How to Build a Good Hockey Team
This isn't about 'Get Crosby and all the great hockey players here. What's the problem?' This is more about what types of players to have, the minutes they should be able to play, and the roles they should be able to play. Also addresses basic concepts like taking advantage of low qualcomp opportunities, etc.
1. Bigger is Better.
No, you don't need a team full of behemoths, but you have to consider that in the playoffs it gets a lot harder to get into the prime scoring areas. Bigger players are more able to do so. For those who want to make a point like Patrick Kane does it, then the response is two-fold: Dustin Byfuglien and Byron Bickell. Those really big players were not used all that much by the Hawks in their recent cup seasons until deeper into the playoffs when Kane and Toews found it harder to get to the net. The big guy simply creates more space.
We've seen this during the Bertuzzi/Naslund heydey. Big Bert's presense in front of the net allowed Naslund to snipe from afar relatively uncontested. Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the same scenario played with Holmstrom, and recently Abdelkader. It's a proven way to score. And in a cap world it's important to have these guys, but NOT overpay them. Chicago traded Byfuglien when he was due to be overpaid and now Bickell is overpaid. So a plan to win with smaller top-6 forwards should include a big guy on a entry-level or at least an RFA contract.
By small I mean less than 200lbs. Weight, not height, is what's important in the NHL and it should be imperative in this era to have most everyone on the team be at least 200lbs and be able to play decent minutes against all competition levels. If you manage that, then you have a clear advantage over teams who don't. But if you have smaller players, then they should have the skill, speed and gumption to make up for it. Guys who are too slight to go to the hard areas may tend to stay on the perimeter during critical moments. It's these moments that truly expose what type of player the guy is. If he's 50-100ft away from the net at all times, then the odds of him scoring are quite low. If, however, the smaller player has little fear, great strength for his size and tremendous skill to get the puck through heavy traffic, then he'll make up for his lack of size. If he does this in critical moments, then he is a very valuable small player.
2. Quit Thinking Top-6, Bottom-6.
There should be no dividing line between the forwards that says half of them should be underskilled, but tight-checking guys with little offensive potential, and at the same time the top-6 should be one-dimensional wizards who need great zonestarts to score often enough to make up for their lack of defensive abilities. That strategy rarely works, if ever.
Instead break your most talented players into pairs, and run 4 relatively equal lines. Esp. in the playoffs. That way it's impossible for chessmatch opposing coaches to match lines.
How you deploy them is checking-adept guys first, followed by your secondary offense, followed by your primary offense. The primary offense, who can play longer shifts and more minutes per game, then takes advantage of third-pairing opposing defences. This is Sedinery 101. The 4th line, which the Canucks have lacked for quite awhile, should have at least one capable goal-scorer on it. A 100% mucker line is useless and shouldn't have a role in today's NHL.
If you have a top center who's also a tremendous checking player, then your team has a clear advantage, as you can deploy him in all situations. This also serves to nullify a chessmatch coaches' line-matching strategy. Anze Kopitar's deployment is a good example. He is facing the best competition, not the weakest, like the prime Sedins. But if LA did not have additional offense to take advantage of third-pairing defences as well, this strategy would not be all that effective. Hence, the need for depth, which is amplified by using pairs.
If you have 4 centers who can do it all; score, check, win draws, play defensively, then you're at cup contender status. Every forward pairing should have one of these centers on it. Winger pairings aren't nearly as good because the true strength of a teams' offense is carried up the middle. LA deployed their top checkers, Kopitar and Stoll, more often. Then what followed was their top scoring, Carter and then Richards (on an off year) was their 4th line option. If teams' centers that can do it all, but fall short for whatever reason on their current teams and are put on the market, then management should try very hard to snap them up.
