Why Not Us, Why Not Now?

Why Not Us, Why Not Now?

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It is a popular war cry teams will make when in the midst of an unlikely or unexpected championship run.  But what exactly is needed to make a championship contending hockey club and just how far are the Maple Leafs from truly becoming one?  I thought I would attempt to answer that very question while trying to look at how a successful championship contending hockey team is currently composed and then comparing it to the Leafs situation and roster makeup.

When I think of a model organization and a team I wish the Leafs would attempt to copy it is the Detroit Red Wings.  I cannot think of another team that has seemingly been ultra competitive for nearly two full decades, twenty years of winning hockey.  Since 1991/92 the Wings have won four Stanley Cups (with a little luck and better travel maybe 3 or 4 more), have finished first in their division 14 times and have never failed to qualify for the playoffs.

The last time the Detroit Red Wings failed to make the playoffs was 1989/90 when Brian Mulroney was Canada’s Prime Minister and George H.W. Bush was just starting his term.  The team had some hiccups in the playoffs but they have been able to unearth talent in the late rounds of the NHL draft unlike any other franchise (maybe in sports) and have seamlessly transitioned into the new salary cap era with great success.

Last season was considered a bit of an offseason for the Wings (they only finished 2nd in their division) as they battled injuries and a bit of inconsistency yet they still finished with a record of 44-24-14 good for 102 points and a trip to the Western Conference semi-finals before losing to the top seeded San Jose Sharks.  With that quick history lesson out of the way, how have they done it and more importantly in today’s NHL how are they doing still?

The Red Wings have been superbly managed by the best general manager in the game, a guy who is still underrated in my opinion even though his exploits have been discussed in the past.  Ken Holland will make the Hall of Fame for his building of a dynasty in Detroit and they should have a statue erected in his honour they day he decides to leave the game.

The two best current Red Wings are Henrik Zetterberg (drafted in the 7th round, 210 overall) and Pavel Datsyuk (6th round, 171 overall) while still with the team is valuable pest and underrated scorer Tomas Holmstrom (10th round, 257 overall).  Recent draftees Niklas Kronwall (2000 1st round), Jiri Hudler (2002 2nd round), Valtteri Filppula (2002 3rd round), Jimmy Howard (2003 2nd round), Johan Franzen (2004 3rd round), Darren Helm (2005 5th round) and Justin Abdelkader (2005 2nd round) are all key contributors at reasonable prices.

That isn’t even mentioning cup winner Chris Osgood (1991 3rd round) or one of the best defenseman to ever play the game Nicklas Lidstrom (1989 3rd round) and you can see one of the reasons for the Wings success is bringing in home grown talent and letting it flourish in the motor city for years.  Sure there were years where the team would bring in a ton of key free agents (Brett Hull, Dom Hasek, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios etc) but like their original six counterparts in Toronto they have cash and haven’t let money limit their potential success.

Brian Burke has had past success including one Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks but he has also already traded two first round selections (and one 2nd rounder) in the controversial and much discussed Phil Kessel trade.  This is not likely something the Wings under Ken Holland would have ever considered and a huge part of their success has been the ability to draft extremely well, in all rounds of the draft.

The Detroit Red Wings have also employed some of the best head coaches money can buy since 1991/92 beginning with Brian Murray (1990-1993), legendary Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman (1993-2002) and now one of the games brightest and best Mike Babcock (2005-current).  Ron Wilson can stack up to most of the better coaches in the game, but only a few would consider him the top of his profession at the moment.

On paper the Leafs appear to have a solid management and coaching foundation but who have also seemingly made their share of mistakes.  Burke’s moves have left a bit to be desired as he has overpaid Colby Armstrong, was a bit over zealous in trading for Phil Kessel (two seasons too early), giving up on Viktor Stalberg for Kris Versteeg (still way too early to say for sure though) and has committed an NHL high in salary cap percentage to his relatively overrated defence core.

DET Ken Holland (4 Stanley Cups) TOR Brian Burke (1 Stanley Cup)
Coach – Mike Babcock (.645 career points %) Ron Wilson (.531 points %)
Cap Hit 2010/11 – $59.3 million $54.5 million

Let’s compare the two teams further, starting with the team’s top six forwards (with career PPG and current cap hit).

H.Zetterberg (0.94, $6.083) P. Datsyuk (0.98, $6.7) T. Bertuzzi (0.71, $1.94)
J. Franzen (0.53, $3.96) V. Filppula (0.45, $3.0) T. Holmstrom (0.53, $1.875)
CAP HIT – $23.6 CAP % – 39%
N. Kulemin (0.46, $2.35) M. Grabovski (0.57, $2.9) P. Kessel (0.62, $5.4)
C. MacArthur (0.45, $1.1) T. Bozak (0.31, $3.725)* K. Versteeg (0.58, $3.083)
CAP HIT – $18.5 CAP % – 34%

*2010/11 PPG

The Wings spend more on their top two lines (total cap and percentage of cap) than the Leafs and get more production on a per dollar basis using very rough numbers.  It seems to be a trend in NHL to spend heavy on your top six forwards and get the bulk of your production from these lines.

Let’s look at the bottom six forwards now.

