Why The Flames Should Never Flicker for a Pick - Pt 2 The Gambling GM

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Peek-A-Boo, Kirill Kabanov, is here to save NHL team for you. (Part 2 of Why Diving to the Bottom is not a good idea). (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

I've had this article on ice for quite awhile now because it just wasn’t timely to release it when the Flames were in the thick of the playoff race. The Flames will need some literal magic to make the playoffs at this point, even if they win out. So the timing is better now.

 

Just to recap, this is Part 2 of a 3 part series. It presents a counter-argument to the often heard view that a bubble playoff team is better off doing a "Dive for Five" or "Fall for Hall" and getting a higher draft pick in the top 5 than just missing the playoffs and finishing 9th or 10th. There are three perspectives presented in three separate articles to counter this: the Fan’s perspective, the General Manager’s and the Owner(s).  

This article "The Gambling GM" is the GM’s or hockey operations perspective. 

Part 1: The Fan Paradox

Part 2: The Gambling GM

Part 3: Respect the Crest

________________

The Gambling GM

As an armchair GM now, not as a fan but strictly from a hockey operations perspective, you find that your team is in that dreaded 17th-24th placement in the league or 9th to 12th in the Conference. Just out of the playoffs but also out of the top 5 overall picks.

 

As a GM you have the power to weaken your team for the medium term (hopefully) but do you do it? Do you enact the "Dive for Five" as a GM strategy?

 

This is NOT the same as the day-to-day operations of a GM during the season. This is NOT the usual buzz we have every trade deadline, the talk of buyers and sellers when the results for the season are more or less in.

 

This is more extreme. It is a premeditated "blow-up." It is blowing up a bubble playoff team in favor of picks and young prospects and it will have long-term consequences.

 

You will not be just out of the dance this year but will likely be planning to be in the "Dive for Five" for next season and the foreseeable future.

 

You have the option to trade your best proven NHL players for picks in the off-season and increase the odds significantly the team will drop to the bottom 5 next year because of it. Do you do it in the hope of a quick turnaround?

 Fair warning - long article after the jump

Historical Reality vs Internet Speculation

We see this strategy advocated a lot in the blogosphere but rarely if ever see it happen in reality. I was searching for an example of one in the last decade but I couldn’t find something I felt qualified.  You do see a core player moved here and there but I couldn’t find an example of a GM doing a purposeful house cleaning on a bubble team for picks and prospects. If you know of an example please post it in the comments. I'll research it to see if I agree. If an example can be found it would be what I would call a Gambler GM. 

 

Bubble playoff teams do not trade their cores for picks and prospects. Teams decline naturally (for lack of a better term) and at the trade deadline if the GM feels the team is out we see 'Seller' moves at this time. Ottawa is a good example this year. 

 

GMs do not do it early because there is still the chance they can make successful tweaks and continue to build the team up. Why assume your team will continue to fall? If you are going to pipe in with a team age stat, well, we always have the oldest team in the league to pull up to refute that in the Detroit Red Wings. Exception or not the Wings prove what good scouting can do and how good players can be found deeper in the draft. 

 

Iginla was openly and publicly written off as being too old and done and yet again we see him hit the 30+ goal mark and comfortably in the top ten for scoring. Brendan Morrison was scoffed at as a pick-up by many as being too old, a throw away from the Canucks but this old player fit extremely well on the Flames. Players who condition themselves well have much longer playing lives than they used to and we are seeing more and more evidence of it in the NHL. Teams can maintain an older core and remain viable for years.  

 

Who is to say the next Mark Giordano is not out there somewhere that the whole NHL has missed. A late bloomer that just needs a bit more time to blossom. The next Curtis Glencross ready to be picked up off waivers for nothing. Who is to say the key tweak trade is not out there that may turn out big, like the one the Flames made to leave the 7 year dark age by trading a 2nd round pick for Miikka Kiprusoff.

 

The reality is that GMs on bubble playoff teams are optimists. They are hard at work with the underlying mindset that they can tweak their team better and get into the playoffs next year. Once in the playoffs they continue with the mindset to strengthen, not weaken, obviously. 

