Thursday, October 23, 2008

O Doctor: The art of truly bottoming out

by Trevor Stewart, O Doctor

When Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner (pictured) seized control of Windsor Spitfires as part of the new ownership group little more than two years ago, a certain amount of skepticism was fair.

Boughner went straight from playing in the NHL to coaching in the OHL, which is almost unheard of since the age of career coaches began a generation ago. Rychel, as GM, wasn’t far from his playing days. Did the pair have the foresight and experience to right the ship, or were they looking for a toy?

You are your record in hockey and it's looking more like the Windsor guys have a handle on new OHL realties as much as anyone else. The Spitfires are 12-1-0, ranked No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League. Almost everyone else was slower getting to the same point.

“We went young two years ago ... we made those young kids play,” Rychel says of his current leaders.

Rychel didn’t wait until the 2006-07 trade deadline to start making deals, so the young players started getting ice early on. It may have led to a 43-loss, 43-point plod through the 68-game season, but it was like jumping the green light on a rebuild. Last season was a case of a still young Spitfires team being labelled as "surprising" as it climbed to No. 4 in Canada at one point.

The Spits began the season as league favourites. They’ve responded by rolling through the OHL despite the league’s most brutal early-season schedule -– 10-of-13 games on the road, including the team’s longest road trip of the season -– Windsor to Ottawa, Kingston and Belleville.

Two things that the Windsor architects have figured out, making a rapid-fire turnaround from the limping team, wounded by the airing of Akim Aliu-Steve Downie, hazing ritual incident before Boughner and Rychel took over:

The old stardard still stands – shrewd talent evaluation.

Rychel, who was a scout for the Phoenix Coyotes and knew the OHL well before he bought into the Spitfires, has proven to be an adept evaluator of talent. He traded for Josh Bailey and drafted Greg Nemisz, who were first-round 2008 NHL draft picks in his first year. He drafted Kingston's Taylor Hall, who had only moved into Ontario from Western Canada with his family a couple years earlier. Hall might end up being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. In the same draft year, he nabbed potential 2009 NHL first-rounder Ryan Ellis after 19 of the 20 other OHL teams bypassed the smallish defenceman.

The new reality is that building an OHL powerhouse has to happen fast in today’s league. It can mean playing more young players more often in their rookie and sophomore seasons. It means biting the bullet for a truly woeful season in order to have a top-flight season within the next two. Point being, there's an art to bottoming out.

Middle-of-the-pack seasons only beget more middle-of-the-pack seasons.

"We cleaned out a lot that first year and we’re starting to develop pros," Rychel says, inadvertently pointing out a brutal reality for today’s OHL teams. In the what the hockey media has been calling "the NHL's new salary-cap era" for the past few years, the better junior clubs evaluate and develop the right talent, the more likely the NHL is to snap them up prematurely.

There are currently six of the OHL’s brightest lights from the 2008 NHL draft class with their National League teams, including Windsor’s Bailey (who is currently being held out of the N.Y. Islanders lineup with an undisclosed injury). That’s six major building blocks OHL teams would love have to work with. (Seven if you include the fact the Sudbury Wolves could have Nikita Filatov on their midst.) And that’s just the 2008 draft class.

To think Windsor is this good now after reeling off three weekend wins in three days on their longest road trip of the season –- which included a return to Ottawa where Rychel once captained the 67’s –- and the Spits could be even better with Bailey back in the lineup.

"It's a catch-22 for us," Rychel told a Newsday reporter a couple of weeks ago. "We want to see guys graduate to the NHL. That means we're doing our jobs. But selfishly, on the other hand … he would be huge for us, especially as our No. 1 center and captain, on and off the ice.”

The league-leading Spitfires begin another three-game weekend Thursday with a good matchup against the Western Conference’s third-place team, the Guelph Storm – speaking of teams that have lost their leader to the NHL. How much would Guelph fans love having Drew Doughty anchoring that team, instead of being in Los Angeles? Those days are disappearing fast, though, and the Windsor guys are riding the wave instead of getting crushed by it.


Duane Rollins said...

The new reality is that building an OHL powerhouse has to happen fast in today’s league. It can mean playing more young players more often in their rookie and sophomore seasons. It means biting the bullet for a truly woeful season in order to have a top-flight season within the next two. Point being, there's an art to bottoming out.

Is that really a new reality? There has always been two ways to build a CHL team. The be truly awful with a bunch of 17-year olds so that you will be a contender when they are 19 model. And there is the 7-7-7 model (seven 17-year-olds, seven at 18 and 7 at 19).

For years, most junior clubs went with the first approach. You were awful, then OK, and then finally awesome before starting the cycle again.

However, the 7-7-7 approach has been more the rage in recent years. It's the way Kitchener and London stay on top every year. The idea is that there is no reason to ever bottom out if you are constantly rotating your top players through (the 19-year-olds mentor the 18s, who then mentor the 17s when they are 18 and so on).

Both models can work although the 7-7-7 has the advantage of giving you good chance every year, rather than a really good chance once every three. It also gives you more flexibility to trade young players for vets at the deadline if you seem to have a shot. With the cycles method you had better make sure that you have the right 19-year-olds or you are screwed and three years away from making it better.

Anonymous said...

Brian Kilrea has never opted for the all or nothing approach.
That's why you almost never see his teams at the bottom of the standings.
The 67's might be in the middle of the pack in an "off" year, but "Killer" has never believed in the approach of sacrificing the present or the future for building a team.
Ottawa fans have become spoiled with this franchise.
The 67's have hardly ever had an embarrassingly bad team.

John Edwards said...

I think most teams try to go for 7-7-7 initially, but if they sense they're close to making a run, teams are often too willing bet some (or all) of the younger 7 on the 2 or 3 19-year-olds who they think could put them over the top.

This is a short-term solution of course, and inevitably is repaid in the next year or two.

As for Ottawa, check out the early-to-mid 90s, around the time of Kilrea's Second Retirement. That was some Grade A crap at the Civic Centre in those days.