clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How a Champion was Built: Selected Salary Cap Era Teams

In response to Friday’s post about how the New Jersey Devils championship teams were built, this post looks at more recent champions to see how they were built in the current Salary Cap Era. It turns out that the champions succeeded both at the draft and in other means to get players.

2022 Upper Deck NHL Draft - Round One
You think I just drafted my championship team? No, no, you do not understand.
Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

On Friday, I wrote a post detailing how each of the Stanley Cup winning New Jersey Devils teams were built. The long and short of it is that part of the core that won those Cups were drafted and part of it were from players acquired by other means. I even included the 2012 Stanley Cup Finalist Devils, which featured more free agent acquisitions than trade acquisitions, and touched a bit on the current roster. In the comments, some of the People Who Matter wanted to see some of the more recent champions to see how they were built. My prediction ahead of the rest of this post: Part of their core that drove them to win it all were drafted and part of it was acquired by other means. Since free agency after 2005 was opened up much more than before hand, expect to see some notable free agent signings among these teams.

Obviously, the New Jersey Devils have not won the Stanley Cup in the Salary Cap Era of the NHL. But I hope you can take away some lessons to learn from the teams that have. Let’s start with the one team that denied the Devils a Stanley Cup back in 2012: the Los Angeles Kings.

The 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings

As with the previous post about the Devils, the players selected for the following table are players who played at least once in the playoffs. If no backup goalie was included in the postseason, then I will use whoever played the second most games in the regular season. That certainly applies to the Kings, who used Jonathan Quick for all 20 games in 2012. And why not? He was stopping pucks at a mind-boggling 94.6% save percentage in all situations.

The 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Kings
The 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Kings
Hockey Reference

The NHL Draft did yield much of the Kings’ core in 2012. Dustin Brown was the captain. Anze Kopitar was a Slovenian Patrice Bergeron. Drew Doughty, who was picked second overall in 2008, led the blueline. Both of their goalies were drafted. The Kings’ success in 2012 (and 2014) would not happen without Brown, Quick, Doughty, or Kopitar.

Of course, similar to the Devils’ own Cup-winning teams, the Kings would not have won it all in 2012 without acquisitions from other sources. The trades that brought in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were absolutely important to strengthening the squad. Opponents could not just focus on Kopitar. The mid-season pick-up of Carter was huge with 8 playoff goals, just as many as Brown and Kopitar in 2012. While made much earlier, Justin Williams was also a key part to the forward core. Even if he didn’t have any Game 7s to score in, he still put up 15 points in 20 playoff games. Doughty absolutely led the blueline, but free agent signings Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi averaged big minutes in the playoffs: 25:19 and 21:44, respectively. Mitchell was often with Doughty while Scuderi was with the now-disgraced Slava Voynov. While perhaps not core players, Jarret Stoll and Dustin Penner - both acquired from Edmonton in different deals - provided their own contributions with Stoll averaging over 17 minutes per game and Penner putting up 11 points in a bottom-six role. The non-drafted Kings played important roles for their Cup win in 2012 - and several would stay on for the 2014 championship team too.

It is true that 12 of these 23 players (including Bernier) were drafted, but do not undersell the value of two of the three free agent signings or six of the eight players brought in by trade. They all had a hand in that torrid run to the Cup. Unfortunately for Our Favorite Team.

The 2022 Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche

They just won it all. Like the 2012 Kings, they stormed through the Western Conference and played a mere 20 playoff games. My first thought was that this was a team built and driven by their drafted players. The reality, well, is not so cut and dry.

The 2022 Stanley Cup Champion Avalanche
The 2022 Stanley Cup Champion Avalanche
Hockey Reference

Up front, you can see the value of drafting early and really well. Nathan MacKinnon has absolutely lived up to being the first overall pick in 2013. Cale Makar is currently seen as the best player in the 2017 NHL Draft class. Mikko Rantanen has been a point machine and one of many players picked after Pavel Zacha that the People Who Matter cited when griping about Zacha. Gabriel Landeskog has been a core player shortly after he was picked in 2011. Clearly, this is a team that drafted their way to the top.