A Bit of History

I started to research the last decade of bottom five teams and their moves in detail and the article grew exponentially out of control in length (and you thought it was long as it is). I don’t think it is necessary to go through the detailed history to make the point, which is simply that a "Dive for Five" is a high-risk strategy. It is an "all in" strategy that can go horribly wrong, put you right back where you started on the bubble or you can hit the jackpot.

 

It may result in the ultimate team but it also may result is being a long-time basement dweller with fewer fans in the stands and a loss of tens of millions in revenue over the years. We all like to imagine the big win, that is the safe soother of hope that the fans of basement teams suckle on. Things will be different in the distant future.  Is that the rational approach to building a Cup winner? Where does history stand on this strategy?

Is it rational to bet everything on unproven young prospects? Clearly, if you are in that situation you deal with it but should you seek it out? 

In lieu of all the research I did on picks, I have a small table here that illustrates where each team finished starting in 2000. The regular season finish does not dictate the exact draft pick of course, due to the lottery AND picks are also traded etc. All that is part of the ‘fun’ of doing a dive to the bottom because the armchair GM moves become more complex.

 

In reviewing this decade of history it should be clear that although teams have bungeed to the bottom and sprung right back to the top, more teams haven’t had success who have spent 2 seasons or more in the basement.  Even worse they have got stuck in the basemet.

Nhl_standings_medium

The Blue (17) shows teams who have never finished in the bottom 6 for 2 or more seasons (7 Stanley Cup Winners in this Group)

The Red (4) shows teams that have finished in the bottom 6 for 2 or more seasons and have not even emerged with even a regular playoff team in 10+ years.  

The Pink (2) shows teams that may turn Red. They have 2 or more seasons in the bottom 6 and have emerged with a playoff team BUT that team has never gone deep in the playoffs and doesn’t look destined to.

Yellow (4) is the recent additions to the Dive for Five Party.  It is too early to call their basement time a success or failure. If a Cup or even a Conference Final appearance occurs we will be able to see them as a success but at this point it is undetermined.

Green (3) are the teams everyone thinks of when they advocate the "Dive for Five". The Pittsburgh Penguins who I think owe just as much of their success to winning the Crosby sweepstakes and the ever-famous Chicago Blackhawks who have literally thrown gas on the fire of the 'Dive for Five' advocates. The ‘Hawks are as clear-cut of an example of a team that has won it all from the top draft picks and now has a strong young core to compete for years ahead. Still, even a word of caution on the Hawks situation is warranted as they ran into Cap problems last off-season and this season as post-Cup winners will finish far lower in the standings than most predicted. 

If the 'Fall' works, it is great and the Flames can turn out to be the next 'Hawks with that young star core BUT if it doesn’t the Flames could be the next Islanders, Blue Jackets, Thrashers or Panthers and you can walk into a half empty Saddledome like I did in 1999. Do you want to take that risk?

Do you think any GM wants to spin the wheel on that, with tens of millions of dollars on the line and perhaps the future of your very franchise's ability to stay in the city?  At the bottom line real GMs in the NHL do not make these 'all or nothing' gambles, nor should they. GMs deal with the reality of having a bottom 5 team, but they do not seek it out and it should be clear why.

You enter the basement and you may never leave.

 

 Further Obvious and Redundant Points on the risk of the "Dive for Five"

(1) The draft pick, no matter how high, is not a guarantee.

 

The 30-team draft today goes deep into the talent pool. Early second round picks in the 70s were players still ranked fairly high overall. Today you are a good 30 players deep min and even with that first second rounder, as a basement team, you no longer have a sure-fire NHL player on the second round pick.

 

It is a gamble to trade away proven NHL players, for picks who may never even play a sustained career in the NHL, never mind a productive one.

 

While the top 5 picks are generally considered as close to a guaranteed NHL player as you can get, even the #1 overall picks have busted. Patrik Stefan (1999 – ATL) comes to mind but there are lots of examples of the top five not living up to potential.

 

One miss on a top five pick and you may as well start picking out the color drapes you want on your basement suite because you are moving in to live there for awhile now.

