Friday, January 30, 2009

Best in the biz strikes again

It’s unlikely that the sports world cares enough about hockey to crown an NHL GM the best in professional sports but that doesn’t mean it’s not the case. Ken Holland is the best GM in sports and I don’t think it’s a close race. Holland has always been considered among the upper echelon of hockey GMs but his track record through 2005 had always been discounted because the Red Wings spent so much more money than the rest of the NHL. Franchises that spend two or three times as much as the average team in their leagues should be among the league’s best. That’s a fair argument. Brian Cashman gets the same treatment with the Yankees and deservedly so. However, the NHL has a cap now and the Wings are still far and away the best franchise in the NHL. All Holland has done since the implementation of the salary cap in 2005 is guide the Red Wings to the most points in hockey for three consecutive seasons. The last franchise to do that was the ’74-’78 Montreal Canadiens. The cap was supposed to make things harder for the Wings—not easier.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of Holland’s brilliant transition from no-cap to cap is how the other top teams in the league at the time managed the transition. Prior to the cap, Detroit’s counterparts at the top of the NHL were Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, and St. Louis. Colorado, Dallas, and St. Louis are among the worst teams in the Western Conference. The cap proved to be disastrous for those franchises. Lou Lamoriello—one of the best GMs in sports—has done a pretty good job transitioning New Jersey into the cap era. Still, the cap has not been nearly as kind to the Devils as it has been to the Red Wings. In three full seasons under the cap, the Devils have yet to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals which is something they did five times in the eleven years before the cap. The Wings, in turn, have done it twice including a Stanley Cup-win last season. New Jersey has acclimated to the cap admirably but Holland’s success has been on a different level.

Holland’s latest gem is the lifetime contract signed by Henrik Zetterberg. Holland managed to ink Zetterberg for a cap hit of only $6.08 million per year for 12 years. Zets is arguably the best two-way player in the NHL. He is only seven months removed from winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Locking down Zetterberg at a cap number that is lower than that of Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Wade Redden, Brad Richards, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Smyth, and Nikolai Khabibulin is simply incredible. To put the feat into perspective, the Islanders gave G Rick DiPietro $67.5 million over 15 years in 2006 for a cap hit of $4.5 million per season. DiPietro is an average NHL goaltender at best. For only $1.5 million more per year, Holland has secured potentially the best overall player in the NHL for life. It gets even better. While Zetterberg’s salary exceeds DiPietro’s, his percentage of the team payroll is actually less. DiPietro made 10.8% of New York’s payroll in the first year of the contract. Zetterberg will only take up 10.3% of Detroit’s payroll and that’s only if the salary cap doesn’t increase. If the cap increases at least 12% as it has over the last three years, then Zetterberg’s portion of the payroll goes down to 9.6%. Considering inflation, Zetterberg’s contract is actually cheaper than the one signed by DiPietro. I hope for the sake of their sanity that there aren’t any Islanders fans reading this.

The deal looks even better when compared to the other elite players in the NHL. Pittsburgh had to dish out $8.7 million per year each to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. With nearly $18 million tied up in just two players, the Penguins will have very little cap flexibility moving forward. Conversely, Holland has locked up Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk for the next five seasons at a yearly cap hit of $13.7 million. Anyone who watched the Stanley Cup Finals last season knows that the difference in talent between Crosby/Malkin and Zets/Dats is minimal at best. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half of the GMs in the NHL would prefer the two-way prowess of Zets and Dats. The fact that Holland gets his dynamic duo for four million less per year is what allows Detroit to be the best team in the NHL.

Holland’s ability to sign players for less than market value is well-documented. It’s easy to just write that off to having a built-in advantage as the GM of such a successful franchise. That might be true if Holland wasn’t the one who made the franchise what it is. Holland has shaped the Red Wings in a way where he’s not just selling a good hockey team to free agents but a hockey code that says winning and respect trump riches. Players want to take less money to play in Detroit of all places. The Lions, Tigers, and Pistons can tell you how well the allure of Detroit works for them when pursuing free agents. Holland has done such a good job of selling his team-first concept that Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Marian Hossa actually requested to earn less than Nicklas Lidstrom. Holland continues to have the Red Wings positioned to be the best team in the NHL for the next decade. In a city where the economy has tanked and the Lions, Tigers, and Pistons have disappointed too many times to count, Detroiters can always count on Holland and the Red Wings to pick up the slack. Holland’s next step is the arduous task of resigning both Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen. Logic (and math) says it’s impossible. Heck, I’ll even say it’s impossible. Ken Holland probably disagrees.

1 comment:

Bill Morran said...

I follow the NHL closer than anyone I know (and I'm Canadian), and I think you failed to point out the method to Ken Holland's genius.

You seemed to miss a few of the top pre-lockout teams. 1999-2004 is the best indicator of it, because that's when the salaries started a huge discrepency. The high paying teams, and the successful teams, were the Red Wings, Avalanche, Maple Leafs, Stars, Flyers, and Devils.

The Red Wings kept whatever veteran they could afford, only cutting lose Darren McCarty, Ray Whitney, and Darian Hatcher. Hatcher and Whitney had not been in Detroit long, and Hatcher missed significant time.

Colorado lost Adam Foote and Peter Forsberg, and soon after Rob Blake. They cut their veterans lose. Philadelphia ditched John Leclair, Tony Amonte, Jeremy Reonick, and a few others. The Maple Leafs cut lose Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alexander Mogilny, Ron Francis, Bryan Marchment, Brian Leetch, and another couple players.

This is proof that in sports, and especially the NHL, experience matters. I remembered doing a piece on this at, and I proved a direct correlation between the number of veterans kept after the lockout, and the amount of success.

Since the lockout, the Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, and Detroit Red Wings have won the Stanley Cup. Each of those teams was, at the time, the team in the NHL was the oldest team in the league, in terms of average age.

Furthermore, in 2007, I was unable to find NFL numbers, but the oldest teams in the NHL, NBA, and MLB were the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, and the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

The biggest reason youth is important in sports is because of financial restraints. You spend less money on rookies who are still on their first contract than you do on veterans, and therefore, have more space for more depth. But there's absolutely no doubt that within sports, experience matters. The winning teams are always high up in terms of average age.

If I have one year to win a championship, and I have a choice between a guy who's been there before, and has a ring, give me Brett Favre over Matt Ryan, any day.


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