Now that the stinging humiliation of a third shutout loss out of four supposedly intense playoff games is wearing off a little, I think it's time to look at what's really going on here.
Yes, the Flyers have a much better mix of grit and skill...often rolled up in the same players, even!...than the Habs do. Yes, the Flyers are now a healthy team. Yes, the Philly defence is better-rounded than the Canadiens'. All of that is true, but the biggest difference between the Flyers and Canadiens; the difference that is responsible for all the other differences, is the first round of the draft.
The Flyers' lineup is stacked with the results of their first-round picks. Mike Richards. Jeff Carter. Claude Giroux. James van Riemsdyk. Simon Gagne. That's the core of the team's talent on the forward lines, and they're all Flyers' first rounders, picked and developed by the organization. The interesting thing about them is that only van Riemsdyk was a high pick, going second overall in 2007. Jeff Carter was 11th overall, but the others were picked in the 20s. Mike Richards was 24th, Giroux and Gagne 22nd. That's either the result of good scouting or good luck; most likely, a combination of the two.
The other thing Philly has done is make its first-rounders pay off, even if they don't remain with the team. Chris Pronger has had a great year for the Flyers and is signed long-term. Paul Holmgren got him for 2008 first-rounder Luca Sbisa and two late firsts from 2009 and this year. Also figuring into that deal was Joffrey Lupul, who'd been the return to the Flyers for their 2002 first-rounder, Joni Pitkanen. That's a steep price to pay, but Pronger is playing a big role in a playoff run in what will likely end in a berth in the Finals. And, isn't that the point of draft picks in the first place? Paying with picks for a long-term cornerstone piece on a contending team makes a lot more sense than the choices some teams make to dump picks for rentals at the trade deadline. Another example of good use of a first is in the trade of 2005 pick Steve Downie in exchange for Matt Carle. The grand total for the Flyers comes to five of nine forwards on their top three lines and two of their top-four defencemen, all gleaned from the wise use first-round draft picks.
Compare that record to that of the Canadiens. Of the Canadiens' top nine forwards in these playoffs, one, Andrei Kostitsyn, is a Habs first-rounder. Scott Gomez (and his crippling contract) and Tom Pyatt were acquired for two former first rounders; Chris Higgins and Ryan McDonagh. None of the top four defencemen came from the first round. In fact, from the last ten first rounds, only Kostitsyn and Carey Price are part of the big team. Of the others, Higgins, McDonagh and Kyle Chipchura were traded away. Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek walked as free agents. Max Pacioretty is in the minors and Leblanc and Fischer are in college. The 2008 first was spent on half a year of Alex Tanguay.
A team in a cap system needs good, cheap talent. It gets that for a few years from its draft picks. Sure, they don't have to be first-rounders to be good players. Look at PK Subban, Jaroslav Halak, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov for evidence of that. Lots of people will also point to the incredibly lucky Red Wings who salvaged Datsyuk and Zetterberg from the later rounds. The fact is, though, most of the best talent in the league comes from the first round of the draft. The stats show 63% of first-round picks go on to become career NHL players. Only 25% of second-rounders make it, and 12% of third rounders. After the third round, it's rare to find a skater who becomes a career NHL player. The numbers prove a team has a much better chance of drafting a future NHL player in the first round than it does in later rounds, so when it blows its first-round picks on busts, the organization is inevitably set back in its development.
When first-rounders are wasted, it means the team has to get lucky in the later rounds or else fill its skilled roster positions by trade or through free agent signings. The problem with the first option is you can't get something for nothing, and if you don't have first-round quality talent to trade, you won't get any stars in exchange. That leaves hitting the free-agent market for talent. Unfortunately, that market is expensive and the more talent the player has, the more ridiculous the contract expectations.
Looking at the Flyers versus the Habs right now, you can't argue the value of using first-round picks wisely. The beauty of what they've done in Philly is that, in filling their core roster spots with homegrown talent, they've been able to use their free-agent money to sign extra help like Briere, Timonen and Hartnell. Throw in a smart trade like the one for Coburn, and the result is a well-balanced, well-built team. The Canadiens, on the other hand, have had to go the free-agent route to fill important roster spots. Roman Hamrlik, Jaro Spacek, Paul Mara and Georges Laraque are all aging and overpaid. Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are good, solid players, but they need support. The problem is, there's no money left to buy it.
There's no substitute for drafting your own good players. If the Canadiens are ever going to compete consistently, they have to do a much, much better job at getting value for those first-round picks. Chris Pryor in Philadelphia has done that admirably. Trevor Timmins in Montreal has not. At this point, Pierre Gauthier has to consider an overhaul of the scouting department. Finding a late-round steal in Mark Streit or Jaro Halak can't replace the assets wasted on blown first-rounders. The litany of "guys we could have drafted" is a familiar one for fans, but that's a fool's game. Every team has a similar list and there will always be late-blooming gems who turn into something nobody expected when they were drafted and make the GM who takes a chance on them look brilliant. But there has to be a much higher ratio of success than the Habs have had. At least three out of five of a team's first-round picks need to pan out for an organization to improve significantly. The Canadiens' success rate is more like one out of five. That's not good enough.
If, as expected, the Flyers meet the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals this year, there will be no clearer advertisement for the value of homegrown talent. Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Ladd (for 2001 first pick Tuomo Ruutu) will all have played a big part in getting their team to the big show. In the Habs' case, maybe last year's choice of Louis Leblanc in the first will be a turning point for the better. We fans had better hope it is, because without better first round choices, this year's playoff run will be the best thing we'll see for a long while.