Thursday, February 23, 2012
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - NHL Trade Deadline and the Myth of Talent
If the Stars could just trade away all their good players every year, they would be awesome forever!
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we found out what future still-Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash thought about all this trade talk. This week, with the trade deadline looming and the Stars middling just outside the playoff picture, it's time to fire up the Jackhammer of Truth and delve deep into the Reinforced Concrete Slab of Trade.
When a team misses the playoffs for any length of time, it's only natural for the fanbase to evaporate into thin air (or pay tens of thousands more for tickets, if you live in Toronto), demanding immediate and drastic change from management. Earlier this season we had local yokels calling for the head of Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow — a series of debilitating injuries and a small Morrow-shaped doll with pins in it hidden in Dustin Brown's locker put the kibosh on that noise — but now, with Dallas just two points out of 8th (and, unbelievably, just five points out of 3rd), fans and East Coast media alike have joined forces to demand GM Joe Nieuwendyk blow up the core of the team.
The problem with that? It's a guaranteed blueprint for failure.
The prime problem for any GM wanting to improve their team (as opposed to, say, whatever it is that Dean Lombardi has been doing for the last few years in L.A.), is that there are two fundamental aspects of the game that often get mixed together, but shouldn't: There is The Game, and there is The Business.
The Game revolves around a group of players trying to win games by working out their differences, finding their roles and developing as teammates, leaders, and human beings.
The Business revolves around showcasing a small number of individualistic achievements and/or personalities, and putting these front-and-center in the media and marketing opportunities.
The two are somewhat connected, in that a successful on-ice product sells more tickets and jerseys and television contracts, while a great marketing campaign allows the team to reward its top players with bigger contracts. When that happens to your team, great! Your team is a rousing success and the envy of 25 other teams.
The problem is when the two are mixed incoherently: When fans confuse the hype for the on-ice product. Marketing is all about hype and potential, and is best summed up in one completely-misunderstood word: talent.
Ask a bunch of hockey fans about what makes Pittsburgh a success and seven out of 10 will say either Crosby or Malkin. Some might say Fleury, or even Staal. James Neal's mom might say James Neal.
How many would say Martin? Michalek? Adams? A couple of smart-asses, maybe?
For a counterpoint, ask Dan Bylsma and the players in the locker room what makes them successful. Their likely answer: working together, getting on the same page, not getting away from their game, etc.
Which answer do you think is correct? Which answer do you think an NHL GM should take into account more than the other? (Warning: There ARE right and wrong answers to these questions. Especially if you are an NHL GM, and hope to keep your job longer than three years.)
And here lies the problem with "talent." What does that term even mean? Is it the ability to skate reallyreallyfast? Shoot the puck with accuracy? Stickhandle in a phone booth? Be tall?
Or does "talent" mean scoring lots of goals and assists, killing penalties, making highlight-reel moves with the puck and having stellar on-ice vision and awareness? Because that pretty much describes Pavel Datsyuk, and he was drafted 171st overall after two years of not getting drafted at all. Even the Red Wings, praised as geniuses for landing him, picked seven guys that they thought were better than he was ... only one of whom played more than a handful of games at the NHL level. His "talent" was simply not good enough for NHL scouts.
Of course, now any discussion of Detroit's "talent" prominently mentions Datsyuk.
Maybe "talent" is not the ability to skate fast or shoot well, but a mental toughness, a willingness to work harder than the next guy, the ability to, through sheer force of will, elevate your game when it matters most. In which case, shouldn't Jamie Benn, another late-round draft gem (129th overall), have been picked ahead of every single person other than Patrick Kane in the 2007 draft? Or was his 12 points in 7 playoff games, a regular season clip of nearly a goal-per-game and punishing physical style of play not good enough for the first four rounds of hockey's talent pool?
Unlike Datsyuk, however, Benn is still rarely mentioned by the national media when it comes to "talent." This despite, obviously, blowing everyone away in two of the "talent" portions of the most recent All-Star game. But sometimes it takes the East Coast a few years to catch up on things everybody else already knows.
For these two players, "talent" struck in unexpected ways. But "player development" did not: Both clubs gave long leashes to both players while they were still finding their game in the minors, didn't rush them after some impressive early successes, sheltered them on the lower lines once they did make the club, paired them with smart veteran players to help their development at the professional level, then allowed the two to seize a top-six (and then, top-three) spot on the team when older players left for greener pastures somewhere else.
In the above cases, the teams' GMs (both considered among the smartest in the league) brought their young guys along in the right way, and were rewarded with two cheap, dazzling, two-way point-a-game players that should be with their clubs for years/decades to come. Rather than rushing them at the first sign of "potential," these GMs waited, waited, waited, and waited some more before they got their payoff.
More importantly, they allowed these two young guys to fully integrate into the team environment ... rather than pull the trigger on a splashy and expensive free agent to fill the void Datysuk and Benn had trouble filling early on in their careers.
A GM with a plan needs to make unpopular decisions. So you have a guy like Rick Nash, a guy who has scored 40+ goals twice in his career, and currently unhappy waiting for the rebuilding process in Columbus to take place. You're an NHL GM, and Columbus is asking for three guys you've been painstakingly developing for years, slowly bringing them along for a hopeful payoff two or three seasons from now. Do you pull the trigger and acquire the big name in order to appease your playoff-hungry fanbase?
Congrats! You are now Brian Burke! And you will not sniff a playoff spot for another half-decade!
It's understandable that fans want to win and they want to win now. But blowing up the team, trading your top players like Mike Ribeiro and Steve Ott for picks and prospects, is what every bottom-of-the-barrel NHL team does every single season. Or, even less intelligently, they overpay for "talent" to make big free agent splashes for their fans (i.e. ticket sales), and end up becoming laughingstocks.
The problem is that there is zero correlation between spending on free agents and actual on-ice success. Look at this chart: Of the top 15 teams in terms of spending, only five of them are securely in the playoff picture. Of the bottom 15 teams? Also five teams in secure spots.
Guys like Ribeiro and Ott — contrary to some fans' beliefs — don't just grow on trees. Ribeiro is a nearly PPG second-line center with some of the sickest hands in the league and 100 highlight-reel goals to prove it. Ott is a 40-50 point scorer who's defensively responsible, one of the top-five faceoff guys in the NHL, a leader and motivator who also has the extraordinarily rare talent of drawing the other team's top scorers into ill-advised penalties. Are draft picks and prospects going to be as valuable in those roles as these two? Possibly. Are you, at the very least, setting your team back a few seasons by trading them for what essentially amounts to lottery tickets? Yes.
If some team with a proven record of mismanagement like Toronto or Montreal comes calling for Ribeiro with an unbelievable package of goods, well, yeah, you have to consider it (although both those teams do that so often, you have to wonder if there's anything worthwhile left in their cabinet). But blowing up a team two points out of 8th just for the sake of blowing it up?
That has never, ever, worked in the history of hockey.
Perennially good teams like Detroit make tweaks at the deadline -- trading their 1st round picks for defensive depth (they're allergic to first rounds anyways, part of the reason no Red Wings #1 has made an impact since Kronwall ... 12 years ago), but avoiding the allegedly quick fixes that almost always backfire on a team's internal chemistry — the real engine for on-ice success. The Stars have some promising pieces coming up in the next two seasons (except at center): Stars fans need to cowboy up, root for their team to squeak into the playoffs, and put faith in one of the league's top GMs and his plan.
Or, they can go become Toronto Maple Leafs fans, chasing "talent" instead of "wins."