Building a winner takes more than just top picks
As the final two weeks tick away until the Sabres make the first pick in the Tim Murray era, Tyler and I decided to team up to offer an all-encompassing analysis of how the most recent Cup winning teams were constructed. We started with the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins and went straight through this year’s Kings and Rangers rosters.
We found a number of different trends and traits on each of these teams. One trait they all shared was the possession of at least one high pick (fifth or higher) who was either drafted by the team or became a priority acquisition at one point or another. However, just as important as these players were to their respective teams, proper acquisitions via trades or free agency served as an equally important trait for each and every one of these teams.
Our goal was to offer a comprehensive analysis of each of these teams to illustrate exactly where the Sabres still need to improve their roster outside of simply winning the Draft Lottery.
Chris: The current state of the Sabres has inspired a lot of debate regarding rebuilding and the best course of action to take. One particularly incendiary stance taken by Jeremy White is that it doesn’t matter who your GM is so long as you’re picking at the top of the draft. While I’m sure his point was that anyone can pick first since you’re likely to land a surefire stud with a top-three selection, the comment has turned into a rallying cry both for White and his critics.
I know we both disagree with his premise given that hockey teams are comprised of 23 players, not one or two. Without giving away the entire argument in two paragraphs, I feel it’s important for anyone to understand that shaping a championship team takes a hell of a lot more than simply picking first a few times. It’s a perfect storm of drafting, trades, free agent signings and cap management. Comparing the state of the Sabres to other teams who have enjoyed a turnaround after picking high – Colorado comes to mind as a great example – it’s safe to say that Aaron Ekblad or one of the Sams aren’t going to turn things around by themselves, no?
Tyler: Whoever Tim Murray opts to take at 2nd overall at the end of the month will not come in, put the team on his back, and carry them to a top three finish (and automatic playoff spot) in the Atlantic Division. I’d venture to say that even if Murray were to acquire another top five pick in June (as Mike Harrington believes they should) they still would find themselves outside of the playoff picture. That is not an indictment of the skill of any of the top prospects, but of the current roster. The Sabres have a multitude of holes to fill, and while one or two of Bennett, Reinhart, or Ekblad would no doubt but the team on the right track there’s still a long way to go.
CO: The Sabres are in a great position to land a cornerstone who should serve as an organizational catalyst for years to come. That’s the key, for me, when it comes to picking high. You need to find the player that you can build your team around. As you can see in the gallery below, all but the Rangers have a player they selected in the top three of the draft on their roster. Each of these lottery darlings were obtained after each team endured a significant stretch of bad hockey – aside from Boston who backed into Tyler Seguin thanks to the Phil Kessel trade.
While the Rangers serve as the perfect exception to the theory of picking high being the only thing needed to become a Cup contender, each and every one of these teams have rosters that illustrate the importance of savvy cap management and proper construction. I think what stands out to me most are the acquisitions made by each of these teams that formed the nucleus of each Cup winning roster.
TR: And I think that’s main point. Obviously after a year (or two, or three) in which you bottom out and end up drafting in the top three you have the opportunity to draft the face of your franchise for the next 10-15 years, and you better capitalize on it. Assuming you are able to get your desired franchise altering rookie, it is still just the first step (albeit a very big step).
When looking at the composition of these Cup winners even the 2013 Blackhawks (the only winner we profiled with more than half of its roster acquired through the draft) still had players who were huge contributors that were acquired through trade. It’s also important to clarify that these players were (for the most part) not deadline acquisitions, but rather acquired well before their respective teams went on to hoist the Cup. The Blackhawks picked up Patrick Sharp in 2005, the Rangers got Ryan McDonagh prior to the 2010 season, the Kings scooped up Justin Williams (the Game 7 God) in 2009. The list of key additions made years, not months, in advance could continue, but I think it’s safe to say that making shrewd trades (and not just when you’re a seller) is vital when it comes to building a team to compete for a Cup.
CO: You’re right on that, 100%. Not to beat the dead horse too much, but I don’t want this to be misinterpreted as a piece that says picking first or second doesn’t matter because it does. It matters a whole lot. I just think that there’s a segment of fans, and perhaps pundits, who feel that simply picking a name out of the hat at the lottery will make all of the Sabres’ losing go away. To go back to something I mentioned earlier, you need savvy acquisitions and cap management to couple with your elite homegrown talent. Even the 2008-09 Penguins – the veritable model for turning lottery picks into Cups – had a number of key players brought in via trade that helped to put them over the top. Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin each played a vital role in that Cup – Dupuis was slightly less so as he went scoreless in the playoffs. Regardless, those are three players, two who filled in the top six, who had nothing to do with where the Penguins drafted and everything to do with rounding out the roster.
You can look up and down these rosters and while there are lottery picks dotting each, there are an equal number of names who filled equally vital roles after being acquired by trade or free agency. In fact, you point out what may be the most important takeaway from these rosters; only one team acquired over half of their roster through the draft, which speaks loudly to the process required here.