Then you look at the rest of the team and realize the Stanley Cup winning roster only had six players drafted by the team. All first rounders, four of them being absolutely great, but still just 6 drafted players out of 23. More than Los Angeles or any of the Devils’ teams that went all the way to the Finals, the 2022 Avalanche really needed to find success with their other acquisitions.

Which they absolutely did. Free agent signing Valeri Nichushkin played big in the playoffs with over 20 minutes per game of ice time and 9 goals. Nazem Kadri, acquired from Toronto, put up nearly a point per game in the postseason with 15 points in 16 games. Artturi Lehkonen was an inspired mid-season pickup and rewarded Joe Sakic’s deal for him with 8 goals and 14 points in the postseason. Andre Burakovsky did not play a ton, but he did put up 8 points in 12 games with limited minutes. Those were crucial performances. Not to mention most of the depth roles were taken up by players either Sakic traded for or signed (and in Nicolas Aube-Kubel’s case, picked up on waivers). Makar deservedly wowed the hockey world on defense. That same defense also featured a lot of Devon Toews (a trade pick-up, also 15 points) along with support in depth from Josh Manson (a mid-season trade pick up), Erik Johnson (traded to Colorado over a decade earlier), and just 7 games of Samuel Girard (another trade pick-up). That is most of the blueline. Then there’s the goaltenders. Kuemper was acquired in a trade from Arizona. Pavel Francouz (like Logan O’Connor) was an undrafted free agent; signed out of Europe to support the net. The tandem perhaps was not amazing but they didn’t need to be with how much the Avalanche scored.

I can agree that drafting early and extremely well created a core for Colorado that should keep them as contenders for several years to come. But they did not win the 2022 Cup with those four drafted players alone. The many acquisitions by Joe Sakic (11 traded players!) and free agents (5) were as instrumental to their amazing playoff run.

The 2021 Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning

As unusual as the 2021 season was due to a global COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Tampa Bay Lightning played a full playoff and won their second straight championship. Most of that team was on the 2022 squad that fell short to Colorado. Here is how they were built:

The 2021 Stanley Cup Champion Lightning
The 2021 Stanley Cup Champion Lightning
Hockey Reference

Here is a team where the draft has provided the aces to lead the Lightning in all three positions. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the rare example of a first round drafted goaltender working out well beyond expectations. Victor Hedman has been running the Tampa Bay defense for over a decade. Seen Stamkos? You will when you see the Lightning attack as he is frequently on the scoresheet. What made the Lightning’s attack so frightening (and still frightening to this day) then was how much they got from beyond the first round. Nikita Kucherov was a monster in the 2021 playoffs with 32 points in 23 games. He remains one of the best second round picks since Bergeron in 2003. Brayden Point was someone who should have went a lot earlier than he did in the 2014 NHL Draft. The third rounder has been a stud for the Lightning and showed his worth further in this playoff run with 14 goals and 23 points in 23 games. The rest of the top six were also finds from deeper in the draft in Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Anthony Cirelli. Tampa Bay is an example of how to build a team through the draft, right

They are - to a point. Tampa Bay is a great example of how hitting big on a second or later round pick can be huge for a team. The 2021 Lightning had 10 drafted players and only three first round selections. While important, the most recent of those three was back in 2012. Hitting on Kucherov, Point, and Cirelli was massive in strengthening the team years later.

As 22 players participated in the playoffs, that means 11 players were acquired outside of the draft. They did make up the depth of the forwards and, more importantly, the bulk of the Lightning defense. Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak were acquired in trades and all played significant minutes behind Hedman. As good as Hedman has been for Tampa Bay, you will find few Lightning fans who will tell you that McDonagh and Sergachev were not important for their defense. Or that Cernak was just a guy - the ten points and near 20 minutes per game average in the playoffs is not what ‘just a guy’s do. Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson were both undrafted free agents, who both supplanted the bottom six. Barclay Goodrow beefed up the bottom-six after a 2020 trade from San Jose; as did Blake Coleman in another 2020 trade but from the Devils.