D. Cleary (0.43, $2.8) M. Modano (0.53, $1.75)* J. Hudler (0.49, $2.875)
J. Abdelkader ($0.787) D. Helm ($0.912) P. Eaves ($0.750)
CAP HIT – $9.874 CAP % – 16.6%

*avg over past 3 seasons

C. Armstrong (0.49, $3.0) N. Kadri ($1.72) F. Sjostrom (0.23, $0.750)
M. Brown ($0.537) T. Brent ($0.575) C. Orr ($1.0)
CAP HIT – $7.6 CAP % – 14%

Again, the Wings spend more on their bottom six but they also expect more than just checking duties, penalty killing, energy and toughness – they want some occasional scoring and will pay accordingly.  The Wings do not appear concerned with toughness in the sense of paying an enforcer a premium wage (normally $1 million+) but they do infuse energy and grinders throughout the bottom six.

Let’s look at the defense.

N. Lidstrom (0.74 – $6.2) B. Rafalski (0.61 – $6.0)
B. Stuart (0.37 – $3.75) N. Kronwall (0.46 – $3.0)
J. Ericsson ($0.900) R. Salei ($1.1)
CAP HIT – $20.1 CAP % – 35%
D. Phaneuf (0.58 – $6.5) F. Beauchemin (0.35 – $3.8)
L. Schenn (0.21 – $2.975) T. Kaberle (0.58 – $4.25)
M. Komisarek ($4.5) B. Lebda ($1.45)
CAP HIT – $23.4 CAP % – 43%

Ouch, more money, less production offensively and worse overall defensively.  I’d venture to say that currently only Tomas Kaberle and Luke Schenn are providing anywhere near the value needed based on salary.  It has become painfully obvious the Leafs are wasting money on their backend, and this doesn’t even include Jeff Finger and his hefty $3.5 with would bring the total cap hit to over $25 million or 46% of the teams total budget.

Dion Phaneuf being paid more than Nik Lidstrom is a crime from an overall productivity standpoint and Mike Komisarek making more than both the underrated Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall is brutal.  The Leafs needs to rectify and correct this mass misappropriation of funds and correct it quickly.    We have way too much tied up in the back end and even more specifically in our 3rd pairing, a huge waste.

I’d move Beauchemin and Komisarek and I would move them for next to nothing to get out from their burdensome salaries.  I don’t see why Gunnarsson, Ledba, Finger, Holzer, Gyspers and Aullie couldn’t possible provide the minutes and production that these two currently do for a fraction of the price.  Replacing Beauch and Komi with Gunnarsson and Finger would save $4 million without giving up much in the way of talent.  If you prefer to play Gunner and Aullie and keep Finger buried it would save $6.7 million dollars.

How about the goaltending?

J. Howard (83 GP, 2.29, .922 – $0.716) JS Giguere (503 GP, 2.52, 0.913 – $6.0)
C. Osgood (737 GP, 2.49, .905 – $1.416) J. Gustavsson (47 GP, 2.88, .902 – $1.35)
J. MacDonald ($.550) B. Scrivens ($.900)
CAP HIT – $2.132 / 3.5% $7.35 / 13.4%

Another huge discrepancy in terms of salary allocation however the Leafs will be off the hook for the massive 6.0 million of Giggy and the Wings will have to pay Jimmy Howard for his work over the past few season as according to Cap Geek is a UFA beginning at the end of this season.  Either way you slice it the Wings are getting tremendous bang for their buck and though the Leafs goaltending has improved this year they are paying through the nose for that slight improvement.

One has to point out the Wings are one of the oldest teams in the NHL and the Leafs one of the youngest but it does go to show where the teams differ in overall strategy and asset management.  However with the Wings past drafting record they have shown they know what it takes to build a winning team year after year.  It also goes to show just how far off the Leafs really are to becoming a contender in the mould of a franchise like Detroit.

We have the unenviable task of not only getting more productivity out of our defense core but also making it cheaper than it currently is – a great challenge for any general manager.  We also need to add two dynamic offensive stars (who will likely make at least 6 million each) – these types don’t simply grow on trees.  It would also be nice to clear up our goaltending situation and get steady and consistent performances from somebody who doesn’t take up a good portion of our cap number.

How much of a raise will Luke Schenn receive in the offseason, who will be our number one goalie next season and who will be available on either the trade or free agency market that can fill one of the much needed top six forward positions?  We have a ton of restricted free agents including Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, Mike Brown and the aforementioned Schenn.  Some of them will see salary decreases (Bozak) while others could be in line for substantial raises (MacArthur, Schenn).

We have approximately 38.7 million tied up in salary next season for 12 players (plus Darcy Tucker but not including any of our RFA or UFAs) so while we may have some wiggle room there might not be any top six talent available up-front (in the free agent pool) unless Brad Richards isn’t resigned or traded by the Dallas Stars in the next six months – unlikely.

Seeing the absolute scarcity of top end scoring talent becoming available annually you can see why the Leafs paid the huge price for the young and talented Phil Kessel.  Teams are simply locking up their youth to long, cap friendly deals that has basically killed the free agent market – especially at forward.

In closing the Leafs still face a ton of unanswered questions and needed roster tweaks going forward, hopefully the right man is behind the steering wheel.

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