Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Building a Winner Through the Draft

There has been a lot of dissatisfaction about the Columbus Blue Jackets record this year.  They sit in 30th in the National Hockey League at 13-30-6, nine points off 29th ranked Edmonton, and are currently riding a four game losing streak.  It comes at no surprise that the fans are at their wits end with losing, and yet, all this losing could be the best thing Columbus has done since drafting Rick Nash.

What I have compiled below is a collection of teams who utilized the draft (more than likely unintentionally) to produce teams far stronger than their General Managers could trade for.  In fact, in every case, they provided the foundation of the team through drafting franchise players at extremely high picks.  What Columbus has failed to do, is play poorly enough to achieve a franchise level player. Drafting players like Voracek (7th) and Brassard (6th) certainly provide the opportunity for growth in the long term, but they don't do a great job of producing players the team can build around.

If you want a comparison to Jake and Brass, consider who was drafted prior to them in their draft years.  For Brassard, it was a collection of sturdy talent. Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Niklas Backstrom, and Phil Kessel.  Up until Brassard's pick, I would probably be comfortable in replacing him with at least 3-4 of the top five picks that year.  When you consider the impact of a player like Toews or Backstrom vs a player like Brassard (or Okposo, Mueller, Frolik - who were drafted after him) you can quickly see the difference between a player with the potential to become a top line player, and a pick who immediately becomes a player of relevance on a team.

In Voracek's year, the top tier picks were more limited, but drafting first or second overall provided the rights to Patrick Kane, and James Van Reimsdyk.  Now, "Reimer" did not really jump into the top of Philadelphia's system out of his draft summer, but Patrick Kane most certainly did.  He became a franchise player for Chicago, and was pivotal in their cup win.  As you can see, once again, being forced to wait until the 7th pick did not allow Columbus to draft a franchise player.  Simply a player who had the potential of being a top line forward, but more realistically, a strong second line player.

Let's move on to a couple of examples of teams building through the draft:

Chicago

Longest Cup Drought :: 49 years
Playoff Drought :: One appearance in 10 years (1st round exit)
Worst year in Process :: 20-43-11-8 59pts
Worst Attendance Year :: 12,727 - 07/08
Draft Results :: Barker (3rd) Skille (7th) Kane (1st) Toews (3rd)

Chicago was a team who went through tremendous hardship during their ten years of mediocrity.  One playoff appearance, major ownership battles, blackouts, and no real identity.  Yet during that time, they were able to draft three times in the top three slots.  It brought them two top tier players (who are definitive franchise players) and a couple of other quality depth players. I will note that Barker's draft year was relatively terrible for talent, and he was third only to Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Talk about a drop in quality!!

They suffered a great deal in order to get their franchise on the right track, as well as making relatively bad deals like the Brian Campbell contract (read: way worse than Wiz's contract) to the point where they actually had to purge half their depth after their cup year.  With that said, their patience paid off, and they are now a deep team with strong, fan favoured players locked in for years.

Pittsburgh

Longest Cup Drought :: 24 years
Playoff Drought :: four straight seasons
Worst Year in Process :: 22-46-14 58pts
Worst Attendance Year :: 11,877 - 06/07
Draft Results :: Whitney (5) Fleury (1) Malkin (2) Crosby (1) Staal (2)

It's hard to believe a team as strong as Pittsburgh was so bad for half a decade.  Four seasons out of the playoffs, including a 58 point season at their low point.  Another team steeped in ownership issues, money issues, building issues, and fans dwindling down to under 12k in the 2006/2007 season.  When you look at a team who really struggled to regain their footing, you may as well look no further than the Penguins.

With that said, they made their fortune in the draft.  It wasn't a matter of tremendous deals by the General Manager, or a free agent acquisition that vaulted their excellence.  Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal.  Five players that would probably be on any GMs wish list.  To their credit, they managed to find a tremendous coach in Dan Bylsma, but this is a prime example of becoming a legitimate contender through being terrible. A franchise goalie, a franchise captain, a franchise Russian. What more could they possibly have asked for?

Edmonton


Longest Cup Drought :: 21 years and counting
Playoff Drought :: This will be year 6
Worst Year in Process :: 25-45-12 62pts
Worst Attendance Year :: None. 100% every year. Go Canada
Draft Results :: Gagner (6) Hall (1) Nugent-Hopkins (1)

Edmonton is an interesting example because they are right at the forefront of the process. Two years into drafting the top pick overall, and well on their way to potentially finishing in the bottom three again this year, which will get them either a top tier defenseman, or another elite scoring forward.  I included Sam Gagner at 6th overall as a prime example of the difference between 1st and 6th. Gagner is a decent depth forward for Edmonton, and is fairly comparable to our very own Brassard.  His development is long, and his plateau is hard to anticipate. On the other end of the spectrum, Taylor Hall is a sure fire franchise player, an elite scorer within weeks of entering the NHL, and a franchise player.  The same appears to ring true for Nugent-Hopkins.

A credit to the fans in Edmonton for not faltering in attendance, or generating a bunch of 'we deserve better' campaigns.  They comprehend that building a winner the correct way takes time, and Edmonton, unfortunately, was extremely low on viable assets at the beginning of this process.  I will say though, in terms of comparing, they allow their youth to factor into games, and it probably makes the losing a fair bit more exciting.

So back to Columbus. For arguments sake, I'll set it up the same way:


Longest Cup Drought :: 10 years and counting
Playoff Drought :: 7 years
Worst Year in Process :: 22-47-8-5 57pts
Worst Attendance Year :: 13,658 10/11
Draft Results :: Brassard (6) Johansen (4)


I left off Nash, and really only added Brassard in reference to comments made earlier because they were not in the same scenario that my case studies were in prior to this year.  The Jackets have made a history out of drafting 6-10 each year, and simply have not played bad enough to build through the draft.  Their scouting department takes a hit every year for not striking gold in the middle of the first round, and while I can understand the disappointment, I also recognize that those complaints aren't exactly fair or realistic.

What they need to do, quite frankly, is lose.  If they are going to be a team like Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Edmonton who is actively building through the draft, the Jackets need to play bad enough to acquire at worst, a top three pick.  Depth is great, and players like John Moore(21st) and Derick Brassard (6th) will do well to help the team in the long run, but they need a small group, even if it is only two players, who are defined as franchise level players upon their entry into the NHL.

The Jackets are nowhere near tolerating the droughts of some NHL teams in terms of winning a Stanley Cup.  They are undoubtedly one of the least successful in terms of making the playoffs, but the proper build is what will change that for the long term. Rather than paying into free agency, why not develop talent.  Stop bringing in bandaids, and let the youth create an identity for the team and the franchise, not unlike what Edmonton is allowing.

If we expect a winner, it's time to reconsider the strategy. But if that strategy is going to be to build like these teams, get ready for at least another year of disappointment.

Carry the Flag!

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