Hey everyone I hope you’re hanging in there OK I know these are tough times and it can feel like there’s nothing to do, but in times like this I always remember that my hockey obsession is there for me! I’m no scout and no statistician, but I do have a lot of curiosity, and when I end up in my house for too long that curiosity can take me places. The past few days it’s made me wonder, why do the Sabres suck? Other teams have lived, died, and came back to life over the past decade while Buffalo has continued decaying. So what is it that these other teams do that we don’t? Welcome to my deeply unpolished case study.
*side note, the research part of this is very long (2000 words) so if you want my end interpretations only just skip to the bottom where I numbered them 1-6. Also, I typed this all in word and pasted it here so I apologize if it doesn't translate well*
For my "research" I used teams who I believed to be the most consistently successful in recent years; flashes in the pan like the Calgary Flames were not something I was interested in and while studying dynasties created further back would be interesting, hockey is a sport that constantly changes so their methods probably wouldn’t be applicable. The teams chosen were Carolina Hurricanes, 2018 San Jose Sharks, 2018 Washington Capitals, 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2019 Boston Bruins, 2019 Tampa Bay Lightning, 2019 St. Louis Blues, 2018 Columbus Blue Jackets and 2018 Nashville Predators. Columbus and Carolina could be removed, but I believe Carolina will be a team that people should look to replicate in the future, and had Columbus been able to retain their FA’s this year they are a different team. I chose recent years where I thought the team was most complete and sustainable (i.e. not carried by deadline rentals). From here I broke down each roster composition by acquisition type; draft pick, trade, and free agent signings.
I won’t waste text breaking down each team individually but instead bring up the pieces of information I found most interesting. Of the teams observed, an average of 11 drafted players made the starting roster. The Capitals had the most with 13, and the Sharks and Hurricanes both had 8, so there was a decent variation. This deviation dwindles though when looking solely at top players for the team, meaning players that performed in the team top 6 forwards or top 4 defense, or started in goal, up to a maximum of 11 players. This number varied between 5 and 7 players.
The other question I wanted to answer was how many times you have to suck before you could be good. I did this by measuring the amount of former top 10 picks used to compose the roster; this could be players that remained on the roster or were traded. Surprisingly, I found the numbers to be lower than I expected. Teams like Boston, St. Louis, and Nashville had rosters with only 1 or 0 former top ten picks (although Nashville had MANY #11 picks), and Carolina and Columbus topped the list with 4 former top tens each. The Sabres for context have 6 (more if you want to add the equivalent of 3 first round picks sent to COL in the O’Reilly trade).
What can be taken from this is that drafting is incredibly important. Based on these number, a team should have about 55% of their starting talent home grown, and 55% of their major contributors obtained the same way. In addition, you don’t need to tank to be good. It doesn’t necessarily have to be through the draft, but there seems to be methods that other teams employ that keep them competitive while other teams lose for lottery tickets. This brings us to the next topic.
My first thought was that the teams who don’t get top draft picks use slick free agent options to fill in the gaps, turns out that’s more of an NFL thing rather than an NHL thing. I decided to break apart free agent signings into two classes, traditional and opportunity. A traditional FA signing would be players like Jimmy Vesey or Marcus Johansson who started the whole previous season for an NHL team. Opportunity signings would be players like Lawrence Pilut or Evan Rodrigues who either went undrafted, had their rights lost, or played overseas and were obtaining their first NHL contract as a free agent. Of the 9 teams there was a grand total of 41 signings, which were then broken down into 26 traditional NHL free agent signings and 15 opportunity signings.
My first observations were concerning the traditional signings. They varied highly form team to team, with San Jose having none and Washington having 6. The other more notable observations was how little of the signings were impact players for the team. Washington has Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, Boston had Zdeno Chara, Tampa Bay had Anton Stralman, and St. Louis had David Perron. Of those few, only Chara broke the bank, and overall no team spent more than around $5.5mil on an FA sans Chara. Other than that, it appears that these teams used traditional free agents mostly as depth players, being very selective with their money.
