The Big Picture

Posted by The Coach on February 26, 2014
Columbus Blue Jackets

The big picture is considerably more ambiguous than the small picture. It’s easy to look at my post from last week and agree or disagree with my thoughts. In fact, many did in various forms and places. But almost ever single one of those disagreements was focused too intently on the specific player I referenced, or the exact dollar figures for a free agent, etc., etc. The fact is, the small picture was almost totally through the filter of my ideas of the big picture. That sounds strange and confusing, so here is a more specific example:

Derek MacKenzie. He seemed to be the most divisive player in the reaction. I don’t underrate Derek MacKenzie. In fact, a major reason why I suggested they move on from DMac was because I rate him quite highly. I think he’s a player that will fetch decent money on the open market. A (close to) double digit goal scorer that kills penalties, works his ass off, and is a great guy? Every team in the league can use that. He’s also about to turn 33 years old this summer. His interest in signing a one year deal is probably low. If I’m him, I’m aiming for a three year deal, fully one-way, initially asking for something close to $2m. Does he get that? Probably not, but the cap is going up this summer and it only takes one desperate team.

How does this reflect the big picture though? Derek MacKenzie is a fourth liner. He’s a solid fourth liner, but he’s not the anchor of a good fourth line. Put two solid NHLers out there with him, and he performs admirably. Put him out there between Jared Boll and Colton Gillies and you have the worst line I’ve ever seen get regular shifts in the NHL. If he’s more than a team’s 12th best forward, that team needs to get better bottom six forwards. So what is the value of a 12th forward? Next to nothing, completely replaceable. He brings some value on the penalty kill, but the Jackets happen to have available in house replacements that would not be a large drop off.

So there it is. My analysis of Derek MacKenzie’s future has very little to do with Derek MacKenzie, but more to do with how many resources should be devoted to a teams 13th forward based on time on ice.

Let’s pull back even further for the REALLY big picture. Who do the Columbus Blue Jackets want to be? There are two franchises that I would be looking to, and both bear striking similarities in a number of ways. First, let’s travel back in time to the era of The Dead Wings.

Between 1967 and 1983, Detroit only made the playoffs twice, only winning one playoff series. This sounds slightly more impressive than Columbus’ current run of one playoff series in thirteen years. But remember, from 1967 to 1983 the NHL only had twelve, eighteen or twenty-one teams. Columbus joined a 30 team league. The odds are a little tougher. Furthermore, the team up north was a complete mess. That stretch saw the Wings have thirteen different head coaches. None lasted more than three seasons until the illustrious Nick Polano (career winning percentage of .400).

So what happened after that? They drafted Steve Yzerman, a franchise player and immediately turned it around. No, wait that didn’t happen at all. They were bad enough to pick first overall just three years after picking up Yzerman. Now I’m not saying Ryan Johansen is Steve Yzerman, and I hope to God that Ryan Murray isn’t a defenseman Joe Murphy. I’m just saying it takes more than just one really good player to turn things around.

So we’ve covered going from being a laughingstock to being respectable. It takes a slow, patient build. Remember, it took fourteen years for the Red Wings to go from drafting Steve Yzerman to winning the Stanley Cup. Fourteen years. They spent the first few years fighting for respectability (one second round appearance in Yzerman’s first eight seasons). But after that? They were a perennial Stanley Cup contender for the last twenty years. That’s unprecedented in the modern era, rivaled maybe only by the next team I see as a model.

That team is the St. Louis Blues. Yes, they have never won a Stanley Cup. But they have made 36 playoff appearances, including 25 consecutive years in the dance. Over their 44 year existence, they have only missed the playoffs eight times. That is a pretty fantastic run of sustained success. While it may not have led to many banners hanging in the rafters, it has led to St. Louis unquestionably becoming a “Hockey Town”. Remember, St. Louis is in Missouri. Not exactly a hockey hot bed. But you never hear St. Louis get lumped in with the Florida’s and Phoenix’s of the world, while Columbus still does.

