ON TOP OF THE WORLD

I PLAY ARMCHAIR GM AND OFFER CANADA A FEW SUGGESTIONS FOR ITS WORLD CUP TEAM

When Hockey Canada released the initial roster for its World Cup entry in February, just about every hockey fan north of the 49th looked at it, judged it and probably complained about it ad nauseam. That’s the fun of tournaments that pit our best against the rest of the world’s elite, and given how deeply hockey is entrenched in Canada’s collective national identity, we Canucks can get pretty passionate about our international rosters. Peruse your favourite online hockey board and you’ll see what I mean.

With everyone involved in this fall’s highly anticipated tourney scheduled to announce their complete rosters in the coming days, I thought it would be fun to name my own Team Canada and see how closely it resembles the actual roster that will carry the Great White North’s banner into icy battle this September. And the best part about being an armchair GM? Zero blame if things go south.

Some of these players have already been named to Canada’s squad and some are likely to be left off. You’ll notice I omitted defenceman Marc Edouard-Vlasic from my fantasy squad even though he’s already been named to Team Canada. I also didn’t take into account considerations like right and left-handed shooters, etc. This is just an exercise in pure fun.

The Forwards

Sidney Crosby: The conversation about forwards begins and ends with team captain, Sidney Crosby. Sid The Kid is a lightning rod for criticism and he took a lot of heat for a very slow start this season, but his critics became a lot quieter once Mike Sullivan took over behind Pittsburgh’s bench and Crosby quickly turned things around, dragging the Pittsburgh Penguins into a playoff spot along the way. While Sid had a very slow start (like seriously slow), he managed to climb into the NHL’s top scorers, finishing third in the League despite his horrible start. The Stanley Cup winning, multiple Hart Trophy recipient’s experience on previous Olympic Rosters (winning Gold in 2010 and again in 2014) would prove invaluable as well.

Jonathan Toews: The Chicago Blackhawks captain is one of the fiercest competitors in the game today, and while his scoring was a little below his normal standards last season, his leadership, physicality and strong defensive play more then compensated. There’s a good reason he’s weeks away from becoming one of the highest paid players in NHL history. With three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and two Olympic gold medals (he was named the top forward of the entire tournament at Sochi in 2014) already on his resume, Toews isn’t just destined to be a top member of Canada’s 2016 World Cup team, he’s destined to be one of its leaders.

Steve Stamkos: In a little over a month’s time, Stamkos is likely going to be the most pursued free agent in NHL history. And a day or two after he hits the market he’s likely to become the highest paid player in NHL history (at least for a season or two). There’s a reason for that. The first overall pick from 2008 already has a pair of fifty goal seasons under his belt, two Maurice Richard Trophies and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. When a 36 goal, 64 point season is considered a disappointment, that isn’t a put down, it’s a testament to how good a player you are. And after missing the Sochi Olympics with a broken tibia, Stamkos deserves a place on this squad and would be the perfect second line centre behind Crosby.

John Tavares: While John Tavares has no collection of NHL hardware or Stanley Cup rings in his trophy case yet, he is by far one of the best players in the game. He practically IS the New York Islanders (think of him as New York’s Carey Price, with him they’re a playoff bound team, without him they’re scouting the first overall pick). When you consider what Tavares has been able to accomplish on Long Island, your respect for him grows by leaps and bounds. There is no question who dresses as the third centre behind Crosby and Stamkos.

Jamie Benn: What to say about Benn? He won the NHL scoring championship in 2014-15 and was the League’s second top scorer last season. He’s perhaps the biggest reason behind Dallas’ recent resurgence and why the Stars were the highest scoring team in the League in 2015-16. While he can play centre, he’s more comfortable (and dangerous) playing left wing and if you slot him on a line with Crosby, Stamkos or Tavares, well you can just sit back and watch the opponent’s goal lamp light up.

Joe Thornton: Often overlooked because of his age and the sunny market he plays in, the 1997 first overall pick and current San Jose Sharks captain is still one of the most durable players in the NHL today (he’s missed just six games over the last seven seasons), he remains one of the NHL’s top point producers (he finished fourth in League scoring last season), he’s widely considered one of the best playmakers and pure passers in the world and is one of the game’s best two-way players. Add all that to his near two decades of experience and how do you not have this guy on your team?

