Is It Possible To Reach The Top Without Bottoming? Pt I

I’m really sorry to sour the effect Pegula’s millions can have in the immediate future, but the “Wait til July 1st” folks have me feeling obligated to issue this warning about the perceived EXTREME STAR MAKEOVER of the Sabres in short order. This is Part I. Part II will arrive Thursday. Follow me on Twitter here or Facebook here.

(WECK 1230) — Craig MacTavish waived the caution flag as the NHL’s 2011 trade deadline closed in on NHL general managers, advising that mortgaging the future wasn’t a bright idea for teams on the periphery of the postseason. After all, he said, how often do these moves get you the Cup?

It’s hard to fight that reasoning on a surface level. Only one team wins the Cup each year, and who can actually qualify that standing pat was the reason the Blackhawks won it all last year or that picking up Bill Guerin handed the Pens the silver in 2009?

It’s the reason that drafting has become the ultimate sign of a good general manager. To be fair, Sabres boss Darcy Regier is pretty good at it (though he’s still dodging the fax machine jokes from the Zigomanis fiasco). In fact, his overall skill at assembling a team and Lindy Ruff’s prowess at keeping them out of the absolute basement are in some ways a bigger detriment than an asset. They never bottom out, and as much as it would benefit the club, the fan in me never wants them to hit Tyler Durden status.

The Sabres have only chosen in the Top Ten on 11 occasions in their 40-year history, and just twice since 1996. Those picks are listed here:

Gilbert Perreault
Rick Martin
Jim Schoenfeld
Paul Cyr
Phil Housley
Tom Barrasso
Norm Lacombe
Shawn Anderson
Pierre Turgeon
Erik Rasmussen
Thomas Vanek

That’s just twice since ’96, and the former isn’t the team’s fault: the draft was one of the weakest drafts in the history of hockey. What were athletic and talented Canadian couples doing in 1978? Your bad! Just 10 of the 241 draft picks made a single All-Star team.

Contrast that 11/40 figure to the 19/43 for Pittsburgh. The Pens have had two golden eras already and both came following spells of garbage hockey so foul the Pirates begged for crosstown mercy.

Many know the Pens had five-straight Top Five picks from 2002-2006: Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal. That’s landed them two Finals so far. The only other spell of time that saw Pittsburgh creep into June was 1991 and 1992, which I’m sure you’ll recognize as significant to my tale. The Pens from 1984-1990 received seven Top Ten picks over seven drafts: Mario Lemieux, Doug Bodger, Craig Simpson, Zarley Zalapski, Chris Joseph, Darrin Shannon and Jaromir Jagr. By 1991, only Jagr and Lemieux featured in the run to the Cup, but the ancillary players all featured in different ways. Bodger and Shannon were shipped — of all places — to Buffalo for starting goaltender Barrasso. Zalapski was part of the deal to bring Ulf Samuelsson and Ron Francis to Pittsburgh at that year’s trade deadline. Joseph and Simpson helped fetch the Pens a puck mover named Paul Coffey.

So those seven picks lead directly to: Lemieux, Jagr, Coffey, Barrasso, Francis and Samuelsson. Oh, and two Cups.

Another dynasty? How about the Devils, who crapped their pants well enough to choose in the Top Ten seven times in their first eight seasons, landing Kirk Muller, Brendan Shanahan, John MacLean and Guerin (The ninth year found Martin Brodeur at No. 20 overall)?

Of course, there are other ways to do it. The Red Wings have chosen in the Top 20 just twice since 1991 and the Avalanche who trade first round picks for other team’s stars like their picks were slap bracelets or pet rocks. But both had their base in shovelfulls of horse crap hockey and landing one of the best players ever.

In Detroit’s case, landing Steve Yzerman at No. 4 overall in 1982 was huge… but it still took them years and winning the Sergei Fedorov Derby to become a Cup team. The Avalanche (then the Nordiques) had Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic and Owen Nolan in the fold before landing Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci and others because Eric Lindros’ dad was a baby.

Each of those teams had stud goalies and players who could be argued to be the best in the game (In Detroit’s case, they had several star goalies in Mike Vernon, Curtis Joseph and Dominik Hasek).

*You could even argue that Edmonton, even with Wayne Gretzky in the fold, needed to draft like never before to seal their fate as monsters of hockey. Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr were the Nos. 6 & 8 overall picks in 1980-81. It’s difficult to imagine the Oil winning without their No. 1 puck mover.

Which means even with $13+ million in play come the offseason, Darcy Regier has a real headache on his hands. Great players get locked up. The only thing that seems to free them up are greed (overpaying) or No. 1 picks, which turns Regier’s hands into a variable and veritable Fort Knox.