Tampa Bay’s Cup in 2020, 2021, and their run to the Finals in 2022 were absolutely driven by a core that was mostly drafted. The featured players on offense, their top defenseman, and their backbone of a goaltender were all from the draft. Still, the Tampa Bay Lightning marched to those Cups with their deep rosters, that consisted of mostly players management traded for or signed. As the salary cap constraints forced some of those moves and other players (e.g. Palat) moving on, I would anticipate more moves and not less. Just like this other champion within the last decade:

The 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins

Like Tampa Bay, the Penguins were (and are) led by their 2004 second overall pick Evgeni Malkin and 2005 first overall pick Sidney Crosby. In 2017, though, the squad was a lot more than just those two and Marc-Andre Fleury leading the way. Again, due in part to cap constraints and due in part in trying to keep ahead of the pack, the roster saw plenty of changes from the past Penguins teams.

The 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins
The 2017 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins
Hockey Reference

For over 15 years, the core of the Penguins were as follows: Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, and Kris Letang. Letang is not on this chart as he missed the entire playoffs due to injury. Beyond those four, there have been a heap of changes. The Penguins have had to dig deep into pro scouting as well as amateur scouting to get the players to build around those four. Not to mention being willing to move a player for someone with perhaps more team control of the contract or a contract that will fit under a cap or a player who may not be as good as they were earlier.

The draft has yielded some of those players to help keep the Penguins competitive beyond those four. 2012 third rounder Matt Murray was important in 2016’s Cup win and arguably out-performed Fleury in 2017. The selections of Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel in the third rounds of 2013 and 2010, respectively, were bigger than anyone expected as they have blossomed into top forwards. The selection of Olli Maatta in 2012’s first round also turned out well. With Letang out, Maatta was forced to play big minutes. For a team that picked just once in the top ten of a NHL Draft since 2006 (2012, Derrick Pouliot at 8th overall), those finds were important. As were moving other prospects while they still had perceived value for the many, many trades. This resulted in a team that had 10 drafted players, 11 acquired by trade, and 4 free agents.

One of the reasons why the 2017 Penguins’ playoff run was so successful was the HBK Line. A forward trio made up of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. All were acquired by Pittsburgh in different trades. The line forced oppositions to deal with three scoring lines whenever Malkin and Crosby were apart. This opened up offensive opportunities for the Penguins, which they gladly took. The non-drafted acquisitions went beyond this one line. The wingers for Malkin and Crosby often included Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz, who were both acquired in deals long before 2017. Conor Sheary, an undrafted free agent, provided adequate depth. The kind of wheeling and dealing that brought in Kessel, Hornqvist, Kunitz, Bonino, Hagelin, and so forth kept the Penguins’ offense viable outside of Crosby and Malkin for years. It helped them go over the top in 2016 as well as in 2017.

Another one of the reasons why the 2017 Penguins’ playoff run was so successful was an unheralded defense without Letang. Maatta did play important minutes, but he was not even the minutes leader. That belonged to Brian Dumoulin, who was acquired in a trade in 2012. The veteran Ron Hainsey also averaged more minutes per playoff game than Maatta; he was a mid-season acquisition. Pittsburgh salvaged Justin Schultz’ career from Edmonton after he was acquired. Trevor Daley and Ian Cole filled out the defense and both were also acquired by trades. Most of this blueline will not look impressive on paper, but they got the job done on a championship run. All while their best defenseman was unavailable to play. Again, the kind of trades Pittsburgh was making made this possible.

If you define a core narrowly, then the Penguins’ core would be all drafted players - and just the four players mentioned earlier. But this Cup was a function of another strong team effort in conjunction with those top players being picked 12-14 years earlier.

The 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals

If you want an example of a team being built largely through the draft, then look to the 2018 Washington Capitals. They ended a franchise-long history of falling short by beating Las Vegas. And the vast majority of that squad were picked by the Capitals at one point or another.

