DESPITE ANY THE OPINIONS TO THE CONTRARY, THE NHL ENTRY DRAFT IS STILL THE ONLY WAY TO TRULY BUILD A STANLEY CUP WINNING TEAM
A few years ago I got into a fierce debate with a good friend of mine over the importance of the NHL entry draft. A passionate Leafs fan, he was defending Brain Burke’s decision to trade the Leafs first and second round picks in the 2010 entry draft and their first round pick in 2011 to the Boston Bruins in return for Phil Kessel. I wasn’t the only one who criticized the deal, the majority of hockey pundits cast doubt on it as well. In fact, the only ones who seemed to defend it were members of the Toronto media and Leafs Nation. The deal looked even worse when the bottom fell out of the Leafs 2009-10 season and they watched as the second overall pick, which should have been their consolation prize for such a dreadful season, went to the Bruins, who drafted the highly touted Tyler Seguin. It must have stung just a bit more when Seguin made the jump directly to the NHL on a deep Bruins roster, and then was a huge factor in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, helping the Bruins defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning and moving on to eventually defeat the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup. To add a little extra salt to the Leafs wounded pride, they saw the newly defending Stanley Cup champs use the other first round pick they surrendered for Kessel to draft hulking young blue liner Doug Hamilton ninth overall that June (Hamilton was widely considered the best North American defenceman available in that draft).
My friend’s opinion, indeed much of Leaf’s Nation collective belief, seemed to mimic that of former Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher (who when asked about trading away so many of Toronto’s draft picks, once replied “draft schmaft”), that the entry draft didn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a source for talent and that the future was now (it should be noted that while Cliff Fletcher never won a Stanley Cup with the Leafs, he was GM of the Calgary Flames when they won the Cup in 1988-with a lineup full of Flames draft picks). But watching beaming teenagers getting drafted last Sunday afternoon and hearing all the rumours swirling around, it was easy to remember that successful drafting and patient development is the only true key to winning Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice.
Take the Pittsburgh Penguins for example. During the half decade where they missed the playoffs, flirted with bankruptcy and relocation and played to a half filled relic of a stadium, the Pens were able to amass a wealth of talent, drafting Evengi Malkin second overall in 2004 and Jordan Staal at that same spot in 2006, Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003 and nabbed the prize of prizes by drafting Sydney Crosby first overall in 2005. It didn’t hurt that they also tabbed defenceman Brooks Orpik in 2001 and drafted all-star defenceman Kris Letang in the third round of 2005. All of those names were present and accounted for when the Penguins went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and again when they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in a Stanley Cup championship rematch the following season. While the Pens haven’t made it back to the final since winning it all in 2009, they’ve hardly been in danger of missing the playoffs and have been a regular season superpower every season since. And you should also remember, this was Pittsburgh’s second kick at the Stanley Cup can; the Pens won back to back Cups in 1991 and 92, with teams that included names like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, names Pittsburgh called out at the draft podium.
But what if the Pens hadn’t won the coveted number one pick in the 2005 entry draft, you may ask? They simply benefited from an enormous amount of luck that year (or scheming, if the numerous yet unfounded conspiracy theories are to be believed), because without Crosby Pittsburgh’s Cup dreams evaporate. Perhaps, and if Pittsburgh were the only arrow in that quiver you might be right. But look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks for an even better example. Chi-town’s team had been exiled to the NHL’s basement for years but collected a fortune of wealth in the likes of Johnathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Dave Bolland and Corey Crawford, all of whom held the Cup aloft in 2010 and again this year (making the draft-built Blackhawks the only team to win the Stanley Cup twice in the salary cap era). Or you could take the Boston Bruins; not only 2011 Stanley Cup champions but also 2013 Stanley Cup finalists. The 2006 entry draft was a good one for Beantown; that’s the year they picked up the aforementioned Phil Kessel in the first round, Milan Lucic in the second and Brad Marchand in the third. While we know how Mr. Kessel’s time in a Bruins jersey ended, Lucic and Marchand have been vital cogs in the successful Bruins machine, joined by second round picks Patrice Bergeron and David Krecji (drafted in 2003 and 2004 respectively). Or we could take the L.A. Kings, the defending 2012 Stanley Cup champions who were also a member of this year’s final four, their core consisting of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and stand-on-his-head-goalie Johnathan Quick. Take a quick guess how many the Kings drafted? If you said all of them, congratulations, you guessed it in one. We could also use the St. Louis Blues as an example. Or the Tampa Bay Lightning, if they ever get back to the post season while Steve Stamkos is in his twenties.