3. One-Dimensional = Useless
This should be fairly obvious, but if the guy, no matter how skilled he is, doesn't give any regard to defense or is utterly inneffective at it no matter how hard he tries, then he should be discarded, or at least deployed against low qualcomp pairings and forwards. A coach doesn't really want to have to do this every game for more than a couple players though. Winning involves taking advantage of other teams' weaknesses more often than covering your own teams'. If the players you rely on to score at critical times are not able to cover anyone on defense without taking a penalty, then there is no way you can ultimately win.
On the other end, what of the slow-skating, meagrely-skilled forward who's there for just size, perhaps, but not much physicality because he's just too slow to execute any checking. Or perhaps he's there to drop 'em with other middleweights when his team is down by 3? If a team has any of these players in the lineup, then it's just too underskilled to win. It's even better to put in a one-dimensional skilled guy instead. At least he can score.
4. What Makes A Defenseman Truly Elite?
A defender who can play 30+ minutes of effective hockey is a rare commodity indeed. But what makes the guy able to do that often is not so much his personal ability, which is still exceptional, but how effective the forwards are at their job.
If a team possesses enough strength in the middle, then a 'franchise' defenseman can play a very high amount of minutes fairly easily, as puck control is high, the odds of being stapled on the end boards are low and a lot of time is being spent up ice instead of being hemmed in your own zone.
If a team uses a dated top-6, bottom-6 strategy or simply doesn't have the horses, then they run the risk of injury to their defense as they tire often in shifts and get run over by fresher forwards. Teams with mucker-level 4th lines are suspect in this regard as well as those with low-skill or small 3rd lines.
When Lidstrom was in his prime, you could barely touch him because Detroit was just too deep up front. (Yzerman, Fedorov, Larionov, Draper... All two-way stars) Same with Niedermayer in New Jersey (Sykora, Arnott, Holik, Madden, Gomez) and Keith in Chicago (Toews, Sharp, Bolland, Madden) The key factor is having 4 centers who are reliable in all zones.
(The Canucks' recent drafting strategy as of late seems to revolve around filling the lineup with centers of this desirable ability. So let's hope that pans out.)
5. Penalties Are Stupid
'Moral Victory!' Are you kidding me? Nobody wants to see goon hockey anymore. But beyond that, there seems to be this feeling in Vancouver that the refs are out to get them. False. The reason the team takes more penalties than others and appears to be fouled more often than not is because it is simply built incorrectly.
A team that has one relatively one-dimensional scoring line will find that line to be targeted every night. So that's why the point I made in 'Bigger is Better' applies. When push comes to shove, you're going to need that big net presence to take physical pressure off your scorers and to give them some more space. However, that big net presence shouldn't be a goon or a totally undisciplined wackjob or he'll be a total detriment to the teams' scoring efforts.
This is exactly what happened in the Canucks' upset loss against Minnesota. Bertuzzi collected mountains of penalties in that series and didn't stop doing the same silly crosschecking play over and over again in front of the net. And because they Canucks were pretty much a one-line team back then, with a weak goalie and a coach who didn't make adjustments well, that was enough to bury them.
A guy like Bertuzzi should have been corralled. But what about Burrows' biting/hair-pulling antics? And Kassian's multiple suspensions? Are these types of guys irreparable? Perhaps if the entire team was built better. What takes the pressure off of these guys to take these insane penalties is if the rest of the team is built well enough to start dictating play. The fewer guys that need protecting, the less the need for retaliation penalties. The more puck control you have, the less need there is to take penalties at all. Again, the need for 4 'do-all' centers in the lineup comes into effect.
6. You Shouldn't Rely on The Power Play to Score
This relies too much on the refs making calls, and we all know the whistle pretty much vanishes in the playoffs. This is also part of the persecution complex in Vancouver. The Sedins, being powerplay wizards in their prime, absolutely needed the powerplay to be effective. So when the calls stopped coming, the whining started increasing. And so did the diving.
A team that is built properly shouldn't need the powerplay at all to score. A coach should be able to focus on a 5-on-5 deployment strategy and treat powerplays as a bonus. If that is the case, then his team is close to being ready to win.