The 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals
The 2018 Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals
Hockey Reference

The 2018 Capitals had 15 drafted players out of 25 players that appeared in the playoffs. Granted, that number is boosted by spot appearances from Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Shane Gersich, and Phillipp Grubauer. However, there is no question that the core of the team and much of the roster was acquired through the draft.

The team’s ace, the Putinist Alex Ovechkin, is the obvious standout as he was picked first overall in 2004. Nicklas Bakcstrom has been running with him since 2006. What is impressive is how much the 2018 Capitals got out of their first rounders outside of the top-ten. Evgeny Kuznetsov was the leading scorer on this Cup run and would be seen as a top forward if he was on a team that did not have Ovechkin or Backstrom. John Carlson has emerged as the team’s best defenseman and a crucial part of how they play. His 20 points and 25-and-a-half minute average in this playoff run speaks for itself. Tom Wilson has the reputation of being a chump and can actually play hockey well when he is not being a chump. Andre Burakovsky only got into 13 games in this Cup run but still chipped in 6 points while averaging fewer than 11 minutes per game. Jakub Vrana played in more games, averaged fewer than 12 minutes per game, and added 8 points. The first rounders were throughout the lineup and outside of Ovechkin and Backstrom, they were not early picks.

Like Tampa Bay, Washington found plenty of success outside of the first round to help elevate this team. Braden Holtby in the fourth round of the 2008 draft was a huge get as he was Washington’s top goalie for eight seasons (this was the sixth of those eight). Dmitry Orlov in the second round of the 2009 draft was massive. Orlov is basically another Carlson in terms of eating a lot of minutes and spitting plenty of offense back at the opposition. Chandler Stephenson filled out the depth with Vrana and Burakovsky; as did Christian Djoos on defense. Drafting successfully means not needing to sign or trade for players to fill in roles.

That said, the Capitals did have some of that. I do not think many Capitals fans will tell you that T.J. Oshie was (and is) not a core player. The trade for him in 2015 was an important one. Lars Eller played significantly on this team and other Caps teams; he was another successful trade. Unlike the other teams in this post, the Capitals got more out of their free agent signings. The big one, Matt Niskanen, rivaled Carlson in terms of average ice time per game in this Cup run. It clearly paid off. While playing deeper in the lineup, Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Jay Beagle (an undrafted free agent) all served their purposes for a viable third or fourth line in this championship series. That stated, it is just four out of six free agents (your mileage may vary about the importance of Alex Chiasson and Brooks Orpik in 2018) and two out of four traded players.

Out of the five teams I selected for this post, the 2018 Washington Capitals are the one team that can most accurately being built through the draft. As much as Oshie, Niskanen, and Eller were important for the one and so far only Cup win in Washington history, both goalies were drafted, two of the three top defensemen were drafted, and their top scorers were drafted along with plenty of contributing depth in the lineup. This is the team a NHL Draft can build. It is also a team that has yet to go beyond the first round since winning the Cup in 2018. However, the post is about championship teams being built and not whether they are consistent playoff contenders (much like the Capitals’ history: the regular seasons say yes or maybe, the lack of playoff runs say no).

One More Thing

One of the benefits of drafting well is getting quality players on entry level contracts. Should these young players hit the ice gliding in the NHL, then they can easily out-perform these six-figure-at-max contracts. This can allow a team to spend elsewhere in the short term to strengthen the team. Likewise, that first contract after an ELC could come in much cheaper than expected depending on whether it is a bridge deal or a stepping stone towards something more lucrative. To that end, how many players on these teams were on ELCs? Unless I missed something (and I may have), the number is quite small:

  • 2012 Kings (5): Slava Voynov, Jordan Nolan, Kyle Clifford, Andrei Loktionov, Dwight King
  • 2022 Avalanche (2): Bowen Byram, Alex Newhook
  • 2021 Lightning (0)
  • 2017 Penguins (4): Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, Conor Sheary, Josh Archibald
  • 2018 Capitals (2): Jakub Vrana, Shane Gersich

