Sunday, May 23, 2010

Aftermath: Reality Bites

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.


kostadis roussos said...

You know, the problem with the habs is that they were missing talent between 27-32. The key ages for talent. He had to buy that talent, because of problems he inherited, and because he never quite let the habs acquire a top 1 or 3 pick.

I'm not sure it is his fault. Here's what I wrote about at the beginning of the year.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely would like to believe that a change in the "old boys club" that has taken root in Montreal these many years has ended. But the coronation of PG without doing a proper search of available talent makes me doubtful. Geoff Molson must be over the moon with the unexpected revenue from all these home playoff games. Call my cynical, but I foresee no changes in fact I see a cementing of the current management for years to come. That prospect saddens me to no end.

Anonymous said...

You're right. A first or second round choice is very valuable to the future of a team. Trading one away is for immediate and usually short term benefit. Tanguay was not a benefit. Moore is good to have, but is signed until Monday (maybe later:) then could be signed by anybody.

Without knowing who makes decisions, or seeing the scouts choices in Montreal, it is pretty easy to blame Timmins and staff. Committees for instance minimize blame but often preclude success. The only ones who know how the scouts are doing are those who also give away the picks. Must be a great job. You're wrong and you're an idiot. You're right but the GM picks a kid from his hometown instead, and you're an idiot. You're right and the GM picks your choice, you're usually fired because the team was in last place and had the first pick. Probably tell a scout by the rattle of the tums bottle he carries.

Sam Pollock used the shotgun approach. He would have traded Theodore at the height of his popularity for picks, simply because he knew the business and wouldn't listen to 21000 fans who knew better. Todays teams are all about sales, so the pressure on a GM not to trade surprisingly popular players for a possibly assured future is manifested by the simple phrase "You're gone, and this guy who will do what we say is in."

Most teams have one or two rising stars they picked in the first round over the last few years. Montreal does not, although Price has potential. But Price was 5th, that was a lottery pick, and Pouliot was 4th. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post concerning drafting players. Philadelphia has a team philosophy and draft players accordingly, whereas the Habs choose to take the best player available (as they see it) at the time. Clearly this doesn't work. I hope the Habs can win this series and play the Hawks but the Flyers are clearly better and will make for a more exciting cup final.

The regular season Habs needed 3 new forwards for the top two lines. AK46, Pouliot and Plekanec don't fit the bill. Pleks is a solid third line center and if he wants top line money the Habs must let him go for the good of the team going forward. As far as the other two go, try and trade them for whatever, they must go as well. The playoff Habs have been magnificent and as a fan I am grateful for all the fun watching them dump the Craps and Crybaby's team but in reality they are a bubble team and may not even make the playoffs next year if significant changes aren't made. I would like the Habs to dump some salary and trade any or all of AK46, Hammer, Spacek and Gill and take a shot at Marleau. He was by far the best Shark and after the sweep may want out of San Jose.

I know it may be impossible to trade any of the guys I'd like to see go but I can dream and sometimes dreams do come true. In any case I'm optimistic the Habs will win Monday and give the fans one more thrill at the Bell Centre.

Anonymous said...

Right now, reality biting wise, Pleks and Gomez have 5 goals between them in 36 games between them and each over 20 minutes a game. So for 40 minutes a game, 18 games, you get five goals. It is no wonder Philly is so afraid.

Over a season like this Pleks would have 18 goals and Gomez maybe 5. Gomez has over 40 shots, and one goal. The third and fourth line centers have seven goals. Two more that the 1 and 2 centers. They play less than half the minutes.

I think the Montreal Canadiens need a big center and a couple of wingers, or they need a couple of big centers. The idea is for the other team to try and shut you down not for your team to hope your third or fourth line guys get lucky while playing 1/6th of the game.

Now you see where Sydney Crosby was coming from? The Habs can't win like this. They can act as spoilers, but they can't win.

PS: I hope I get a chance to eat my words.

NorCalVol said...

With regard to the Flyers and all of the supposed genius of their organization - we wouldn't be having this conversation if the Flyers had lost the shootout on the last day of the season.

J.T. said...

