NHL: Play for Pride, or Dive for the Draft?
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As the bottom seven of each conference starts rooting for out of market playoff teams, time ticks away on the regular season and fans have begun looking forward to what should be a busy offseason.
One such team is the Minnesota Wild; Players like 2010’s ninth overall pick Mikael Granlund, second-rounder Johan Larsson, and newly acquired Mikko Lehtohnen will compete for lineup spots in September.
The Wild finally have a semblance of a prospect cupboard thanks to new management and has provided a jumpstart for a patchwork project turned full rebuild. The importance of constantly stocking an organization full of talent through drafting and signing college free agents, with the end goal of landing a star is the nature of the new NHL.
Consistently successful teams find a way to retain talent, regardless of draft position, just look at Detroit, San Jose, etc. Teams that tank repeatedly and rebuild, a la Chicago, Washington and the Islanders provide mixed results.
Summer free agent pools are becoming shallower by the year, making it increasingly difficult to drastically alter a team, especially when others are locking up top scoring forwards 10 years at a time. Blockbuster trades are rare and will soon be a thing of the past.
Growing one’s own snipers, playmakers and defensive walls gives an organization prestige, a steady stream of talent, and most importantly, consistent success on the ice. Sort of give a man a fish, teach a man to fish. For those who haven’t mastered the art of successful drafting, or for those who regularly end up with mediocre picks for mediocre play, the situation takes on another dimension.
Enter teams like Minnesota, Columbus and St. Louis.
Year after year, they have a promising season and collapse, falling just outside the playoffs. If that wasn't disappointing enough, high draft picks are harder to come by, especially since the Eastern Conference is less demanding in the point department. Western teams pushed outside the bubble can still end up with lower single-digit picks, but oftentimes immediate impact players are out of reach.
The GMs of these types of teams must be fighting constantly with themselves. At the helm of a doomed season, it would be just too tempting to tank, especially knowing that two or three more losses could get you a player with immediate impact, some sort of promise to show to the fans with no patience for five year plans.
However, in a fragile hockey market (South) or in a market that demands immediate success (Minnesota, Canada) taking a platform and explaining to casual and demanding fans it’s in their best interest for the team to lose is not an option. Furthermore, it would completely destroy the morale of the current locker room.
Then again, history shows that flopping for first isn’t always the best course of action. As long as there are drafts, there will be busts and bad scouts. Teams with perennial mid-range picks must adapt and stock their prospect shelves by any means necessary.
As always the pride of the fans and athletes wins out, both are there to win and for a GM who wants to do so more often, the job becomes more challenging. A few losses could mean the difference between a Jeff Skinner and a European prospect.
But hey, now that it’s April, you’ve got some extra time for research…again.
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