Five things: What you need to compete

1. Let’s talk about it

Last week I inadvertently set off yet another fire storm by having the audacity to suggest the Flames’ winning ways weren’t well-founded in “The Process” that successful teams actually have when it comes to winning over 82 games or more. I seem to recall that a lot of people suggested the Flames are closer than I think to being a competitive team in the NHL.

I wonder two things about this:

a) How one defines “competitive.” 

(Because to me merely getting into a playoff for which eight of 14 teams in a conference end up qualifying doesn’t really do much to make you actually competitive. Your mileage may vary on that, I guess, but if I’m a fan of any team I’d rather see them finish 30th than 16th or whatever. If you’re not competing for a Cup, you’re not competing for anything worthwhile. Lots of teams make the playoffs and lose in the first round. They’re called “The Calgary Flames 2005 to 2009.”)

b) What makes people think that’s the case.

That second one is what’s of greater interest to me, but I think it’s pretty apparent that the Flames are miles away from having what it takes to be true Cup contenders. The needs they have supersede the few admittedly very good building blocks already under contract.

They say — over and over again — that the NHL is a copycat league. What people generally mean when they say that, though, is that teams copy each other’s styles. Bruins win the Cup, everyone tries to get tough. Kings win the Cup, everyone tries to get big. And so on. It never really works out for teams that push all in on any one strategy in that regard, but that doesn’t stop anyone.

But it is a copycat league insofar as the recipe that teams in the salary cap era have used to win the Cup really doesn’t change very much year-to-year. I’ve long had my own theories about what makes a team a reasonable bet to win the Cup every year, and I think they hold a lot of water. Not that they’re groundbreaking or anything, but go back and look at any legit Cup contender of the last decade or so and you see the same characteristics over and over.

And while slight shortfalls in one area can be more than made up by excesses in the others — and you’ll see what I mean in a minute — the last four or five years have really settled into a nice rhythm in this regard. (It also goes without saying that you need a good coach and good supporting cast and blah blah blah, but the farther down you get in the lineup, the less you need guys who are high-level at those positions. You don’t need The Best Fourth Liners In The NHL or anything.)

Here’s what you need…

2. Elite No. 1 center

It goes without saying that you need an elite center to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings and Blackhawks of the last five years have had Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews, respectively. The Bruins had Patrice Bergeron. The Penguins had Sidney Crosby. The Red Wings had Pavel Datsyuk, the Ducks had Andy MacDonald(???), the Hurricanes had Eric Staal.

At the time they hoisted those Cups, those guys were among the five or six best centers in the sport, with the obvious exception of MacDonald. But he was riding shotgun for a 94-point, 48-goal season from Teemu Selanne back in ’07 (meanwhile the team’s No. 2 center was some 21-year-old kid called Ryan Getzlaf, who put up 25 goals despite just 15 minutes of ice time a night, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Apart from MacDonald, who was still very good in his day, these are all guys who would be the No. 1 on just about any team in the league by a pretty wide margin.

And look at the centers the teams those Cup winners beat had. In reverse chronological order: Derek Stepan, Bergeron, Patrik Elias (maybe not an elite No. 1, but he was centering Ilya Kovalchuk), Henrik Sedin, Mike Richards, Datsyuk, Crosby, Jason Spezza, Jarret Stoll (okay, that was just a weird season).

The question of whether the Flames have such a player is an easy one to answer: They sure don’t. Not today, at any rate. Sean Monahan is the functional No. 1 right now, playing tough competition and all that, but he’s not exactly piling up a ton of points like most of these guys tend to do. And Mikael Backlund, while he continues to be a driver of possession, seems like he’s never going to be more than a 50-point guy. Not that this is a knock on him, but y’know. The point is he’s not ever going to be an elite scorer.

A best-case scenario is that in three or four years Monahan or Sam Bennett are able to provide that, but right now, not so much. And really, if you can get any kind of legitimate No. 1 center you should feel blessed, let alone an elite one. They’re so rare in this league.

