Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Flyers Success Story

Building Tips For The Habs

The Canadiens and the Flyers meet for the fourth time this season. This time, the Stanley Cup finalists sit on top of the NHL (tied with Vancouver) and are doing it with offense.

The game promises to be a good one (they often are in this rivalry), but aside from that, it’s a chance for Canadiens fans to glimpse a very well-put together NHL outfit for the last time in the regular season. Why well put together?

It’s been noted here before, and elsewhere, that balance has been a key with the Flyers. Their top three centres on some nights are Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. All first round picks, all having great seasons. Their wings are just as deep with Claude Giroux (the envy of a province), Scott Hartnell, Ville Leino, James van Riemsdyk and Nikolai Zherdev.

Surely a team like this would suffer at the back? Nope. Pronger, Timonen, Carle, Meszaros, Coburn and O’Donnell at its healthful best.

It’s a line-up with oodles of pre-professional pedigree and experience (10 first rounders) to go with their recently gained Stanley Cup teeth.
When one looks at this team, one has to wonder how Philadelphia came out on top over Atlanta, Florida, Islanders, and other perennial lottery seekers. They’ve had their high first rounders (Pitkanen, van Riemsdyk), but Philly has built this group through hard work, some good drafting and a commitment to a formula. I think there are some good lessons for Montreal managers here:

1) Big draft coming – be ready
2003 was one of the most talent laden drafts in the history of the NHL. There’s hardly a player drafted in that first round who hasn’t played in the NHL. It has more than its fair share of stars. Montreal media will never tire of telling us about how Andrei Kostitsyn (picked 10th) could have been Jeff Carter, or Mike Richards, or Zach Parise. Philly was one of a few teams that positioned themselves superbly for this draft. Prior to it taking place, they managed to turn Daymond Langkow into a first rounder from Phoenix. In doing so, they nabbed the #11 pick. In addition, they accumulated 7 picks in the top 3 rounds. Doing this affords a team with the freedom to cater to more scouts and take chances, while leaving those annoyingly unsuccessful hole-filling picks for later rounds.

2006 was the same story, deep draft and Philly was there with a boatload of picks. I’m not sure the Flyers go for Giroux at that time in the first round (their D was a big, big weakness) without the surety of 5 picks in the first 3 rounds.

Montreal’s done an OK job of this in the past (and 2003 and 2006 were pretty good hauls for them too), but this lesson just needs to be drilled in a little more.

2) Draft forwards, acquire defencemen
The best forwards are young, fast and dynamic. The best defencemen are old wise and efficient. It’s right there for NHL GMs to see, yet some still insist on picking defensive defencemen in early rounds (Komisarek, Fischer, Tinordi).

Philly has about 8 dynamic scoring forwards, any or all of which could score 30 goals. Add 9-goal Nodl and that’s nine. Of the nine, 4 are Philly first rounders, Nodl is a second rounder. Yes they added Briere, Leino and Zherdev through a variety of means, but their core is from their own scouting and commitment.

The contrast is their defence. Pronger (trade and sign), Timonen (trade and sign), Coburn (trade), Meszaros (trade), Carle (trade), O’Donnell (sign). Not a draft pick there.

Since the Pitkanen choice in 2002, Philly has had 6 first round picks. 5 were forwards. 6 times in 8 drafts their first selection was a forward. The Habs are all over the map in their first round strategy. Scoring has been a need for as long as I can remember (2008 was a blip, I admit) and the team is still drafting big Dmen.

3) Don’t be precious about prospects
Philly has had its fair share of name prospects pass through over the years. Once they may have been precious about them, but their recent attitude seems to treat them like assets until they are established. Pitkanen keeps getting mentioned and he was one. He was turned into Lupul, essentially. Other prospects that have been leveraged include Upshall, Sbisa and Lupul himself. A sentimentalist might have kept these and missed the opportunity their trading presented.

Montreal fans get very precious about prospects. Some still lament McDonagh and Valentenko. No one wants to throw away a prospect in a bad trade, but holding onto an average prospect may leave you with an average team.

4) Salary cap, schmalary cap
I’ve said cap space is overrated. Philly walks the walk. They pay the price for big parts of a team and they often go very close or over the cap. On at least one occasion, they’ve had to call in amateurs to avoid actually exceeding the payroll limit.

With penalties for going over so slack, and opportunities to bury salary in long recoveries from injury, it seems one way to create good depth is to rehab a ton of salary for the playoffs. Montreal missed the boat on this by pressing Markov to return and not insisting earlier on Gorges’ surgery. Both might have been available for later along with the depth their salary space would have left. Instead, Montreal lines the Molsons pockets as it carries cap space month over month.

5) Goaltender not cast as hero/savior, a real possibility
Philly doesn’t just happen into these goalies, they have made the choice to put money elsewhere. This year it’s Leighton, Boucher and Bobrovsky, last year it was Emery and co., Biron before that, and on into eternity. Philly hasn’t been able to hold a candle to the goaltending the Canadiens have put forward in the last two decades. Yet Philly has often been contending and making deep playoff runs, while goalie-driven Montreal has not.

Having a good goalie is not a weakness, but perhaps overpaying for one is. Turning goalie money into an extra goal for a game will pay the bills when good = 92% of saves and bad = 90% of saves.

This article could be way off. Philly made the Stanley Cup final last year, yes. But they barely made the playoffs and didn’t really beat anyone too good (sorry Habs fans). What’s more, their 69 points today is actually only 10 points out of 7th (hello Montreal) and their lack of goaltending could yet topple them from their perch.

Still, I think these lessons are good ones. They are not the only rules of operation, but rather 5 among many that Philly have exploited to find a bit of success and bottle it. They’re also good ones as there’s nothing stopping a team like Montreal from approaching things from this way right away. No one is saying they need to lose for 6 seasons (Oilers) to win, or anything.

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