Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Draft Graveyard

You know what's frustrating? I was reading the NHL's Central Scouting ranking of the best young prospects for the coming draft, and while I was salivating over the potential of some of these guys, I was also irritated to know the Habs won't get any of them. The young players who'll be ready to jump straight from junior to the NHL because they're that talented won't be in Montreal unless they fall down the rankings for some reason or join the Habs after their indentured servitude in Florida ends. Worse is knowing that it's often pointless for those players to go to those remote outposts of the hockey world. The teams that get them won't build up enough to be contenders. They'll just continue to be poor teams with a few good players in exile.

Look at Atlanta for example: They drafted Dany Heatley second overall in 2000. He wasn't happy in Atlanta, so the Thrashers traded him to Ottawa for Marian Hossa. Hossa wasn't happy in Atlanta, so they traded him for a package of non-stars to Pittsburgh, just to avoid having him bolt with no return at all. Now the one-two punch of Hossa/Kovalchuk has become just Kovalchuck, and guess what? There's talk that Ilya's not happy in Atlanta. He's consistently the subject of trade talk, because the perception across the league is that he'll bail as quickly as he can the minute he's a free agent in 2011. Atlanta's the worst team in the east again this year, so they'll get another top-five draft pick. What's the point? The franchise is disarray, with only one playoff appearance (and no wins) in its history.

Founded in 1999, the Thrashers picked either first or second overall in their first four entry drafts. Of those players (Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, Kovalchuk and Patrick Stefan), only Kovalchuk and Lehtonen remain with the organization, although Lehtonen was placed on waivers last week. The others were traded before they made a difference in the organization, and the players the Thrashers got in return did little to help turn the franchise into a winner. The number eight-overall pick in 2003, Braydon Coburn, is now anchoring the Flyers' defence in Philadelphia. The Thrashers got Alexei Zhitnik in exchange, and have since bought out his contract.

Most of the high picks awarded to the Thrashers have managed to escape from Georgia after years of futility. But again, what's the point? Why are players of such high ability forced to languish in obscurity, waiting for an ill-advised trade or free agency? The answer, of course, is because Gary Bettman wants these pointless franchises to survive, and the draft system as it is allows the worst teams to pick the best players. It rewards lousy GMs with pick after pick in the top five, most of whom go to waste, mired in defeat on useless teams. Good GMs, like Bob Gainey, get the mid-to-late round picks that may or may not pan out. The only time the Canadiens got to pick in the top-five in recent years was the post-lockout draft, when they got Carey Price at number five. Can you imagine the damage the Habs and Trevor Timmins could do with a couple of high picks? You can be guaranteed they wouldn't be traded away for the likes of Alexei Zhitnik.

I think the first round of the draft should be lottery all the way. Luck of the draw. It's still a crap-shoot in some ways, because even having a top-five pick doesn't mean you'll choose a guaranteed star. But, if a team like Detroit, that, with careful management and wise drafting, has produced a perennial contender, gets the first overall pick...good for them. Or if a consistently late-round team gets it...it could be the difference between always finishing eighth or becoming a contender. Better take the chance of having a great team get stronger than hand the best prospects over to the likes of the Atlanta Thrashers to misuse and disillusion every single year.

Making the first round a lottery would also help eliminate the Tampa Bay Syndrome. A team, like Pittsburgh or Atlanta, who chooses in the top five every year...especially if it's a real blue-chip year...could end up with three or four budding superstars who all have big contracts coming due at the same time. They end up keeping them all, and shelling out a fortune to do so, which leaves them with little to fill the rest of the roster. Picking draft positions by lottery means the superstars are spread around the league and the salary on each team more evenly distributed.

I just want to see good, prudent general managers have a real chance to draft a star without tanking. That's particularly important for the Habs, where the pressure to draft hometown boys is enormous. Unfortunately, the Q often tends to turn out big stars or good pluggers with little in between. Imagine if the draft lottery allowed the Canadiens to pick Vincent Lecavalier? With the jury still out on Price's long-term impact, it's been a long, long time since the Habs have been in the position to add a real franchise player without mortgaging their future in a trade.

