Saturday, May 31, 2008

Beating the bushes and chasing the champions

There's a new philosophy in the cap-era NHL. It goes something like this: star players are great, but a team can only thrive on cheap young talent, the operative word being cheap. It might have been funny when Cliff Fletcher said "draft schmaft" fifteen years ago, but today that's sacrilege. Success at the draft table is more important than it ever has been. With free agency only a contract away, teams need to keep the young talent flowing to take the place of that which walks for big bucks when just coming into its prime. Look at today's Stanley Cup finalists. Both the Penguins and the Red Wings' stars were drafted by their respective teams. But Pittsburgh was in the fortunate position of having no-brainer picks in Crosby and Malkin. Detroit had the tougher job of finding jewels in the later part of the draft from where successful teams must choose. That's why their discoveries of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and the rest are impressive. A monkey could have successfully drafted Sidney Crosby. Picking Johan Franzen required some insight and skill.

But picking Franzen had another aspect of Detroit's philosophy inherent in it as well. He wasn't the typical 18-year-old kid at the draft, but a 24-year-old with four years in the Swedish Elite League behind him. He's just one example of how the Wings get talent from everywhere. Dan Cleary's another example. The former first-rounder looked like a bust after the Coyotes...his third NHL team...declined to qualify him in 2005. Detroit saw something in him and gave him a chance to make the team, which, obviously he did...convincingly. It's a good example of why the traditional ways of acquiring players...draft, trade, free agency...should no longer be the only ways. The team that has eyes everywhere and is able to jump on non-traditional players before other teams catch on is going to have an advantage.

Bob Gainey said in his season post mortem said he wants to follow the path Detroit has taken in building its team. He likes the mix of speed and team toughness the Wings display, and if this season was a taste of what that could be like in Montreal, we like it too. He's backing it up by following Detroit's combination of strong drafting and a non-traditional approach to player acquisition. Late-round gems like Jaroslav Halak and Sergei Kostitsyn make Gainey's draft record look especially shiny. Add to that the ninth-round selection of 27-year-old Mark Streit and we start to see some similarities to the way the Wings are doing things.

Gainey undoubtedly has eyes everywhere, and he's using them to find the overage late bloomer, the undrafted and the unexpected free agent. When small, shifty, high-scoring centre Brock Trotter was quietly dismissed from his program at the University of Denver, Gainey was waiting with a contract in hand. When undrafted centre David Desharnais looked to be finished in pro hockey after an unspectacular seven games in the AHL last year, Gainey offered him a tryout and signed him to a contract. Desharnais had 106 points in 68 ECHL games and looks to be ready to move up to Hamilton next year. When undrafted Janne Lahti had a strong season in the Finnish Elite League, Gainey signed him to a North American contract and brought him over for a look-see. When Fabian Brunnstrom decided to give North America a try, Gainey had the Habs in line as one of the three teams with which Brunnstrom considered signing. Of course, all these guys don't work out, but the point is, Gainey's there. He's aware they're available and he's making room in his organization to give them a chance. It only takes one big success at stealing a good player for nothing to make a GM look like a genius.

Now Phoenix's first-round pick from 2004, Blake Wheeler has become an unrestricted free agent because the 'Yotes failed to sign him after he completed his four years of college. Wheeler's six-foot-five and 220 pounds. He's a right-shooting centre who skates well and has nice hands around the net. There's some question about his attitude, but if he's worth a contract, you can bet Gainey will be quietly there with an offer.

It's encouraging to see the Wings in the final, after dominating their playoff so far, because I can see Gainey's serious about following their lead. The Habs' draft team is doing well in the last five or six years. The scouts are finding unheralded but talented players in college and in Europe, and finding them first. In an era when every dollar counts, the Canadiens are doing what they can to find good, cheap talent in non-traditional arenas.

I think Gainey has one lesson left to learn from Detroit, and that's to refrain from throwing huge money and long term at other teams' free agents. The Wings have signed their two premier stars...Lidstrom and Datsyuk to long-term, rich deals. They pay the others, including Zetterberg, who makes 2.9 million next year, and Tomas Holmstrom, who'll bring home two and a quarter million, something between fair and below market value. After they lost Mathieu Schneider last seaon, they chose a replacement on the UFA market in Brian Rafalski, and paid him a rich, but not completely outrageous six million a year. They're not throwing money at a player unless he's the exact fit for their needs, and even then, they throw moderate money instead of crazy money. No ten-million dollar Brieres for Detroit. They're wise with their cash, and that will help keep them on top for years to come.

If Gainey can manage his money like the Wings manage theirs, and if he can keep drafting and discovering players like they do, things are looking up for the Habs and their fans. It's a pattern of success the wise GM would do well to follow. And Bob Gainey is nothing if not wise.


NailaJ said...

Bob Gainey might be wise, but so are you.

Oh wise one, teach me to know hockey like you do!

PS: You should be on Hotstove.

Topham said...

I agree with your take, that's for certain. But, how do you think teams will be able to replicate Detroit's approach now that the IIHF agreement looks to be doomed.

Will Gillett make money available for a transfer budget, unlike the precent he set with Liverpool, where he has pinched pennies a bit.

I think an owner who's willing to spend and a GM who's willing to risk something will be heading the most successful franchise of the next decade.

As the landscape changes, do you think our guys are the two? Indeed, will they be able to unseat Detroit whose owner has a taste for winning and has shown a will to spend?

For all the Brock Trotters and David Desharnais there are superior players plying happily playing their trade overseas. I think finding a way to pry them away from their clubs is a free pass to success.

J.T. said...

Nice perspective, Topham. I agree a trusting owner and a GM who's willing to take a calculated risk makes a winning combination. I think Gillett both trusts Gainey and is willing to spend on a winner. He's shown no hesitation about allowing Gainey to go as close to the cap as he's seen fit so far. After that, I think it's a matter of great scouting, which Detroit has in spades and the Habs seem to be working on. I'm not too concerned about the IIHF agreement. If a player is a free agent, he can go wherever he pleases, agreement or not. The tough part may be getting past the entry-level NHL deal, which makes it tough for a team to compete with its European counterparts which aren't bound by such a restriction. I don't know if the Habs can beat the Wings at their own game...but I do think they can compete with them at it.