This is how I would be looking to model the Blue Jackets. Looking at the history of these two teams, the most prominent common trait I see is patience. Detroit made a number of moves in the 80’s to try and put a team around Yzerman. None of them really worked, and it wasn’t until their drafted talent surfaced as fantastic NHLers that they really blossomed as an elite organization (more on that later). St. Louis has exhibited patience of a different kind. For the most part, they have not worried about a Stanley Cup “window” or making blockbuster short term moves (Gretzky trade excepted). They have built most of their success on homegrown talent, offer sheets (back when they were still actually used, here with Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens, Brendan Shanahan), and sneaky trades to grab a budding star before they really hit it big (see Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Chris Pronger). This is the ideal path in my mind. Not the specifics of it, but the long term route of constantly making the playoffs and never making major short term moves. Considering the relative parity of the NHL these days, an extended run of playoff appearances has a strong chance of producing a Cup championship, even if a team never “goes all in”.

Continuing to narrow down the big picture, is how these teams acquired talent. Detroit was built in a way that is not reproducible if followed exactly, but the principles of how they were built can be applied. The two major pieces to their success were the prospects they drafted and developed, primarily from Europe; and the big name veterans they acquired to fill in the holes. Europe is heavily scouted now, so the Lidstrom’s and Datsyuk’s and Zetterberg’s are drafted higher than they used to be. The salary cap means a team can’t just keep spending on star players.

However, there are still principles to be gleaned from this. The Red Wings didn’t just decide to draft a bunch of Swede’s and Russians. They saw some leagues that were being underscouted, scouted those leagues more than anyone else, and were rewarded with some gems. More generally, the Wings found market inefficiencies in the draft. Those specific inefficiencies no longer exist, but have been replaced by others. There is little value in late drafted, draft year CHL players, as anyone with significant upside has been taken by that point of the draft. The value of picks also has it’s own inefficiencies, as seventh rounders have nearly equal value to fourth round picks. Trading down from the middle rounds and piling up late round picks is a good way of increasing the chances of a lottery ticket hitting. I’m sure there are many more draft related inefficiencies out there, but I do not have the time or ability to discover all of them. A proactive NHL team should have these resources. Really studying draft picks, and locating those gaps in value can help stock a Red Wings style system without getting stuck to just picking Russians and Swedes. Although interestingly enough, I suspect Russians might be coming full circle, as KHL related issues may have started to over influence NHL teams by dropping Russian players later than they should.

The second lesson is in finding value in veterans. The Red Wings acquired many veteran players in the late 90’s and 2000’s to round out their rosters. These guys generally fit a certain mold: once star level players who had noticeably slipped in play, wanted to chase a Cup, and still wanted to get paid. How these players were acquired cannot be replicated due to the salary cap, but finding the right, useful players in free agency can be. The key? Patience. Don’t rush things. The guys picked up by the Red Wings were past their prime, and far less in demand than they once were. If they were still the players they were earlier, they wouldn’t have been available, and they would have received massive offers elsewhere. Take that lesson to free agency today. The value isn’t in grabbing a big name right away. It’s in waiting to see what players/agents priced themselves out of the big money. Go take a look at Cap Geek’s Bargain Hunter. Once you get past the guys on rookie contracts, you are pretty much only left with bargain players. Guys like Mike Santorelli, Nathan Gerbe, Mason Raymond, Brad Boyes, and others of their ilk. All four of those guys were UFA’s last summer. All four of them didn’t end up signing until after most teams had filled out their rosters, all four signed one year deals, and all four have outperformed their contracts. Those names may not match Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Mike Modano, and other big names grabbed late in their careers by the Wings, but the same lessons apply. There is value in free agency if you look in the right places.

Besides long term patience, St. Louis also provides the template on how to maintain success through not falling in love with your own players. Their history is rife with dealing players before they leave for nothing. Letting guys walk and not signing them because they “owe” them. It’s allowed the Blues to consistently get the most value out of their roster. But it’s not easy. It takes a lot of objectivity, something a lot of teams struggle with. Everyone loves the hard working fourth liner they have seen will themselves into the NHL. But every team has those guys, there are lots of them in the minors, and overpaying them can tie up valuable cap space and (more importantly) roster spots. It also requires teams to be realistic about re-signing their own players. When nearing the end of their tenures, the Blues have been fairly aggressive in dealing players they did not think they would be able to keep. While some of these (Keith Tkachuk) worked out better than others (Chris Pronger), the key thing is they rarely lost a valuable asset for nothing.

