The delicate process known to fans as “building through the draft” is at times one of the most painful things a fan base can go through. As the Predators have experienced, the younger players often times do not match up with the NHL veterans, with the growing pains in Nashville being quite evident over the past four years.
So, as Nashville enters the fifth draft in franchise history, I am here to offer hope and encouragement – ‘cause guess what? This “building through the draft” business actually works!
Money Won’t Buy You Happiness…Or A Championship
First, we will start outside of the sport of hockey. If anyone follows baseball (or sports, in general), you have probably heard of a man called A-Rod. Alex Rodriguez, who signed a $252-million dollar contract with the Texas Rangers about a little over a year ago, owns the richest contract ever signed by a professional athlete.
However, the Rangers finished in last place last season, and they currently are languishing in last place this season. Money spent on free agents forced Texas to forfeit six draft choices this year in the MLB amateur draft.
If you want a hockey example, look at the New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars. Both teams had top 5 payrolls, but neither team made it to the postseason. True, the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and others that went deep into the postseason have a larger budget than the Predators. But what about the Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadians or Phoenix Coyotes? All three made the playoffs with younger teams and smaller budgets.
No matter what anyone says, money won’t buy you love or happiness, and it certainly won’t guarantee you a championship.
Champion Draft Builders
If you are looking for a blueprint for draft success, look no further than the Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings, who also are smart players in the free agent market, built the majority of their team through the draft. Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, and Dominik Hasek are the players that complete a championship team, but you have to have all the other ingredients in place before you add the final components. Niklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Federov, Pavel Datsyuk, Jiri Fischer and Darren McCarty represent a pretty firm foundation via the draft.
Other examples of teams building via the draft are Dallas, Colorado, and New Jersey. Remember that the Stanley Cup has been won by only four cities in the last eight years! Dallas, Colorado and New Jersey all acquired a majority of their key players directly from the draft, so it goes to show that champion teams are built from the heart of the entry draft.
Trading Smart, Choosing Smart
The Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots signed the most free agents in the 2001 NFL off-season … quick, name one of them? Nope, didn’t think you could.
Free agency and trades are a definitely a part of building a contending club. The Dallas Stars drafted current superstar Jarome Iginla, and later traded him for Joe Nieuwendyk. Nieuwendyk, who won the Conn Smythe trophy in 1999, was a key member of the Stanley Cup-winning Dallas Stars, and is a likely Hall of Fame candidate.
Some other examples from the NHL- Dominik Hasek was acquired by Detroit last summer, and helped lead that team to the Cup. Alexander Mogilny was traded to New Jersey by Vancouver, and was key in the Devils’ back-to-back Finals appearances the previous two seasons. Ray Bourque and Rob Blake were both acquired en route to a Colorado Stanley Cup victory last season. Draft success is vital to build your franchise, but smart trades are the links that turn a good team into a great team.
Let’s re-visit free agency. The annual spending craze that professional sports calls free agency is also an important factor when trying to build a successful product. Signing the biggest names, however, does not always add up to Stanley Cups.
Jeremy Roenick and John LeClair were the two biggest names in the off-season last year, and both signed (LeClair was re-signed) with the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers also signed one of the top defensemen on the market last summer, Eric Weinrich. All these additions to their payroll only subtracted from their past success, as the Flyers were ousted in the first round of the playoffs this year.
At least the Flyers made the playoffs, which was a better fate than the one that befell the Dallas Stars. The Stars signed supposed sniper Donald Audette, former St. Louis Blue Pierre Turgeon, and Rob Dimaio. Dallas ended up trading Audette to Montreal for Martin Rucinsky, then later traded Rucinsky for youngsters Manny Malhotra and Barrett Heisten of the N.Y. Rangers. Meanwhile, Dimaio was sent to the minors and twice cleared waivers, while Turgeon had one of the worst offensive showings of his career. End result – the Stars, who were Stanley Cup finalists in 1999 and 2000, did not even make the NHL postseason.
On the flip side, the Red Wings quietly signed Luc Robitaille (with his 600 career goals) and later added Brett Hull (another 600-goal scoring winger) in August to go along with Hasek. Oh, and last week, the Red Wings also added another Stanley Cup to their trophy cabinet, their third in the last six years.
Good Personnel Goes A Long Way
One of the first things Wayne Gretzky did when he took over the Phoenix Coyotes was to coax draft guru Dave Draper out of retirement. Draper, who was a key member of the Colorado management team, picked the likes of Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay and others while building the Avalanche.
Draper continued to build based on past success once he got to Phoenix. Draper traded Keith Tkachuk to the Blues for Michal Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Jeff Taffe, and a 1st round draft choice. Nagy quietly scored 23 goals this past season, while Handzus, who was just recently dealt to the Flyers for Brian Boucher, netted 15 goals. As for Taffe, he had over 30 goals in the collegiate ranks this season while helping lead Minnesota to the NCAA championship. Draper also traded future draft choices with the Flyers for Daymond Langkow, who was the Coyotes’ leading scorer this past season.
The Gretzky team recently added Jim Lites to their management team, as well. Lites, who served as the Stars president, was very important to the success of the Stars, as he was involved in the drafting of players like Brendan Morrow and Steve Ott, while also having a hand in the signings of Brett Hull and Eddie Belfour.
Does Nashville have the personnel necessary to build a winning franchise? The grade thus far is ‘I’ for incomplete. General Manager David Poile does very well with what resources he is given, but the fact remains, the management team a franchise puts together is just as important as the team that is put on the ice.
A Little Scouting, A Little Timing, and Lot of Luck
Just to re-visit the Red Wings’ drafting prowess one more time, their ’89 Draft included the following players- Mike Sillinger (1st), Bob Boughner (2nd), Niklas Lidstrom (3rd), Sergei Federov (4th), Dallas Drake (6th), and Vladimir Konstantinov (11th)- not too shabby a draft! Detroit managed to find talent all throughout this particular draft, which is just further proof that drafting success (luck?) in the later rounds can help build a base for long-term success. Who will be the late-round sleepers in this year’s draft? That is difficult to say. But with a little scouting, a little timing, and a lot of luck, the Preds might be able to acquire one or two of these overlooked gems.
The final article in this Predators Draft Preview series is titled ‘A Look Ahead’ … we will examine possible scenarios for the Predators on Draft day and Brian will present his first ever Mock Draft …