Cracking the Window to Contending

June 26th, 2017 | Posted in Commentary | By: D'Arcy McGrath

Trading futures is a risky business.

As a practice it has historically cut off the evolution of a hockey club by siphoning out the key tools to keep the replenishment pipeline flowing. Picks in 2018 and 2019 will be the young players stepping into the National Hockey League in 2021, 2022 or 2023.

Moving three picks for Dougie Hamilton, a pick for Brian Elliott, a pick for Curtis Lazar, and one or two picks for Michael Stone had the cupboard of futures or recent futures depleted before the Flames walked into Chicago and moved three more top picks for the services of defenseman Travis Hamonic.

Was it a good move? How risky was it? Is this the way to manage a hockey team in the modern era?

Pick Value

You may want to sit down for this, but draft picks have more value the sooner you pick at the draft. A top ten pick has a greater chance of spitting out a player than say a 20th overall pick. In fact the drop off is pretty remarkable.

So clearly the first thing fans have to bare in mind when trading draft picks is the expectations of the team and general manager shedding the draft pick.

The Flames and Treliving have decided the window is now. They’ve drafted well of late, have added key pieces in Dougie Hamilton (2015), Hamonic, and Mike Smith. They’ve shed some ugly salaries, and have clearly decided it’s time to no longer hope to make the playoffs. It’s time to assume you’re not only in, but sitting in first round home ice position with sights on a long run.

Therefore these picks will no longer be picks 6, 37 and 37 as one would expect from a sputtering lottery team that has it’s aims on adding a Sean Monahan or Matthew Tkachuk.

Making a move like this beefs up a club moving the expected draft pick position look a lot more like 24, 55 and 55.

But what does that mean to value?

In recent history a 5/6 generally results in a 55% chance of landing an impact player, a very good percentage, but still just over 50% when compared to 1/2 picks that bring in a 90% chance of hitting pay dirt. When you look further down the draft to the 24/25 range you see a massive reduction in value coming in at roughly 20% or 1 in 5.

The second round picks have a less marked drop off, but still have less value towards the latter half of the round. A 35th pick gets you an impact player 12% of the time, while a 55th pick will succeed 7% of the time.

The Flames have basically moved a 20%, 7% and a 7% lottery ticket for a 26 year old defenseman that is 100% expected to be on the roster for the next three years.

Numbers like these seriously make me wonder if George McPhee may have gone the wrong way in not acquiring more young “now” talent in the recent expansion draft.

Recent Draft Success

Something that can’t be overlooked when considering the move of futures is recent success at NHL Entry Drafts.

The Flames took nine draft picks to each of the 2015 and 2016 NHL entry drafts due to the successful wheeling and dealing at the deadline to move out expiring contracts or players that didn’t fit in the Calgary plan.

In 2015 they effectively used three of those picks to add cornerstone defenseman Dougie Hamilton, and then picked 5 times.

In 2016 they selected nine players stocking their cupboards.

Recently, the quantity has been there, but more importantly so too has the quality.

Above we mentioned that the chances of hitting one out of the park late in the 2nd round is roughly 7%, but the Flames look to have done just that in both 2015 and 2016 in bringing in Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington, Tyler Parsons and Dillan Dube. These second round picks not only look to be NHL bound, all four could turn out to be impact players, suggesting the odds better than average that at least two of them are. That’s money in the bank compared to a lottery pick that won’t have a number announced for four years.

Additionally the team seems to be on the right path with 3rd round pick Adam Fox, and could hit sneaky pay dirt with diminutive forwards Andrew Mangiapane and Matthew Phillips.

These players won’t all make the grade, some will stall, and with it slide off of prospects lists and into obscurity, but the bottom line on a draft pick is progression. And all of these players are worth more now than the pucks that were used to acquire them suggest they should.

The fact that Treliving was able to add a key piece without moving any of his ripening prospects is a real feather in his cap.

Shrewd and Lucky

So how do you hit on so many picks in a short time, a result that essentially hands your general manager the latitude to make a bold move like dealing a 1st and two 2nds for an established prime of career defenseman?

To me it comes down to structure, scouting talent and good old fashioned luck.

Comments out of recent NHL drafts from the Flames scouting group all resolve around opinion. Teams or companies run by evolved management value their employees by giving them responsibility and a voice. A higher salary or place in the organization doesn’t yield the ability to demean or belittle those below you. With that you hear of stories like “if we didn’t draft Adam Fox, so and so would have lost it”.

Scouts that are boots on the ground have impassioned feelings on players, and they’re being heard. You hear of Treliving questions like “we want a super skilled player for this pick, what are our options?” and with that you get the addition of players like Mangiapane and Phillilps.

It’s not top down, it’s top directed with bottom up views, opinions and instinct.

With all that said however, you need a healty dose of good fortune when drafting to hit on those rare years or succession of years that turn a good hockey team into a club that can win.

In the 1980s the Flames poured the foundation of their only cup on the backs of great first round drafting by nabbing Al MacInnis, Mike Vernon and Gary Roberts. But they wouldn’t have had the depth to win if they didn’t also find Joe Nieuwendyk in the 2nd round, and the likes of Gary Suter, Theo Fleury and Hakan Loob deep int the draft.

You have to draft well and draft lucky.

The modern Flames have a stable of great young forwards in Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk by hitting on picks they should have hit on. But the Flames aren’t moving into win now mode without fourth round revelations like Johnny Gaudreau and TJ Brodie.

Having a guy named Mark Giordano just walk into training camp undrafted doesn’t hurt either.

The Market

Going all in is a different phenomenon for different hockey markets. It’s key to understand the strength, intelligence and elasticity of ones market when making decisions on how to guide your franchise forward.

Teams in nontraditional markets face more competition for sports dollars, and fan bases that are more fickle and dependent on on ice success for renewing seasons tickets; the life blood of a franchise.

The Flames ownership group underestimated the Calgary market 5-10 years ago when they clung to a failing core and refused to push the team into a rebuild. Because of that the team floundered for a half dozen years on the outside looking in, but not high enough in the draft to add key pieces to turn things around.

In 2013 that plan finally fell by the way side, and low and behold the city embraced it and kept the building full. A spunky young team that cared was tonic for a jaded market sick of seeing the same old act.

The Flames of today can trust that and go all in, knowing that when that window eventually closes, the market will be ready to embrace the next rebuild or retool having enjoyed a half decade of high end hockey and Stanley Cup hopes.

Modern NHL

Team building has evolved.

When a gun goes off on a new era due to a structural change like a salary cap, it takes a few years for the NHL chapters to learn the new system, the pitfalls, the loop holes, and how best to manage the risk of year to year operations.

Teams will no longer be the Detroit Red Wings with 26 straight seasons in the playoffs.

Windows will open, be played out, and then close. It will happen in all 31 NHL cities, leaving the very best general managers those that seize those opportunities with aggressive, well thought out action plans.

Old axioms like “never trade a first round pick”, or “we have to think about the future as well as today” will be replacement with efficient “window” managers that have the ability to see the arrival of key components, fill in holes and build teams to succeed over salary cap structured time lines.

The Flames seem to have one of the boldest in the circuit managing the current edition of the team.

Three relatively painless rebuild years have given way to the opening of a window. It may last 7 years, perhaps 3, but either way enjoy it.

And then patiently wait for the next one.

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