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The Science Behind Building an NHL Team

March 9, 2012, 4:22 PM ET [11 Comments]
Alan Bass
Blogger •"The Psychology of Hockey" • RSSArchiveCONTACT
On every trade deadline, draft, and July 1, the hockey world explodes with fans and media members alike telling their team’s executive staff to go after that big name – whether it’s a superstar player on the block, the next supposed superstar on the draft board, or the next superstar looking for a $10 million salary via free agency. More times than not, teams will sacrifice everything necessary in order to get a hold of these players (see: Chris Pronger in Philadelphia, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik in New York, Marian Hossa in Chicago, etc.).

However, there seems to be a massive epidemic in which organizations no longer build a team – they simply sign players and expect them to become one. How many times have we seen a team that looked like the best in the league on paper, only to plummet in the standings and burn out before the playoffs? On the contrary, how often do we see teams surprise the league and make a run that no one expected in the preseason?

The key to this team-building problem that seems to have no solution among the majority of NHL teams is to look at the social structure of putting together a team, rather than simply the statistics and the talent side of the equation. International bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell once explained a United States military problem through social structure by saying the following:

“When they realized their problem was social, they solved the problem, almost immediately. The solution wasn’t in getting smarter. The solution was in understanding that there is a critical social component to performing more effectively. More importantly, they realized that the solution was in building a better institution, and if you build the right institution, people will flourish, and if you don’t, they won’t, regardless of how smart they are. The more I read and talk to people, the more I come to the conclusion that, we get so carried away with the role and the talents of the individual, and we sorely neglect the fact that if you put people in the right context, and they can do extraordinary things. You can create the environments where people will flourish.”

Let’s take a look at a couple of the teams that have embraced this idea of creating the institution, rather than waiting for a team to come together. The Detroit Red Wings are the closest thing to a dynasty that the NHL has seen since the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. With four Stanley Cups from 1997 to 2008, they are the model for success with their European style of hockey, consisting of puck possession, free-flowing movements, constant circling, and high amounts of intelligence. It is based on having uncanny levels of hockey sense, mixed with a high skating ability. Take a look at some of the players the Red Wings have drafted over the past few seasons:

• Defenseman Alexei Marchenko was a seventh round pick in 2011, drafted out of CSKA of the Kontinental League. His scouting report includes strong skating ability, high levels of hockey sense, and although little offensive ability, he has strong defensive instincts and projects as a long-term shutdown defenseman with the ability to move the puck around.

• Forward Tomas Tatar was a second round pick in 2009, and is now playing in Grand Rapids of the American League. He indeed puts up points more than many other prospects waiting for their shot at the NHL, but the two biggest pieces of his game, according to scouts, is his hockey sense and his skating ability. He also has a great ability to handle and control the puck, leading to less possession time for the opposing team.

• Teemu Pulkkinen (fourth round, 111th overall in 2010): playmaking abilities and an ability to hang onto and control the puck.

• Tomas Jurco (second round, 35th overall in 2011): puckhandling abilities, hockey sense, speed/skating ability.

• Riley Sheahan (first round, 21st overall in 2010): large frame gives him the ability to control the puck and fend off opposing defensemen, high levels of hockey sense, defensive ability.

Out of these five players, perhaps one or two will make the NHL, but you can sense a consistent theme: almost every player the Red Wings draft have an ability to play in the system the team has created, and they place these players in an environment that allows the team to succeed on the ice and in the standings.

Let’s take a look at one more team. The Nashville Predators are one of the most consistent teams in the league, making the playoffs on a budget similar to the Oakland A’s of Major League Baseball. Maybe it’s coach Barry Trotz and his coaching style, maybe it is simply Nashville and the atmosphere that playing on that team brings. But the Predators’ style of hockey involves hockey sense, hard working players, and most importantly, defense-first hockey. Let’s look at a sample of players the Predators have drafted over the past few years:

• Check out this scouting report by Hockey’s Future on Miikka Salomaki (second round, 52nd overall in 2011): “Salomaki is a strong, hardworking forward. He is a high energy player, and has to potential to be a valuable role player.”

• What about Taylor Beck (third round, 70th overall in 2009)? He has a “willingness to go to the net” and is a hardworking player who can score. “After the two Nashville camps – the development camps and the training camps,” Beck told me in a 2010 interview, “Being around all the NHL players really gave me an advantage because it showed me what I need in order to get to the next level. I saw guys always on the bikes and always working out. I want to get to the NHL and I need to continue to work hard, so staying focused is something I take pride in for sure.”

• Chase Balisy (sixth round, 170th overall in 2011): Intelligent playmaker, controls the tempo of the game, puck-moving ability, skating ability, great defensively. Supports plays very well.

• Joonas Rask (seventh round, 198th overall in 2010): Technically-skilled, excellent skating ability, understands the game at a high level.

• Colin Wilson (first round, 7th overall in 2008): “He has great instincts for the game and is a big, powerful man,” Barry Trotz told me in a recent interview. “He can separate people and win battles in the corners. He is such a great thinker that I don’t think [skating] will be a problem.” Wilson is also known for his incredible work ethic and his ability to play on both ends of the ice.

The majority of players drafted do not ever play a game in the NHL. But if you look at the players drafted by Detroit and Nashville, they are players that have the highest chance of success because their style of play matches the style that each of these two organizations utilize. So often we hear that teams simply “draft the best player available.” But it is precisely these teams that seldom see Stanley Cup glory in a league where any team can win on any given night. It is the teams that recognize this social piece to the puzzle and create an environment designed for specific players’ success that ultimately taste the champagne at the end of the day.

Alan Bass, a former writer for The Hockey News and THN.com, is the author of "The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk That Changed The NHL Forever." You can contact him at [email protected], or on Twitter at @NHL_AlanBass.
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