So the Super Bowl was on Sunday, and you’ll never guess who won.
Oh right, you would, because it was the team that wins all the time. The New England Patriots captured their fifth title of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, and second in the last three years. Factor in two other AFC championships and thirteen division titles in fourteen years, there’s little doubt that the Patriots have established themselves as the model franchise in not just the NFL, but all of pro sports.
So what can NHL teams learn from them?
That’s a bit of a tricky question. Hockey and football are very different sports. And many key Patriot trademarks, like smart drafting and development and game-planning to take away an opponents’ strengths, are things that every team tries to do. More importantly, not every team can have an all-time legend at the sport’s most important position fall into their lap with a sixth-round pick.
But there are some lessons that we can learn from the Patriots’ success that would be applicable to other sports, and NHL coaches are apparently already taking note. So love them or hate them, here are five things the Patriots could probably teach your favorite hockey team.
Don’t be afraid of trading
Mention a trade to most NHL GMs, and you’ll get a familiar refrain: It’s too hard. The cap complicates everything, prices are too high, the market isn’t quite set yet. You don’t want to trade when things are going bad, because that’s when you’ll be pressured into a mistake. But you also don’t want to trade when things are going well, because then you’ll mess up your chemistry. Better to just sit back, play it conservative and stick with what you’ve got.
Meanwhile, the Patriots do this:
Patriots have made 62 trades outside of draft day since 2001, including 8 since the start of last offseason; both figures, most in the NFL.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 5, 2017
It’s true that the trading landscape is very different in the NFL, the deadline comes much earlier in the season, and player-for-player trades are far rarer.
But the point is that the Patriots don’t sit around looking for excuses to stand pat. They reshape the roster aggressively, even when they’re having success, and they do it with every tool available to them. More than a few NHL GMs could learn a lesson from that.
For what it’s worth, many of those Patriots trades fall into a specific category that could use its own section.
Deal your way down the draft
Belichick is the master of trading down in the draft, stockpiling picks along the way. It’s become almost a punchline, and it doesn’t work out every time, but the philosophy is clear: More picks are better than high picks.
We’re seeing this sort of thinking trickle into the NHL, with mixed results. The Maple Leafs seemed to be following the Belichick model in 2015, trading down twice to turn a late-first-round pick into an early second, another second and a third. Then that first round pick turned into Travis Konecny, which might give some GMs pause when it comes to following the Leafs’ lead.
Still, once you get past the top few picks, the NHL draft starts to feel like a lottery, and the best way to win a lottery is to have as many tickets as possible. The math says that trading down is usually smart, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see more teams applying the idea as much as possible.
Belichick takes it one step further, occasionally trading a pick in the current draft for a better pick in future years. Legendary Habs’ GM Sam Pollock was the master of that move, but today’s NHL teams don’t do it very often, leaving it as a tactic that could be open for exploiting.
Character counts, but don’t pay for it
NHL teams love to talk about knowing how to win. To hear them tell it, winning isn’t just an end goal – it’s a skill, one that some people have and some just don’t.
That’s why teams are so eager to get into bidding wars for players who have a reputation as a winner, and so eager to move on from anyone who doesn’t fit that mold. Every year, we see huge chunks of cap space spent on character and intangibles. Never mind that those same deals often end up being among the very worst mistakes made each year, NHL GMs can’t get enough of them.
Compare that to how things work in New England. You could say that they don’t need to pay for winners, because they’ve already won. But that’s the whole point. To the Patriots, a winning environment is something you build from the inside out, not something you go out and buy on the open market.
If anything, the Patriots go the other way – they target players who’ve been discarded elsewhere over concerns about attitude or intangibles. From Randy Moss to Chad Johnson to Corey Dillon to LeGarrette Blount, the Pats focus on skill, and let the character lesson take care of itself. Most hockey teams seem to prefer the reverse, and they pay for it.
Loyalty is for losers
That sounds harsh, but it’s hard to argue that a big part of the fabled “Patriot way” involves discarding anyone who no longer fits the plan. That includes fan favorites, beloved veterans, guys who’ve won rings with you — everyone. From Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Vince Wilfork to Jamie Collins, Belichick and the Patriots won’t hesitate to send a star player packing if he doesn’t represent value anymore.
Even Brady has suggested that Belichick would “absolutely” trade him too if he thought it made sense. He’s not wrong.
Compare that approach to most NHL teams, who view loyalty as a sacred virtue. Letting an established player walk away for nothing is considered a cardinal sin in NHL circles, so GMs scramble to lock in as many players as possible to long-term deals. And if that player has helped you win a championship, well, you make sure they’re taken care of. It’s how otherwise smart teams end up signing albatross contracts like Bryan Bickell and Dustin Brown.
Granted, the NFL’s lack of guaranteed contracts makes it easier to move on. But if anything, that should make NHL teams even more careful about falling into the loyalty trap, knowing how much it will cost to escape from those deals. Instead, GMs can’t seem to help themselves.
Not the Patriots. When it comes to putting the best roster in place, they’re absolutely heartless. That can be tough on fans who see their favorite players tossed aside, but it helps in the win column.
Exploit every advantage
Belichick and the Pats are famous for finding and exploiting every possible edge. New England fans call that smart. Fans of other teams have been known to call it “cheating,” which is a debate for another day. But even if we put aside the video-taping, deflated balls and malfunctioning headsets, the Pats’ mantra is clear: Do absolutely anything, no matter how small, that might help you on the scoreboard.
In a sense, this doesn’t feel like it should be on the list, since it basically boils down to “always do everything you can to win.” What team doesn’t do that?
Well… plenty of NHL teams don’t, at least when it comes to certain areas. Take offer sheets, for example. Young players just entering their prime are gold in today’s NHL, and you’d think that poaching one from a rival would be a top priority for any GM. Instead, there’s a virtual league-wide ban on taking advantage of a tool that’s sitting right there for anyone to use.
That’s just one example. Some teams refuse to ask their players to waive NTCs. Some still don’t bother with analytics. Some refuse to exploit CBA loopholes. The list goes on. In the grand scheme, most of those examples are small things. But the Patriots realize that in a parity-driven league, the small things add up to big edges.
Let’s face it, put Bill Belichick behind an NHL bench and he’d be calling for illegal stick measurements on every second play. Why? Because he could. Doing everything possible to try to win games shouldn’t seem like a controversial stance to take, but in the NHL, it sometimes seems to be.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
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