Synergy From Youth?
Could the Blue Jackets find the long term path to success by relying on their youth? It's worked before. Read on.
It's difficult to appreciate the sylvan beauty of a prosaic forest when you keep slamming face-first into the individual trees. Such is the fate of the Blue Jackets this year. Eight losses to start the year, new coach, injuries, leadership concerns, the list goes on. The good news is that the entire ordeal has promoted spirited and passionate debate here at The Cannon and elsewhere. Passion is good, as it reflects a healthy fan base. The bad news is that such exercises quickly devolve into a cascading process of "awfulization" , where every actual or perceived transgression over time is dissected and magnified. At some point, you are left bouncing off of one tree after another, unsure whether those trees represent problems or solutions. You might find your way out of the forest, but not without a helluva headache.
Time out. Let's all back away from the trees and survey the forest, The micro-world will always be there to scrutinize, but you cannot see the path if your nose is pressed against the trunk of the tree. So, this discussion is more conceptual -- focused on the larger themes that bear on success. A few numbers to be sure, but not many. There are virtually and infinite number of ways to exit the forest, so we'll examine simply one possible approach to finding some of those paths.
At a high level, what is it that separates the truly successful NHL hockey club from the others -- whether looking at a sustained period of dominance or a single sprint to a title? Talent? Not hardly. Sure, every club needs a modicum of talent to succeed, but the existence of that talent, by itself, is not the distinguishing factor. Edmonton has had the corner on #1 overall draft picks for what seems like years, and has parlayed that advantage into precisely nothing. Pittsburgh layers on marquee names in the same way Dolly Parton applies make-up. Sure, they won a single Cup, but have also created a morass of ego and salary cap hell that may take years to unwind. No, talent can under-perform, and to paraphrase the late Herb Brooks, it is not about the best players, but the right players.
Money? While some view this as a proxy for talent, it really isn't. In the NBA -- where it is actually possible to buy a championship, the New York Knicks have long been the basketball league's version of the Department of Defense -- spending huge dollars for hammers when everyone else is purchasing nail guns. Sure, the salary cap world demands nimble cap management, but that in itself is not the difference maker.
No, from where I sit, the difference between teams that are able to grab the brass ring -- even briefly -- is one of synergy. If you Google that term, you'll likely come up with something like the following:
. . .the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual contributions.
The concept embraces more than chemistry, which is more a matter of that intangible relationship between players that enable them to play well together. It is the ability of the disparate parts of the organism to work together harmoniously and seamlessly. if you play golf, you may have experienced one or more brief interludes of synergy -- when the drives found the fairway, the irons found the green and the putts found the hole. Absolutely blissful when they occur, these synergistic moments are hard to grab, and harder to retain. Applied to the hockey universe, it's when the offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and personnel management all work as a single organism, leading inexorably to the desired goal. The 1980 Olympic hockey team found synergy, but it was a battle getting there, and it needed to last only a fortnight. How can that translate to the NHL experience?
Consider an NHL club that has a single playoff appearance in a decade, draws more fans than only one other club, and has a roster providing scant hope of an imminent resurgence. No, not the Blue Jackets. I'm talking about the Chicago Blackhawks. In 1996-97, Chicago made the playoffs with a club that featured only three players under 30 years of age in its top ten points producers (including a 25-year-old Jeremy Roenick). Little did they know that they would see the playoffs only once in the ensuing decade, and that the Blackhawks' attendance, which led the NHL in 1995-96, would plummet to 29th in the league by 2006-07, putting only 12,727 in the stands, on average. (For perspective, the fledgling Blue Jackets outdrew the Hawks from their debut in 2000-01 through 2006-07, and equaled or bettered them in points in three of these years.)
Why the history lesson? Two reasons. First, the Blackhawks were able to take that prolonged adversity and turn it to domination in a relatively short period of time, demonstrating the ability to both acquire and maintain that elusive synergy in the process. Next -- and perhaps more relevant to the Blue Jackets' current situation, is the way they have done it. Let's take a look.