Patrice Bergeron: Bergeron is a warrior and it isn’t a coincidence that every time he dons the red Maple Leaf, Canada usually comes home with gold. A versatile positional player whose considered the best two-way player on the planet (the three time Selke Trophy winner is nominated again this year), Bergeron doesn’t know how to quit. Imagine a high-energy line of Bergeron, Toews and Thornton. You know who doesn’t want to? The rest of the world.

Cory Perry: Like many of the NHL’s top scorers, Perry had a sub par season by his standards in 2015-16. Despite that, the Anaheim sniper finished ninth in the NHL in goals and he remains one of the top right-wingers in the game (as well as a someone who can find his way under the opposition’s skin). A veteran of Canada’s gold medal squads in both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, you could suit the former Hart Trophy winner and 50 goal scorer up on Sidney Crosby or Steve Stamkos’ wing and watch him terrorize opposing goalies all tournament long.

Tyler Seguin: Seguin has really turned his career around since he land in the Lone Star state a few years ago, and he’s now considered on of the NHL’s premier snipers. When healthy he’s a top ten scorer, he can play both centre and right wing and has great chemistry with Dallas teammate and NHL All Star Jamie Benn. Why wouldn’t you have him on this team?

Taylor Hall: Hall had a great start to the 2015-16 season but faded in the second half (meaning he probably isn’t going to be named to the final roster). But the Kingston Cannonball is still one of Canada’s best pure left wingers (he already has a pair of top ten scoring finishes in his six season career on horrible Edmonton teams), he won back-to-back memorial Cups before turning pro and was a big part of Canada’s gold medal winning teams in both the 2015 and 2016 IIHF World Championships, proving he can come up big in big international tournaments.

Jeff Carter: Carter almost always gets overlooked by fans during these debates and his inclusion in these kinds of tourneys is always questioned by armchair GMs. But Carter can play all three forward positions with equal efficiency and can fill roles on any of your top three lines. Add that versatility to the fact that he’s a puck possession beast, and you can see why he deserves to wear Team Canada’s jersey. He was a huge part of L.A.’s Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014.

Claude Giroux: Like many names on this list, Giroux’s numbers were a bit disappointing last season. Having said that, he was still good enough to lead the Philadelphia Flyers in scoring and finished 20th overall in the NHL. Not too shabby for a “disappointing season.” Giroux is a slick, almost sneaky skater with good size and skill to burn. The fact that he can play centre and right wing is an added bonus and he’d be a valuable asset in a brief but super competitive tournament like this one.

Ryan Getzlaf: Corey Perry’s line mate in Anaheim has also lost an offensive step or two the past few seasons, but he remains one of the NHL’s most efficient two way forwards who can play with a physical edge (and still give you 60 points a season). The Ducks captain would make an ideal thirteenth forward for this squad.

The Blue Line

Drew Doughty: Those who don’t think Doughty is the best defenceman in the game today will, at the very least, concede that he’s the second best. Doughty is arguably the best player in his own zone right now and while he’s no Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns, his offensive skills are often underrated. Make no mistake, Doughty can put the puck in the net (he finished ninth in scoring among NHL defenceman), but he’s all about taking care of business in own zone first. A Burns-Doughty pairing would easily be the best one in the tournament and a thing of pure beauty. He was arguably the most important skater in L.A.’s Stanley Cup victories.

Duncan Keith: Keith is one of a handful of players who have been part of all three of the Chicago Blackhawks recent Stanley Cup wins (the previously listed Jonathan Toews is another). How important has Keith been to the Blackhawks over the years? Other then his three Stanley Cup rings, his considerable resume boasts two Norris Trophies (2010, 2014) and a Conn Smythe Trophy (2015). Easily one of the most versatile and all round rear guards in the game today, Keith is a must have.

Brent Burns: How the Minnesota Wild must be kicking themselves after trading Burns away. The 6’5 San Jose Shark was the highest scoring Canadian born blue liner in the NHL last season, and his 27 goals were one of the biggest reasons why he’s a Norris Trophy nominee. When Burns begins a rush there are few who can challenge him and there are fewer still who can dictate play the way he can at any given point in a game.