I was surprised to see the 2021 Lightning have zero ELC players, but their younger players were on their second contracts. The importance of some of these players varied from team to team. For the 2012 Kings, Voynov played a lot on defense but the other four were essentially depth players with Clifford and Loktionov only playing 3 and 2 games, respectively. For the 2022 Avalanche, Byram did play a lot on defense and Newhook did get into games, so there was some importance there. For the 2017 Penguins, they benefitted the most as Murray and Guentzel were very good during their ELC years and in that Cup run. Sheary and Archibald, less important. And the 2018 Capitals had Vrana in a depth role and Gersich play in 2 games.

What this shows me is that while these teams likely needed any relief they could find, most of their roster was filled with players who were past those cheap ELC years. Some teams did benefit from some players getting a relatively low second contract that they would outperform. Bryan Rust and Brian Dumoulin on that 2017 Penguins immediately come to mind as examples. However, other teams saw the younger members of the core already inked to huge extensions as their team went to win it all. Immediate examples of that are Drew Doughty back in 2012 and Cale Makar in 2022. I absolutely agree it is useful to have top talent out-perform their ELC and negotiate somewhat favorable extensions from there. I do not think these five champions took a huge advantage of that, though. In the case of these five champions, even the drafted players of their respective cores were not only well-established but also well-paid. Maybe it is the case with other teams, I am not certain.

Takeaways & Your Take

My initial thought at the beginning of this post was partially incorrect. Despite a more wide open free agency process under the current salary cap; there were not many notable free agents that pushed these teams to success. There were a couple: Nichushkin for Colorado, Mitchell and Scuderi for Los Angeles, and Niskanen for Washington. Still, the cores of these five championship teams were either drafted or acquired through trades. Which was mostly how the Devils’ own championship teams were built too. As much as the salary cap era has changed how teams are managed, the general approach for a successful team remains the same. An organization needs to draft well and make beneficial acquisitions through trades and other methods (free agency if possible).

It is true that drafting the top end players is the cheapest way to get them and it is easier to lock them up long term. It is not true that these five teams leaned on players outperforming their entry-level contracts to be able to get the players they needed or just to have room. Sure, there was some, well, creative approaches to the cap - looking at you, 2021 Lightning - but again, look at when those important players were drafted. Most of them were picked well before the team won it all. One can interpret that as needing patience for the player to develop. True. One can also interpret that as the organization needing time to bring in the players to build around them. Which is also true - even though time is always fleeting.

How does this apply to the Devils? Clearly, Tom Fitzgerald (and Ray Shero before him) is betting on the draft picks to form the core. Although some of those players have not worked out in the eyes of management - Pavel Zacha and Ty Smith have been dealt away and Michael McLeod ended up being a fourth line center - Fitzgerald has made it clear that the “pillars” of the team include Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. He’s betting on Mackenzie Blackwood. I think he should have bet on Jesper Bratt, but this Summer’s signing right before arbitration gives me pause that he and/or someone else in the organization does not think so. I think it is expected that Alexander Holtz, Luke Hughes, and Simon Nemec join said core in the future. OK. Now, can Fitzgerald build a team around said core? So far, the last two seasons suggest not. Yes, yes, injuries, COVID, development, and so forth. Will the stars align for 2022-23? For Fitzgerald’s sake and the Devils, I hope so. We’ll see. Then it will be about taking the next step.

If nothing else, though, these five recent championship teams show there is no “golden ratio” for how a team is built. Draft well, trade well, and sign free agents well (this includes undrafted free agents), and the team will be well off. It is not an “or” and failing at one or two of them will likely lead to failure.

That all stated, what are your takeaways from looking at how five teams from the salary cap era have been built? Which one has surprised you the most? (For me, it’s Colorado’s 2022 Cup-winning team.) What else did you learn from this post? What did you takeaway from this that should apply to the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this post in the comments. Thank you for reading.