By their nadir season of 2006-07, the Blackhawks had already begun a significant youth movement. Their top ten point producers that year featured only two of the Over-30 set, and included a 23 year-old Duncan Keith and 21 year-old Brent Seabrook. Not that these guys were blowing the doors off the car, mind you. Keith had 31 points and Seabrook 24 that year on a squad that featured one 50+ point guy -- 25-year old Martin Havlat. For comparison, the Blackhawks had seven guys score 50+ points in 1995-96. Jonathan Toews had been their first pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, but spent this year finishing his career at North Dakota.
The next year, Mr. Toews arrived, and was joined by the Hawks 2007 top pick -- Patrick Kane. Though the Blackhawks did not make the playoffs, the transition fuse had been ignited. The youngsters were given the keys to the car, and drove it for all it was worth. Toews & Kane averaged over 18 minutes of ice time for their inaugural season, and 22 year-old Dustin Byfuglien had over 17 average TOI minutes. Patrick Sharp and Martin Havlat, both 26, also drew big minutes on the front end, while Seabrook and Keith anchored the defense. Though Corey Crawford had been drafted in 2003, he would not assume control of the blue ice until the 2010-11 season. Though there were plenty of mistakes made, Kane & Toews posted 126 points between them that year, while Keith and Seabrook combined for 64 points.
Apparently recognizing that their future lie with the youngsters, and the ability to extract as much value from them as possible, the Blackhawks brought in Joel Quenneville to replace Denis Savard for the 2008-2009 season, signed Brian Campbell as a free agent, and rode that combination to the Western Conference finals. They also resumed their top spot in the NHL for attendance, and have not relinquished that spot since.
The following year, Stan Bowman replaced Dale Tallon as General Manager, Marian Hossa signed a free-agent deal, and the Blackhawks hoisted their first Stanley Cup since 1961, with two of their top ten producers (Campbell and Hossa) sitting precisely at age 30. The rest, of course, is history. Those kids with the car keys still were in the driver's seat, but were just several years older, and had three Stanley Cups in the back seat.
The point here is that the Blackhawks created a young core, committed to it from the outset, and have architected the rest of the franchise around that core. The draft has provided most of the firepower, supplying Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook, as well as guys like Bryan Bickell, Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland and Nicklas Hjalmarsson. Trades brought the likes of Havlat, Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg to the table . . . and then moved most of them elsewhere for other assets. Free agency was used sparingly -- with Hossa the prize catch. While Campbell had a couple of productive years, his contract was more of an albatross than an asset for the club.
The synergy that the Blackhawks have demonstrated is undeniably impressive. Joel Quenneville provided both the toughness and teaching ability required to mold and tame a squad of very young talent. He was also able to urge some key contributions from less naturally-gifted players. That skill has proven essential, as Bowman's salary cap structure -- by necessity -- is more reminiscent of Moses parting the Red Sea than anything else. There is a sparse middle class in Chicago, as the top seven (Toews, Kane, Crawford, Seabrook, Keith, Anisimov and Hjalmarsson) account for just under 65% of the club's entire cap space. It's not shocking, then, that twelve of the 23 roster slots carry a cap hit of under $1 million. Bowman's art is the ability to continually juggle the cap, frequently surrendering promising talent to the rest of the league in exchange for more prospective assets. Columbus has that process to thank for Brandon Saad, Michael Paliotta and Alex Broadhurst. With his core now largely 27 and older, the day of reckoning may be coming for , but one suspects that Bowman has more tricks up his sleeve.
The Chicago synergy has been established without benefit of truly remarkable moves. Sure, Toews and Kane are great talents, consistent point producers and great leaders. But both Edmonton and Pittsburgh have had equal or better luck in the draft, and have nowhere near the results. While Toews & Kane were great choices, Chicago also took Jack Skille and Mike Blunden with their top two picks in the deep 2005 draft. Of more recent drafts, only Marcus Kruger (2009 5th Round ) Andrew Shaw (2011 5th Round) and Teuvo Teravainen( 2012 Round 1) are currently receiving much ice time for the big club. That's what happens when you establish a young core, stick with them, and pay them what is necessary to keep them happy. Not much room at the inn.