Shea Weber: The best defenceman not to win a Norris Trophy (yet), Weber’s howitzer of a shot makes any power play twice as dangerous, the Nashville veteran can defend his net with the best of them and can throw his weight around with the heavyweights. There’s no conversation about Canada’s blue line that doesn’t include Weber.

P.K. Subban: Subban’s actually a long shot to make this team, and the question is why? You need offense? Subban was second among NHL blue liners in assists last season before an injury cut his season short (he still finished 12th among defencemen in scoring despite missing 14 games to said injury). You need physicality? Subban brings that by the metric tonne. You need someone who can play in his own zone? Subban checks that box too. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner brings everything you want in an elite defenceman to the table and then some. While he has matured a little over the years, his passion and agitating style sometimes gets him into penalty trouble. The reverse side of that coin is he’s one of the most frustrating opponents in the game and he draws just as many penalties as he takes, which would allow a fearsome Canadian power play to go to work. And few are as quick as Subban to jump to a teammate’s defence.

Kris Letang: Letang has plenty of experience playing in high-pressure games on star laden rosters. He’s easily one of the best puck carriers in the NHL today (he could probably carry the puck out of the deepest pit of Hades without breaking a sweat) and he’s the personification of perseverance. Letang has overcome a lot of health problems the last few years-including a stroke-but he’s bounced back every time. How can you not have a competitor with his combination of skills and an Everest sized heart on your roster?

Alex Petriangelo: Quickly developing into one of the most well rounded blue liners in the game, Petriangelo is one of the biggest reasons behind St. Louis’ playoff success this year. A perfect choice as Team Canada’s seventh defenceman, if for no other reason than to gain valuable experience for future tournaments.

The Crease

Carey Price: Carey Price is the best goalie in the world. How can you tell beyond the eye popping numbers he posts? With him in net, the Montreal Canadiens were one of the NHL’s top teams in 2014-15 and they won the first nine games of last season decisively. Then Price went down with a mysterious injury that sidelined him for the rest of the campaign and the Habs went into complete free fall, plummeting from early Stanley Cup favourites to playoff outsiders. His mere presence turns the Habs from a draft lottery team into a 100-point one-that’s how good he is. If fully healthy come September, there’s no question he’s Canada’s go to man between the pipes.

Braden Holtby: Your likely 2016 Vezina Trophy winner, Holtby tied Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur’s record for regular season wins at 48. With Price sidelined for most of the season, Holtby climbed to the top f the NHL’s goaltending food chain and while thoroughbreds like Alex Ovechkn and Evengi Kuznetsov got a lot of the attention in Washington, there’s no way the Capitals win the President’s Trophy without Holtby’s brilliance between the pipes. When Price needs a game or two off, Holtby is the obvious choice to man Canada’s net.

Corey Crawford: Crawford is the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL. Despite backstopping the Chicago Blackhawks to a pair of Stanley Cups as their starter (2013 and 2015), he gets precious little respect. But he put up excellent numbers this year despite the struggles of the dynastic team in front of him and many felt the NHL’s failure to recognize him with his first career Vezina nomination was a snub of insulting proportions.

Shayne Kempton

Photo Anji Barton Standard Flikr License

 

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MY INNER GM PASSES JUDGEMENT ON WHICH NHL TEAMS OUTSIDE OF CANADA HAVE DONE WELL SO FAR THIS OFF SEASON, WHICH ONES HAVEN’T AND WHICH ONE IT REALLY, REALLY SUCKS TO BE RIGHT NOW

Face off Red Wings (white and red) versus Pred...