The current draft system is supposed to encourage parity, by allowing poor teams to improve themselves by adding young talent. What it really does is keep middle-of-the-pack teams stuck in the middle. And that's really frustrating.


Tiffany said...

Lehtonen was placed on IR. Not on waivers.

J.T. said...

Thanks for the correction.

Tom said...

The problem is not the system, but half-assed owners who aren't competent to manage a franchise successfully. Atlanta would be just fine if they were run the same way as other "outpost" franchises like Tampa, Carolina, and Dallas. Those teams won Cups and have strong fanbases because they have a clue what they're doing.

IMO, the draft system works fine as-is. There needs to be a certain element of lottery to keep teams from tanking, but generally you want bad teams to have high draft picks -- otherwise they'll just go out and sign a bunch of old free agents instead of really rebuilding. Also, it allows struggling teams like the Pens and Caps to resurrect themselves when bankruptcy is looming. My 2 cents.

Justin Crowder said...

let's remember the one year in which a full first-round lottery did take place, following the lockout...

Pittsburgh won the first overall selection, after finishing last overall in '03-'04 and chose Sidney Crosby...

Result? A resurrected franchise, which was on the brink of collapse...

Montreal moved up substantially closer to the front of the pack than they should have been at #5 (they were the first playoff team from the previous season to select in that draft) and selected Carey Price...

Result? Very likely Montreal's most important draft selection in decades...

San Jose was the next playoff team (finsihed #2 in the West with 104 pts) to select at #8 and chose Devin Setoguchi...

Result? An already good San Jose team is now over-the-top powerful with the likes of Setoguchi now making a huge impact...

Conversely, Atlanta finished out of the playoffs, chose 16th overall, and selected Alex Bourret (who?) in what was touted to be one of the deepest draft years of all-time...

Atlanta was effectively punished by the draft lottery that year, receiving a middling pick when they were a bottom-feeding team... parity in this league depends on top-tier talent going to weaker franchises, though it remains up to the scouting and management of those teams to ensure their talent and teams are properly developed.

Colorado, for example, did not have a 1st round pick in the 2005 entry draft, but selected twice in the 2nd round at #34 and #44... those picks turned out to be Ryan Stoa, then Paul Stastny... easily one of the top 5 players to come out of that draft, Stastny made it to #44...

It was clearly an entertaining draft, and a very important/fortunate one for certain teams... but it is not the system so much as a team's direction (or lack thereof) that makes for Atlanta-like situations...

mr. gillis said...

Pittsburg is a good example of a team that rebuilt itself.

2000: Brooks Orpik (18th overall)
2001: Colby Armstrong (21st overall)
2002: Ryan Whitney (5th overall)
2003: Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall)
2004: Evgeni Malkin (2nd overall)
2005: Sidney Crosby (1st overall)
2006: Jordan Staal (2nd overall)

All of these guys are still with the pens and are part of one of the greatest teams in the NHL. The pens missed the playoffs for 4 years straight but i'm sure if you asked the pens organization if it was worth it, I'm pretty sure they'd say yes. Surethey got lucky with the crosby lottery but even before that, they had a great team in the making. Crosby's just the icing on the cake.

As for Atlanta:
1999: Patrik Stefan (1st overall)
2000: Dany Heatley (2nd overall)
2001: Ilya Kovalchuk (1st overall)
2002: Kari Lehtonen (2nd overall) & Jim Slater (30th overall)
2003: Braydon Coburn (8th overall)
2004: Boris Valabik (10th overall)
2005: Alex Bourret (16th overall)
2006: Bryan Little (12th overall)

Only three of those guys are still with the team. Sure there was the tragic Dan Snyder incident but they got Hossa in return for Heatley they should have done better to keep the team together.

The pens did it, why couldn't they?