So, given all of this, what does this have to do with the Blue Jackets? Simply this. You don't have to squint to see that there are a lot of parallels to the circumstances the two franchises have faced. Columbus has had a series of solid drafts, and some related deals, which have stocked the organization with the deepest reservoir of young talent in the franchise's still-young history. They have a coach in John Tortorella who has the toughness to insure that the players play "the right way", while simultaneously being both willing and able to be the teacher that a young squad demands.
As I've written before, the Blue Jackets have long been plagued with the right coach at the wrong time. Dave King was a great teacher, but a new franchise has mostly discarded veterans not necessarily receptive to change. Ken Hitchcock is a Hall of Fame coach who -- at the time -- loathed coaching youngsters, and was presented with the youngest team in the league. Todd Richards preached grit in an age of speed. Scott Arniel and Doug MacLean . . . well, I'll refrain from piling on here. This is not to say that John Tortorella is the panacea for all that ails the Blue Jackets. But we're talking about synergy here, and he brings many of the needed attributes to the table.
Through injury and other circumstance, we have seen a number of the youngsters get lots of ice time of late. Brandon Saad and William Karlsson are just 23, Boone Jenner and Markus Hannakainen only 22. Kerby Rychel, Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg are just 21, and Sonny Milano (19) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (20) are in the wings. That's just the forwards. On the blue line, Ryan Murray (22) and Seth Jones (21) could be joined by Paliotta (21).
So what if you converted circumstance to intent, and gave the keys to the car to this group? You still have plenty of "elderly" guys like Nick Foligno (28), Brandon Dubinsky (29), Jack Johnson (29), Cam Atkinson (26), and Matt Calvert (26) to provide stability. If you trade or buy-out Fedor Tyutin, and trade Scott Hartnell, you create ample cap room to bring another established presence into the fold, as the Blackhawks did with Hossa.
The advantages of such an approach are obvious. First, you get an overall more teachable group, less scarred by the sins of the past, and less entrenched in what may be some bad habits. Second, you don't have to speculate about whether they are "ready" or not, and have to bet contract money based solely upon performance at the AHL level. If the majority of the guys succeed, you have a core that will take you for years to come. You'll also identify those that can't succeed earlier, before they start costing you a lot of money. You don't get drafted in the top couple of rounds of an NHL draft without having a lot of ability. Might as well make them show it.
Are there downside risks? Sure. You'll see some really scary stuff every now and then. Kane was (and many argue still is) a loose cannon, relying on talent to compensate for some otherwise bonehead plays. Picture Sonny Milano in the same type of role. You have to be a bit lucky, hoping that your core stays healthy, and that you can continue the process of rewarding the core, while bringing in stable new blood that can periodically over-perform. If your youngsters are not as advertised in large numbers, results will suffer. However, truth be told, any personnel management strategy incorporates many of those same elements, and I'd rather identify the problems sooner than later.
Of course, if you succeed, you'll have to pay some guys big money and let others go, and your GM strategy changes accordingly. However, if that is the price for consistent success and the realistic potential for a Stanley Cup banner . . . or three . . . hanging in the rafters at Nationwide Arena, I think it's a safe bet that virtually every fan would line up to pay that price right now.
Now, before the torches and pitchforks start to come out, I'm not saying that the Blue Jackets will become the Blackhawks and have multiple Stanley Cup titles in short order. Nor am I equating the qualities of individual players. Instead, I'm simply advocating for an approach that I believe provides the opportunity to achieve the type of synergy that is emblematic of success. Lots of teams spend years tinkering with this element or that in an effort to find that perfect mix, but to no avail. It's a devilishly difficult process, and a potentially very expensive one, as you always have a moving target. If you with the youngsters, your investment at risk is lower, your time horizon for success longer, and the potential return more significant.
Let the debate begin. Stay tuned.