Face off Red Wings (white and red) versus Predators (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About a month ago, I published my thoughts on how Canada’s teams made out over the first part of the NHL’s offseason, including the entry draft and the usual frosh party that is the beginning of free agency (it’s estimated that teams gave away contracts worth nearly half a billion dollars on the first day alone).  Now here we are in the steamy days of August and there are a few other franchises I wanted to share my thoughts on, broken down into categories based on how well they did or didn’t do, as well as those who may provide some interest as the season unfolds.  And as an added bonus, I throw in my two cents on the sad saga of Ilya Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils, just to see if I can rile up the conspiracy theory crowd.  Keep in mind though, while most of the big fish are gone there’s still lots of summer between now and the opening of training camp in mid September, with plenty of time and opportunity for change.  Five teams are currently over the NHL’s salary cap and another dozen are perilously close (within a few million dollars or so).  There are a handful of arbitration hearings scheduled over the remainder of August and there are still one or two mildly interesting names still on the free agent market.  Essentially, there’s a pretty good chance anything I write here will be outdated twenty minutes after I publish it.

So without further adieu, I invite you to indulge my armchair General Manager ramblings on the following teams and feel free to leave a comment agreeing, disagreeing or questioning my sanity.

NICE JOB

Boston Bruins:  I’m not a gambler, but if the Stanley Cup playoffs were to start tomorrow, I’d be tempted to lay some serious coin on the Boston

English: NHL Goaltender Tuukka Rask of the Bos...

English: NHL Goaltender Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins with mask off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bruins to win it all.  2013’s Stanley Finalists came out of the gate swinging this year, refusing to stand pat at being second best.  After losing out on the Jarome Iginla sweepstakes last April, the Bruins snared the veteran power forward as a free agent and shipped promising but controversial young star Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a deal that saw them nab under-rated but hardworking and versatile sniper Loui Eriksson in return (they also picked up defensive prospect Joe Morrow in the deal, sweetening their return).  Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli also got Tuuka Rask and playoff warrior Patrice Bergeron signed to lengthy contract extensions, removing the distractions of negotiations during the season.  The Bruins are currently over the cap, but once they move effectively retired Marc Savard to Long Term Injured Reserve status, they’ll become snugly compliant.

Detroit Red Wings:  Detroit keeps managing to outrun father time and their efforts last July 5th prove why.  The Wings replaced the inconsistent (and overly expensive) Valteri Flippula with warhorse Daniel Alfredsson and centre Stephen Weiss.  Neither one were signed to be game breakers, but Alfredsson proved he’s still capable of producing 40-50 points when healthy and brings a king’s ransom in leadership and experience.  Weiss, meanwhile, gives the Red Wings a perfect second line centre behind ageless miracle worker Pavel Datysuk.  Detroit has a whole host of capable, over ripe young candidates eagerly waiting to fill their handful of third and fourth line vacancies, and the Red Wings boosted their already decent pipeline by drafting Val d’Or power forward Anthony Mantha, the only fifty goal scorer in this year’s draft.

Philadelphia Flyers:  Flyers GM Paul Holmgren has never shied away from making bold moves in the off-season to improve his team.  This year was no exception.  The flyers bought out injury prone veteran Daniel Briere and disappointing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, using that cap space to bring in Tampa Bay buyout Vincent Lecavalier and goalie Ray Emery.  Emery could prove a steal at one and a half million if he performs the way a lot of people think he can, while Lecavalier, free of the expectations his ridiculous contract with the Lightning burdened him with, could prove to be the perfect second or third line centre for the Flyers as well as an ideal mentor for young forwards Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier.  And while drafting Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg are long-term solutions to a blue line that struggled last season, veteran Mark Streit offers immediate help.  Streit may not be Chris Pronger, but his leadership, work ethic and offense will help anchor a blue line that was the Flyers’ Achilles heel last season.  Like the Bruins, Philly currently sits over he cap, but also like Boston, the Flyers can become cap-compliant by moving an expensive and all but officially retired veteran (Chris Pronger) onto LTIR as well.

INTERESTING

Nashville Predators:  Predators GM David Poile looked like a kid on Christmas morning when Seth Jones, considered the top prospect in this year’s entry draft and a future franchise defenceman, was still available when Nashville’s selection came up fourth overall at last June’s entry draft. The Preds had Jones name on an entry contract about twenty minutes after he donned a Nashville jersey for the first time, and the hulking blue liner will spend his developmental years being tutored by current franchise defenceman Shea Weber.  Aside from signing 37-year old forward Matt Cullen, Nashville concentrated most of their energy on snagging high energy, defensive forwards like Viktor Stahlberg, Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystom.  The Preds won’t be the most exciting team to watch next season (or the highest scoring), but they’ll probably be one of the most difficult to score on.  Nashville may not be ready to return to the post-season dance in 2014, but they’ll have the potential to grind out a victory every night, regardless of the opponent.