I may be accused of saying that only teams that spend years sucking, to the growing despair of their fans, can build themselves into Stanley Cup champions. Au contraire grasshopper. The Detroit Red Wings haven’t drafted in the top ten since 1991 when they picked Martin Lapointe tenth overall. For those keeping score, the Red Wings have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs an unprecedented 22 times in a row (that’s nearly a quarter of a century where Wings fans have been able to enjoy playoff hockey), they’ve played in six Stanley Cup finals since 1995 and won four of them. The Red Wings have always been masters of the draft, finding gems in the rough, patiently and efficiently developing them, fending off attrition and Father Time himself with a seemingly endless pipeline of deserving prospects. The same could once be said for the New Jersey Devils, and they have the Stanley Cup banners to show for it (three Cups since 1995, though the Devils are in a bit of a bumpy transition now). The Ottawa Senators were able to overcome catastrophic injuries this season by depending on excellent organizational depth to not only get them into the playoffs, but to eliminate the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round while hardly breaking a sweat. Most of that depth came via the draft.
All the teams mentioned made missteps and made some pretty high-profile picks they’d rather forget (Cam Barker anyone? Angelo Esposito? Tom Hickey? No? Can’t say I blame you) and each made significant additional moves to compliment the cores they had assembled through the draft, usually moving surplus assets late in the season or at the trading deadline. And there are plenty of teams that prove you can mess up successive years of high draft picks. The New York Islanders and the late Atlanta Thrashers for starters (though New York redeemed themselves a little by sneaking into the playoffs this year), and my painfully beloved Oilers are on the verge of becoming another (the Oilers are actually a pretty fair example of what results from years of bad and reckless drafting). You have to cautiously shepherd your young talent with the necessary veteran presence and resist the temptation to rush your prospects, no matter the hype surrounding them. The fact is that successful drafting is like great goaltending in the Stanley Cup playoffs; having it won’t guarantee you win, but missing it guarantees you won’t.
Right now, the Kessel trade doesn’t look quite as bad. Kessel was excellent for the Leafs this past season and bordered on fantastic during their riveting first round series against their former trading partners this past spring; the Bruins benched Doug Hamilton for the entire Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks and the entire hockey world was taken by surprise when Tyler Seguin’s name popped up in trade rumours just days before the 2013 entry draft. For the record though, I still wouldn’t have made that trade, and I don’t think Brian Burke would have either. I think he gambled that the Leafs would probably miss the playoffs in 2010, but with Kessel added to their lineup they’d be a bubble team (they drafted seventh in 2009; a pick they used on Nazem Kadri), their choice falling somewhere between tenth and fourteenth. And I’m pretty sure he was confident that with a few tweaks and improvements, that his Leafs would be in a playoff spot come 2011. Phil Kessel is an excellent player, an elite one, whose has demonstrated character and fortitude to compliment his speed and skill (he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy in 2007 for overcoming testicular cancer), but I suspect, no matter how much he’s defended the trade since, that if he knew what he’d be parting with, Burke wouldn’t have made the deal. Seguin’s name is bouncing around in trade rumours only because the Bruins find themselves in salary cap trouble while twenty year old Dougie Hamilton is dripping with raw potential and will spend the better part of the next decade being mentored by blue line titan Zdeno Chara. And let’s not forget the Bruins also snared Jared Knight with the Leafs 2010 second round pick, a pure goal scorer in the OHL whose progress has been slowed by injuries but is still expected to eventually develop into a promising NHL player. But if you still need evidence that drafting isn’t merely the best way to build a Stanley Cup caliber team, but the only way, just scan the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and count how many Stanley Cup banners they’ve won in the past four decades and the answer should put any doubts you may still have to rest.