So far in “How to build a winning hockey team in the modern NHL” we have taken a look at teams who have failed to properly rebuild themselves and ended up with a mess that will be difficult to fix in the long run. We have also taken a look at different teams who have won championships recently, providing some insight into how those teams are put together. Now that we have put all of this together it is time for a conclusion. However, before I take all that has been written in this series and apply it to the Montreal Canadiens and what they can do to turn themselves into a championship team it’s time we get some other opinions. I asked some of our writers to offer up their opinions on the keys to building a championship team in the NHL. Below you can read their responses and check out the bottom of the page for the links to the rest of the series.
Brian La Rose
In the salary cap age the draft has become the best way to rebuild and sustain a team. Having a player through their, to borrow a common baseball term, ‘controllable years’ has become paramount. A team with a good feeder system of upcoming talent can use those players to complement their higher paid talent while still having a deep enough team to succeed over the long haul. The New York Rangers are putting this theory to practice; they have four forwards making over $4 million…but they also have just four forwards making over $1.8 million. The rest of the skaters up front, full of role players and youngsters on cheap contracts, supplement the top guns giving them a promising group of forwards. A team that drafts well can have a system like that work for them for several years.
However, it’s naive to believe that a team can survive on the draft alone, no team gets all of their selections right. This is where having a GM capable of finding the right pieces via the trade route is also of some importance. Rarely can you get a franchise-defining player going this way, but top six forwards or top four defencemen, players that can take a team over the top, can be had. I’m not a fan of going through free agency as in recent years, the market has become too dry and contracts for the rare impact player that becomes available can quickly become cumbersome. A shrewd GM can find the odd player that slips through the cracks closer to training camp that can be a good complementary piece but beyond that, the inflation of salaries exceeds the value of not having to part with other assets via the trade route.
Fans often will promote the fact that their team has one of the best GM’s in the league. Although that’s not a bad thing, I think that the head scout is becoming as important. A team with a top scout gives his GM more quality pieces to work with, and when it comes to quality, the more the merrier. Hab fans, be thankful Trevor Timmins is running the show at the draft; his presence will be instrumental in righting the ship for the Habs.
From what we’ve seen in the past seven post-lockout NHL seasons, not a single team has figured out the formula for successfully winning the Stanley Cup more than once. Outside of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, no other team has appeared in multiple Cup Finals over that time span. Some trends have emerged but they seem to point to one-time success.
In my humble opinion, timing is the key to success in this modern NHL era. This isn’t something you can go and acquire in free agency or via trade. You can’t teach it, coach it, enforce it or whatever. It just happens and when it does, that team becomes a perennial threat throughout the post season.
Now, I’m not attributing winning a Stanley Cup only to blind luck. There are other factors that play into it. Having the proper pieces in place is a major part of when a team clicks on all levels and that starts from the back-end out.
The goaltender needs to be capable of elevating their game to an elite level and bail the team out when needed. Look to Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood and Antti Niemi, who I would not class in any elite category of goaltending in the NHL. But, they stood on their heads when needed most, Fleury the most of the three on the back of that Stanley Cup winning save on Nick Lidstrom in the dying seconds of Game 7. Other goaltenders flat out stole the Cup for their teams, most recently Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick. A team could sneak through a few rounds with average goaltending but the ones who turn it on when the playoffs begin give their team the ability to win. If a team doesn’t trust their goaltender can always bail them out, they will not win a cup.
Another component is roster depth. You can have the most brilliant team for 82 games and a few rounds in the playoffs but wear and tear on all players is guaranteed, as is some form of injury. Timing plays a part in this and the teams that are less banged up heading into crucial games have a distinct advantage. The Vancouver Canucks were decimated by the end of the Finals two years ago and they actually had reasonable roster depth. The timing of their injuries was unfortunate and unlucky but that’s part of winning a cup.
Finally, coaching is a very important piece of the success pie. Coaches spend an entire season trying to hammer in a specific strategy and it still falls on deaf ears for some players, which in turn damages the team’s ability to play as a cohesive unit. Some teams are able to instill a strategy and stick to it early during the season, others hit their stride late in the season, which can be lethal. Again, timing is very much a part of it. There are a lot of million dollar egos to manage and to get them all on the same page at any point during the season or playoffs is difficult. When the coach gets all his players to buy into his strategy, that is a difficult team to beat.
I’m not under any illusion that this is the surefire way to absolute victory but I do believe these fundamental points are imperative to achieving the ultimate goal in NHL hockey. When reviewing these points and looking at the losers of the past seven Stanley Cup Finals, you can see that the runners-up were missing one of these points. The timing issue is a wildcard but that’s life, you’re either lucky enough to benefit from it or unlucky enough to suffer from it.