McConnell's Blog: Draft is Key Element of "Hockey's Off-Season Trifecta"
GLENDALE -- The NHL’s terrific and electrifying post-season has come to a close. For the second time in three seasons, the Los Angeles Kings are the face of hockey royalty, defeating the New York Rangers, to punctuate a post-season fans will talk about for quite some time.
And as we all catch our breath over what many believe was the best hockey spring in years, staffs across the circuit continue to gear up for the most important period on the calendar.
The action on the ice is officially shuttered until September. It’s what happens off the ice over the next few months that now becomes hockey’s true spectacle.
For all 30 teams, their futures are now.
Call it hockey’s off-season trifecta: drafting, free-agency, trades.
Shortly, the soon to be “Arizona” Coyotes, will jet to Philadelphia for the League’s annual amateur draft, hoping to stockpile promising pieces for future seasons. Last year in Newark, N.J., the Coyotes snatched prized prospect Max Domi in the first round. Domi is expected to challenge for a starting spot in the team’s lineup at training camp in September after ripping up the Ontario Hockey League this past winter.
Not long after the draft weekend is a wrap, the NHL will unlock the doors to its free-agency store for its annual Christmas in July event when general managers go shopping for pieces to improve their lots. Some will strike hockey gold. Others will have buyer’s remorse. And after a while, a few teams inevitably will wish they could re-gift their signings.
Throughout the whole process of drafting and shopping will come the trade offers and the behind-the-scenes bargaining that make the sport’s off-season a fascinating journey of analysis and hope.
How all of the different aspects of roster building play out relating to the Coyotes remains to be seen. But be certain there is a template that has and will continue to be followed in the coming weeks and months. General Manager Don Maloney has called it “The Detroit Model.” It could also be called "The New Jersey Nexus.”
Both organizations have had long-term success sticking to the principles of drafting well, developing well and creating a culture that expects to win every season. The Kings have taken a similar route, having drafted well after stockpiling picks that have since paid off in two Stanley Cup championships in three seasons.
Encouraging from a Coyotes point of view is the fact the team has already headed down this path and should continue to see benefits from their development plan.
One example has been the development of defenseman Brandon Gormley. Three training camps ago, Gormley pushed the rest of the Coyotes defensemen for a spot in the group’s top six before being sent to Portland of the American Hockey League. Last season, he made the jump to the big club late in the season and showed he’s ready to contend for a full-time spot come September.
Gormley wasn’t rushed, which should pay off long term for the team and for his career.
Another example is defensive mainstay Keith Yandle. Go back to the 2006-07 season when he began a two-season development stint in San Antonio. He played 99 games for the Rampage before asserting himself as an NHL-ready defenseman.
Ditto for Mikkel Boedker.
Like Yandle, Boedker traveled the San Antonio pipeline playing 100 games for the Rampage before being pronounced good to go at the NHL level. Last season, Boedker’s development took another next step when he produced career highs in goals and points for the Coyotes.
Drafting well is, and has always been, hockey’s road map for success.
At the same time, free agency can, and should act, as a supplement for team blueprints gone sideways. Sure, not every player drafted will play in the NHL. In fact, most players selected in the late rounds will never see the inside of a league rink unless they pay a visit to the box office first.
If drafting well is hockey’s version of maintaining a good diet, free-agency becomes its vitamin supplement, a vehicle for filling holes or closing roster gaps when players simply aren’t ready to step in. But players with high price tags that tend to be older offer no guarantee for success.
Which brings us full-circle and back to this year’s draft preparation.
Earlier this month, Maloney promoted Tim Bernhardt to Director of Amateur Scouting. Bernhardt ran the scouting department for the Dallas Stars for 14 seasons and had a reputation for selecting impact players in the middle rounds. Under his guidance, the Stars took Jamie Benn, Marty Turco and, yes, Mike Smith - all in the fifth round. Other drafted players under his watch included Trevor Daley, Jussi Jokinen, James Neal and Matt Niskanen.
Bernhardt recently said it was important "knowing a lot about a little as opposed to a little about a lot" when it comes to the draft. He also stressed that successful teams talk about their body of work in drafts and that gold isn’t always struck in the first round.
Quite true, since those who have draft success well beyond the first round often differentiate themselves in years to come from those teams that fail.
There’s no question free-agency and trades are viable options for improving rosters. But know this: the lifeblood of all hockey organizations is fueled annually at the draft. For the Coyotes, their next infusion takes place in Philadelphia beginning June 27.