Dallas Stars:  When Jim Nill left the Detroit Red Wings (arguably the most efficiently run organization in the NHL) to replace Joe Nieuwendyk as the Stars new GM, he promised change.  Say anything you want about the man, but so far he’s lived up to his word.  Nill kicked off the summer for Stars fans by sending all-star forward Loui Eriksson, young centre Riley Smith, promising blue line prospect David Morrow and forward prospect Matt Fraser to the Boston Bruins for Tyler Seguin, veteran forward Rich Peverley and AHLer Ryan Button.  Drafted second overall in 2010, Seguin is dripping with potential, and if the Stars can get the notoriously rowdy and outspoken young star focused and settled down off the ice, he promises to a superstar on it (the Stars already got a taste of Seguin’s penchant for controversy when a homophobic remark appeared on his Twitter feed immediately following his trade to Dallas; Seguin maintains he was hacked).  Not satisfied with that much depth up the middle, the Stars leveraged their abundance of cap space in a deal that saw them sacrifice young depth defenceman Phillip Larsen and a seventh round pick in 2016 to the Edmonton Oilers for veteran centre Shawn Horcroff.  And in a stroke of drafting luck, the Stars were able to snag promising Russian forward Valery Nichushkin with the tenth overall pick and there are hopes the young power forward may be able to step in right away on the team’s second or third line.  Dallas has spent the last five seasons on the playoff bubble, missing out on the chance to compete for the Stanley Cup by a handful of points every spring.  Now it looks like they may just be poised to chase another banner next April.

What The Hell?

Pittsburgh Penguins:  Pens GM Ray Shero invested a lot of future assets at last season’s trade deadline to load up for a run at the Cup.  He gave up blue chip D prospect Joe Morrow and a couple of B level college prospects along with the Penguins selections in the first, second, fifth and seventh rounds in the 2013 entry draft and their second round selection in 2014 to add rentals Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Douglas Murray and forward Jussi Jokinen.  Pittsburgh became most people’s favorite to win the Cup and they did indeed dominate the playoffs, right up until the third round when they were mercilessly manhandled by the Boston Bruins.  Fast forward a few months and almost all those marquee names are gone (only Jokinen remains, a single season left on his current contract).  Shero spent most of his time making sure winger Pascal Dupuis and veteran forward Craig Adams never hit the free agent market while signing Evengi Malkin, Kris Letang and Chris Kunitz to rich contract extensions that kick in next summer.  He did manage to repatriate veteran blue liner Chris Scuderi as a free agent, but with all due respect to Scuderi, his addition pales compared to the mass exodus headed out of Pittsburgh (that also includes long time Pens Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke).  Complicating matters further is that their current 22-man roster is more than a million over the salary cap, meaning they’ll have to shed some significant salary over the next six weeks or so.  A team that boasts the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin (among others) in its lineup will always be a regular season powerhouse, but the fact remains that the current Penguins roster isn’t as good as the one who was so easily dismissed by Boston last June.

Washington Capitals:  Alexander Ovechkin pulled double duty on the NHL’s All-Star teams this year, as 2013’s winner of the Hart Memorial and Maurice Richard Trophies was named the First All Star Team’s right winger and the Second All Star Team’s left winger. Given Capitals GM George McPhee’s complete lack of action so far this off-season, Caps fans better hope Ovie can duplicate being in two places at once on the ice.  Washington watched as centre Mike Ribeiro left for the Arizona desert and depth centre Matt Hendricks migrated south to play in Tennessee.  To balance these losses, the Capitals went out and added . . . drum roll please . . . no one.  When other GMs were in a mad dash to improve or complete their rosters for opening night, the only sound coming from the Capitals front office was a chorus of bored crickets.  Considering that the Capitals looked like they were going to miss the playoffs altogether until they put together a late season push (and then promptly returned to their losing ways once they did get to the playoffs), you would have thought McPhee might have been burning up the phones looking for help.  Washington can’t even rely on taking advantage of teams desperate to become cap compliant later this summer because they have very little wriggle room under the cap themselves.  As it currently stands, the Capitals are looking like a one line team with a lot of expensive passengers.

