Musings

Tardy Ruthlessness

The NHL offseason has basically become pretty much every fan laughing at the stupid decisions of GMs across the league, and fans of those teams those GMs preside over trying to sell themselves on others that they weren’t THAT stupid. Some of that has reached these pastures, and maybe some of it is deserved.

It seems to me that possibly every NHL GM just hasn’t figured out how ruthless you have to be in this hard cap. Or maybe they know it, and just can’t bring themselves to do it. Or maybe mechanizations within the organization haven’t allowed them to do so. I think that’s what we’re seeing here with the Hawks and Stan Bowman.

While the Penguins will be used as the model, it’s probably important to remember their three Cups and four finals span three coaches and two GMs. So Jim Rutherford could have looked at the roster he got from Ray Shero and not feel the same attachments. And the Penguins roster from their first champion to the second and third only retains three and a half important elements in Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Fleury if you want to count him, though he wasn’t supposed to be involved at all for the last two.

The NHL would like to model themselves after the NFL, but GMs in hockey are missing a key weapon that their football counterparts get. And that’s un-guaranteed contracts. NFL GMs can always cut a player loose at any time, sometimes with no penalty at all. That certainly helps your flexibility.

Which means NHL GMs have to be even more discerning and ruthless. And yet they haven’t.

You know how this works in football. As soon as a player that is drafted starts turning heads in training camp, a plan is put in place to get him to replace his more expensive teammate at the same position. He’s put on special teams and starts tearing things to shreds there. Or he gets 3rd downs as well. Coaches start slipping to beat writers how much they like this guy. The elder player’s contract gets brought up, and it’s only about a year, two at most, before said younger player is shoving the older, expensive one out the door.

It’s how the Patriots have done it. How many players have they keyed on? That’d be one, the quarterback with the hair. It used to be that Vince Wilfork was the linchpin on defense, but even he was moved along. Remember how long ago Rodney Harrison and Ty Law and Deion Branch and Teddy Bruschi were considered part of “the core?” Name a running back.

The Penguins, and I’m fairly sure accidentally, stumbled onto the number you have to hold onto. And that’s basically three. And the third, Letang, was hurt for all of the playoffs. So maybe it’s just two, Crosby and Malkin. Maybe Murray is the third. Another debate.

The Hawks held it together with seven–Crawford, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Toews, Kane, Hossa. There was a time when Sharp probably was on that list, and maybe even Oduya. Kruger too.  You wonder if Stan hadn’t gotten his way if he wouldn’t have started peeling these off earlier.

We’ve seen it this summer, though it may be too late. He had no choice on Hossa. He cashed in as early as he could on Hammer, because rightly or wrongly, he sees a younger version in Connor Murphy. Panarin was moved out because, though only my speculation, the Hawks see Debrincat as doing most of the same stuff at a younger age and a cheaper rate, and could get Saad back.

Still, if Stan had been given completely free reign, would we have seen this earlier? We know that Sharp was shopped around in the summer of ’14, for whatever reason. Had they moved him then, they wouldn’t have had to lose Johns the next summer to do so. If Sharp had been moved then, would Saad have needed to go the next summer? What would the ’15 team have accomplished with both Saad and Panarin on the squad? If he had to do it again, would he have held onto Danault and shipped out Kruger last summer, with Danault looking at least like he could do a lot of the same things again, younger and cheaper. And of course, had Bickell been allowed to walk, would Teuvo still be here? Would Anisimov have been necessary? What would that team look like?

This is the argument we’ve had for two or three years now. There’s nothing that could happen to the Hawks now that they couldn’t counter by pointing at their three banners. And yet you can’t help but still wonder if that wasn’t mostly a product of being born on third and blind luck. Yes, Stan was in the front office when all of “the core” was acquired, but he wasn’t in the main chair. And it could be the same with the Penguins, who just kept shaking the cup for seven years until they got Yahtzee again.

It’s not only the Hawks, obviously. They’ll pay in Edmonton for the Lucic and Russell signings before they even win anything, or so goes the fear. The Sharks paid for at least Marleau’s no-move clause, maybe Thornton’s too. We could go on.

It seems to me there are two methods. You can do what the Capitals did, and basically load up for two years and pray you win. If you don’t… basically your team looks like the setting for Running Man. Or what some team hasn’t done yet, and go totally stone cold in their viewing of their team. No player gets more than four years, and no more than three after maybe 28. You identify no more than three, maybe four players, that you’re going to build around. Everyone else is tradeable and one year early instead of one year late. You put all your faith in your drafting and you know that as soon as one player gets expensive, you’d better have his replacement in the system and near ready to go. Even if that means trading the occasional established stars for only prospects.

But in this notorious old boy network, it may be a while.

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