Tag: team building strategies

Mason Raymond Pekka Rinne

Are NHL teams better off trying to acquire a top goalie through free agency or the draft?


Finding a great goalie is an inexact science. People love (or loved?) to beat up on the Philadelphia Flyers for their inability to find a genuine No. 1 starter, as if a general manager can just wave a magic wand and make the next Patrick Roy appear in net.

There are so many factors that go into what makes or breaks a goalie’s success. There’s outside forces like the quality of defense in front of him, competition from other goalies in that organization and even the amount of goals his team scores to allow a little margin of error. Even on the individual level, there’s a lot of things that can break one way or another, from a given franchise’s goalie coaches, their patience with the maturation process and developing the mindset to shake off tough goals and tougher losses.

It’s probably a slight oversimplification to assume that every NHL team leans heavily one way or the other, but ESPN’s Alvin Chang conducted an interesting study to explore a tough question: is it wiser to try to draft a franchise goalie or roll the dice with free agency? (subscription required)

The general takeaway of the study focused on how tough it is to find an elite goalie via drafting, with the focus revolving around the Nashville Predators and Pekka Rinne – whom they drafted but could find himself being the most significant free agent netminder in quite some time if the team cannot retain him.

Looking at the Predators’ success, it certainly seems like it. They did their homework on Rinne and selected him in 2004. But it wasn’t just about good scouting. It was also a game of probability.

Five years before Rinne’s selection, the Predators drafted goalie Brian Finley with the No. 6 overall pick in 1999. The following round, they drafted goalie Jan Lasak. And for good measure, they drafted goalie Kyle Kettles at No. 205. But when all was said and done, those three guys played 10 NHL games — combined.

In the following five years, the Predators continued their search for a goalie; they drafted seven more stoppers until they found Rinne with the 258th pick in 2004.

Of course, they had no idea he would be the one to pan out. In fact, from 2006 to 2008, they drafted five more goaltenders and, since 2000, they’ve drafted a total of 13 — second-most in the NHL. But goaltenders are incredibly hard to project, so the Preds sifted for elite goalies the only way they knew how: by drafting a lot of goalie prospects.

For some teams, that approach might not work, but the low-budget Predators probably take that route at least partially out of necessity. The thing is, if you ask me, paying big money for a should-be franchise goalie isn’t exactly a great way to get the job done either. Worse yet, teams spend precious cap space and don’t always get above average work from those top guys.

As you can see from this excerpt from an older PHT post, spending a lot of money on a goalie doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll make the playoffs – even if that guy plays well.

Teams who missed the playoffs despite spending $3.5 million or more on a single goalie:

Calgary (Miikka Kiprusoff – $5.88 million); Carolina (Cam Ward – $6.3M); Dallas (Kari Lehtonen – $3.5M); Edmonton (Nikolai Khabibulin – $3.75M); Florida (Tomas Vokoun – $5.7M); Minnesota (Niklas Backstrom – $6M); New Jersey (Martin Brodeur – $5.2M); NY Islanders (Rick DiPietro – $4.5M); Ottawa (Pascal Leclaire – $3.8M); St. Louis (Jaroslav Halak – $3.75M); Toronto (Jean-Sebastien Giguere – $6M).

To contrast that study, about half of the league’s playoff teams (depending upon how you count the Anaheim Ducks, since Jonas Hiller didn’t play in the postseason) were thrifty with their netminders.

If I were an NHL general manager, I would take a two-pronged approach: draft a lot of goalies somewhere in the middle to late rounds while picking up and/or trading goalies at reasonable prices. Sometimes that would mean some serious uncertainty in net, but considering how much (for example) the Flames are paying Kipper and the Wild are paying Backstrom to not be serious contenders, it seems wiser to spend big money on more proven commodities like forwards and defensemen. That approach might be best illustrated by how well the Flyers did with a healthy Chris Pronger in the 2010 playoffs (although Chris Osgood’s most virulent critics would say that his career, in general, is a strong example of the perks of a strategy that focuses on surrounding affordable but shaky goalies with top talent).

Again, it’s an inexact science, though. Which route do you think is the wisest when it comes to finding that elusive franchise goalie?

‘Choosing to lose’ vs. accepting life in hockey’s lower middle class

Oilers Coyotes Hockey

The Battle of Alberta hasn’t actually been much of hockey arms race for the last few years, as the Calgary Flames stare mediocrity in the face while the Edmonton Oilers have been downright abysmal. That being said, the two teams might be intriguing counterpoints for the way franchises build their clubs.

