Eggs Bennett 22-24
September 10, 2022
The NHL has been described as a copycat league. When pundits use this description, they are referring to the tendency of hockey builders to focus on the qualities of recent cup winners and to try and replicate these qualities in their own team.
There are many flies in this ointment of this approach, of course – flies that minimize the uniqueness of each individual player and ignore the impossibility of recreating each unique team dynamic, and flies that miss the disconnect between how long it takes to build a team and how quickly things change in the NHL.
These things acknowledged, as the Montreal Canadiens approach another rebuilding season there are many things they can learn from the Stanley Cup Champions, the Colorado Avalanche.
The Champs used every tool available to build a winning team.
Winning teams are built on some core ingredients. In a salary cap era, your most important ingredients will be purchased at the amateur draft. Stockpiling assets is essential to quality participation in the trade market, an important second ingredient. The third ingredient is well-timed dipping into the free agency market.
Every single team in the NHL is comprised of players from three categories – those drafted, acquired by trade and signed in free agency. The recipe is more complex than that. Not just draft picks, but high draft picks. Not just trading, but quality trading. Not just signing free agents, but signing the right players at the right time.
This past season, the Colorado Avalanche perfected the recipe in a Cup-winning performance.
The Cup-winning team had just six players on the roster that were drafted by the Avalanche. All six of those players were taken in the first round, with the latest selection coming at 16th overall. They had one first overall pick (Nathan MacKinnon) a second overall (Gabe Landeskog), two players selected at fourth overall (Cale Makar and Bowen Byram), a tenth overall (Mikko Rantanen) and a sixteenth overall (Alex Newhook).
The significance of drafting high is obvious. Colorado’s first line centre, their number one defenceman, their scoring leader and their captain were all drafted by the Avalanche in the top 10 of their draft year.
There is also something to learn about amassing a group of players that were selected high from other teams. Four players acquired by trade, and three signed as free agents were selected in the first round by other teams. That list includes five who were selected in the top ten.
While there is not one single player on that roster that was drafted by Colorado beyond the middle of the first round, if we look at the players acquired by trade it becomes obvious that the Avalanche used their draft capital to do more than select high.
Twelve players on the Cup-winning roster were acquired by trade.
Several trades were made when the team was not performing well. Erik Johnson was acquired in 2011 in a complexion-changing deal that sent Kevin Shattenkirk the other way. Both Johnson and Shattenkirk were first round picks. J.T. Compher was part of a package acquired for Ryan O’Reilly when the team had missed the playoffs in 2015. In November of the 2017-18 season, a year when the Avalanche would go on to miss the playoffs, they traded Matt Duchene for a package that included Samuel Girard.
The Avalanche made several economical trades. They bought low on Andre Burakovsky and paid little for players that weren’t in other teams’ plans in Devon Toews and Kurtis MacDermid.
Two deals stand out as trades filling important holes – Nazem Kadri and Darcy Kuemper. Both players will skate with new teams this coming season but were utilized by the Avalanche at the right time in their window and were acquired with significant assets. The deals were classic “giving to get” transactions.
Four players were acquired at the 2022 trade deadline. Artturi Lehkonen and Josh Manson became important features of Colorado’s cup run. Nico Sturm and Andrew Cogliano were well-used depth. Those “all-in for a run” deals were possible because the Avalanche had amassed assets through the draft in names like Justin Barron and Tyson Jost.
Free agent signings account for six players on the Avalanche roster. Two of those players – Pavel Francouz and Logan O’Connor – were signed in the summer of 2018 and filled their roles admirably in the playoffs. Both were undrafted players on low-cost deals.
Valeri Nichushkin was signed in the summer of 2019, on a contract worth $850K because Colorado saw he was on the cusp of reaching his potential. Nichushkin was Dallas’ 10th overall pick in 2013. He’s had a wee raise since then.
Three free agent signings in the summer of 2021 – Darren Helm, Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray – were about adding depth for what was anticipated to be a big year. Johnson and Murray were selected 3rd and 2nd overall in their draft years. There is a lesson here – a player can still serve an important function even if they don’t live up to their draft hype.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel was a waiver claim. Even the best teams have a place for a useful player who comes for free.
How do the Habs stack up?
How close are the Canadiens to the Avalanche recipe? What lessons can be learned, and how do the Habs find their own perfect ingredients?
Here is how the Habs look today based on how Capfriendly sorts the roster.
Some things stand out from the Habs chart.
The list of players acquired through the draft, particularly in the first round, is way too short – and I say that having included Slafkovsky who is yet to play one game in Montreal, and with full consideration of first rounders in development. This will change.
Kent Hughes will continue to stockpile first round draft picks.
There are not enough high draft picks on the list, in any of the categories. Slafkovsky, Dach, Caufield – named because he fell further in the draft than he should have – and Drouin are the entire list of high picks. The hope is that Dach can develop into a top centre and that Slafkovsky and Caufield become big scorers.
The elite defenceman is missing and will probably be a focus of a future draft or trade.
The trade list includes some names that will be important for the future. Suzuki, Dach and Barron will all be on the team for their window if they reach their potential. Otherwise, most of them are placeholders and trade bait. Similarly, the free agent list will turn over 100% before the Habs are in that consistently competitive space again.
The lesson in the Avalanche is obvious. The focus for the Montreal Canadiens for the next couple of years is converting assets into draft picks or strong prospects.
The good news is that Kent Hughes got the memo.