 (2) Injuries of those top picks or prospects

 

Hockey is a game of injury, it is expected, more than it is in other sports. 

 

Bryan Berard (1st overall in 1995 / 1997 Calder Trophy Winner) took a tragic eye injury that left him practically blind in one eye and despite a heroic struggle to come back to the NHL he never achieved elite status.  The fact he came back at all to play further NHL seasons is amazing.  

 

Or Rick DiPietro, I might be one of the few who remembers the buzz around the 2000 draft, Rick DiPietro was the greatest Goaltending prospect anyone had seen since Gordie Howe was in diapers.

 

The gushing at the time over DiPetro was a bit annoying. I think part of it had to do with the fact he was an American and getting extra press because of it but regardless the comments that he was going to reinvent the entire position forever with aggressive Goaltending was a lot of hype. I’ll admit his highlight reels were impressive. Here was a Goalie that could hit the tape of players with a pass to the red line. It was amazing to watch him handle the puck.

 

Mike Milbury bought into the hype and passed on Heatley and Gaborik for DiPetrio in the draft, while he already had a young Roberto Luongo.  DiPietro went on to sign the now infamous 15 year contract in 2006 and injuries hit, it remains to be seen if he will ever recover fully; but now as he turns 30 one has to wonder if his hips are up for the game at the NHL level anymore.

 

One unforeseen injury on that elite pick and your team is again now remodeling the bathroom on your basement suite for an even longer stay.  

 

(3) Poor Player Attitudes and Off-Ice issues.

 

People often forget the age of these players. Basically teenagers, often-immature teenagers, I remember my state of mind at 18-19 and I would be mortified now at my current age to hand the future of my team to that young ‘me’. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the point is only once again that risk is at play based on the level of maturity of the player.

 Who is a better example of a young and skilled player with terrible off-ice judgment and poor attitude than Dany Heatley.

 

Drafted 2nd overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2000 draft he went on to win the Calder in 2002 and then was driving recklessly and crashed his newly bought Ferrari, resulting in the death of passenger teammate, Dan Snyder. In addition to missing most of the 2003-4 season he was traded out of Atlanta.

 

Once in Ottawa Heatley prospered until he illustrated yet again that he is a problem player off-ice. Critical of Senators new coach Cory Clouston, Heatley demanded a trade and it was made public.

 

A player asking for a trade, in and of itself, is not that big of a deal. It is unfortunate his desire to be traded was made public but nonetheless the really ugly part of the affair emerged when a trade was finalized with the Edmonton Oilers for Andrew Cogliano, Dustin Penner and Ladislav Smid. Problem solved right?

 

Wrong. In Heatley’s case, he actually took the unprecedented step of scuttling the trade he himself requested by exercising his NTC clause. He had asked for a trade and then said no, he wanted a different team.

 

At the end of the day in 2009 he was traded to the San Jose Sharks in a very unbalanced trade. The Senators received Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a 2nd round pick. Cheechoo no longer even plays NHL hockey and I would even go as far as saying that this trade and the lack of return for the Senators is a big part of why they sit where they do today in the standings.

 

While Heatley is probably one of the most extreme examples of a young player with a diva mentality others can also become issues to lesser degrees. Regardless, look at the current state of the franchises Heatley left in his wake.

 

While Heatley alone is not solely responsible for the Senators and Thrashers situation today, he certainly did not help these teams and that is the point. I will bet money that the minute the Sharks slip out of the playoffs, good old Dany will once again be up in Doug Wilson’s office in San Jose demanding a trade to a top ten team.

 

I wouldn’t want him on the Flames despite his undisputable on-ice skill.

 (4) Finally, you don’t need the top 5 or even top 10 picks to get excellent players or even the best player in a draft.

 

If you peel back history the real issue, especially with the Flames is poor drafting and scouting for the last 20 years. You have to go all the way back to 1987 to find the last time the Flames took late round gold with Theo Fleury in round 8 and 166th overall. 

 

Over and over in every draft we see players out of the top ten emerge. Fact is when time has passed and everyone has had time to evaluate, we often see great players taken in the middle of the first round or deeper.

