Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports
Canucks fans have spent a considerable amount of time over the past couple months debating the recent moves made by management. The individual complaints are fairly wide reaching, but a lot of our concern comes down to a high degree of skepticism around management’s plan of rebuilding on the fly.
Read on for the conclusion to our series on Building a Contender.
Our own Managing Editor, Thomas Drance, had this to say on the matter following a recent interview with Trevor Linden:
Too often we (the royal we, I mean) underestimate the costs and the risks associated with ‘tanking’ and in my view that harms our team building analysis.
Benning’s and Linden’s is a nuanced approach, but from moving out veterans on expensive no-trade contracts, to loading up on successful AHL players in their early 20s to help bridge the chasm between the Sedins and the Horvats of the world, there’s definitely method underlying the club’s moves. What the Canucks are doing this summer has seemingly confused the hockey world, but it has long looked to me like a gradualist rebuild. Considering the particulars of the franchise’s marketplace and history, I think that’s a defensible approach.
Proponents of this approach tend to point to the business side of the argument. Will the fans of market X really support an ugly rebuild that lands them first overall pick(s)? It’s likely true that many fans would be less inclined to pay over $200 a ticket for a team destined to be less competitive. However, if a team is more likely on a path to race to the bottom, rather than the top, there is no reason why they would have to spend to the cap.
In theory, profitability could be maintained under a structure where a “tank team” spent closer to the floor than the cap, while passing on those saving to fans in the form of more affordable tickets, but this is probably a topic for another post at another time.
There is also the emotional side of the argument, which is just as important to consider. Hockey lore is filled tales of the gritty underdog who achieved great things despite facing seemingly insurmountable odds. The nobility of doing it the hard way is etched into the our psyche, and we place a high value on teams and players who earn their success by not choosing the easy way out. Most would much prefer a team that tries to win and fails miserably, than a team that is designed to fail and does so spectacularly.
Many of these fans espouse a general distaste for tanking in general, looking down on Tim Murray’s ruthless efficiency as if he was a teenager who found the cheat code to a video game. However, what Murray has done is rather extraordinary. Any GM can find themselves selecting in the top 5, but this is usually accompanied with the GM being out of work shortly before it becomes time to make the pick. The motivation for self-preservation presents a pretty significant motivator against a strategic tank, as what’s in the long-term interests of the team and the GM aren’t always the same.
Where Murray was successful was in his ability to present a ruthlessly efficient strategy to rebuild a club in a relatively short period of time through losing, and successfully getting the buy in from management to execute this plan.
Today’s Collective Bargaining Agreement dictates a complex structure under which management can build their teams. The draft is determined by a certain structure, which favors the worst teams in the league. Top players don’t reach unrestricted free agent status until 27, but most of the elite players get locked up by their teams before ever reaching free agency.
Like it or not, today’s NHL is a highly competitive environment, where advantages are gained an lost by those who understand its structure and build their strategies to exploit advantage. This is why many fans in Toronto and Buffalo actively cheer for their favourite team to lose.
So over the course of this series, what have we learned?
NHL is a Superstar League
We have learned that despite all the discussion about how much parity there is in the NHL, the vast majority of teams who compete for the Stanley Cup do so with the help of two or more star (>15 GAR in single season) or superstar (>20 GAR in single season) players. Today’s NHL is about the stars, as it always has been.
The Trade and UFA Markets Are Unlikely to Help you Land a Superstar
Trades are also a bit of a non-starter, as elite players in their prime rarely get traded. Sure, there’s the rare exception of the odd Tyler Seguin, but you can’t really build a strategy around another team making a misstep of this magnitude, you can only hope you’re positioned to exploit them when they do. Similarly, a well executed free agency strategy is an excellent avenue to supplement depth, but the chances of finding an elite player via free agency is remote at best. At worst, there’s a high likelihood you’ll likely to have to overpay for a player in the decline of their career.
Build Through the Draft by Volume
Because of the discount teams pay on young players still under their ELC years, who are also in the prime of their career, constructing team depth is largely dependent on successfully developing a prospect pipeline that regularly produces players that can contribute. As ESPN’s, Corey Pronman noted in a recent article, NHL team’s teams don’t draft well or poorly consistently. In fact, he found that draft success can be broken down to 25% skill and 75% luck, which is why its so important to draft by volume.