The opportunity signings were much more interesting to look at. There’s no telling at how many of these failed since I’m only breaking down the most successful rosters, but this does show the benefits of a low risk move. San Jose is the best example of this as their roster was built with 0 traditional FA’s and 8(!) opportunity FA’s. The Sharks obtained Joonas Donskoi, Marcus Sorensen, Barclay Goodrow, Melker Karlsson, Tim Heed, Radim Simek, Lukas Radil, and now starting goaltender Aaron Dell at the cost of no assets and very little money. Only Donskoi moved on to become an upper tier player, but the value they obtained at the bottom of the roster is what has allowed them to continue to spend more at the top. Other teams were also able to find great value this way; Bostons signing of Torey Krug and Kevan Miller, Pittsburgh signing Conor Sheary, and most notably Tampa Bay getting both Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde. Not sure if it’s luck or scouting ability or both, but obtaining players this way has gone very far for these teams. One last thing of note before moving on to the last topic; Washington and Boston had by far the traditional FA signings as well as by far the least amount of trades. I couldn’t find any actual reason for this correlation. But it was interesting nonetheless.
Our last topic concerns trades. This was by far the most difficult topic to break down since there are numerous reasons a players could be traded and there’s no way to ensure that a trade will be won or lost making it hard to determine a methodology when looking at trading. Nevertheless I tried my best and broke down every notable trade for every team into 5 (more or less) definitive categories that I put in order of effectiveness. In total, the 9 teams obtained 62 roster players through trade, showcasing how integral it is to building a roster.
1.) Cap-strapped: Trades of cost controlled players and draft picks to obtain a high upside product looking for a new contract. These were the most successful overall most likely because the team on the selling end did not have a lot of negotiating power.
2.) Moving On: Trades where a team was willing to move on from a player in exchange for a quantity of assets due to attitude, failing contract negotiations, underperformance, or overabundance of talent at the position. In most cases trades of this manner worked out well for the buyer.
3.) Tanking: Teams with no hopes of contention selling off best players as rentals or long term acquisitions in exchange for future assets. This list is overall very good which was against expectation, but I’ll touch on that more later.
4.) Player Swap: Similar to (2) but with assets of quality instead of quantity. This results in more of a "hockey trade" with 1 major piece on each side and minor pieces to balance. These trades were washes for the most part, but did includ some of the biggest names on the list.
a. Examples include Seth Jones-Ryan Johansen, Mikhail Sergachev, Brayden Coburn, Charlie Coyle, Tuuka Rask, Nick Foligno, Chris Kunitz, Patrik Hornqvist, Alexander Steen, Nick Bonino (for the Pens), Trevor Daley, Calle Jarnkrok, Scott Harrington, and Nino Niederreiter.
5.) Selling: Teams selling proven players for younger assets. The shortest list as expected for contending teams, but still just as important to note.
Also important to consider is the timing of each deal made. A vast majority (20) of the deals made by these teams occurred early in the offseason (June-July), with only 11 deals made around the deadline (January-February). Only 3 deals were made outside of those 2 ranges. That being said, all but 2 of the trades that I deemed a win occurred over the offseason. Rarely did any of these teams actually build their roster from a deadline deal. Winning trades is critical, as these contending teams collectively gathered 34 high impact players via trade, or an average of 4 top end starters per team.
With all that being said I think there’s a few takeaways as to how to approach trading. Be patient at wait for teams to face the consequences of their mistakes. Pouncing on a team mismanaging their cap or players is almost always a win for the buying team. Heck, ROR won a big trade for the buyer twice. Also, you don’t have to be a true contender to go after big pieces for tanking teams as long as they aren’t rentals. For the tanking team they just care about getting assets back to rebuild not the status of the trading team. In most cases the tanking team would be lucky to recoup the value of a Karlsson, Burns, or Kessel. When it comes to players swaps there isn’t much to say. They are helpful for balancing out a roster (Johansen-Jones a great example) but often don’t give you the opportunity to swindle another team. Finally, selling is very tricky. A smart contender sells early before cap becomes a problem and the GM is forced into a corner. The Faulk trade is the best example of knowing who you’re going to pay to getting the best value back for those left off that list.