On one hand, you have the big-spending Flames – they’re currently eighth overall in payroll – who missed the playoffs two years in a row and haven’t won a playoff round since the lockout. Meanwhile, the Oilers have been atrocious since the messy Chris Pronger trade. They’ve missed the playoffs for five straight seasons – mostly by a wide margin – and appear headed in that direction once again in most peoples’ eyes.

It’s surprising that either side would have boastful proponents, but an entertaining debate cropped up over the weekend. It started when Flames GM Jay Feaster blasted the Oilers’ model of stockpiling lousy seasons and top-end picks.

Feaster (chuckling): “I’m sorry — Edmonton finished where last year, caller? Want to wager on where we finish relative to Edmonton this year? I’m tired of this question, I’ll tell you very honestly. I’m getting a little sour. How many teams . . . every year, for the last 10 years, five years, eight years, have finished in the bottom five, bottom seven, bottom 10? They’ve had a pick anywhere from No. 1 to No. 10 year after year after year after year, and they still wander in the desert. And they’re no closer to getting out than they were 10 years ago.

On Edmonton’s side, David Staples thinks that the Oilers will have the last laugh, claiming that “Calgary is nowhere and going nowhere.” Staples threw down the gauntlet a bit when he claimed that Edmonton should overtake Calgary no later than next season, though.

This drew the ire of excellent blogger Tom Benjamin, who railed against “choosing to lose.”

And I think Feaster is right. Were the Oilers right to blow it all up? No regrets with the Smyth trade and the subsequent moves that brought the Oilers to this point? It has been a four year rebuilding project – five out of the playoffs – with no end yet in sight. Even if Staples is right and the Oilers pass the Flames in 2012-13, that does not necessarily make them a playoff team after six years of wandering in the desert. The St. Louis Blues were the first post lockout team to “blow it all up” and six years later they still look like a team that is going nowhere. Years of pain and lost seasons can only possibly be worth it if the result is a genuine contender and the Oilers are miles away. They may never get there with this crew.

Brian Burke has endured a lot of criticism in the Leaf media for not adopting the Oiler model when he came to Toronto, but as his remake of the Leafs enters its third year, he looks like having an outside chance at a playoff spot. Did the Bruins suck for years to get to where they are? Did the Canucks? The Wings? The Sharks?

source: Getty ImagesHere’s my problem with that argument: most elite NHL teams are founded on getting the right high-end draft picks at the right time (with the Red Wings late draft wizardry being the obvious exception). The Canucks can thank a four-year run of incompetence for their chance to snag the Sedin twins in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. The Sharks straddle the line between those two camps, but it’s telling that their foundation is built upon the first two picks of the 1997 draft (they picked Patrick Marleau second overall and then traded for top pick Joe Thornton).

Those examples also ignore two recent Stanley Cup winners (Chicago and Pittsburgh) and at least one consistently dominant regular season team (Washington) who’ve taken full advantage of the “choose to lose” model.

The Blues are a faulty team for someone arguing against tanking, too. While they’ve taken quite a few first round picks recently, most of those picks are in the dreaded middle of the pack. That makes them more of an example of the uncomfortable spot the Flames might find themselves in under Feaster’s plan: too good to get a lottery pick, too bad to make the playoffs.


There isn’t a fool-proof solution to building a team. Both sides of this argument have their points, but ultimately it comes down to having the right management to either a) take advantage of top-end picks when they get them or b) make the proper adjustments to build a solid team into a contender.

It’s hard to tell if the Flames or Oilers will end up being a good example of either approach, if their recent histories have told us anything. Still, if I had to choose, I’d rather follow a team with a brighter future like the Oilers than be stuck in quicksand like the Flames.

Ilya Bryzgalov won’t be cheap, but will he be worth it for the Flyers?

Detroit Red Wings v Phoenix Coyotes - Game Four

It’s more or less human nature to want to fit in and “keep up with the Joneses.” There are at least two fundamental problems with that mindset, though: 1) it is expensive to stay on top of trends and buy the latest gadgets and 2) you might lose your own identity in the process.

The Philadelphia Flyers seem primed to finally kowtow to conventional wisdom by locking up Ilya Bryzgalov to a hefty, possibly long-term deal. Rumors are floating around that he could want as much as $6-$7 million per year or a dangerously lengthy deal if Philly wants to shave down the cap hit a bit.

While many people fixate on his 12-13 career postseason record (even though he still has a respectable .917 save percentage in his playoff career), there are two bigger questions that make the Flyers’ quest to nab Bryzgalov a little bit worrisome.

