Friday, February 02, 2007

Anaheim's One Year Rebuild

Earlier, I have written that Anaheim is the team that has the best chance of being elite this year. That comes only about a year after I wrote that they were rebuilding.

The team that last season was dumping high-priced talent like Sergei Fedorov and Petr Sykora is now one of the best teams in the NHL (arguably the best when they are healthy). How did this happen?

The post-lockout Anaheim Mighty Ducks were an average club. They might have made the playoffs or they might have missed them. Brian Burke was the new GM and he was intent on improving on that status. He began a rebuild by dumping the players who were under-productive in the new salary capped NHL. He acquired new frontline talent via free agency and trade in Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Chris Pronger. He was careful that the expensive players he added would be significant contributors worthy of their large costs. He promoted to the NHL several young players waiting in the Ducks farm system including Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Dustin Penner, Ilya Bryzgalov and Joffrey Lupul (later traded to Edmonton for Pronger). He found Francois Beauchemin in the Fedorov trade. He gave much bigger roles to previously under-utilized players like Andy McDonald and Chris Kunitz. In short, he managed to acquire a new core of elite players in their primes, while shipping out the old under-performing members of the old core and he had a good group of young cheap talent around to provide depth. Thus, although Burke's rebuild was done in about a year, it took more than a year of planning for the Ducks. They had to have the young talent that was ready to step into NHL roles in their system.

We can learn a few guidelines from this success. First, one must be able to find talent that others have missed (Kunitz was a waiver pickup, Penner went undrafted, Beauchemin was a throw-in in a trade). This talent has to provide cheap depth. This talent cannot be counted on to be the core of your team. By them time they might be ready to take over that role, they will be able to leave via free agency. Thus, you must use free agency (and trades for free agency aged players who are already signed) to bring in that core. Those players brought in must be the elite players needed to give you a strong core. You cannot afford to spend a few million dollars a year on a handful of depth players. Only buy the truly elite - again an ability to scout talent is important here. If you have any players who are paid like core stars, but not producing as such, they are liabilities and should be moved. This is an ongoing process. If you can trade away a Keith Carney and acquire a Sean O'Donnell (similar players) on the trade deadline last year and save about half a million dollars in salary it is a good idea. With the increase in salaries that will be needed to satisfy successful depth players in future seasons and the aging of your core and losses to free agency, this is never complete.

This teaches us that a team with a good farm system and a good eye for talent can rebuild in a year. Without the good farm system, I am not sure how it can be done. In previous CBA's a team would remain bad for several years and have great draft positions. After several years of this, they would have a talented young core from their drafts that would mature together (much as Pittsburgh does now). However, when this core is ready to dominate, they will be disassembled due to salary cap and free agency constraints. The CBA is designed to create parity by breaking up good teams. I do not think this is a winning strategy. If I was a bad team with little in the farm system, I am not sure how to proceed. I don't know if there is a reasonable plan to become an elite team in this CBA. However, as an average team with a good farm system, Anaheim has shown that a one year rebuild is quite possible.

Comments:
Good post. As you noted, there are certainly steps toward success, but there also needs to be a foundation of (cheap) talent in place also.

Burke (retrospectively) made some really good moves, but we should not forget also that he sort of stumbled on a team with loads of young talent, which made some of his head-scratchers (dumping Rucchin, Fedorov, Sykora, Ozolinsh, Carney, etc.) more palatable.

One of my earliest posts showed some of last year's results, and how with each "dump" move the team got better and better. A problem now though is that there are fewer and fewer teams to dump salary on--those who are near the cap are stuck, and many who are not near the cap are doing so purposely or are constrained by other factors.

Who really could absorb a $6M Fedorov any more? Burke acted quickly, something that seems to have worked very well for the Ducks.
 
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