To Fight Another Day

4th overall pick in 2009, Evander Kane

Why losing today will help the Jets win tomorrow

Many people are asking why the Jets have been so inactive in the free agent market. Is it that no one wants to play in Winnipeg? Are they simply too cheap? Perhaps there’s another explanation. Take a peak at the organizational chart below:

JETS ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
NHL
LW C RW LD RD G
Ladd Little Wheeler Enstrom Byfuglien Pavelec
Kane Burmistrov Antropov Hainsey Bogosian Mason
Thorburn Slater UFA/Trade Oduya Stuart
Glass Cormier Rypien Jones
Stapleton
AHL
LW C RW LD RD G
Gregoire Maxwell Mahacek Meech Flood Manino
Klingberg Gagnon Pettersson Festerling Postma
Holzapfel O’Dell Kulda Zubarev
Chiarot Redmond
Junior/College
LW C RW LD RD G
Lowry Scheifele Brassard Yuen Serville Kasdorf
Leveille Telegin Melchiori

NHL

Promising youngsters with Kane, Burmistrov, Little, Bogosian, Pavelec, and a few just entering their prime – Byfuglien, Enstrom, Ladd, Wheeler. Definitely not a playoff roster.

UPDATE: The Jets acquired RW Eric Fehr shortly after this article was written, filling the “3rd line RW” spot I had held open for an established NHLer. Fehr – a product of Winkler, Mb – is a very talented winger who has been hampered by injuries throughout his career thus far. (Back and shoulder problems.)

AHL

Solid defensive depth, but the only d-men that are likely to have significant NHL careers are Postma and Kulda. Klingberg is a big, fast, skilled winger, but the jury is out on whether he has top-6 potential. Maxwell and Mahacek are nearly NHL ready, but neither looks like they’ll ever play in the top-6. The rest will probably never play a full season in the NHL.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, the Jets have acquired Kenndal McArdle – a quick, hard-working forward who has some potential to play in the NHL as a 3rd or 4th liner – and signed Jason Gregoire, a player with top-6 potential. Gregoire is a goal scorer, and about as good a prospect as Klingberg. He is also two years older than Klingberg, and closer to being NHL-ready.

Junior Prospects

The most problematic segment of all. The only prospect that has any chance of being an impact player is 1st rounder Mark Scheifele. The next best prospect is Russian centre Ivan Telegin, but it’s very difficult to project what (if anything) he might become at the NHL level. The rest are bottom-6 forwards and 3rd pairing D at best.

THE REALITY

With a non-playoff roster in the NHL, very few quality prospects in the AHL, and only one high-end junior prospect, Jets management knows exactly what this team needs: high draft picks. That doesn’t mean that the team can’t be competitive in the here and now, but ‘competitive’ would be best defined as playing in tight games rather than piling up wins.

I think I see the strategy. A solid goaltending tandem combined with a good crop of defencemen should keep the games close, providing fans a team that’s good enough to stomach. If the goal was to make the playoffs now, they would have added 3 forwards capable of playing in the top-9; that is the obvious and pressing need. The fact that they haven’t added any quality forwards (Glass is a 4th liner; Rypien is a fringe NHLer) leads me to believe that they’ll try out the Cormier’s, Maxwell’s and Mahacek’s up front and accept a lottery pick this time next summer.

I’m 100% in support of this strategy. Why add some complementary pieces on one or two year contracts just so you can barely sneak into the playoffs? I think it’s crucial that a team finish either in the top 5 or bottom 5 overall. At the beginning of each year, you can usually name about 5 teams that are truly ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, only the bottom 5 teams (often fewer) have a shot at a truly magnificent prospect at the draft. Certainly there’s more room at the top – a team can move from 7th to 1st within a few years with responsible drafting and development. But to go from the middle of the pack to serious contention is extremely difficult.

How come? Well, to win a Stanley Cup, obviously you need to have several excellent players. There are only three ways to acquire players: through draft, trade, or signing. Generally to get a great player in a trade, you need to give up a great (or potentially great) player. There are examples that disprove this, but they are the exception rather than the rule. There are very few top-line forwards, top-pairing defencemen, or elite goalies available in free agency, as teams make resigning these types of players a top priority. For instance, of the douzens of free agents signed this off-season, only one – Brad Richards – is unquestionably an impact player. Furthermore, free agency isn’t a level playing field. For years, even average free agents have been avoiding places like Edmonton, Columbus, Atlanta, Minnesota, Florida, and (until recently) Buffalo in favour of more desirable teams/cities like New York, Toronto, Boston, Vancouver, Chicago, etc. For a team like the Jets, free agency is not a viable means of acquiring top talent.

That leaves the draft. The draft is the best – some say the only way – to build a team. When you look at great teams, generally their core (best) players were drafted and developed by the organization:

Pittsburgh – Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Staal, Letang, Orpik

Detroit – Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom, Kronwall

Chicago – Toews, Kane, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson (though not Sharp)

Washington – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich, Green, Carlson, Alzner

Vancouver – Sedin, Sedin, Kesler, *Burrows, Raymond, Edler, Bieksa

Buffalo – Miller, Myers, Vanek, Roy, Ennis, Stafford, Pominville

*Burrows was signed and developed by Vancouver alone – basically akin to drafting

There are small exceptions. The two best players Boston Bruins from this past year are Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, both of whom were signed through free agency. However, Thomas was not an elite goalie when he was signed. In fact, no one (probably including the Bruins) expected him to be anything more than a good backup, otherwise there would have been intense competition for his services. Also, four of their five most important forwards were drafted – Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Lucic. (Horton came over in a trade). San Jose is another. Their best player – Joe Thornton – was acquired from the Bruins in one of the most lopsided deals of the decade. They also acquired their top defenceman (Boyle), a top sniper (Heatley, who has since become Havlat), and a top D (Burns) through trade, and their goalie (Niemi) through free agency. However, it is worth mentioning that in order to make those trades, they needed to give up once high draft picks, including Marco Sturm (21st overall, 1996), Brad Stuart (3rd overall in 1998), Milan Michalek (6th overall, 2003), Devin Setoguchi (8th overall, 2005), Ty Wishart (16th overall, 2006), and Charlie Coyle (28th overall, 2010). So although these deals break the mould, good drafting still played a large role. (LA is a similar story – a team who drafted a few core pieces in Doughty, Kopitar, Brown, etc, but used other important draft prospects to acquire talent, i.e Schenn and Simmonds for Mike Richards).

First round talents are essential. Everyone knows that Detroit pulled Datsyuk and Zetterberg from the depths of obscurity, but this is rare. Of the top-30 point producers in the NHL last year, 5 of them were 1st overall picks, 4 went 2nd overall, 3 went 3rd overall, and another 11 were first round picks. Far more dumbfounding is the following stat: of the top-20 goal scorers in the NHL last year, ONLY ONE (Patrick Sharp) was not drafted in the first round. (The previous year, only 2 of the top 19 were drafted past the first round.). Goal scoring doesn’t tell the whole story, but with second assists filling scoresheets on an all-too-regular basis, goal totals are probably the single best statistical expression of talent. And acquiring talent on draft day operates like money in a pyramid scheme – most of it goes to the top.

As the summer goes on, I’ll be looking at other draft related topics. One thing I’m particularly interested in is a nature-nurture style debate – are good hockey players drafted, or developed? It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, but you can learn a bit if you look at opposite sides of the spectrum: failed 1st round picks, and glorious late round gems. Is there anything common to the groups? Absolutely. For now I’ll say this: the top four scorers drafted furthest from the first round were developed by just two teams.