Tampa Bay Lightning:  Last June, Lightning fans were rewarded for enduring a miserable season when Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman drafted Halifax Mooseheads sniper Johnathan Drouin third overall.  And while Drouin will likely join the Bolts this October, possibly even on a line with young super-star Steve Stamkos, that’s about all Tampa Bay fans can look forward to.  While Yzerman made many a Lightning fan’s dream come true when he bought out the remainder of Vincent Lecavalier’s enormous contract, Tampa Bay is likely going to be reminded of the ancient Chinese proverb about being careful what you wish for.  Lecavalier’s replacement behind Stamkos is former Red Wing Valteri Flippula, hardly a case for celebration and very possibly a big step backwards.  And while Tampa Bay’s brain trust may be confident that Ben Bishop, acquired from the Ottawa Senators at last season’s trade deadline, shores up their goaltending, they failed to address the Lightning’s biggest shortcoming; their blue line.  Tampa Bay may not finish second last in the East again, but their moves so far shouldn’t encourage any of their fans to hallucinate about a playoff spot just yet.

SUCKS TO BE YOU

 New Jersey Devils:  The Devils were already having a lousy summer before superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, who still had twelve seasons remaining on his monster deal, announced his retirement/defection July 11.  The Devils had already watched as David Clarkson, one of the biggest names available in this year’s crop of free agents, signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on the same day Zach Parise signed with the Minnesota Wild last year (July 5th is not a day that has been kind to the Devils organization as of late).  New Jersey already had to part with the ninth overall pick in last June’s entry draft to acquire Cory Schneider, Martin Brodeur’s heir apparent when he almost assuredly retires next summer, and the Devils have no choice but to forfeit their pick in next June’s entry draft as penalty for trying to circumvent the salary cap with Kovalchuk’s deal in 2010.  While Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was able to convince veteran Patrick Elias to return and brought on forwards Michael Ryder and Ryan Clowe, the Devils weren’t looking any better on paper than the team that missed the playoffs last spring.  And that was before Ilya Kovalchuk pulled a Houdini on them.  The Devils have since added 41-year old Jaromir Jagr, but most fans are skeptical that the former Hart trophy winner can replace Kovalchuk’s contributions.

On the matter of Kovalchuk’s “retirement,” I think casting the Devils as the victim might be a bit premature.  The popular thinking seems to run along the lines that if Kovalchuk had informed the team of his decision a few days earlier, they could have been more pro-active during free agency to replace him, possibly re-signing Clarkson.  Kovalchuk was slow returning from his native Russia following the end of the lockout last January, his tardiness inspiring rumours that he may spend the rest of the year overseas (Kovalchuk delayed his return to North America to play in the KHL All Star game).  And according to Lamoriello, the Devils GM and the Russian superstar had a number of conversations over the course of the season on the issue, so unless all of those conversations occurred during the handful of days between the opening of free agency and Kovalchuk’s announcement, you have to think the Devils’ GM had at least some inkling of what was coming.  I’m not excusing Kovalchuk’s behavior, but you have to wonder if New Jersey was doing more than a little acting with their “we’re just as surprised as everyone else” schtick.  After all, Kovalchuk’s absence conveniently frees up nearly six and a half million dollars in cap space a year, for the next twelve years.  And for those interested, Kovalchuk will be eligible to come out of “retirement” in another four years or so, coincidentally right around the same time his current deal with the KHL’s SKA-St. Petersburg expires.  As Dana Carvey’s famous Saturday Night Live Church Lady used to say “Well, isn’t that special?”

Shayne Kempton

FREE MARKET

DESPITE ANY THE OPINIONS TO THE CONTRARY, THE NHL ENTRY DRAFT IS STILL THE ONLY WAY TO TRULY BUILD A STANLEY CUP WINNING TEAM

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft

English: Stage for NHL Entry Draft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

     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.

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo...

Tyler Seguin during a game against the Buffalo Sabres during the 2010-11 season (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Shayne Kempton

DRAFT PLEASE