 

These players illustrate themselves to be just as good or better than the top picks. So the point is you don't need to go into the basement to get good picks if your scouting is on the ball.

 

Missed Players in the Draft

 

Just to keep the list short I’ll expand to listing players in each draft who were out of not just the top five but even the top ten. That is definitely bubble team territory – 11th overall pick or lower.

 

Lets start in 1995.

 

Jarome Iginla is fairly evaluated at this point as the best player to emerge from the entire 1995 draft. Jarome was drafted 11th overall.  Not even in the top ten. Miikka Kiprusoff, is notable for the Flames - drafted in the 5th round 116th overall.

 

The Flames original first pick in this draft was Denis Gauthier – 20th overall.

 

Jarome Iginla – 11th overall / Jean Sebastian Giguere – 13th overall / Sami Kapenen – 87th overall / Marc Savard – 91st overall / Miikka Kipprusoff – 116th overall / Stephane Robidas – 164th overall 

1996 – The Flames 1st pick was Derek Morris – 13th overall.

 

Dainius Zubrus – 15th overall / Marco Sturm – 21st overall / Daniel Briere – 24th overall / Zdeno Chara – 56th overall / Tom Ponti – 59th overall / Mark Parrish – 79th overall / Pavel Kubina – 179th overall / Tomas Kaberle - 204th overall

1997 – The Flames 1st pick was Daniel Tkaczuk 6th overall (he played 19 NHL games)

 

Marian Hossa – 12th overall / Scott Hannan – 23rd overall / Brendan Morrow – 25th overall / Maxim Afinogenov – 69th overall / Joe Corvo – 83rd overall / Brian Campbell – 156th overall

1998 – The Flames 1st pick was Rico Fata 6th overall – (he played 27 games for the Flames and was eventually placed on waivers and the Flames got nothing in return for him – he went onto play 203 games in the NHL with limited success)

 

Alex Tanguay – 12th overall / Robyn Regehr – 19th overall / Simon Gagne – 22nd overall / Scott Gomez – 27th overall / Mike Ribeiro – 45th overall / Brad Richards 64th overall / Shawn Horcoff – 99th overall (not his fault he is overpaid – still a decent player) / Pavel Datsyuk – 171st overall (best player of the entire draft taken late in the 6th round!)

1999 – The Flames 1st pick was Oleg Saprykin 11th overall (he played 187 games for the Flames but did lead to getting Daymond Langkow in 2004 so not a complete loss)

 

Martin Havlat – 26th overall / Ryan Miller – 138th overall / Henrik Zetterberg – 210th overall

2000 – the Flames 1st pick was Brent Krahn 9th overall (injury screwed up Krahn and he was the 2nd Goaltender to go in this draft after Rick DiPietro – high expectations at the time and the Flames hung onto him for a long time but let him go UFA for nothing without even playing a single NHL game for them. He has played 1 NHL game in his career at this point.)

 

Lubomir Visnovsky – 118th overall / Henrik Lundqvist – 205th overall

2001 – the Flames 1st pick was Chuck Kobasew – 14th overall

 

Ales Hemsky – 13th overall / R.J. Umberger – 16th overall / Patrick Sharp – 95th overall / Jussi Jokinen – 192nd overall

2002  - Flames 1st pick was Eric Nystrom – 10th overall – (this one hurts seeing Semin two slots down and Keith even further down.)

 

Alexander Semin 13th overall / Cam Ward – 25th overall / Duncan Keith – 54th overall

2003 – Flames 1st pick – Dion Phaneuf – 9th overall. (This is the draft that bothers me the most mainly because it was the draft I truly feel a Center, not a D man should have been targeted for Iginla to play with. Regehr was already in place. Take your pick from the list below of 5 all-star Centers ready for the taking.

 

Jeff Carter – 11th overall / Dustin Brown 13th overall / Zach Parise 17th overall / Ryan Getzlaf 19th overall / Ryan Kesler – 23rd overall / Mike Richards – 24th overall / Corey Perry – 28th overall / Loui Eriksson – 33rd overall / Shea Weber – 49th overall etc etc down to Dustin Byfuglien – 245th overall. (The 2003 draft was famously thick)

2004 – (Flames 1st pick Kris Chucko 24th overall)

 

Mike Green – 29th overall / Mark Streit – 262nd overall

 

And I’ll stop with the 2005 draft - The Crosby sweepstakes. at this point it is too early to call results on deeper picks.