In the coming days, I’ll delve into a few scenarios in which I think Regier could find creative success in finding a star come July 1, but the fact of the matter is it will likely be ancillary pieces or moving one of Buffalo’s own prized possessions in Thomas Vanek, Ryan Miller or Tyler Myers. Truth be told, just as only one team wins the Cup, only one team will land Brad Richards. There aren’t too many unrestricted stand-outs available this year and the restricted market will be very interested. Plus, this is the summer to ink Myers long-term.

In a nutshell, the Sabres need Zack Kassian to be a Calder candidate this year, I mean, next year (Heeeey-o!) and the continued growth of Myers and Ennis under the leadership of Vanek. Luke Adam and Chris Butler need to “arrive.” Maybe Stafford can stay and convince his best buddy to come to town, but that’s all for tomorrow when I present the best case solutions.

In other words, adding only Brad Boyes at the deadline may have been deadly for this year… making those previous Non-Top-Ten draft picks something else. First-round draft picks are important, but as the NBA has shown the only word that matters is “lottery-protected.”

To be continued THURSDAY…

Email: nickonweck@gmail.com

11 Responses to Is It Possible To Reach The Top Without Bottoming? Pt I

  1. Eric says:

    Nick how does this pan out if you get into non dynasties? (I know the current Pens aren’t a dynasty… yet) For the record I agree with you. I think it’s a prolem with the Bills also but the NFL Draft is so deep. My question is what about one hit wonders? I suppose off the top of my head the Lightning cup fits the bill. Where were Eric Staal and Can Ward drafted?

    • Nick says:

      There are certainly one-hit wonders, and the Sabres can be that… could’ve even been (could be) this year, but needed more than Boyes in my opinion if Roy is out. Canes went to multiple Cups within 4-5 years, same with Ducks. ’10 Hawks, ’94 Rangers, ’93 Habs are only anomalies. Too soon to tell on Hawks, but Rangers were half Oilers and Habs had Roy.

  2. Matthew says:

    It’s not really about draft position, it’s about having one or two near-100 point scorers on your team in a given year. The method by which those scorers come to your team doesn’t particularly matter. Sure, it’s easier to get one if you are high in the draft during a heavy draft year, but if you win an FA sweepstakes for them, that works too. Look at the Stanley Cup winners for the last twenty years. How many of them had at least one player with a 90+ point season?

    • Nick says:

      Correct, but that’s my point… winning the Brad Richards Derby in Buffalo would work, but it’s almost the same odds as winning the Cup in a given year by sacrificing a first (unless Ted Black can make Buffalo the destination within four months, which I’m not sure even he’s counting on!)

  3. Greg says:

    Very compelling argument, I like your articles they are well thought out and supported by facts.

    I honestly don’t think we are that far from cup contention. Brad RIchards. A 3mil-4mil 20goal scorer and a Solid D-Man, and someone like KAssian or Ennis having a year to end years and I think we’re in it. Everything but the last can be achieved through free agency.

    But having our recent draft picks hit would be a major help.

  4. Kris says:

    So, since we never pick in the top 10 our #1 picks are marginally valuable at best, right? Two words. Stephen Stamkos. He costs 4 #1s and a bunch of Terry’s cash. He’s super young, super talented and a I doubt that Tampa will have 2 10 million dollar hockey players on their team (LeCavalier). They were already in that kind of jail with Vinny, Richards and St. Louis and they couldn’t make it work. Either Vinny will be available or Stamkos can be had if we’re willing to pony up.

  5. Brian The Intern says:

    To play devil’s advocate on Matthew’s point, the Sabres were 2 games away from winning the Cup in 1999, when there leading scorer was Miro Satan with 66 points, followed by Michael Peca with 56. Granted, they had that guy named Hasek in net and it was a different game then. But 66 is a far cry from 100. That being said, Nick makes a solid point and I agree with him.

  6. Jeff Kuhn says:

    Nick,

    Outstanding piece, as usual. I’ve often said that it would be better for the Sabres to tank a few seasons to get real stud draft picks, but Lindy is good enough to keep them out of the top 10 draft picks. It’s a real quandary; to suck and get great picks and empty seats for a few years, or build a team through free agency and hope lower picks pan out?

  7. Lotofsnow says:

    If there is a chance that Drew Stafford can help the Sabres pluck Parise from NJ, Buffalonians better start being super nice to Drew Stafford.

  8. It’s not Lindy that keeps the Sabres eternally in the middle of the standings, it’s Regier’s plan. Keep building through the draft with middle picks, have multiple lines of slightly above average players and you’ll continually be the middle, making the playoffs most years.

    I strongly disagree with this plan. But, my solution is the opposite of everyone in Buffalo that demands TRADES!! FREE AGENTS!! ELITE PLAYERS ARE DYING TO COME TO BUFFALO!! No, they’re not.

    The only way you’re going to get and keep elite talent in their prime in Buffalo, in all sports, is through the draft. Unfortunately, all our sports teams insist on being painfully mediocre since 2000. Oh, well.