Monday, June 22, 2009

Rethinking Strategy

Trevor Timmins is a BPA man. We know that, and, in theory, picking the best player available when you step up to the podium at the amateur draft isn't a bad strategy. But this year, I think it might be time to make an exception to the rule.

The fact is, the Canadiens need a solid, offensively-talented centre with some size. They've had the same need for well over a decade and drafting the BPA has failed to address it. I hate to beat the 2003 draft to death yet again, but if Timmins had been looking for a big, strong centre that year, he might have chosen a guy like Getzlaf, instead of the best player available who, in Timmins' book, was Andrei Kostitsyn. Not that I don't think Kostitsyn's got talent. On the contrary, I think only a lack of consistency is preventing him from becoming a seventy-point player. But Kostitsyn is another winger on a team with lots of wingers and no top centres either on the big team or in the system.

The theory behind the BPA is that you can't draft for immediate needs because the dynamic and composition of a team will likely change by the time the kid you draft is ready for the big time. The common defence of Timmins' strict adherence to that theory is the Carey Price selection. Just about everyone was surprised to see the Price pick when Jose Theodore was number one in Montreal and had won a Hart and Vezina trophy in the not-too-distant past. Who would have predicted Theo's massive implosion after Price was picked? So, by choosing the BPA in 2005, according to Timmins' list, the Habs snagged themselves a possible franchise goalie who became the organization's top hope at that position after Theodore was traded. Sure, they could have taken Kopitar who would now be the team's number-one centre. But they wouldn't have Price to guard the net for the next ten years. It's still too early to say whether that argument is a valid one. Would the team be better or worse off with Kopitar centering the first line and a Halak/Huet tandem in nets? We won't know until Price develops fully and we see how important he is to the Canadiens in the next several seasons. In the meantime, the hole at centre is still not filled.

The other argument in favour of the BPA theory is that you can't have too much talent. So, in theory, if a team decides the best player available is a defenceman four or five years in a row, that's no problem because it can later trade one of those talented young D-men for the other pieces the team needs. Or, it can bring in free agents to plug the holes. That's theory. But the reality is because of the salary cap, teams are placing greater value than ever on cheap, young talent. That means they're reluctant to trade prospects until they have a very good idea about the kid's upside and potential to contribute in the NHL. Nobody wants to unload a kid if there's a chance he might bloom for another team. So they hold onto the prospects until they know if they're NHL quality or not. But by then, the other teams know it too, so there are few bargains to be had in trades. The strange irony of the value teams place on their own prospects, however, is that they don't place the same value on other teams' kids. So, while a GM might be willing to part with a couple of D-prospects in exchange for a good young forward, the other GM might not think prospects are worth as much as his NHL-calibre forward. And most organizations have only a few real prized prospects that might interest other teams. The problem is, those are the kids a GM's own team needs to build around.

Take the Habs for example. While they're flush with defence prospects, they have very little at centre. If they want to trade for a centre, what can they offer? Subban and Weber for Getzlaf or Staal? Right. So, the trading thing, while ideal in theory, doesn't exactly pan out as imagined very often.

As for filling holes through free agency, well, that might work for other teams, but Montreal has never been successful at that. As we know.

So, it's back to the draft. I agree that in most cases it's tough to predict what a team's needs might be in five years, when a mid-round draft pick is finally ready to contribute at the NHL level. But in Montreal, the greatest need is the same one the team has had for years, and there's nobody on the farm team who looks like he'll be capable of filling that need in the next several seasons.

That's why, when Trevor Timmins steps up to the mic, I hope he picks the best centre available. He may gamble and miss, but the draft is just that way, regardless of which strategy you use. I'm sure he thought David Fischer was the best player available three years ago, and that's not exactly been a huge homerun yet. Perhaps if he'd been drafting for need that year, Patrik Berglund would have scored 21 goals in his rookie NHL season in Montreal instead of St.Louis. While I agree drafting for need isn't the best way to go generally, I think it's a special circumstance in Montreal this year. At least we'll know the team tried to fill that hole in centre, even if it ultimately doesn't work out.


Topham said...

Sound analysis.

But I propose that the scope that the Canadiens have to work with is too narrow: Big centre.

