Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Pittsburgh Model, My Ass"

Those were Burkie's words this morning when asked by a reporter whether the Leafs should try to follow the 'Pittsburgh Model'. Presumably this would mean to tear down and try to get lottery picks - ideally first-overall picks - and rebuild around core players.

Pittsburgh did do this, but it was kind of by accident. Jaromir Jagr was traded in 2001 for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk. All three had been drafted in the top 34 in 1999; all three bombed as prospects. Only Beech saw much NHL time, but he was a major disappointment. Combined with a poor drafting record in the late 90s and a tight budget, the Penguins were regular cellar-dwellers in the early 2000s. The team was terrible and losing money.

From 2003-2006, though, the team had two #1 and two #2 picks, drafting Fleury, Malkin, Crosby, and Staal. The team eventually improved, posting a winning record in 2006-07. It was a long, hard stretch and a tough price to pay. What's more, it doesn't automatically work.

Burke pointed out that Crosby was won in the 05-06 lottery, where the Penguins were up against the whole league. What's more, though they've had lottery picks, the Penguins were fortunate to have them all turn out; top-5 picks don't all turn out and many are merely average players. There's no guarantee that the Leafs would have such luck, or that they'd be getting a top-2 pick each year given the number of terrible teams in the league at the moment.

What's more, a couple top players doesn't make a team. Look at, say, Tampa Bay. They feature two #1 overall picks - Lecavalier and Stamkos - and #2 overall man Victor Hedman. They're not anybody's idea of a powerhouse team. They lack depth at all positions and don't have any goaltending.

The Penguins have filled out their roster through smart management and a bit of luck. Neal, Dupuis, Sullivan, Kunitz and others were added through trade or free agency; Kris Letang was drafted in the third round.

Other powerhouse teams have built themselves without the benefit of star draft picks. Look at, say, the Boston Bruins. Only Nathan Horton was drafted with a lottery pick won by a losing season for Boston; Tyler Seguin's pick was acquired via trade. The rest of the team was acquired by smart management. Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic and Marchand were all second- and third-round picks; Chara was brought in as a free agent; Thomas bounced around before finding himself in the Bruins' minor league system.

Burke is right that tanking is not a magic bullet to icing a competitive team. A lot of luck and hard work is required to make it work: look at, for example, the Oilers, who now have a high-scoring first line but still lose because the rest of their team stinks. If it goes wrong, teams can get stuck in a downward spiral where fans stop showing up and players take on a losing attitude.

Burke has stated that the team needs a #1 centre and a goalie; he has enough of a team to fill in the rest, which is probably true (though I would suggest they could also use another 1st-pairing defenceman, or better yet, trade Dion Phaneuf and picks for Shea Weber). Those players don't grow on trees, but this summer, there will be goalies available. The centre will be a tougher find.

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