Thursday, May 24, 2018

Six things we thought we knew until the Golden Knights came along

We used to think we had this hockey thing pretty much figured out.

Not completely, of course — it’s not like there was one standard path to winning a Stanley Cup, and anyone who followed it was guaranteed a championship. Hardest trophy to win in all of sports, we used to say. Anything can happen in the NHL, and all that.

But as the salary-cap era rolled into its second decade, the hockey world had compiled a decent batch of conventional wisdom. The road to building a champion was still a difficult one, but there were certain guideposts we could count on along the way. After watching 30 teams try to win a title every year, we felt like we had a pretty good idea about what worked and what didn’t.

And then the Vegas Golden Knights came along and made us all look like fools.

As the Knights get ready to play for the Stanley Cup, much of the attention has been on the big-picture stuff we all got wrong. The Las Vegas market wouldn’t work. The roster would be terrible. Expansion teams have to be terrible in year one. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That stuff matters. But at the end of the day, whichever way this year’s final turns out, the big-picture stuff can’t teach us all that much. We’ll ratchet up expectations for Seattle, sure, but that’s about it. The far more interesting question is what kind of smaller lessons we can learn from the Golden Knights. And more specifically, which of our precious nuggets of accepted conventional wisdom may have just been proven wrong?

That’s the sort of stuff that, if it sticks, could change how NHL teams around the league make decisions. So today, let’s run through six lessons we can learn from this Vegas miracle, and how they could influence the way rosters are built in the future.

What we thought we knew: A few bad contracts are just the cost of doing business

Just about every team has them. Scroll through the rosters on a site like Cap Friendly, and you’ll find almost all of them cluttered with bad contracts, buyouts, retained salary and long-forgotten veterans stashed away on the LTIR. Add it all up, and virtually every team is starting the season with a big chunk of their payroll and their cap space dedicated to dead money.

Some of those contracts were just mistakes, where a team gambled and lost. That’s unavoidable in a cap league. But plenty of them were predictable cases of a team taking on a deal that they knew would almost certainly go bad. At some point, every NHL team apparently decided that short-term gain meant long-term pain, and every well-built roster could afford to kick the can down the road on at least a few mistakes.

If you think a player has three good years left, you have to give him five. If he has five good years left, you give him eight. The approach kept the cap hit down, and you could always consider buyouts or LTIR shenanigans down the line. And hey, if things went really bad, the player would end up being the next GM’s problem.

What the Golden Knights taught us: When people write the “How did we get here?” stories about the Golden Knights, most of the focus lands on the expansion-draft picks and the trades that surrounded them. And rightly so — that’s where most of the big mistakes happened. But we’re overlooking one of the greatest assets the Knights started with: A crystal-clear cap situation.

No long-term commitments. No mistakes. No dead money. And no guys on the wrong side of 30 who still had five years left on a contract that was paying them based on what they did at 25.

If you don’t think that’s important, look at how many of the expansion-draft trades the Knights pulled off were based around another team desperately trying to get out of a bad deal. Without David Clarkson, the Blue Jackets may not lose William Karlsson. Without Reilly Smith, the Panthers don’t have to part with Jonathan Audy-Marchessault. The Islanders coughed up a first and more to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski.

On the day they were born, the Knights were the only team in the league without any cap mistakes. They have some now, but it’s by choice, and they were paid a premium to take them on. And once they’re done winning the Stanley Cup, they’ll still head into the off-season with a ton of cap space to work with.

What the other 30 teams can learn: A contract that seems good for the first few years but is likely to go bad down the road is not a good contract. Sure, keeping the term reasonable might jack up the cap hit, or even cost you a chance at certain players. But maybe it’s not enough to sign a deal you know will turn into an albatross, then shrug and say “Everyone does it.” We’ve just seen what a smart team can do when a cap sheet that isn’t cluttered up with foreseeable mistakes.

What we thought we knew: You win with elite talent

Depth matters. Character matters. Coaching matters. Having the right guys in the right roles who understand what they need to do matters. But as parity and the salary cap work relentlessly to flatten the talent gap between teams, the NHL is becoming a league where elite talent makes the difference. Compare any two random teams, and chances are that 80 percent of the rosters will be largely interchangeable. But the elite talents — the Crosbys and McDavids and Doughtys and Kucherovs — are the ones that make the difference between contending and pretending.

And we all know it. That’s why we see so many teams tank in hopes of landing a top draft pick. Giving up an entire season just to increase your lottery odds seems like a bad tradeoff. But when those top picks are your best shot at acquiring the sort of elite talent that wins championships, you bite the bullet and do what you have to do.

What the Golden Knights taught us: You can win without anything approaching elite talent, as long as you have the right mix.

Marchessault is a very good player, but he’s nowhere near the Crosby tier. Neither is William Karlsson, even coming off a career year. Marc-Andre Fleury has been fantastic in the playoffs, and goaltending is a bit of a different case, but he hasn’t received a Vezina vote since 2012. And nobody else on the roster is really even in the elite-talent discussion. And yet, here they are.

What the other 30 teams can learn: Maybe tanking isn’t the answer. Then again, a lot of us wondered if the Knights were tanking heading into this season, and look how that turned out. But at the very least, the idea that you do whatever it takes to get players who are (or will be) in the elite tier and worry about the rest of the roster later may be worth a second look.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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