Personally, I swing for the fence and go for the player who I think will be the best scoring forward in 3 years or 5 years time. This would be regardless of size, regardless of nationality, and importantly regardless of position.

Yes, large centres are a premium asset in this league. But there is a proviso – they must be able to score. Big centres who can't score, or don't score that much (Hi Max Lapierre) are readily available through free agency, trades, unsigned, whatever.

One of the things you can't buy in this league is a true scorer. That's why Timmins took Kostitsyn. That's why he should be barking up that tree again.

Picking at 18 is tricky as well. I would suggest that the only reason the player is allowed to have slipped this far should be questions about his all-round game – that you can correct in time. If there is a big question about whether elite scoring will ever be possible, I'd steer clear.

[As a note, please have a look at the wingers under contract in our organization if you think we're bare at centre. It comes with a depth warning: no diving.]

DB said...

I think teams should draft the BPA with team needs being used to break ties. It has worked pretty well for the Habs. Hockey Futures recently ranked Montreal's prospects number 2 and Dobber just gave the Habs scounting staff an A+.

The frustration many fans have with the draft is that the player selected rarely turns out to be the BPA. The fans then say if we drafted based on needs then we would have gotten Getzlaf or Carter. It's a nice theory, but one that can't be proven.

If you look at the 2003 draft and say Montreal should have gone for a centre (a lot of people would say big centre) it's true they could have picked Carter, Getzlaf or Richards, but they could have also picked Robert Nilsson, Mark Pouliot or Brian Boyle.

When I try to evaluate a team's scouting department I get frustrated because teams do not release their player rankings after the draft (at least their top 30). If they did then assessment would be a lot easier. We would know the average ranking of each player picked, which player a team would have picked if they hadn't traded their first round pick, and which team did the best scounting job (we would have to wait 3 to 5 years for the final assessment).

geezer said...

JT, regardless of how much the "pros" are being paid and how high their status, not many can hold a candle to you writing and insight. Just want to let you know that I am a huge fan of yours and have been since I encountered your contributions a year or so ago on the net.

I am old enough to have read personages like Dink Carroll, Scott Young, early Red Fisher, etc. in their prime and the question that rears up in my mind is why aren't you on the staff of one of the nationals?

punkster said...

I think picking 18th is what makes it all so difficult. Top 5, easy. The rest are an even bigger gamble no matter what you do.

J.T. said...

@Topham: Yeah, scoring is a priority, no doubt. But so is the centre position. They need a guy who can win faceoffs, drive the net and distribute the puck. As you say, picking at 18 makes it tough to get that package, but there are a lot of good centres this year. I've been won over to the Leblanc camp, which fits the bill AND satisfies the homers.

@DB: I agree you never know if you've got the BPA, no matter where you pick. That's why I think you have to go with your research MOST of the time. But, every once in a while when there's something obvious missing from the farm, you have to take a chance on having a bust/homerun situation in the position you need.

@geezer: Thanks very much! I'd love to write hockey for a living, but I don't think many people are hiring these days.

Howard said...

Not only do we need to draft according to our needs, we need a player who can step into the NHL right away or in the near future. A few players can make this jump, Crosby, Toews, Kane, Stamkos (just coming into his own), Lucic. Not that we're going to draft anyone near this quality which is why we usually end up taking high school players. We need someone whois mature enough at 18 or 19 to help the team right away. Then again, look at the Gui! experiment in that he really could have benefited from a year in the AHL. Same with Carey Price. It's a fine line and can be a hit or a miss. I thought that Max Pac exhibited a lot of maturity this year and could have stayed with the big club.
Sergei's first year was a revelation then somehow regressed in the second year. Go figure! I'm fortunate to be going to the draft on Friday night. Looking forward to some interesting action at the table.

Anonymous said...

@Howard: While, obviously, a player who can make an immediate impact would be nice, they don't exactly come in droves, especially at the draft. These younger players, generally speaking, still need a few years to develop. I wouldn't want to let impatience ruin what might otherwise be a worthy prospect. You yourself cited Gui (who I like, despite all the criticisms), a player who everyone wanted (at the time) on the team, who might've benefited otherwise.

Also, I don't quite understand the obsession with Lucic. Yes, he's been quite the thorn in the team's side this year (and some of last), but he's far from being worthy of being listed with the crop of star players/first overall picks you've listed.