The likelihood that any center, let alone the two real candidates the Flames have, develops to that level is extremely low, and they’re pretty much always acquired via an extremely high pick. Maybe you say Bennett has that ceiling, but I’m not so sure.

3. Elite second-line scoring that drives possession

It’s hard for teams to have two really strong centers, so if you can slot someone who’s a possession-driving scorer into just about any position on the second line, you’re going to do well for yourself there, too.

Again, go down the list: Pick one of Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik, or Justin Williams fit the bill for the most recent Kings run (god that team is great). Patrick Kane for the Blackhawks. Carter or Williams again. David Krejci and Milan Lucic for the Bruins. Kane again. Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Henrik Zetterberg or Johan Franzen in Detroit. Getzlaf or Corey Perry in Anaheim. Williams or Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina.

Runners-up? Same story: Rick Nash, Krejci/Lucic, Zach Parise, Ryan Kesler, Carter (in Philly), Zetterberg/Franzen, Malkin, Mike Fisher, Ryan Smyth.

As for the Flames, they’re also deficient here. Again, they might be able to develop it, and obviously you’d put the chances of a Monahan/Bennett/Backlund working out to be this kind of player a lot higher than you would for any of them becoming an elite center.

But the fact is that if you project them to top out at this level, having three of them doesn’t help very much. Many teams have more than one second-line center (St. Louis, for instance), but they don’t break through to that next strata of true Cup contenders.

4. A great No. 1 defenseman

This is where you start to see a little bit of wiggle room here, and I think a lot of it is due to so few guys being head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack of regular old “Really Good No. 1 defensemen.”

The Kings have Drew Doughty, the Blackhawks Duncan Keith, the Bruins Zdeno Chara. That covers the last five Cup winners and it’s pretty straightforward. The Penguins’ best defenseman was Sergei Gonchar back when he was still a very strong contributor. Back to reality, the Red Wings had Nicklas Lidstrom, obviously. The Ducks had both Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, which doesn’t seem fair. The Hurricanes had … Bret Hedican? (Again, that first post-lockout year was so weird.)

The runners-up had Ryan McDonagh, Chara, Marek Zidlicky(?), Alex Edler/Christian Ehrhoff, Pronger, Lidstrom, Gonchar, Wade Redden, and Pronger again.

These are mostly defensemen you’d murder your own grandmother to have on your favorite team. It’s really that simple. (Aside: Chris Pronger went to three Stanley Cup Finals with three different teams in five years. We don’t talk about this enough. What a difference-maker. Amazing.)

The good news is the Flames have this in spades, with TJ Brodie and Mark Giordano both currently playing at this level, though one has to wonder how much longer Giordano can play at this level, given that he’s already 31. Still, young Brodie will probably be able to play high-level defense for close to a decade, so it probably doesn’t matter for the Flames even if you don’t think they can be Cup-competitive within the next three years or so (which they cannot)

5. Competent goaltending

It is super-interesting to me that you very rarely see teams win Stanley Cups with actual elite goalies. Obviously, they give you a better chance to go far, but they’re not quite a necessity. They basically need to be only a little above-average, whether it’s just for a few rounds of the playoffs or throughout their careers.

To wit: Jonathan Quick turns into a monster in the playoffs but isn’t great. Same for both Cory Crawford and Antti Niemi. Tim Thomas bucks that trend. Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Osgood not so much. JS Giguere and Cam Ward were both very good at the time but never, like, Vezina candidates.

The guys that lost the Cup Finals these last nine seasons were in the same boat: Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies of all time, and Tuukka Rask is certainly headed on that path as well. But an ancient Marty Brodeur isn’t. Roberto Luongo is very good-to-great, but with the rest it drops off a cliff: Michael Leighton, Osgood, Fleury, Ray Emery, Dwayne Roloson.

The good news for the Flames is that it’s really easy to find affordable, league-average goaltending that you can then hope “Gets Hot At The Right Time.” They have that kind of thing now with Jonas Hiller, but I’m not sure he sticks around longer than this one contract of his. The Flames won’t be competitive by then anyway.

So yes, the Flames have some of the building blocks in place to get this kind of thing going. They’re missing the most important one, though. Or at least, the one that’s hardest to find. 

