Thursday, May 9, 2013
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - So, Who’s the New Guy?
He's the top GM candidate in all of hockey: But is he any good?
Good morning, hockey fans! Last week we defended the record of former Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk with our dying breath. This week — rather than issue yet another heartfelt paean to the Canucks or another letter to the Pens questioning their ability to judge "leadership" — we're going to ignore the always-amazing first round and focus our sights back home.
On The New Guy.
Much has been made of Jim Nill, and 100% of it has been positive. And I mean gushing. The same terms get thrown around in these articles like a football in The Room: "great choice" "best organization in hockey" "great draft mind" "Ctrl-V."
Generally when 100% of the sports media is in agreement with something it, better involve kicking Nazis in the face. Otherwise it has a high probability of being dead wrong.
Naturally, with all this unchecked praise we had to get our crack team of expert neurotics to look into the situation. So let's peek up the skirt of Jim Nill's 16-year career in Detroit.
Claim #1: Detroit is a Winning Organization
Of all of the exalted praises for the guy, this one comes up the most often. Detroit has made the playoffs 22 straight years now, no small feat, even if they had to beat out the Columbus Blue Jackets to squeak into the postseason on the final day this year. In those 22 seasons they've been division winners 14 times, won 4 Cups, and only been bounced out of the first round seven times going on eight. Pretty impressive stuff.
Of course, Nill can't take credit for a lot of that: coming on board in 1994 as he did, you can't realistically judge his team's performance until maybe 96 or 97 at the earliest. From that point on, of course, the Red Wings still made the playoffs 17 times, won four Cups, blah blah blah etc etc.
The problem with Detroit's amazing streak, however, is that it seems to revolve almost entirely around one player: Nick Lidstrom. Drafted in 1989 in the third round, Lidstrom came on board in 1991 and never once missed the postseason. When he was at his peak, so was the team.
And now that he's gone, the team is slightly above mediocre.
Is it Nill's "fault" that Detroit has been slipping in the standings for the last half-decade --just as Lidstrom's ice time went from 30 to 28 to 26 to 22 to zero minutes a night? Has it been Nill's fault that since Detroit's last Cup Finals appearance in 2009, they've lost in progressively earlier and earlier rounds to battle-tested playoff warriors like the San Jose Sharks and the Nashville Predators? Is it Nill's fault that the Wings, who used to win more division titles than I've had hot meals, have struggled to place third in their own division the last two seasons?
If you want to credit Nill for his pre-2009 success, you better be ready to credit him for the way he had no plan to replace the most important player in franchise history. A strong organization is always more than the sum of its parts, and rarely suffers long from the absence of one member. This does not seem to be the case for the Red Wings.
Claim #2: Detroit's Drafting and Development is Top Notch
Yes yes yes, Datsyuk and Zetterberg were two of the greatest late-draft gems in NHL history. But not only were these two the only halfway decent picks in their own draft years... they were drafted in the Clinton administration. Datsyuk was a steal in the sixth round of the 1998 draft.. one in which Detroit had three picks in the top two rounds and got all of jack squat. Zetterberg was drafted seventh in 1999, and was the only Red Wings' pick of that class to play more than 32 games on the NHL level.
More recently, the last Detroit pick to make any sort of huge impact on the pro club was Johan Franzen... in 2004. You could make the argument that Kindl, Abdelkader and Helm are all decent contributors, and I'd agree, but those guys were drafted in 2005. Eight years ago. Eight years is a long time to have nothing coming up the pipe but two checking forwards and a defensively weak d-man.
Even more recently, Red Wing wunderkind Gustav Nyquist was on the short list for the Calder heading into 2013... and scored all of three goals in 22 mostly disappointing games. Will he get better? Highly likely. But expectations and reality, again, are not putting Nill's drafting record in a good light.
Nill is walking into a situation where he has four picks in the first two rounds of a very deep draft. In the last, say, half-decade (we'll use pre-2011 picks since it's too early to tell on anything after that), Nill used 9 first- and second- round picks. The sum total of those nine high picks: 452 NHL games played, 123 points scored. Take out Shawn Matthias' 253 games and 81 points, since those all came with the Panthers, and the sum total of Nill's high draft picks from 2006 to 2010 is a whopping 199 games and 42 points.
In other words, almost exactly the same level of production as Dallas got from Tom Wandell.
Now, a lot of these guys are still in development, and will be for quite some time. But there's no home runs there. There's not even any doubles. Recent drafts have produced guys like Jarnkrok, Sproul and Ouellet, but even if these guys hit it big on the big stage --never a given-- that would give Nill a ten year gap at least between impact draft picks. And that's the best case scenario.
Claim #3: Nill will bring in a "Winning Culture
Of all the things Nill allegedly brings to the table, this is the one the Stars need the most. It's been quite a long time —14 years by my watch— since the Stars hit the ice expecting to win. Tippett's Stars teams were stacked to the gills with talent, but played scared, conservative hockey that rarely worked when the stakes were highest. Crawford and Gulutzan's teams took the ice hoping for multiple lucky breaks in order to beat good teams.
Frankly, that's unacceptable. A "winning culture" starts from the top down, and GM Joe, for all his abilities in player talent evaluation, never could get that culture down. But can Nill?
Obviously it's utterly, completely impossible to say. Detroit seemed to have "it" until recently. Now they can't even beat a streaky Ducks team that lucked their way into the upset-crazy #2 seed. And this, one season removed from being bounced in the first round by the Predators in five games.
Now a GM (or assistant GM) can't influence everything that happens on the ice. Even coaches, and Detroit's Babcock is one of the best in the business, have limited control over wins and losses. But GMs can choose which players get to implement their culture: and Detroit's been slowly sliding into mediocrity lately. Does anybody, anywhere outside of Detroit, really consider the Red Wings to be an "elite" team? Has anybody considered them "elite" since, say, 2009? 2010 maybe? Will anyone, even in Detroit, consider them "elite" next season? After all, DatsyukZetterbergKronwallHoward, right? All those guys are one year more experienced, ready to dazzle and pile on the points. So why is Detroit such a so-so first-round patsy in the making?
Clearly, most of the Red Wings' "winning culture" can be attributed to one person: Lidstrom. Maybe he should be the next GM? If Nill's recent inability to keep his old team at the top of the hockey world is any indication, there might be a GM position opening up in five years.
Final Verdict: Uneasy
Nill is very clearly a highly intelligent guy. He walked out of a situation that was going downhill fast, and into a situation where the guy before him did most of the hard work and put in place all the pieces that will make Nill into a local superstar. Going without the playoffs for five seasons, Stars fans will erupt in praise when Nill's team makes the postseason next year, and the year after that, maybe even doing some real damage. He's heading into perhaps the weakest of all the four new conferences, with a host of young talent at the AHL level, four high picks in the super-deep 2013 draft, and a core of talented players that have just come off of career lows. There is basically zero chance that with all these built-in advantages, Nill would fail to succeed.
Or he could trade all our picks to get Daigle-in-the-making Barkov, hire a retread good ol' boy coach like Crawford or Keane or Ruff, and thereby pull off the nigh-impossible feat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. We'll check back in five years.