The recent surges by the once-moribund Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs are the talk of the hockey world and promise great things in the future. Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are the new faces of the NHL. It’s not preposterous to envision a Toronto/Edmonton Stanley Cup final in the next few years.
But it likely would not have happened were it not for the NHL rewarding those two franchises for their obtuse, inept and persistent failure over a decade of more. The NHL uses parity to describe the process of rescuing owners’ equity in their floundering businesses. In government, they just call it welfare.
The seemingly unending blunders in Toronto and Edmonton triggered relief missions from the NHL’s Department of Lost Causes: a bevy of top draft picks that replenished both rosters.
The Oilers received McDavid after screwing up a series of first overall draft picks: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Nail Yakupov (and other top picks from 2007 to 2016). Their exciting, dynamic roster today is a tribute not to the creativity of the Oilers’ front office but to their ability to look a gift horse in the mouth so often that they drafted a full roster.
Ultimately, McDavid was too good even for them to mess up.
The Leafs floundered after the Super Swede, Mats Sundin, said “Hej då” to Toronto. Owners, presidents, managers, coaches and players artfully avoided any acquaintance with winning for a sustained period. Between 2006 and this year, Toronto made the post-season just once.
In what is arguably the most lucrative hockey market in the world, that kind of tanking takes a certain skill.
But since new president Brendan Shanahan brought Lou Lamoriello, Mark Hunter and Mike Babcock (among others) to the Air Canada Centre, the logjam of high draft compensation has finally broken – pushed by the arrival of Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Nikita Zaitsev.
For all the NHL teams that actually tried to improve enough to move their team into the middle class of the league, shuttling between 12th and 24th, this is all tough noogies. Deprived of the opportunity to pluck baubles like McDavid and Matthews, they’ve tried to placate their fans with lesser talents from the middle of the draft.
The New Jersey Devils won the Welfare Cup on Saturday, getting the top draft pick this June based on a terrible season and a lucky roll of the computer. Sadly for the Devils, this year’s class doesn’t seem to have a rainmaker like McDavid or Matthews. The Devils may need to embark on a Leaf-like campaign of incompetence to get themselves into competition for the Stanley Cup in future years.
While it’s harsh to inflict bad hockey on your fans for years, it’s also hard to blame teams for using the rules the league puts in place to restock their roster.
It would be churlish, however, to not draw attention to one key factor in Toronto and Edmonton the past couple of years. Namely, the influence of the greatest winning culture the NHL has known in the past quarter century: the Detroit Red Wings. Led by owner Mike Ilitch and general managers Ken Holland, Bryan Murray and Jim Devellano, Detroit found winning talent globally, created a winning culture and produced a string of executives and coaches who are now employed throughout the league.
While the Wings saw their streak of consecutive post-season berths end this spring at 26, products of that lengthy win streak are at the heart of the Leafs and Oilers.
Shanahan was a key player in the Red Wings’ Stanley Cups of 1997-98. While he was coached by Scotty Bowman in those years, he was well acquainted with the man who brought Detroit two more cups and three visits to the final, coach Babcock. Shanahan wisely ponied up a very generous $6-million-a-year for Babcock in an eight-year contract to mentor the top young Leafs talents arriving via the draft.
A good portion of the development of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and the bevy of other first- or second-year players has been keyed by Babcock employing the Red Wing model.
In Edmonton, the Oilers, buoyed by their history from the 1980s and ’90s, kept going to the well for former heroes to get them back to the top. But it wasn’t until they brought in Todd McLellan – also nurtured in the Detroit hothouse – that they finally translated the talents arriving via the draft into winning on the ice.
McLellan coached the Red Wings’ forwards in the Steve Yzerman era and handled the power play, which was the beset in the NHL in 2005–06 and third in 2007–08. He later coached a very good San Jose team that never quite got the cup.
So when or if Toronto or Edmonton claims another Stanley Cup, someone needs to make sure that a member of the Detroit dynasty gets his name carved first on the trophy.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)
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