7. Effective Minutes-Played For Cup-Contending Teams
Top offensive foward pairing: 16 es mins/g, center 2 sh mins/g, both 3 pp mins/g
Top checking pairing: 14 es mins/g, center 3 sh mins/g, both 1 pp mins/g
Secondary offense pairing: 13 es mins/g, 2 sh mins/g, 2 pp mins/g
Third player on top line: 13 es mins/g, 3 pp mins/g
Third player on top checking line: 13 es mins/g, able to fill in for pp and sh when needed
Third player on secondary offense line: 11 es mins/g, able to fill in for pp when needed
Secondary checking pairing: 10 es mins/g, center 3 sh mins.g, winger albe to fill in pp when needed
Third player on secondary checking line: 8 mins/g
Notice all centers can pk? That's vital. If your centers can't all pk, then it's going to be hard to win.
#1 D: 22 es mins/g, 3 sh mins/g, 3 pp mins/g (again, made easier via center depth)
#2 D: 19 es mins/g, 2 sh mins/g, 2 pp mins/g (big shutdown-type)
#3 D: 17 es mins/g, 3 sh mins/g (big shutdown-type)
#4 D: 17 es mins/g, 3 pp mins/g (secondary pmd)
#5 D: 14 es mins/g, 3 sh mins/g
#6 D: 12 es mins/g, 3 sh mins/g
You can get away with one non-pk defenseman, but any more than that and you're putting too much pressure on too few defensemen to play these tougher minutes.
The need for a true #1 was perhaps not stated well in the defense section above, but there's a reason why the winning teams all have them. The guy should be able to physically handle enough reliable skating minutes. If he has elite speed, that's a bonus, but the two factors typically go hand-in-hand. For Weber/Chara types, you can see where elite size and shot is the bonus instead. If the guy has speed, but no shot or offense, then he's not #1 capable. If the guy has size, but again no shot or much speed or offense, then he's not #1 capable. The physical attributes and skillset simplt needs to be there first, or it's not happening. You'll find many a team rolling the dice in the draft looking for these type of defensemen.
8. Goaltending is Overrated
If Crawford in Chicago can win, then any average goalie able to physically play enough games can win. One thing the great goaltenders of the current era have in common is the great 'do-all' center depth i've been bringing up over and over again, and the appropriately-built and deployed team otherwise.
If a team has the forwards and defensemen i've indicated, able to play the effective minutes i've indicated, then a goaltender's job is made a lot easier. All he has to do most of the time is go into his butterfly and wait with his giant pads. He'll be well rested, allowing him to make 'spectacular' saves now and then look easy.
Any team relying on their goaltender to win will not win.
9. Injury Replacements
If a team is built appropiately, then puck-control will be high and injuries low. However, injuries still happen. A team needs 1-2 spare forwards capable of playing 12 es mins per game in short stretches, and 2 defensemen also capable of playing 12 es mins per game, with 2 pk mins/g on top of that in short stretches.
In the playoffs these players should all be used, and more appropriately, all be useful, preferably in early rounds, to make the regulars' lives easier going forward.
10. Cap World
In the current era, you need to base a winning plan on your entry-level players. All winning teams in the cap era have had these types. The higher the cap, the more deep the entry-level types are in the lineup.
Appropiately building the team takes this into account. Once a decent group of character prospects is selected in a few years of drafts, the draft should very well be 'capped off' by a superstar selection, preferably a franchise center or perhaps a quick franchise defenseman if that center is already there. Then the clock starts ticking on the winning window.
It needs to be understood that the younger the superstar, the wider the window will be. Remember the Sedin window? Because it took them so long to hit their prime, that window was made fairly brief. And now the Canucks are heading into rebuild mode. That rebuild should be capped-off by a superstar draft selection. But the question is when? Now? Or years from now? Well, that's going to have to be decided by Linden and Benning, as they look over what prospects they have and plan for the future.
I hope this has been a decent read for you all. Go Canucks Go! Thanks.