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Posted: Wednesday March 18, 2009 12:08PM; Updated: Wednesday March 18, 2009 12:43PM
Michael Farber Michael Farber >
ON THE FLY

Beware name brand coaches and draft lottery tanking

Story Highlights

Patrick Roy has the paper and skills to be a good fit as coach of the Avalanche

The downside: big name coach buzz can wear off fast and he doesn't sell tickets

The draft lottery addressed the tanking issue, but still doesn't go far enough

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Former Avs hero Patrick Roy has continued collecting hardware as a coach in the QMJHL.
Mike Dembeck/Getty Images

The natives are restless in Colorado. Avalanche coach Tony Granato, Take 2, appears to be on the hot seat. The team is foundering. Pepsi Center sellouts in what had been one of the most robust American markets are ancient history. So where can a suddenly struggling franchise turn?

You say Patrick Roy, who has been in the news a lot because of Martin Brodeur's run at his career wins record. Roy, now owner/GM/coach of the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has a small but intriguing coaching portfolio. He won a Memorial Cup in his first season as a junior coach in 2006. (In that final he absolutely owned Ted Nolan, who was coaching Moncton.) Of course, Roy has had the advantage of acting as his own GM, which ensures that the lines of communication are clear. He might not be as easy to work with in a more customary chain-of-command NHL system.

Roy carries baggage -- his temper, especially -- but a lot of that luggage is high-end, Louis Vuitton-type stuff. He has conspicuous passion and undeniable hockey smarts. He also has an ability to motivate, at least at a junior level. While his combustibility might be incompatible with coaching pros, eventually some team is going to find out about his upside.

The one thing Roy does not have is the ability to sell tickets.

This is a fact of life so many organizations miss when they hire a coach for the marquee. While a "name" like Wayne Gretzky might initially generate buzz, the buzz quickly turns into a small hum if the team doesn't play demonstrably better than it had under the previous Brand X coach. No one with a lick of sense is going to buy tickets to watch a Gretzky or a Roy stand behind a bench in a suit.

If Colorado does want Roy, it should be because they think he can remake the team, run a bench and handle players. The Avalanche should want him for the right reasons -- as a coach, not a marketing tool.

A tanking prevention plan

In the hubbub over the 100th season of the Montreal Canadiens, another noteworthy anniversary has been unfairly overlooked: the promotion of minor league goaltender Vincent Tremblay to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984.

Twenty-five years ago, Tremblay was recalled from the AHL to replace Roberto Romano. Poor Romano. He had the nerve to win consecutive games and there was no way Ed Johnston was going to tolerate anything as detrimental to his Penguins as a couple of unexpected victories. The GM called up Tremblay from the Baltimore Skipjacks to "see what he can do" although Johnston, a former NHL goalie himself, already had a fair idea. Tremblay started four consecutive games in January, gave up 24 goals, and put Pittsburgh back on track.

The Penguins didn't want wins. They wanted Mario Lemieux.

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The franchise fortunes-turning skills of young Mario Lemieux presented a great temptation to lose in the stretch of the '84 season.
Denis Brodeur/Getty Images

Lemieux was the catch in the '84 draft. While Kirk Muller was destined to be an acceptable consolation prize, the Penguins, in a tortoise race with New Jersey for last place in the 21-team NHL, were determined to finish first by finishing last. The franchise was willing to do a full Tremblay because the rewards for tanking were far greater than those for finishing 20th, although not even Johnston could have guessed that Lemieux would become the single most important figure in the history of that, or maybe any, team.

There was no draft lottery in those years, of course, which allowed all kinds of shenanigans. Some were marvelously creative, like the handiwork of Canadiens GM Sam Pollock, who already had secured the Oakland Seals' first pick in the 1971 draft but wanted to assure himself a shot at drafting Guy Lafleur. During the season, Pollock traded veteran center Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles in a successful gambit that allowed the Kings to finish ahead of the feckless Seals.

Some plots were hopelessly ham-fisted, like the meeting between four players and Ottawa Senators board chairman Bruce Firestone, who discussed tanking the final game of the 1992-93 season against Boston to guarantee finishing last so the team could draft Alexandre Daigle. (Like your mother said, be careful what you wish for.)

Indeed, after they became public, Ottawa's musings on the subject of tanking prompted the NHL to introduce a lottery system for the 1995 draft. The current method allows the five worst teams to have a shot at the first pick. (No team can move up more than four spots or drop more than one.) The odds of the 30th place team getting the No. 1 pick are 48.2 per cent. All of which brings us to the temptations of the John Tavares Sweepstakes.

Unless a team prefers a tall Swedish drink of water named Victor Hedman, a 6'4" defenseman who had an indifferent World Junior Championship, Tavares, the best scorer in Ontario junior league history, should go No. 1. The good news is there have been no Tremblay-esque signs of teams lining up for what amounts to an almost one-in-two shot at a nifty forward who projects as an NHL scorer.

While there is no pressure on any bottom feeder at this point in the schedule, the New York Islanders have been playing with a sense of purpose, the Atlanta Thrashers put together a franchise-best winning streak, and the Toronto Maple Leafs gamely soldier on because, as coach Ron Wilson says, if you don't try your best to win, you create a culture of losing that can haunt a franchise forever. (Credit Wilson for successfully requesting a recent late-game stick measurement on Ottawa's Jason Spezza; teams looking to lose don't pull out all stops like that to win.)

The bad news is the weighted lottery still does not do enough to ensure probity. Finishing 30th this year guarantees you Tavares or Hedman -- and it does not quiet the chatter of fans who have tumbled through the rabbit's hole and view losing as winning.

The solution is simple. Instead of weighting the lottery, the NHL should open it to all 14 teams that fail to make the playoffs. Random order. If you happen to be, say, the Carolina Hurricanes and you finish ninth in the Eastern Conference, you should have as good a chance as adding the top draft-eligible players as the Phoenix Coyotes or Colorado Avalanche. At a time when the integrity of games should be the NHL's top priority, altering the draft would remove any incentive for a team to even ponder the idea of failing to play its best lineup, and stop the talk-radio noise that is poisonous to the league.

Unless those socialists on the NHL Board of Governors want to continue to reward incompetence, they owe it to the league to change the system.

YOUR TURN: Agree? Disagree? Weigh in here.

 
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