Monday, June 04, 2012

This Year's Team to Copy

Kevin Paul Dupont, senior staff writer for the Boston Globe, tweeted this morning:

As all hockey fans know by now, Mike Richards (12-year/$69 million deal signed in December 2007 with the Flyers) and Jeff Carter (11-year/$58 million deal signed in November 2010 with the Flyers) were traded by the Flyers – Richards to Los Angeles in June 2011; Carter to Columbus in June 2011, then from Columbus to Los Angeles this past February. Philadelphia has Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Nick Cousins, and a second round draft pick in 2012. Columbus has Jack Johnson and a first round draft pick (2012 or 2013) for their trouble.

Meanwhile, the Kings are two wins away from a Stanley Cup.

One might be tempted to say that trading for players with long-term, high-value contracts should not be an impediment to teams looking to add the last piece to the puzzle, that clubs might take a look at players on long term deals whose teams are underperforming relative to the expectations that drove such large deals. It also might mean that teams might be willing to part with such players on long-term/high-value deals in return for young talent.

We think this misses the point. Whether you draft that player who will eventually get that big deal (Alex Ovechkin, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter) or trade for that player (Richards, Carter, ???), the real trick is in how a team builds around that player. Richards and Carter are especially good examples, because they are both that player drafted and that player for whom a trade was made.

The team that drafted them – the Philadelphia Flyers – built a solid team around Richards (a 24th overall pick in 2003) and Carter (a 2003 11th overall pick). The team that made the 2010 Stanley Cup finals had a productive Danny Briere, up-and-comers in Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux, a solid veteran in Mike Knuble, and a sturdy defense with Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, and Braydon Coburn. But it lacked what Flyer teams always seem to lack – competent, or at least consistent goaltending. It was perhaps more than ironic that the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Flyers in that 2010 final should have been scored on a soft goal from deep in the corner against a journeyman goalie, Michael Leighton (who since that night has played in only three NHL games). Having a Richards and a Carter did not help the Flyers to a Cup, their trip to the finals in 2010 being their high-water mark since the lockout.

But in Los Angeles? Richards and Carter arrived separately, but to a team with many of the building blocks already in place for a Stanley Cup run. First, consider that the Kings as recently as 2008-2009 finished the regular season with a 34-37-11 record and out of the playoffs. Only six skaters having played in at least half the regular season games for that squad remain on this year’s edition of the Kings – Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Matt Greene, Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll, and Justin Williams. To that add goalie Jonathan Quick. That was the Kings’ “core.”

But consider that the Kings also would add to that core such as Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, and Dustin Penner from other organizations. Or that they would see players such as Trevor Lewis and Slava Voynov develop from within to take regular turns in the lineup. That they would get unexpectedly pleasant contributions from home-grown players such as Jordan Nolan and Dwight King in this post-season.

Richards and Carter are big pieces, to be sure, but pieces only, nonetheless. Having them makes the Kings a good team – perhaps a very good one. But it is in what the Kings had built otherwise that makes them the heavy favorite to close out the New Jersey Devils and win their first Stanley Cup.

We do not think that the experience of the Kings in obtaining Richards and Carter is something other teams would be wise to emulate. Not if they think that by trading for a mega-contract they think that is the key to winning a championship. Think of the teams from which those players might come and why they are not winning with those players on their rosters. Chances are it is in what was built around those anchor players that does not measure up more than those anchor players themselves.

And as for the matter of the teams who have those players with large contracts who might be inclined to move them. Philadelphia did quite well in its return for Richards and Carter. The skaters they have should be among the best collection of any team in the Eastern Conference for some years to come. But what did Columbus get for Jeff Carter and his mega-contract? Moving that contract had its charms on the basis of salary cap relief alone, but Jack Johnson and a draft pick? Hard to think that the Blue Jackets broke even on that deal on the hockey merits, let alone improved themselves.

If a team has not shown an ability to build a solid team around a player with a large contract, how does one conclude that it will, with high probability, improve itself by moving that contract? There are 23 roster spots on a hockey team, and chances are that a winning team is going to get meaningful contributions at some point during the season from just about all of them if they are to win a championship. NHL teams might copy the Kings in how they added large contracts; others might copy the “sellers” to rid themselves of large contract in favor of volume and futures. Either way, you can probably count on a lot of disappointed fans for teams that go down those paths.

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