Which is why I’ve always thought tanking was so important. “Look at the Oilers! They’re terrible!” is true, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins isn’t a true No. 1 yet (I still think he gets there soonish), and they have neither competent goaltending or a great defenseman. Years of mismanagement will do that. I might have taken Ryan Murray over Nail Yakupov, for instance. 

But you see my point. I hope.

  • icedawg_42

    Good lord this league would suck if all but the top 5 teams were fighting for the first overall pick. 25 Edmontons – sheesh, I’d rather watch my beer league team play. I get what you’re saying, but there’s still a lot to be said for breeding a culture where losing is unacceptable. You can’t do both at the same time. But if you’re saying a team HAS to draft first overall, and get a generational center to win a Stanley cup – then none of us will likely see a cup in Calgary in our lifetime.

  • Parallex

    Winning a Stanley Cup is one of the toughest Championships to win in pro sports.

    Even if the Flames drafted McDavid, acquired Weber through trade, and were moved to the Central Division.. they still wouldn’t be guaranteed a Stanley Cup.

    Don’t get me wrong, if all those things came together, well, drafting McDavid anyway… who wouldn’t be thrilled?? But even then it would be ridiculous to start planning a parade.

    Just ask the Oilers.

    Now here’s a question.. how many teams with Generational talent have not won a Stanley Cup? Vancouver comes to mind, a couple times.

  • Lordmork

    I think a lot of people feel like the Flames either have everything you’ve mentioned, or have it in the pipeline, and that development, not drafting, should be the key goal of this season.

    I also think a lot of people take issue with the idea that a team should finish 30th instead of finishing 16th. From an asset-acquisition viewpoint, that makes sense, but as interesting as I find drafting and watching prospects grow, I’m not sure that people watch hockey for those reasons.

  • piscera.infada

    I completely get what you’re saying here, and I agree for the most part. You’re discussion of “elite number 1 centre” is valid, but is no indication that a team must tank (remember, tanking is actively trying to lose, in order to get a better draft pick). You list as your “elite number one centre” from the recent cup winners (and current contenders) as Kopitar (drafted 11th overall), Bergeron (drafted 45th overall), Toews (drafted 3rd overall), Datsyuk (drafted 171st overall), and Crosby (drafted 1st overall).

    Of the aforementioned five “elite centres” only two were drafted in the top-3. Moreover, your discussion of drafting Murray over Yakupov, while reasonable enough based on what should have happened, belies the fact that it didn’t precisely because Edmonton had the first-overall pick, and thus chose the number-one ranked prospect – in other words, the player they were supposed to draft.

    This is where the entire argument that “you need to finish last to have an effective rebuild” loses a lot of people, and draws a great deal of ire (although, I agree that’s likely not fair). You have listed examples that in and of themselves don’t prove the point. Yes, I think everyone will agree you need an “elite number one centre”, but it’s fairly obvious you don’t need to pick first to accomplish that. Moreover, how many of the “elite number one centres” drafted in the past decade in the top-three picks have won a cup?

    Tavares? No. Glachenyuk? Is he even an elite first line centre? Nuge? Ha! Seguin? Yes, but he wasn’t an “elite first line centre” at that time. Duchene? No. Stamkos? No. Kyle Turris? No. Jordan Staal? Yes, but again, I wouldn’t call him an “elite first line centre”, nor was he on that team. Malkin? Yes, would he without Crosby though? Eric Staal? Yes – great player, but again Carolina’s run was flukey (as you state), and he wasn’t the first line centre – what has the team done since?

    • icedawg_42

      Right, and Gio was undrafted and Brodie was 114th overall.

      Chara, 56th overall, Duncan Keith 54th overall in their respective draft years.

      Tanking shouldn’t be a prerequisite to building a winner. I suppose it doesn’t hurt, but I wouldn’t be interested in watching Buffalo at all if I were a fan of that team.

    • I think what people overlook when they say “You don’t get good by drafting first overall!” is that it’s actually about maximizing your chances to get a difference-maker. Players picked higher in the draft generally have a better chance of becoming big-time difference-makers in the league than those drafted lower.

