Recently, I took a road trip all over the Western United States. Since I was traveling with my grandparents, we decided to go the old school route without GPS or Google Maps. Just us, an atlas, and 2 weeks to drive. Over the fortnight, we ended up on interstates, winding mountain roads, and for an afternoon, a 50-mile ill-conceived drive on gravel roads outside of Denver. But no matter which way we decided to go, we always ended up at our destination.
The older I get, the more I’m starting to realize there is no ONE way to do things in life. We might have family and friends telling us what we should do to get where we want to go, but in the end, there’s always more than one way to get there. One way might be easier, one might be more fun, and one might end up being a dead-end. Some people do one thing to be successful, while others will do the exact opposite and still achieve their goals. But the point is, we can all do things our own way.
Just like life, GMs and ownership can build hockey teams a myriad of different ways and still become successful. But in hockey, a trend is starting to develop.
What did the two Stanley Cup finalists have in common last year? Both teams had extremely talented and deep defensive corps with a superstar to do the heavy lifting. They had guys like Duncan Keith or Chris Pronger leading the charge; and good players like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Kimmo Timonen logging important minutes. When you look back at the vast majority of successful teams recently, it’s a trend that is hard to ignore.
Nothing helps exemplify this point more than three teams out West who struggled last season, but have been successful in recent memory. The Dallas Stars, Anaheim Ducks, and Edmonton Oilers have all experienced success—yet all fell on hard times in 2009-10. The common trend for all three teams is their blue lines are nowhere near where they were when they were competing for Stanley Cups. Predictably, they’ve been competing for top 10 draft picks.
For anyone who loved watching hockey over the last decade, it’s hard to believe the Dallas Stars would find themselves in a position without defensemen. This is a team who built their foundation on guys like Derian Hatcher, Sergei Zubov, and Richard Matvichuk. They had strong forwards who would help bring them a Cup, but they always knew where their bread was buttered: keeping the puck out of the net.
Along the same lines, the Anaheim Ducks organization looks like they may have lost their way a bit. There’s no doubt that Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan are one of the best young lines in the entire league. But when you look back at their defense, it’s hard to find anyone to get excited about. This is a team that only four seasons ago rode a historically great defense to their first ever Stanley Cup. We’re talking about a team that depended on future Hall of Famers, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger, to eat up 30 minutes per game; as well as defensive stalwarts, Francois Beauchemin and Sean O’Donnell. Again, this was a team that was built on the idea of having a bunch of defensemen to keep the puck out of the net. Somehow, a team built around Lubomir Visnovsky, Andy Sutton, and Toni Lydman doesn’t sound like it’s in the same stratosphere.
Finally, we have a team who finished dead last in the NHL. It would be an understatement to say the Oilers had a rough year last season—but I’m not so sure this year will be much different. There’s a ton of hope in Alberta with young guys like Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi up front. But for a dose of cold reality, fans only need to look back at the blue line. Tom Gilbert, Ryan Whitney, and Ladislav Smid— those are the best defensemen who will be depended on to eat the important minutes. As it stands now, they’ll have three extremely dependable AHL players filling the rest of the roster spots. Think they’d want someone like Kevin Lowe or Paul Coffey to help relieve the stress?
But not everyone has forgotten the lessons of successful teams. St. Louis looks like they’re building their team around defensemen like Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo. Nashville seems to have a never-ending pipeline of defensemen to play alongside Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. Likewise, the Kings have a ton of talent coming up through the ranks to play with Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson, Willie Mitchell, and Rob Scuderi. They all know to be successful in May and June, they’ll need to have plenty of guys who they can trust in pressure packed situations—yet still have superstars they can lean on in the most important moments.
A coach can have an up-tempo system or a trapping style set-up; but as long as the defensive corps is strong, the system will look brilliant. On the flip side, you can have the most cutting edge, innovative system in the world—but if the blue liners are weak, the team will fall flat on their face.
There are plenty of ways to get from Point A to Point B. But when we’re talking about winning hockey games, I’d just prefer to go with the route that I know works.