Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How to Build a Stanley Cup Champion

brian burke stanley cup ducks
We here at Five Minutes For Fighting are unapologetic Leafs fans, but I do believe that we try to analyze the team’s strengths and weaknesses in a fairly unbiased manner (…fairly). While we dole out punishment on other teams, cities, GMs, and players, we also spend a great deal of time (or plan to) critically examining everything about the Leafs, both good and bad. So, for fairness’ sake, today we are taking a look at Brian Burke’s first Stanley Cup victory with the Los Angeles Ducks of Anaheim and the luck involved in creating a championship team.

First, Leafs Nation is characterized as being overly effusive over Brian Burke’s hiring as Leafs GM. We allegedly canonize him as the second-coming of Conn Smythe. This isn’t entirely true. Yes, you will find it hard to get a Leafs fan to speak negatively about Brian Burke, but we do not believe he is the greatest GM in the history of the league. A more accurate description would be the best GM available at the time of his hiring, or the best GM in the history of the league compared to JFJ. Either works.

While Burke does have negative qualities, one of which is his poor draft record, he’s viewed as having complete autonomy from the moronic upper-management of MLSE and, more importantly, he has a Stanley Cup ring. But winning a Stanley Cup in the NHL requires more than just talent. It requires a great deal of luck as well. Brian Burke’s first Stanley Cup victory (and we’ll say it won’t be his last, right Leafs fans?) is testament to this. He largely inherited a quality team that only needed a few bold moves to make itself a championship calibre team.

It is important to note that the Anaheim system was already dense with young players when Brian Burke took over. The Ducks missed the playoffs the year before hiring Burke, but the young players accumulated meant that the team’s core was set for the future. Before Burke arrived the Ducks already had Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Chris Kunitz, Joffrey Lupul, and Dustin Penner. Not to mention late-bloomers like Andy McDonald. Burke’s first draft with the Ducks was even filled with luck. That was the Sidney Crosby lock-out draft that enabled the Ducks to choose Bobby Ryan second overall. However, the Ducks became a contender after the moves Burke made, in part due to the depth already in the system, part due to luck, and part due to Burke's talent as a GM.

The most important trade which allowed the Anaheim Ducks to win the 2007 Stanley Cup finals was consummated in March 2003, a few years before Burkie took over the GM duties. The trade was Rob Niedermayer to the Ducks from Calgary for J.F. Damphousse and Mike Commodore (who played a key role in the Flames 2004 cup run). This may seem like a minor deal, but it was the reason that Scott Niedermayer decided to sign with the Ducks in the summer of 2005 (Burke’s first major acquisition). Scott wanted to win with his brother and Rob was playing for the Ducks. That’s pretty convenient. Maybe it was extremely good foresight by Bryan Murray. Although, it is true that Rob was a UFA this summer as well, so technically the brothers could have played together anywhere, but they decided on the Ducks, probably with some convincing by Burke.

Another key piece to the championship was Teemu Selanne's resurgence. Burke signed Selanne as a UFA after the lockout. It may seem like an obvious signing now, but at the time Selanne was 35 years old and did not play a game during the lockout. Even worse, he was coming off a dreadful 32 point campaign (preceded by point totals of 64 and 54, not exactly top-tier). Amazingly, the Finnish Flash regained his scoring touch and netted 40 goals and 90 points in his first year back, not to mention a stellar +28. Selanne would be the Ducks leading scorer on the 2007 championship team, noting 48 goals and 94 points. A very fortunate turnaround.

Even when Burke was merely trying to dump salary he struck gold. In November 2005, Burke traded Sergei Fedorov and his massive $6.08 million salary (and declining point totals) to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Tyler Wright and Francois Beauchemin. At the time Beauchemin was considered a throw-in to the deal. After being dealt to Anaheim, Beauchemin flourished into a viable top four defenceman capable of logging big minutes, while providing steady offensive numbers. Beauchemin's development was a fortunate occurrence for Burke, who basically gained a top four defenceman at minimal salary, while saving his team over $6 million in cap space. I’m amazed at how Burke was able to peddle Fedorov with 2+ years remaining on his massive deal. All Burke included in the trade was a 5th round pick. You’d have to at least add a first round pick, if not more, to make a deal like that today. Why can’t the 2005 version of Doug MacLean work as a GM anywhere in the league? Burke would be able to get rid of both Finger and Blake as long as he threw in a 4th rounder.

Not only did the Fedorov trade yield Beauchemin, but the cap space saved allowed Burke to make his biggest mark on the Anaheim Ducks and the major move that helped them win the Stanley Cup. After losing to the Edmonton Oilers in the 2006 Western Conference Finals it was clear that Chris Pronger was still a force in the NHL (which I doubted after the Turin Olympic debacle). Thankfully for the Ducks (sorry Edmonton fans, first the Gretzky movie, now bringing this back up) Pronger wanted out of Edmonton for whichever wild rumour you choose to believe. Burke was able to put together the most competitive package of young players, thanks to the depth in the Ducks system, and traded for Pronger. The Ducks paid a large price (Lupul, Smid, 1st round pick, conditional 1st round pick, and a 2nd round pick), but landed a player that gave them the best defence in the entire league.

It’s clear that Burke entered a very favourable situation upon his hiring by the Ducks because the team’s foundation was already laid. But it was his key moves that ensured the Ducks would be champions.

People now criticise Burke for putting the Ducks in a terrible cap situation. These problems meant the Ducks needed to trade Andy McDonald for an expiring contract (Doug Weight). That’s not a good move considering Weight only scored 14 points in 38 games as a Duck and McDonald is now a key part of St. Louis (although he’s a bit of an injury case). However, the cap pressure Burke applied to the Ducks was not entirely his fault. After the Ducks championship both Selanne and Niedermayer mulled over retirement for a Mats Sundin length of time. This forced Burke to make Mathieu Schneider a stop-gap signing (at $5 million!), who became obsolete after Niedermayer and Selanne both decided half-way through the season that they wanted to play hockey again.

So, it’s clear that winning a Stanley Cup in the NHL takes a lot more than just skill. There is also a certain degree of luck and good fortune involved. Maybe you think this just adds more credence to the notion that Burke is overrated. I don’t believe so. Various incidents occur on the way to a championship both on and off the ice. Other examples include Ken Holland finding both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the bowels of the entry draft, Martin Gerber getting sick in the 2008 playoffs and allowing Carolina to rely on eventual Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward, or even Pittsburgh winning the 2005 draft lottery and being able to draft Sidney Crosby. A lot of things need to go right to win a championship.


Colt McCoy said...

nice article roy
Wasn't Selanne was suppose to play for helsinki jokerit in the finnish elite league they lockout year?

Matt Horner said...

He signed with HIFK Helsinki but didn't play a game.

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