      It’s a pretty simple concept but people don’t seem to understand that. First-overall picks have an “x” percent chance of becoming elite at their position, whereas second-overall picks have a “y” percent chance that’s lower. That’s generally how these things work, so hoping you hit the lottery on a Datsyuk in the seventh round or whatever is foolish. Hell, hoping you hit the lottery on a No. 11 pick is a huge ask.

      Frankly, if you’re not in the top five in the league you shouldn’t be trying to compete with those big teams, because you can’t. Stratification is very real in this league, and only obscured by all the extra points handed out for shootout results.

      Almost any team, not just the Flames, is better off tanking rather than hoping they get mega-lucky in the playoffs and go to a Cup Final/win it. Look what it does to teams when they get close even though they mathematically shouldn’t have; the Flames chased that feeling down a rabbit hole and they’re really only now just realizing they need to try to work their way out of it a decade later.

      The key, as Jay Feaster always said, is “intellectual honesty.” I usually don’t see a lot of that in this comment section.

      • Reidja

        Yikes. If you are going to convince Flames fans that you have the answer that will build a cup winner, your solution better be more carefully considered than “tank mode”. Sounds good for your NHL15 GM Mode team where you can sim a season but not so much when I have spent good money to watching that team. Tanking on purpose was never going to happen. To me it is disgraceful and self destructive, no matter what prize lay at the end. Should my Calgary Flames choose to lose on purpose, I would be standing outside the ‘Dome with a pitchfork.

        Lambert, to insult your readers rather than consider their (very thoughtful)comments is a little tragic. In life, we all make the choice to keep an open mind or close up and defend our ground. I’m going to speculate that the most successful people are able to do the former. This was actually Feaster’s meaning when espoused “intellectual honesty”.

      • icedawg_42

        Seriously dude?!? That would be an entirely idiotic way to run a league….Hey not top five everybody try to lose as hard as you can. Think before you type.

        Yes good players are usually at the top of the draft. Even sucking really hard doesn’t mean you’ll get those players. It is pretty damn tough to be the absolute worst in the league then you could lose the draft lottery and totally miss out on one of the best of the best. Sucking on purpose is stupid and should never be done by anyone unless you want your franchise to move.

      • piscera.infada

        I very much understand the percentages involved, and the logic is reasonable in the narrowest sense. It sounds like your standard slippery-slope argument though. Do you thusly advocate that every team that isn’t Chicago or Los Angeles–or to a lesser extent St. Louis and Pittsburgh–“try to maximize their chances at drafting an elite player”?

        That seems like a fairly piss-poor way to run a professional sports league. I mean, would anyone actually watch a sport where 85% of teams are actually trying to lose more then everyone else?

        Surely this isn’t what your argument is. I’m not sure I understand where the cut-off is though. I mean, if you have an outside shot at winning a Stanley Cup (for example, a San Jose, where if they sweep LA last year [which was entirely possible], who knows what happens), but aren’t a true contender, are you just saying “screw it”?

        Moreover, I’m not sure how realistically achievable what you’re contending is. I very much understand the sentiment when you’re a team (like Calgary) in the midst of a rebuild. How does management reconcile that though, when the team isn’t allowing it happen? It really doesn’t matter whether the team is playing unsustainable hockey (which I will agree the Flames are). They are still not allowing “the tank” to occur at this time. So what do you do? If your goal is truly to “tank” then you just sit back and hope those numbers correct themselves over time.

        Lamenting the fact that there’s some sort of sinister plot by Flames management to draft a worse player, is ludicrous though. If the team plays lucky, what can really be done about that? I mean if we got to the final game in the season (say it was against Buffalo), and both of those teams were tied for last. What would that game look like? Would one player just hold on to the puck for 20 minutes at a time? What would you tell your players before that game? “You better not do anything“. That sounds awesome… I want to purchase a ticket to that!