The Canucks used this approach effectively in both 2013 and 2014 when they had two first round picks in both drafts, and it will be interesting to see whether they look to move players on expiring contracts, such as Radim Vrbata and Dan Hamhuis, in order to accumulate more high picks in the 2016 draft. It’s less likely that you’ll find a Superstar slide into your lap outside of the top five, but there are examples of players like Anze Kopitar, Claude Giroux, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry falling much later to they should. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that a pick outside the first few will turn out to be a Superstar, but provided you scout well, your odds increase with each additional pick you have.
Take the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example. At the deadline, the Leafs traded two pending UFAs (Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli) for a Prospect (Brandon Leipsic), a 1st rounder (24th overall) and Olli Jokinen’s cap space. At the draft, they traded down twice, with the net impact being the 34th, 61st, and 68th overall picks. There’s no guarantee that Leipsic or the players selected (Travis Dermott, Jeremy Bracco, and Martins Dzierkals) will pan out to be NHLer, but they’ve increased their odds considerably through savvy trades and drafting by volume.
You’ve Got to Be Bad to Be Good
This is by far the most controversial recommendation. From fans to many management teams, there is a palpable distaste for teams that build teams designed to lose. There is likely truth the importance of building a winning culture and having guys who are strong leaders in the room, especially in times where the team is facing significant adversity. However, it’s hard to avoid the reality that in today’s NHL reality, elite players are more often found in the top 5 picks in any draft than anywhere else, and it’s not even close.
Of course this approach doesn’t guarantee success. Far from it. The Sabres may never become contenders, despite the additions of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Critics are quick point to the Oilers “lost decade” as the prime example of how a tank rebuild can fail. The point of a tank isn’t to guarantee success at all, but rather the choice to follow the highest probability path to creating a contender, and sacrificing the present to attempt to meet that objective. Critics may characterize this as sleazy, or cheating, but as a young Ice-T said almost two decades ago, Don’t Hate the Playa, Hate the Game.
Your Vancouver Canucks
The following graphs show the GAR trendlines by Canucks players as they age:
As we can see, there is a large clustering of Canucks forwards in the -5 to +5 group. Unfortunately, the team’s best forwards (Vrbata, Henrik, Daniel, and Burrows) are all on the wrong side of the aging curve, without any of the teams prized young assets looking to fill the gap.
While we are encouraged to see positive trendlines for Chris Tanev, Yannick Weber, and to a lesser extent Alex Edler, overall this is a pretty mediocre group, with perhaps their best defender over the past few years showing significant signs of decline (Hamhuis).
This graph shows just how dominant Ryan Miller was at one stage of his career, but unfortunately not at this stage. We’ve heard great things about the improvement Jacob Markstrom has demonstrated over the course of the past year, but in terms of what he’s shown on the ice at the NHL level, he’s still very much a wild card.
On the topic of a tear it down rebuild Trevor Linden was recently quoted as saying:
“It’s unrealistic to just flush everyone out. I don’t understand that. I have trouble with the realism of that question. It’s not possible. You have to look at where we are and what we have…I don’t know where things go in the future, but right now, it’s not possible and furthermore I believe strongly that we have to integrate young players with some sort of foundation for them to be successful.”
By and large, all the Canucks’ divisional rivals improved this offseason, while the Canucks by most accounts took a step back. Despite the efforts of Linden and Benning, they look poised to find themselves in a wild card at best scenario, or worse depending on how you look at it.
While we have many reasons to believe that the Canucks find the thought of a tear-it-down rebuild distasteful, based on the roster they’ve assembled this offseason, they may find themselves closer to this reality than they may like to admit. Depending on how their goaltending holds up, there’s a very real chance they’ll find themselves outside the playoff picture when the trade deadline approaches.
With a number of pending 2016 unrestricted free agent players it will be hard, even for this administration, to avoid the temptation to monetize these assets, thus enabling them to accumulate the additional draft picks they so desperately need long-term, as well as improve their draft position looking towards what appears to be a very strong 2016 draft class.
You can call it a tank, or an accidental rebuild. It doesn’t much matter. You can’t always get what you want , but sometimes you get what you need.
Others in this Series