First pick overall. So much hype, intrigue and excitement over a number.
Fans and media alike put a lot of weight into the top pick in the NHL’s draft lottery. Are the expectations too high? Is there too much reliance on a first over-all as a guarantee to a Stanley Cup? As each year passes it seems that the focus is more and more on landing that “generational player” and less and less on a winning recipe.
Against odds of 9-1 the Toronto Maple Leafs secured the chance to pick Auston Matthews June 24 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo.
Toronto almost lost the top pick as the odds of getting the right ball to drop were stacked against them. It did make for some tantalizing TV, albeit for only a few minutes. the Leafs had been given a chance to have a bonafide number one centre calling the ACC home for the next several years. Twitter blew up at the news.
Leafs Nation is a happy one and perhaps still a wee bit foggy after post lottery celebrations Saturday night. Is the top pick the answer to the Leafs’ 49 years of Cup futility? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The lottery has not produced the results you may have expected.
The draft lottery started in 1995. Previously, draft positions were determined by overall standings in reverse order. The lottery became necessary after teams were shamelessly tanking in order to finish last and pick first over-all. Such behavior brought unwanted media attention and the league faced ire from its fans. There have been tweaks to the system since the first lottery ball dropped and the jury is out as to whether the current system is the best solution.
So what does it mean to win the top pick in the NHL draft for any given year?
There have been 21 first over-all picks by thirteen teams (we will get to the Oilers in a bit) since the lottery became a reality. Only four teams that won the lottery went on to win the Stanley Cup.
The Florida Panthers get a pass on scrutiny since their top pick was only 21 months ago and they are slowly putting together a lineup that could soon be a formidable playoff challenger. Their early exit from the playoffs this year could be seen as a part of the organization’s learning curve.
It is ironic that the Ottawa Senators won the first two lotteries. No Stanley Cup to show for it but they did make it to the finals in 2007, more than a decade after taking Bryan Berard first overall in 1995 and Chris Phillips in 1996. Berard never played for the Senators and was traded to the NY Islanders for Damien Rhodes and Wade Redden. Two first overall picks and supposed marquee players via trade were not enough to bring a championship parade down Bank St.
The Penguins won their most recent Stanley Cup four years after they drafted Sidney Crosby in 2005 and six years after drafting Marc-Andre Fleury. Both were first over-all picks. Some building blocks were already in place when Crosby arrived and while Mario Lemieux had retired for good before 2009 his influence as part owner was also a part of the recipe for success. Players like Hal Gill, Matt Cooke (like him or not) Pascal Dupuis and Sergei Gonchar were all important parts of that championship team. The point is that it took years of good drafting, trades and free-agent signings to bring this team to hockey’s ultimate prize.
It’s not only players though. A solid front office is an important ingredient as well. Ray Shero was a crafty GM with a winning attitude who had cut his teeth as an assistant general manager with both the Senators and Nashville Predators prior to joining the Penguins.
Partway through the 2009 season came what seemed to be the final piece. The hiring of Dan Bylsma. Maybe the most cerebral coach in hockey then and now. He replaced Michel Therrien and was able to steer the team to glory.
Picking both Fleury and Crosby first over-all did have the impact needed to win but it was only a part of the puzzle. As will be seen, a team’s front office can be the Achilles heel to progress.
All the talent in the world will likely get you nowhere if the front office is in disarray and makes poor coaching choices. The Edmonton Oilers are trying to get out from under the damage done by Steve Tambellini and Craig MacTavish. In the case of MacTavish, popular belief was that his elevation from coach to GM was the equivalent of a political patronage appointment. He was promoted after guiding the club out of the playoffs for five of his eight years behind the bench. MacTavish was fired as GM mere hours after learning that the Oilers would be drafting a generational talent.
Four first over-all picks in six years — including hockey whiz-kid Connor McDavid — and not making the playoffs since 2006 seems to be proof enough. Actually, getting out of the bottom five over-all has been a challenge. That’s why the team has had so many great picks. Six coaches in six years contributed to dressing room instability. That seems to be the key here. A dressing room full of young and impressionable players faced with a coaching carousel was a recipe for disaster. It boils down to poor upper-management decision making.
There was no continuity among the coaches: Pat Quinn – not a communicator with players; Tom Renney – will do well leading Hockey Canada but not in the NHL; Ralph Krueger – changed sports to European Football (enough said); Dallas Eakins –admitted that he was too hard on the kids; Todd Nelson – 51 games and done. In the case of Nelson he was with the wrong team at the wrong time.
What could have been great hockey careers have become stunted, if not ruined in Edmonton
There is hope for the Oilers though. The proven management of Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan are now in charge. Chiarelli won a cup with the Boston Bruins by using the draft, trade, free agency and top-coaching recipe.