 

Suffice to say that Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, Tuukka Rask, T.J. Oshie, Paul Stastny and several others drafted out of the top ten are emerging as solid additions to their respective teams.

 What is my point here ?

Why advocate your team going into the bottom for the top five picks when you can find quality players outside of the top ten? What are you are really saying? Is the scouting department so deficient that it cannot find or pick good players that are always there?

 

Patience is a Virtue

 

I watched hockey when dynasties used to rule the NHL. I watched the Habs win 4 straight Cups, ask me how it felt to be a fan of another team then? Then I watched the Islanders dynasty replace them and then the Oilers dynasty replace them. What’s the point? In that era as a hockey fan you had patience, something fans today really don’t have.

 

A hockey fan in the old days measured the path to the Cup in decades not single seasons. In the NHL now, with the new parity, fans across the NHL are much more impatient. They all want a quick fix and are expecting their team to be a Cup team much faster.

 

The simplest solution for them appears to be to take a ticket to the basement and hope it is a two-way ticket and not a one-way ticket. That is easy to understand, simple to advocate in its logic but it is not an accurate reflection of what GMs do on bubble teams and for good reason.

 

There is just no way, in my opinion, that you can rationally advocate that if you are aware of the history of the draft and the high risk – it is draft roulette at its best. You are literally risking the entire franchise’s future on it. How can you rationally seek to put your team in that position? If it happens you deal with it, like the Oilers are today but never should a GM seek it out. Not when you have other options, other dials to turn, other ways to strengthen your team. 

 

The Flames in particular have had absolutely terrible drafting for the last 20 years, we’ll see how the more recent picks turn out but I saw how the high picks of the 7 year dark age of the Flames turned out.

Do you really blame me for not wanting to take the chance on repeating that fiasco of drafting the Flames had in that era? The same people in Flames scouting are still sitting in their same chairs from that era. Cough Tod Button Cough.

 

Good players are always still available after the top ten picks are taken. You just need the scouts to work hard to find them. Taking a 'Dive' to the bottom implies that you do not have scouts who can find those later round picks. That is a problem in scouting and that is the area you need to improve. That is the dial you need to turn. 

 

Tell me, why should tens of thousands of Flames fans, the owners, all the current players and prospects and all the rest of the people of the Flames organization suffer the humiliation and shame of a bottom five finish because the scouting staff is not up to snuff? Why do you need to take everything into the gutter to make the scouting departments job easier? If you can't get scouts who can draft well outside of the top ten, get new scouts I say. Don't take the whole organization into the gutter instead.

 

Final Word

Still you may be wondering why the "Dive for Five" is still advocated by so many people out there? Well, my theory is that this gives them something to think about because they get bored.

It doesn't take long to get to know a team very well. It really doesn't and after that how many times can you say X player 'sucks' or X player is 'awesome' before you want to move onto talking about something else. 

If your team isn't a Cup Contender it is easy to start pouring over draft prospects and imagining this or that scenario. It would be nice to get those players. Nice to imagine the future with this or that player - switching gears monthly on this player or that player, always keeping on top of who is the hottest young prospect of the month. 

It is like being on a jet ski and having fun speeding along making sharp turns in the water and hitting little waves and switching from this direction, to that direction. 

The reality is that a hockey team is more like a huge aircraft carrier moving along in a certain direction not a jet ski. You can not turn on a dime and should not. You are headed in a certain direction, with a certain amount of momentum, you decided on that a long time ago. 

The Flames are well aware of the timeline on Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and Miikka Kiprusoff. The timing for a youth injection is coming but it will not be as quick and fast as most fans will want, but be patient. 

If the Flames by next trade deadline are in a bad position and taking on water, they will deal with it at that time like any "Seller" team does, in the meantime I don't see the point of actually hoping or advocating they hit an iceberg and join the Oilers at the bottom of the ocean...

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