered some truly miserable seasons – in their last nine seasons in Canada, the Nordiques cleared 80 points just once -- they were rejuvenated in Denver, even though the seeds of success had already been planted.
That last team in Quebec in the 1994-1995 season included Joe Sakic up front (drafted in 1987) and Adam Foote on the blue line (drafted in 1989). There was Peter Forsberg (drafted by Philadelphia, but having never played a game in that organization, he being part of the consolation prize to Quebec when Eric Lindros was traded after declaring he would never play for the club that drafted him – Quebec). There was Adam Deadmarsh (drafted in 1993).
The following year, the now “Colorado Avalanche” were in a position to compete as the young guys had another year of experience. It didn’t hurt that there was a goaltender in Montreal with a festering relationship with his coach, one that would explode when he was left in to watch nine pucks fly by him before being pulled in a 12-1 loss in December 1995. Patrick Roy, who declared while leaving the bench in that game that he had played his last game in Montreal, became an Avalanche three days later.
But Roy, while the pivotal addition to the Avalanche from outside, wasn’t the only one to contribute. Mike Keane, who went with Roy to the Avalanche, was an important role player. Sandis Ozolinsh was added (from San Jose).
More players that would represent a core group were coming through the Colorado pipeline – Milan Hejduk (drafted in 1994), Chris Drury (also drafted in 1994), Alex Tanguay (drafted in 1998). But the Avalanche would add pieces to this puzzle as well that would culminate in a championship in 2001 – Rob Blake and Steve Reinprecht (from Los Angeles), and Ray Bourque (obtained in 1999-2000 from Boston).
Colorado has continued the theme, adding players fro within such as John-Michael Liles (drafted in 2000), Wojtek Wolski (drafted in 2004), and Paul Stastny (drafted in 2005). They’ve also added players from the outside to complement them, such as Ian Laperriere (from Los Angeles), Andrew Brunette (from Minnesota), and Ryan Smyth (from the Islanders).
The Avalanche has built and rebuilt a core, around which they have added veterans (for the most part) to keep themselves competitive.
Pacific Division – Dallas Stars
In their previous incarnation as the Minnesota North Stars, this franchise limped along on a path of mediocrity over their last decade in Minnesota, never better than 88 points, never worse than 51. The term “also ran” fit pretty well. But the last team in Minnesota had a glimmer of hope attached it in a couple of youngsters just cutting their teeth – 20-year old Derian Hatcher (drafted in 1990) and 22-year old Mike Modano (drafted in 1988). Modano would celebrate the move to Dallas the following year with a 50-goal season (still his career high) in leading the Stars (just “Stars”) to a 97-point season.
Trouble is, they hadn’t really “arrived” yet. They struggled for the next two seasons (with 42 points in the abbreviated 1994-1995 season, and 66 points the year after). But they were adding important pieces from within – Jamie Langenbrunner (drafted in 1993) and Jere Lehtinen (drafted in 1992), of greatest importance.
The Stars then also started to add other pieces, too, like Darryl Sydor (from Los Angeles) and Joe Nieuwendyk (from Calgary).
Adding a new coach – Ken Hitchcock – allowed the parts to work well as a whole, as the Stars improved by 38 points from 1995-1996 (66 points) to 1996-1997 (104 points). It started an 11-year (and counting) streak in which the Stars have averaged 104 points a season and have been below 97 points only once.
Dallas has not been quite as dependent on a “core,” perhaps, as the other teams mentioned here, but they have added assets from within over the years – Marty Turco (drafted in 1994), Brenden Morrow (drafted in 1997), Steve Ott (drafted in 2000), Jussi Jokinen (drafted in 2001), and Antti Miettinen (drafted in 2000).
Dallas has been successful in adding players – Philippe Boucher (from Los Angeles in 2002), Jason Arnott (from New Jersey in 2001, through 2006), Bill Guerin (from Boston in 2002, though 2006), and Stu Barnes (from Buffalo in 2002), for example.
All of these teams are perennial contenders. In the 60 seasons of hockey comprising the last ten seasons for each team, they have a combined 52 playoff teams (of the eight non-playoff teams, Tampa Bay has six of them). Five of the teams have won a total of eight Stanley Cups. The other – Ottawa – has appeared in a final.
There is the “Original Six,” and there is the “Outstanding Six” described here. It is the level of sustained competitiveness to which the Capitals aspire and are building a club for the long run. What one sees here is the outline of a pattern. A core of players is drafted, developed, and brought to the parent club. It is only after that when serious additions from outside are made, and generally to complement – not to replace – the roles that the core players occupy.
It is interesting to note as well that the big leap these clubs took in points that started them on the road to sustained competitiveness was often accompanied by a coaching change – Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey (when the Devils improved from 87 to 106 points from the 1992-1993 to the 1993-1994 season), John Tortorella (when Tampa Bay made a 34-point jump after two seasons under him), Bryan Murray (a 28 point leap in his first two years in Detroit), Ken Hitchcock (38 points in his first year in Dallas), Marc Crawford (a 28-point jump over his first two seasons with the Nordiques/Avalanche). There might be a “chicken and the egg” issue here – perhaps the ingredients were in place for the coach, perhaps the coach was needed to get the maximum from the ingredients – but there seems is a pattern in how these clubs got to where they are.
This has implications for the Capitals, who look to be a team wanting to operate in the same fashion. A core was built – Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, and Semin. It is a group that struggled – not so much with their own play, but under the burdens of a team that did not enjoy much success in recent years. To this group, parts were added – Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti, Michael Nylander. Other parts of what might constitute a growing core were added as well – Jeff Schultz, Tomas Fleischmann. Others might yet be on the way -- an Eric Fehr or a Karl Alzner. A coaching change was made, perhaps not heralded as salvation at the time, but ultimately a very successful one. As that success built upon itself, more pieces were added – Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke, Cristobal Huet – to fill distinct roles.
More success followed, and although the Caps could not manage to improve upon a first-round playoff appearance, they have the look of the Lightning of 2003 (without, one hopes, the contract problems), the Stars of 1997, or – be still our beating hearts – the Red Wings of 1992. All were teams on the rise with Stanley Cups in their futures; in the case of the Lightning and the Stars, the very near future – each won the Cup within two years after their first big leap in standings points.
This could, as they say, be the start of something big.