You may have noticed me using the word “value” extensively. That’s because  finding value is more important than ever. This isn’t the 90’s when you can throw good money after bad. There are limits imposed all over the place. The salary cap, number of players under contract, contract lengths, and shortened restricted free agency have all made getting the most value important. Value is where overpaying depth players comes in. There just is little value in paying significant money or term to guys who play depth roles, especially when better players can be found at the end of free agency for less money.

So that’s the big picture. The guiding principles I think should instruct the Blue Jackets moving forward. Namely, patience, objectivity, maintaining flexibility, avoiding “chasing” a Cup, valuing role over specific players, and finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. I hit some of those points harder than others, and some of those goals are moving targets. However, they are fairly straightforward principles the Blue Jackets have not stuck to in the past, while better organizations have followed them to long strings of playoff appearances.

In fact, the Blue Jackets have been guilty of going in the complete opposite of those goals. They have been remarkably impatient with their prospects. Locked in too many players to long term deals, hampering their flexibility. They have chased the playoffs whenever they even got a whiff of them; and locked in depth guys for too many years for too much money. The Jackets have never found a late round gem in the draft (Cam Atkinson possibly being the exception), while grabbing lots of replaceable depth guys from the CHL. Fortunately, the Jackets now look to more or less be on the right path. While I disagree with some of their recent signings (Jared Boll) and draft picks (Nick Moutrey), I’ve found myself nodding in agreement when moves are announced far more often than I used to. Considering the current CBJ brain trust consists of former St. Louis decision makers, let’s hope they’ve learned from their former employers history, as well as their long time division rival Red Wings, and apply the above principles to the Blue Jackets.


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5 Comments to The Big Picture

  • Good summation of the goals of any club wanting to be a model franchise. The least used of these by the former CBJ teams was patience. During both previous GM eras (Howson more so the DM), the train was on the right track and then success knocked it off. I contend that the two worst seasons for the franchise was the inaugural season and the playoff season. Both GMs started making moves-after an overachieving team was credited for being better then it was-trying to become a top level team before a strong foundation was created. This resulted in a poor performance in the following seasons and the firing of a head coach with solid credentials. If the organization showed more patience with the roster, we may not be discussing the playoff drought today.

  • “Every team in the league can use that.”

    Do we not qualify as every team? I argued and fought with people in 2009 who thought Malhotra was replaceable. Mackenzie is the heart and soul of that 4th. Yes, you are 100% is value is at an all time high and we could probably get a decent return with him. But, for a team on the cusp of the playoffs, this is exactly the type of player we need to have. There aren’t many 4th players I would take over him and I dont consider him anywhere near replaceable. Every team needs this type of player (Hi, Max Talbot in 2008 & 2009) so why would we want to get rid of something that everyone needs.

    • Use and need are two different things though, and that is where players like this end up getting overpaid or get too much term. I would love for them to keep him, if his salary and contract demands are low enough. But they won’t be, because he will definitely get offers that exceed the value of a 12th/13th forward. The reality is that the role Derek Mackenzie plays is not that important at even strength, and his penalty killing role can be filled internally. This is where objectivity comes into play. “Heart and soul” is thrown around a lot with guys like him. There was a time not that long ago that everyone seemed to feel the same way about Derek Dorsett. Your Malhotra and Talbot comparisons are also way off in terms of their on ice value. Those players averaged 14 and 12 minutes of even strength time on ice in their walk years, where MacKenzie plays only 9 minutes of ES. Basically, Malhotra was playing a 2nd line minutes, Talbot was playing 3rd line minutes, and MacKenzie is playing 4th line minutes. 4th line players are not worth the resources.

  • Point taken about ice time, but I still think his value 5 on 5 is extremely high. I just don’t like the idea of trading a commodity that we need because we don’t have anyone else like him on our roster or in our system. His energy and hustle are contagious and I feel he is way more valuable and versatile than given credit for. Authors note: I thought for some reason you were talking about moving him at the deadline, which is more to what I am arguing about keeping him. Free Agency, I could be persuaded and would have different feelings. But I want him for this year no moves at the deadline

    • Oh I agree, I would not move him at all during the season. My point is that I think his role can be filled in the offseason by someone who will cost less (in $ and term) than DMac.

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