Thursday, July 10, 2008

Stereotypes Don’t Lead To Any Shortcuts In Any NHL

The Pittsburgh Penguins signed a Finnish Elite player on Tuesday by the name of Janne Pesonen. He led the league in goals and points last season, and is praised by scouts for his finishing skills, something that Pittsburgh had trouble with in the last step of their run at Lord Stanley, which raises this question: what did happen to the team that had 49 goals in the first 14 games of the postseason?

We all knew the Pittsburgh Penguins were one step away. They had what it took to get out of the Eastern Conference with relative ease; solid scoring depth from two all star lines, a steady defensive system good enough to protect a young, talented goaltender in Marc Andre Fleury from some potent attacks during the first three rounds.

And then came the Detroit Red Wings.

Their superior team aspects came into play and shell-shocked the young Pittsburgh team. Offensively, the puck retrieval/possession game of the Red Wings poked holes through a defense that was just about ill-spirited during the biggest moments of their hockey careers. And when the stars of Detroit were through with the puck, and wanted to retrieve it again, they did by clogging the neutral zone efficiently. All of the forwards came back to help the star studded defense of the Wings through the middle, hard.

By the end of the series, Pittsburgh had started to generate some entries into the Detroit zone, and had some glorious scoring chances in front of Chris Osgood. And yet, they just couldn’t finish the job.

Detroit never had an aspect of their own game that overshadowed another one; in fact this team could be one of the greatest teams as far as being so good in any area of the game is concerned. That is what the Detroit model seems to be. Work hard and play well at each end of the ice. Nothing more, nothing less.

We see it every year. General Managers across the National Hockey League reflect at year’s end about their approach to building a contending team. They watch the Stanley Cup Finals, analyze the winning team and say “That’s the type of team I have to have to be a winner!” That quote being mentioned by any GM is just about a guarantee in this salary cap era (which won’t last any longer with inflating cap numbers year by year). It always happens. Take a look at how many teams went after Anaheim Ducks-type players the year they toughened their way on towards the Stanley Cup. That stereotypical theory has produced nothing but losers over the years.

The main ingredient towards Lord Stanley remains the same; a team that is consistently solid in three areas of the ice. The team part of it is what GMs need to focus on, using the right hockey minds as a source of input to create and build a strong mix out of a solid foundation of draft picks to build into the organization from the system, which includes young gems, proven stars still in their prime and seasoned veterans. Some aren’t brought up from the system in the beginning. They are brought in through trades, which mean that some of the players you work on drafting and grooming will be shipped off to create the final pieces of your championship puzzle.

Say, doesn’t that organizational method sound like the one of this year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings, the so-called ‘model franchise’ of the NHL? They have perfected this model for about 20 years now. Their ways require smarts and patience; if success doesn’t come right away, it is alright because the benefits you will get out of it will be substantial…but only if you do it right.

The Red Wings have been scouting, signing and training players with winning traits now for quite some time now. They have won four Stanley Cups in the past 11 years, and are always in the playoff picture. And it seems now that some organizations are catching on to this mold of consistency.

Some are doing it the right way. The New Jersey Devils may have different strategical approaches than the Wings, but have also been a very solid franchise during their Lou Lamoriello run. The Montreal Canadiens are currently in the creation stages of their team, and Bob Gainey is doing a very good job of not only attempting to get his team to the top, but trying to get them to always compete to stay there. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs are about to set foot on a new ideal which is based on Detroit’s.

Even this year’s sudden turnaround of the Philadelphia Flyers may have you thinking that their strategy can be sort of a shortcut. It isn’t. The main bodywork was done properly by both by Bobby Clarke through good draft years, and Paul Holmgren by identifying crucial roster needs and delivering them quickly through a free agency.

But some aren’t doing it just right. Instead, they believe in the philosophy of ‘stereotypical shortcuts’, as mentioned before, as in signing and drafting players who play like the champs of last year. Here’s an example.

Fabian Brunnstrom was a player from the Swedish Elite League that the Hockey News first reported of in about November. The first team to get a glimpse of him was the Detroit Red Wings. When that fact was known across the league, as many as 20 teams ended up showing interest for his services. Known as the first internet-bred star (via James Duthie), Brunnstrom had it down to five teams (including the Red Wings), and in the end, the 23-year old Swede chose the Dallas Stars as his destination.

By that time, the Wings were cruising through the playoffs as they had the whole entire season in picking up the Presidents Trophy. They thought Brunnstrom would be their little gem of a secret because he was the type of player Detroit liked.

Yes, Fabian the Fantastic has probably been overrated way before he will step on to his first NHL ice surface. By no means do I want to think that the kid will be a dud in any way. But in the end, this will probably be another ‘stereotypical shortcut’ that results in more negative than positive.

So, how does the Penguins’ acquisition of Janne Pesonen have to do with this rant? Well, here’s where everything comes together. Days after the Brunnstrom-Big D signing, the Wings went right ahead in signing the Finnish Elite League MVP, 24-year-old Ville Leino to an entry-level deal. Scouts in the organization used their instincts to perfection in tracking his instrumental progress throughout his year, and then signing him when he was proved worthy of a chance in the big show. Hockey people are thinking that Leino is a serious threat to lock down a second or third line spot on the team already further enhanced on Line One by the prudent arrival of Marian Hossa during the free agency period.

Hossa’s departure, along with those of key role players such as Gary Roberts, Ryan Malone, Georges Laraque, Jarko Ruutu will definitely affect the team quite heavily. GM Ray Shero did do a nice job of filling holes right away with key signings, but start the year as of right now with a team that is capable of taking the East yet again, but probably not with the manpower in which they did it in last season.

But how about the Pesonen signing? From what I hear, Shero had been watching Pesonen when he started to move up to the top of the scoring in that league this past season. And it sounds like in Leino’s case, Detroit had an eye on him for more than just one year. In fact, they have a very steady eye on all of the European elite leagues, an operation led by Euro-scouting genius Hakan Andersson.

Who knows if Pittsburgh took a shortcut in that route, but their move looked very reactionary at Detroit’s move of Leino. One thing is for sure in this case, regardless of Shero’s intent, they took a page out of Detroit’s successful manual.

The old saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in one day’ definitely has much truth to it under the circumstances of building a winner in the NHL today There’s no such thing as a shortcut to success in the NHL these days, and each organization has to learn to be down in the trenches before it gets its deserving shot of claiming the ultimate prize.

Isn’t it more worthwhile to have it that way anyways? Rather than getting what you want right away, doesn’t it make all the ups and downs and the bold moves that put you on the hot seat make it so rewarding?

I’m not the guy who can get you the total answer to that question; I’m not an expert general manager or a good enough player who knows what it takes to be in the league. But I am a fan who can understand the game as well as the next guy, and when I see the winning team of the Stanley Cup parade it around the rink with such emotion and energy, I get the feeling that they had to put so much of their lives on the line to get that gratifying experience.

That is probably said true as well to the people that build the team. Because their names, are put on that Cup for a good reason, along with the players. And believe me, they didn’t take any shortcuts to get there.

Hi, I'm Brodes, and I'll be writing these types of articles for Scotty and the HB team throughout the offseason, and season. I used to run another rumors website, but that disbanded after some early sucess. I've always loved to write about the world's greatest sport, and haven't stumbled across any good opportunities, until Scotty came along. He used to do some stuff over at my old website, and knows people from around the game to give you the latest!

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