@NorCalVol: Very true, which is why I think John Tortorella's to blame for this. However, even though those guys didn't have a great regular season we can't deny that they've drafted a hell of a lot of good players in the first round. It's not genius. It's good drafting. Just imagine if the Canadiens had drafted even one true top centre in the first round in the last ten years? There's a very good chance they wouldn't have made the Gomez trade, and instead would have extra millions to afford better quality support players. I can't stand the Flyers either, but they DO draft well.

MC said...

I agree with the sentiment that drafting is extremely important to success in the cap era. But I disagree it is the difference in this series. Both of these teams have been constructed in different ways and have made to the conference final ahead of 26 other teams. The Habs are 3 wins from a berth in the final. The Habs have built a winning team, what more do we want from management?

The difference in this series is Markov is out and Pronger is in. If the situation was reversed and Markov was playing at the top of his game and Pronger was out, the series would be different. Not many teams can win it all when their best defenceman is lost.

Even without Markov the Habs are very close. Game 2 and 4 could have gone either way if Montreal gets the first goal. What if Plekanc's shot between Leighton's legs finds the back of the net? Or Gorges' skate guard stays on? With teams so even, the difference is often random events and luck. To blame the outcome of this series on Habs management or to give credit to Flyers management is a stretch. The goalie situation in Philly has been a joke for years. They were lucky to find Leighton on the trash heap before Christmas, and even luckier that he has been playing well as a career 2.94 GAA and .902 save percentage goalie.

J.T. said...

@MC: With respect, I think it's a stretch to say the Habs are a winning team...yet. I give the Flyers credit for their drafting because I think it's the right way to build a consistent, long-term winner. Of course, I can't prove that until we see what happens with the Canadiens in the next three or four years. But even the most optimistic of us have to admit that the Habs are where they are because of a great deal of self-sacrifice by the defencemen and some otherworldly play by Halak. I think that kind of style, played by this kind of team, won't stand up over the long haul. The Flyers solid young talented core has a better chance for that. Again, though, time will tell.

I agree with you on Markov, though. I think at the very least the Habs aren't looking at three shutouts in four games if he's in the lineup. Oh well. Luck plays as big a part as anything in the playoffs, and the Habs really haven't had much of the good variety. They've been hurt all playoffs and every team they've played has been better off in the health department.

MC said...

@JT: I admit that I would be in the "even the most optimistic of us" category ;-). There is no denying the success of Philly's management of draft picks as you have described, even if they had to tank for a few seasons. Its a shame the cap system will force them to dismantle the team in a few years, like the Blackhawks next year.

Let's hope the Habs continue to develop guys like Pyatt and Subban, letting them develop properly before throwing them to the lions in the Bell Centre.

J.T. said...

@MC: The thing is, Philly only finished in the lottery once...the year they picked van Riemsdyk second overall. Most of their other picks have been in the twenties. That's just good scouting and strong drafting. Since the Habs won't be allowed to follow the tank route, for reasons of pride and economics, they must make the best out of the choices they have. That's the difference between them and the Flyers.

I agree player development is just as important as good drafting, and these are both areas that can be improved by making sure the scouting and coaching teams are the best possible. Those areas don't count against the cap and get better with investment. The Habs should have the biggest, best scouting team out there. They can afford it. They've made a good start on the development side with Boucher and his team in Hamilton. Now it's just a matter of whether they can hold onto him.

kostadis roussos said...


Are we really using the Flyers as a poster child for how to build a champion? For crying out loud, they barely made it into the playoffs. Yes they beat New Jersey, but New Jersey has been losing to everyone in the first round.

They only beat the Bruins because the Bruins top scorer got injured, and because the Bruins have a history of choking.

And yes their crushing of the Habs is epic, but it has little to do with the comparative team structure. It has more to do with the fact that the Habs are running on fumes.

The Habs broke. It sounds almost comic, but athletes break. They run out of gas. And when that happens they are picked apart by another team.

Why did the Habs beat the Pens? Because the Pens broke. Gonchar broke. Seriously, do you really believe there is another explanation for why Moen beat Gonchar to the outside?

There is a reason no team has won the cup after winning back-to-back 7 game series. It's too tiring, emotionally and physically. I'm not a player and I am tired of the playoffs.

