How The Oilers & Leafs Were Built: A Welfare System Bernie Sanders Would Love
The NHL’s welfare system is successful enough to make even Bernie Sanders blush. The recent surge by the once-moribund Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs is the talk of the hockey world and promises great things in the future. Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are the new face of the NHL. It’s not preposterous to envision a Toronto/ Edmonton Stanley Cup final in the next few years.
But it likely would not have happened were it not for the NHL rewarding those two franchises for their obtuse, inept and persistent failure over a decade or more. The NHL uses the term parity to describe the process of rescuing owners’ equity in their floundering business. In government they just call it welfare.
The seemingly unending Keystone Cops blunders in both Toronto and Edmonton triggered a relief mission from the NHL’s Department of Lost Causes in the form of a bevy of top draft picks that replenished the rosters of the Maple Leafs and Oilers.
Just look at the Oilers who received McDavid after screwing up a series of first overall draft picks in the form of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Nail Yakapov (to say nothing of other top picks in the years from 2007-2016). Their exciting, dynamic roster today is a tribute, not to the creativity of the Oilers' front office, but to their ability to look a gift horse in the mouth so often that they drafted a full roster.
Ultimately, McDavid was too good even for them to mess up.
The Leafs, likewise, floundered after the Super Swede, Mats Sundin, said 'Hej då’ to Toronto. Owners, presidents, managers, coaches and players artfully avoided any acquaintance with winning for a sustained period. Between 2006 and this year, Toronto made the postseason just once.
This in what is arguably the most lucrative hockey market in the world. That kind of tanking takes a certain skill.
But since new president Brendan Shanahan brought Lou Lamoriello, Mark Hunter and Mike Babcock (among others) to the ACC, the logjam of high draft compensation has finally broken— pushed by the arrival of Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly.
This is all tough noogies for all the NHL teams that actually tried to improve enough to move their team into the middle class of the league, shuttling between those positions between 12th and 24th. Deprived of the opportunity to pluck baubles like McDavid and Matthews they’ve tried (with little success) to placate their fans with lesser talents obtained in the middle of the draft.
The New Jersey Devils won the Welfare Cup on Saturday, getting the top draft pick this June based on a terrible season and a lucky roll of the computer. Sadly for the Devils, this year’s class doesn’t seem to have a rainmaker of the order of McDavid or Matthews. The Devils may need to embark on a Leafian campaign of incompetence to get themselves into competition for the Stanley Cup in future years.
While it’s harsh to inflict bad hockey on your fans for years, it’s also hard to blame teams for using the rules the league puts in place to re-stock their roster. As many teams are now realizing.
It would be churlish, however, to not draw attention to one key factor operating in Toronto and Edmonton the past couple of years. Namely, the influence of the greatest winning machine the NHL has known in the past quarter century: the Detroit Red Wings. Led by owner Mike Ilitch and GMs Ken Holland, Bryan Murray and Jim Devellano, Detroit found winning talent globally, created a winning culture and produced a string of executives and coaches throughout the league.
While the Wings saw their streak of consecutive postseason berths end this spring at 25, products of that lengthy win streak are at the heart of the Leafs and Oilers.
As mentioned, Brendan Shanahan, the president of the Leafs, was a key playing participant in the Red Wings Stanley Cups of 1997-98. While he was coached by Scotty Bowman in those years, he was well acquainted with the man who brought Detroit two more Cups and three visits to the Final, coach Mike Babcock. Shanahan wisely ponied up the very generous $ 50 M/ year contract to Babcock over eight years to mentor the top young Leafs talents arriving via the draft.
A good portion of the development of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and the bevy of other first or second-year players has been keyed by Babcock employing the Red Wing model.
In Edmonton, the Oilers, buoyed by their history from the 1980s/ 90s, kept going to the well for former heroes to get them back to the top. But it wasn't till they brought in Todd McLellan, another man nurtured in the Detroit hot house, that they finally translated the talents arriving via the draft to winning on the ice.
McLellan coached the Red Wings' forwards in the Steve Yzerman era and handled the power play which had the top-ranked power play in the NHL, finishing first in power play efficiency in 2005–06 and third in 2007–08. He coached a very good San Jose team that never quite got the Cup.
So when/ if Toronto or Edmonton claims a Cup, someone needs to make sure that a member of the Detroit dynasty gets his name carved first on the trophy.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)