1. Will Bryzgalov thrive in Philly?

While the Phoenix Coyotes allowed more shots than you might expect from a supposedly stingy defense, it still seemed like the team’s M.O. revolved around limiting scoring chances. Every team claims that as one of their objectives, but the Flyers tend to attack far more on offense. Much like Tomas Vokoun – a nice goalie who played on two conservative teams in Florida and Nashville – I cannot help but wonder if Bryzgalov will struggle in a more wide-open system. (Especially if Chris Pronger’s healthy days are behind him.)

There is also the hard-to-ignore factor of the brutal Philly market. Breezy is a colorful character who might be a little sensitive to criticism at times. He had it easy in two far-from-intense markets in Anaheim and Phoenix, but how will he respond when the vultures circle him in low moments in the City of Brotherly Love?

2. Could a Bryzgalov signing dilute the impressive depth that made Philly special to begin with?

One thing people continuously overlook is the fact that the Flyers are able to afford more quality players because they don’t overspend on goalies. As I pointed out in this post, 11 out of the 14 teams who missed the playoffs spent $3.5 million or more on a single goalie while half of the teams who made the postseason went with more affordable options.

The Flyers are already hard against the cap with Ville Leino among their pending free agents, so they will need to shed some useful players to have a chance to afford Bryzgalov. The difficult question arises: would they still be an elite team in a more top-heavy form?


Signing Bryzgalov would make executives happy, soothe irritated fans and force media members to come up with a different storyline after hammering the same point for what seems like decades. But when you look around the league, it’s clear that plenty of teams aren’t doing that well even if they’re paying exorbitant prices for their goalies. The goalie position is undeniably important in hockey, but making a huge investment in such an unstable property is proving again and again to be a big gamble.

The Flyers are one of the most consistently successful NHL franchises because they do things their way, but it seems like they’re finally going to do what everyone insists they must. Their front office is bright enough to find a way to blend a more shallow roster with a more stable goaltender into something special, but I cannot help but wonder if they’re making a mistake by striving for the status quo.

At least they’ll get the chance to answer a different set of questions if this option flops, though, right?

Thrashers GM Rick Dudley hopes to maintain big picture outlook during trade deadline

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If you ask me to name the NHL’s most pleasant surprise of the 2010-11 season, my gut reaction would probably be the rapid increase in competence enjoyed by teams that were once punching bags in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman brings the Detroit Red Wings mindset to his new team while the Chicago Blackhawks have two off-shoot GMs in the division, with Dale Tallon giving the Florida Panthers a makeover while Rick Dudley transforms the Atlanta Thrashers.

It was reasonable to predict some nice immediate improvements from the Lightning and Thrashers, but both teams have made bigger jumps than expected. Yet in the case of Atlanta, that jump launched them into the Eastern Conference’s playoff bubble, presenting Dudley with a bit of a conundrum.

It’s unclear whether the team should be a buyer or seller, even if they only trail the eighth-ranked Carolina Hurricanes by four points. But as people focus solely on the chase to earn a playoff spot, it’s easy to forget that a given team needs to actually have a chance to compete for the run to be worthwhile. After all, the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets probably weren’t nearly as excited about making the playoffs in 2009 once they were absolutely flattened in embarrassing first round sweeps.

Luckily, Dudley continues his track record of having a clear vision, as he acknowledges the fact that the best course of action is to improve the team’s short-term future only if it doesn’t impair the big picture renovation.

Amusingly enough, the imposing general manager also seems keen on adding more and more muscle to the team, keeping in stride with his noted preference to favor size even though the post-lockout NHL began as a small players’ league*. (After all, his signature move remains the blockbuster Dustin Byfuglien trade.)

Here is what Dudley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his trade deadline outlook.

“I’d like to win a championship,” Dudley said late last week. “I’d like to do it over a period of time. I can’t say right now that we are a Stanley Cup favorite, so any deal we make the definition of it has to be both present and future. We won’t do anything to take away from our chances to make the playoffs this year. We also won’t trade for a 35-year-old player either. If a deal comes up that meets that criteria we will certainly entertain it.”

Dudley made no secret that he wanted to add two forwards and a defenseman. He got two of those when he acquired forward Blake Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart from Boston on Feb. 18. The Thrashers also traded veteran defenseman Brent Sopel to Montreal on Feb. 24 for minor-league forward Ben Maxwell.


“We think we put a couple of pieces in place so we are not looking for quite as much as we were,” Dudley said. “If we could make a deal to get another Blake Wheeler-type player, we would do that.”

Dudley also said last week that he is constantly looking for scoring and wants the team to get bigger.

* – This might not be a foolish preference for two reasons: it makes Atlanta fairly distinct and it also readies them for the fact that the neutral zone trap is creeping its way back into the game.