      • Kevin R

        Are you just insane????? If every team who felt that they were not good enough to win a cup structured their team to tank & make the 1st overall pick their Stanley Cup, what a joke of a league the NHL would be. Who would want to own an NHL team, who would pay $$$ to go see the games. What a stupid argument you just posted here, it’s ridiculous & doesn’t even make sense in the real world. Get out of the science fiction & get to reality. This is a multi billion dollar industry & it didn’t get there because 50% of the teams structured their roster to get the first over all pick the next year. I would rather see the draft based not on standings but rotate all 30 spots each year so that everyone gets a #1 overall, a#2 & so on over a 30 year cycle. At least we wouldn’t have to pay to watch 1/2 the games with tanking teams. The more I think of your post the more holes I can poke into it. So the Flames should quickly trade Brodi & Gaudreau & Hiller & Gio because our goal is the #1 overall pick. Right?? Cmon, give your head a shake!

        • T&A4Flames

          Dude, im pretty sure he’s just saying theoretically. If teams and the league were just going to go by mathematics and theoretical ” best on paper” the NHL could simply hand out the cup in OCT.

          • Kevin R

            Theoretically is just another word for Science Fiction here. The math doesn’t even make sense. This math doesn’t support a healthy league which is dysfunctional on its own merit alone. The thing is, this isn’t just a one off piece for Lambert, he’s been spewing this tanking concept for awhile & we have the same response about how stupid & inappropriate it would be to tank. Let alone tank to the point we can compete with the tank job Bufalo are doing now. How many on here want to watch the type of hockey Bufalo are dishing to it’s paying loyal fans?

        • piscera.infada

          This part really sums up the entire argument:

          “So the Flames should quickly trade Brodi & Gaudreau & Hiller & Gio because our goal is the #1 overall pick. Right?? Cmon, give your head a shake!”

          So if a team drafts McDavid and he’s so good that the team becomes only 7th worst, what then?

          As Shutout said:

          “The problem with your article is that it assumes you can finish poorly and then with the right pieces have a magical jump in production and culture and becoming a winning franchise.”

          Sorry Ryan, but the entire argument is self-defeating and a contradiction unto itself. Cricular reasoning at it’s best/worst?

      • Burnward

        Intellectual honesty?

        Teams that draft first overall are bad hockey teams. This is not a bad hockey team. It was never going to happen.

        Check yo’ self.

  • Parallex

    Frankly I was almost shocked when the Oilers took Yakupov. Murray was such an obvious choice for them… I know Yakupov was the consensus #1 but I really felt that the Oilers could have and should have traded #1 for #2+.

  • BurningSensation

    I agree 100%

    The whole purpose of building a team is to win the Stanley Cup, not just make the playoffs. Regardless of 2004 there are not teams every year that go on magical mystery tours from the fringe of playoff contention to the Stanley Cup. To that end you need to be acquiring talent (high end talent) as much as possible and in as short a time frame as possible in order assemble a young cast that can grow together and reach that maturity level and max out their potential at the same time.

    The problem with your article is that it assumes you can finish poorly and then with the right pieces have a magical jump in production and culture and becoming a winning franchise. If you start to apply the brakes to hard work, desire, and competitive culture than you will be doing more harm to your young players than good for the organization.

    While it would be great to finish in the bottom five teams this year to get a better draft pick and talented player, I think that it does far more positive for the development of players like Brodie, Gaudreau, Colborne, Monahan, Granlund, Jooris, etc to be in an environment where there is an expectation of winning and being competitive than playing for a team like Buffalo where you know it does not matter how you play or how the team does. That kind of losing culture is difficult to get out of an organization (young guns era).

    Let the team work as hard as it can. Cheer that they are pushing the young players for results that will help them improve and develop. Hope that we draft somebody like a Kopitar picking #11 like the Kings did in 2005. Believing that Bennett has a chance to be that #1a center we need, and if not is a great #1b center if Monahan continues to progress and look like a #1c center talent.

    • Matty Franchise Jr

      Probably no one, but 159 votes in the poll on this page are for making the playoffs. And another 252 for just missing. 69% of votes are for at least getting close to the playoffs. That’s not “cup contenders” but it is crazy.