The jury is out on McLellan, though, as he has to prove he can win in the playoffs, not only the regular season. One thing is certain, the organization is stabilizing and with McDavid in uniform for a few more years, this team will rise once again. But it has been a painful journey for this group..
Perhaps the one team that can say it benefited most from a first overall pick is the Chicago Blackhawks. Gary Bettman used the words “modern day dynasty” when presenting the 2015 Stanley Cup to Jonathan Toews.
But it was not Toews who was taken first over-all. It was Patrick Kane and the year was 2007. Toews was drafted third over-all the year before. Again, the talent was making its way to the dressing room but success did not come until Stan Bowman took over the GM reins. There are a few identifiable decisions that the son of Hockey Hall of Fame member Scotty Bowman made to bring success to Chicago.
Perhaps Bowman’s smartest move was keeping Joel Quenneville as head coach. The veteran of 835 NHL games as a player and holder of a long coaching resume in the NHL, Quenneville was well qualified to at least be given the chance to carry on. Carry on he did, guiding the team to three Stanley Cups in six years.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is the way Bowman has been able to continue winning with a dynamic roster. The NHL salary cap era began in 2005.
Difficult decisions on who to keep and who to release each year are now the norm for any GM. Additions and deletions to the roster have been necessary to manage the salary cap but the core is there and will be into the 2020’s. Chicago’s success was accomplished by drafting well, executing astute trades, smart free-agent signings and employing skilled off-ice personnel.
The gold standard for hockey success without first over-all picks are the Detroit Red Wings. Twenty-five consecutive years of making the playoffs with a four Stanley Cup wins in that time. Again the front office has been responsible for drafting, trades and free agent signings. The last time Detroit picked first over-all? 1986 when Joe Murphy began his pro career. Detroit’s next Stanley Cup was 12 years later. By this time Murphy had moved on and won a Stanley Cup in 1990 with Edmonton. Detroit is a team that has a recipe for success that starts with the front office and not on the ice.
In Ottawa’s case it took 12 years to get to the Stanley Cup final after picking first overall. Same with Detroit.
Pittsburgh won four years after choosing Sidney Crosby (no brainer) and six years after drafting Marc-Andre Fleury.
Chicago needed three years with Kane in the fold. In most cases many key pieces were already in place. On the flip side Edmonton is just trying to get into the playoffs after their 2010 top pick of Taylor Hall.
So it can be relatively quick or a long process to get to sixteen wins in the playoffs. In many cases picking first over-all is not what put a teams’ name on the Stanley Cup.
So how does this fit in with the Toronto Maple Leafs? Does it mean anything? They are picking first overall this summer. Are they now guaranteed success?
Don’t plan the parade route down Yonge St. yet. All teams that parlayed a plan into a Cup had their periods of futility, fan anger and general apathy. Only four teams drafting first overall have won the cup since 1995. The Leafs are just crawling out of the hole they dug for themselves over 49 years. Nothing will come easy for this franchise. There is still more work and pain coming — for the short term at least.
At the top, the Leafs have a management team that appears to rank up there with other top contending teams. They just have to prove it now. The untested and unproven (at management) Brendan Shanahan has done what appears to be a good job at putting together a front office that can deliver. Mark Hunter is highly regarded by his peers and the media at evaluating amateur talent. General Manager Lou Lamoriello was behind three Stanley Cups in New Jersey with zero number one picks. Kyle Dubas and Brandon Pridham round out management bringing with them unique skills in analytics and salary-cap expertise.
Behind the bench is a meticulous coach who tolerated more losses than wins this season but don’t expect that approach to last. Mike Babcock is arguably the best at his trade. He brings to Toronto a track record of both Stanley Cup success and international success.
There is plenty of optimism that the Leafs are on the right track. Taking a “scorched earth” approach was bold and needed. Many observers feel that the Leafs are well stocked with NHL players, but it is only year one of the rebuild. It may be best to say that the Leafs are stocked with unproven NHL players with lots of potential.
The brain trust known as Leafs management recognizes that they have a long way to go. Of the first consideration is making the playoffs, not winning the Stanley Cup but Lamoriello cautioned against playoff talk for next season. It is clear for the time being that the plan is to draft . . . draft . . . draft.
Don’t be surprised if the Leafs take a pass on the pending free agency of Steven Stamkos. It is very early in the rebuild.
Again upper management must execute well to put a product on the ice that is not only competitive but winning more nights than not. Next season will indicate whether the team is heading in the right direction..
Maybe TSN.ca said it best with a recent headline.
“Leafs won’t stray from process despite top pick.”
That is good news for Leafs Nation. This management team has their own recipe for success and some ingredients are now in place. It does not appear that first choosing first over-all will make or break the Leafs’ return to respectability.