So all that brings us to the Sabres and where they are now. In terms of roster construction 9 total draft picks on their starting roster with 6 currently starting in prominent roles. Prior to the deadline they had 8 players on their roster via trade, with 3 playing prominent roles. Those trades break down as follows:
Category 1: Colin Miller
Category 4: Henri Jokiharju, Marco Scandella
Category 5: Tage Thompson, Johan Larsson
Lastly, the Sabres had 4 traditional FA’s and 4 opportunity FA’s signed to their roster. So all in all, they’re one Kyle Okposo off from the average contender’s roster distribution which isn’t bad, and also highlights how one misstep can throw off everything.
Yet, contenders can still make mistakes such as in the Turris and Duchene trades, so how come they’re still good? This is where the Sabres need improvement, and it’s probably something you knew already. I refer to these as steals; acquisitions of players made with assets that are worth definitively less in terms of value to the team compared to the player acquired. These steals can be through the draft, FA, or trade, and represent an organizations ability to acquire talent with respect to every other organization. Buffalo has two acquisitions I would qualify as steals by the front office, Skinner and Victor Olofsson, and Olofsson wasn’t even drafted by this FO. Every contender listed here had no less than six acquisitions I referred to as steals. So yes, the Sabres are mostly good at matching roster construction, but the quality of their acquisitions is much lower.
But I’m sure we all could have said this already, so how do we fix it? By following the guidelines given by these successful teams.
1.) Draft well. Easier said than done but 1 good prospect goes a long way.
2.) Devalue draft picks in trades. Picks are unknowns and even if you’re scouting department is good luck could just not swing your way and give you nothing in return. If there is a player you want and you know they’ll stay long term, go for that player since those trades usually turn out well.
3.) Don’t overpay. The best players never reach free agency (although the atmosphere says that could be changing soon). Being stuck with unfair contracts is exactly what keeps teams from contending. Don’t give money out of desperation to players who were average-to-good elsewhere in hopes they can perform on your team as well. Hockey is a game of many variables and every acquisition comes with a level of risk so do not overcommit.
4.) Don’t overpay. Putting here again because of how important it is. For trades, moving multiple first round picks is almost always a losing situation so have that hard cap in mind in terms of trading assets. Avoid rental players; for the same reasons as above for FA’s, rentals often don’t have the impact people hope for and will likely leave making the move look worse. If a rental is absolutely necessary trade no more than a 2nd rounder.
5.) Trade smarter not harder. Teams make mistakes that’s why there’s winners and losers. Don’t panic at the deadline or sell off unhappy players if you know they have value. Capitalize on the blunders of other teams and don’t be afraid to trade young, uncertain talent for proven talent on its way out the door.
6.) Patience. Above all, be patient. Finishing bottom 10 comes with the extra expectation of bouncing back faster because of a top prospect. But young players take a long time to develop and will often hit their primes 7 or 8 years post draft. If you find yourself tanking don’t immediately push into win now mode because that player won’t really help you right away even if they have great potential. Instead, practice patience and due diligence in waiting for great deals to come along and slowly accumulating valuable players while your star talent ascends.
And that’s my incredibly long winded answer 100% backed by science. Of course everybody has their own opinion which is why I wanted to put as much of my findings here as possible so that I could hear how other people interpret it. It took me a while, and there were plenty of times where correlation and causation were skewed so it’s far from perfect, but I think these rules represent a good result/model that every team should follow. It might not always work out, Buffalo actually has three trades in categories that I would call highly likely to succeed, but two haven’t quite panned out (Montour and Miller). The timing of the Montour trade comes to mind, but no matter what you can’t win them all the only choice you have is to keep taking high percentage shots and believe your methodology is sound, because constantly changing your process is sure to net you nothing. If you somehow made it this far without skipping I praise and appreciate you, thanks!