They are exhausted. And whereas the Flyers are getting reinforcements in the form of Carter and Laperrie, we still don't have Markov. For crying out loud, we're relying on PK Subban to play big minutes for us!

I don't see the Flyers as a better way to build teams.

I don't see the Flyers as a model franchise.

I see them as the team that benefited from Montreal's heroics. And for all of their destruction of Montreal all that will happen is that they will get swept in four by Chicago.

There are many lessons to be learned, but not from the Flyers.

J.T. said...

@kostadis: Not saying the Flyers are a model franchise...the Briere contract and failure to address the long-term goalie issue are problems for sure. What I AM saying is they're a very good example of the benefits of smart, late-round drafting. That's something the Habs need to do much, much better. That's it.

kostadis roussos said...


I guess I'm not so sure, I agree with your analysis (good example of late drafting).

If they were a dominant team rather than a playoff bubble team, then I would agree.

Yes they have some talented players, but those players did not give them a substantially better record than Montreal's.

And I'm also not convinced Montreal's drafting has been that horrible.

What has been horrible is the player development.

Anonymous said...

Side note: Habs this season and post-season have been as bipolar and confusingly hot and cold as Lost's finale tonight...if that makes sense

Anonymous said...

We're not dead yet.

V said...

Good article JT. Overall, our first rounders have not been stellar.

I think the Flyers are better than their regular season record and have drafted a very solid core of players. This could be a solid team for a number of years. For the purposes of your article they are a good model.

And agree the loss of Markov in this series makes comparisons between us and them difficult. I doubt we are down 3-1 with Markov in the lineup. While our first rounders have not panned out as well as we would hope, we have done a good job of building a strong core ourselves through free agency and trades. We should have a solid team for a few years as well.

moeman said...

Great read. Go Habs! Pants!

pfhabs said...


-very intelligent article and some of the posts show excellent insight into the future. I'll just add a few items for consideration

1. as it stand the CH have committed $45 million of cap to 14 players for next year. that leaves only about $12 million for 9 players and doesn't include increase to Plekanec (if they keep him)increases to Moore, Price, Halak, Pouliot, Pyatt, Lapierre and who knows whom they keep from that list

2. depending on bonuses to be paid (potentially $1.9 million) they are currently over the cap by $1.2 million which will be charged to next year if not mitigated by bonuses paid and if they use the bonuses that are paid, assuming all earned they could be about $700K under the cap

3. Gomez scored 59 points as a supposed 'top 5 skater in the NHL' and cost $7.37 on the cap. Saku Koivu was not retained and scored 52 points and cost the Ducks $3.2 million on the cap

-it may be over tonight or it may be extended. no one really knows but what is certain is the concern your post outlines for the future is well founded

-the job in front of PG is in fact more difficult this summer than it was for BG last summer and the cap position is the reason why. possible solutions abound but will he find any dance partners at the draft or on July 1st and how creative can he be without losing young prospects as sweetners to get rid of bad contracts. interesting times to come soon

Anonymous said...

(last time I wrote that it worked)

Anonymous said...

I'm going to post a WIN for the HABS too!!! YES SIR!

DKerr said...


I give the Flyers credit for drafting well, but even one bottom dweller finish helps. They get Van Rymsdck (sp) gift wrapped. Also, since they knew they were out of it, they became sellers and fleeced Atlanta out of the 8th overall pick (Coburn) in his draft. When you are on the playoff bubble as most teams seem to be, there are very few sellars.

Another thing they have is imagination. They make the trade to get the rights to Hartnell (1st rounder) and Timonen before anyone else did that. They also find Tampa being on the cheap, tired of constantly drafting high picks, so they trade Fedetenko for the 4th pick overall (Pitkanen). Tampa did well with Fedetenko short term, but the 4th pick overall?

Remember when Andre Savard ran up to the draft table to trade up one pick with Edmonton to get Higgins and then Edmonton drafts somebody from Mars? Wow,we went from 15th to 14th - phew! Philly likes to make some noise at draft time - that goes back to Lindros (call that one in the air). We were players for Sundin once, a buzz that fizzled out quickly.

I do like your point that the Habs can afford to scour the ends of the earth for talent. No longer can we point out to the ownership issues that occured in the Houle era.