TR: Absolutely, the process is a long one, talking three years at the absolute earliest…and that’s the time frame it took the Penguins after drafting the best player of our generation in Sidney Crosby. For those teams who don’t have the pleasure of taking a generational talent, the time frame is closer to 5-6 years, and as we discussed it’s a process that begins before your franchise cornerstone walks across the stage. The importance of utilizing the trade market has been touched on here, but I don’t want to discount the importance of free agency. I’m of the belief that free agency should be used in one of two ways: augmenting an already strong team by adding that missing piece or two, or using it to make a statement to a team that the rebuild is over and it’s time to win.
Looking at the rosters you can find teams who used free agency for one, or both of those reasons. Two signings come to mind in terms of “statement signings” that played a big role in a Stanley Cup. First (and most obvious) is Zdeno Chara and the Bruins. Boston signed Chara to a monster contract after finishing with a pedestrian 74 points in 2006. While the turnout wasn’t over night, the acquisition showed the team and the league that the front office was serious about putting together a contender. The second of these signings was Bryan Campbell heading to Chicago. After showing signs of promise by finishing over .500 for the first time in the Kane/Toews era, Dale Tallon went out and got the top defenseman on the market; two years later they were raising the Cup.
When it comes to adding that final piece, two signings stand out. The first is Sergei Gonchar. The Penguins were coming off witnessing the Evgeni Malkin coming out party and had just drafted some guy named Sidney Crosby the week before signing Gonchar. Obviously they didn’t reach back to back finals solely due to Gonchar, but he provided valuable veteran leadership (along with Bill Guerin) that was previously missing. Second is John Madden. Signed for peanuts, Madden was one of only two players that provided a Cup winning pedigree in the Hawks’ dressing room.
CO: I like that you point out the fact that these GMs took steps to acquire big pieces well ahead of their Cup run. The Bruins were more or less a Cup contender before they knew Toronto would nosedive enough to secure Tyler Seguin. But even Seguin was in and out of the lineup for the Bruins during their run in 2010. He had a few big games against Tampa Bay, but he wasn’t a difference maker like many lottery picks have been in recent years.
More to the point on smart acquisitions, look no further than the composition of the Rangers. Their highest first round pick is Marc Staal. Everyone selected higher in the first round cam in via trade. McDonagh and Rick Nash are the two best examples of this. Glen Sather also took the route of strategic free agent signings (Brad Richards and Mats Zuccarello) as he crafted this team. Obviously luring free agents to bigger markets like Boston, Chicago and New York is much easier than convincing a single 27 year old to settler in Buffalo, but the point still stands. When specifically looking at the Rangers, they’re a team that was carefully shaped over the past few seasons, largely through patient trial and error by Glen Sather, a GM who has been in place for 14 years.
Now before this turns into an analysis of Darcy Regier, I’ll shift gears to the Blackhawks. If there’s any team that should be used as the model for crafting a roster, in my opinion. They have their two lottery gems and even missed on a few top-10 picks in the mid-2000s – namely Cam Barker who was picked 3rd overall. They also have two elite, homegrown defensemen who were both picked at various points of the draft. Along the way they acquired Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and various other role players to pair with an impressive array of mid and late-round selections. All the while, Stan Bowman has managed to keep his payroll at a respectable level so that he can keep the top end of his roster stocked with names like Kane, Toews, Hossa, Keith, Sharp and Seabrook.
It all comes back to the root of our argument; you don’t become a Cup winner by winning the lottery. You become a Cup winner by building a team around what you get from the lottery.
TR: You’ve really hit the nail on the head by mentioning the mid and late round selections. While picking in the top three or five of the lottery is by no means a lay up in terms of picking a game-changer, you’d like to think that your front office would select the right player. The rest of the draft is more an exercise of looking for a few needles in a pretty big haystack. Picking Crosby, Malkin, Kane, Seguin, and the rest of the consensus 1st or 2nd overall picks is child’s play compared to the other six rounds.
To expand on your Seguin point, he was only able to put up 11-11-22 in a full season of work, and was a healthy scratch up until midway through the conference final, as you mentioned. While Seguin was one of only five players on that Bruins team acquired through the draft, the other four were selected between 45th and 71st overall; not exactly slots where you expect to nab a premier player. The 2010 Blackhawks sported a trio of players drafted 214th overall or later (back when there was more than seven rounds). The 2012 Kings are a similar story. While they had a few 1st rounders they also received key contributions from the likes of Jordan Nolan (7th round), Dwight King (4th) and Alec Martinez (4th). They also drafted their Conn Smythe winning goaltender in the 3rd round, 72nd overall.
The picks beyond the mid to late round picks may not always yield a Conn Smythe winner or a 40 goal scorers, but good teams with good talent evaluators are able to find valuable pieces at a cap-friendly cost.
The overall goal of this practice was to highlight the numerous specifics regarding the construction of a competitive hockey team. There are obvious outliers that both underscore and refute the argument of simply winning the lottery and picking first solves the problems for a franchise. Offer the Oilers and receive the 2013-14 Avalanche as a counter point. Getting a high lottery pick usually makes the building process that much easier, but it certainly isn’t the only thing required when it comes to creating a Cup winning roster.