There’s this small circle on the Venn Diagram of NHL teams that I like to call the Zone of Pain.
In the eye of this proverbial hurricane, teams endure year after year of “okay”-ness. They’re too talented to compete in the draft lottery, but not talented enough to make the playoffs. The Zone of Pain has had a handful of suitors over the years: the Minnesota Wild in the mid-2010s, the Philadelphia Flyers before their colossal meltdown this season, and now, the Detroit Red Wings.
Fortunately, the Red Wings aren’t in the same situation as the two aforementioned teams. Rather than stay afloat in a mire of mediocrity, Detroit is building something bigger at a pace of their own. Winning the draft lottery does wonders for rebuilding teams. It offers the chance at the top talent in a draft and a chance to find a near-guaranteed fixture in a lineup.
Without the help of the lottery, the Wings have had no choice but to stay the course. So far, it’s paid off. Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider are two keystones of the future. Up-and-comers like Albert Johanssen and Jonatan Berggren plan to push for roster spots next season. Last year’s first-round pick, Simon Edvinsson, has more than lived up to his draft spot. Additionally, the Red Wings pick eighth overall in just a few weeks.
With that said, what can we learn from Zones of Pain in the past — and what pitfalls should the team avoid moving forward?
First overall picks and the downsides of draft purgatory
In the last 10 years, six teams have won the Stanley Cup. Five of those teams have won with at least one first or second overall pick on their roster:
- Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos (1OA), Victor Hedman (2OA)
- Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin (1OA),
- Pittsburgh Penguins: Marc-Andre Fleury (1OA), Sidney Crosby (1OA), Evgeni Malkin (2OA)
- Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane (1OA)
- Los Angeles Kings: Drew Doughty (2OA)
The only outlier of the roster is the St. Louis Blues, a team without a bona fide superstar (unless you believe a 29-year-old Alex Pietrangelo was superstar-caliber). The Blues won based on their depth and ability to play to each others’ strengths. While they received plenty of help from elite players like Pietrangelo and Ryan O’Reilly, it required the whole of their team, rather than the sum of its parts, to win it all.
Star power can be a difference-maker in the playoffs, but what separates the winners ultimately comes down to dollars and cents.
15 of the 20 highest-paid players in the NHL are no longer in the playoffs. Realistically, even fewer will remain by the time the next round arrives. Team salary is the biggest factor in Cup contention — which is why the next point is ever-lingering:
Beware the day of reckoning
The Toronto Maple Leafs, according to The Athletic’s analytics model, have five players considered star-caliber or higher by GSVA — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Michael Bunting, and William Nylander. Despite the undeniable talent at their disposal, they were flattened by the Lightning in the first round for the sixth straight time in Matthews’ career. Next season, five players on Toronto’s roster will make up half of their salary cap space. They’ll also need to re-sign starter Jack Campbell, who will command a much higher salary than the $1.65M he made this season. It gets worse if you add in players like Petr Mrazek. Take a look:
Leafs 22/23 salary cap.— Shawn Simpson (@TSNSimmer) May 15, 2022
62 million on these 8.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, on the other hand, took a different route. Captain Crosby took a steep discount to sign with the team. Malkin, who would have easily commanded $10M per season, chose a $7.1M salary instead. The extra freedom in their cap space allowed the Penguins to sign key depth players to win back-to-back Cups. This isn’t to necessarily say that Matthews & Co. were in the wrong for accepting big salaries. It’s just something that Yzerman will need to keep an eye out for over the next few years.
Seider and Raymond are two years away from their big contract extensions. Their decision can and will affect how the team operates moving forward.
How the draft purgatory could pay off
With all this said, the draft purgatory remains an ever-looming threat. Missing out on top-talent puts the Red Wings at a massive disadvantage in every conceivable way. In order to compete, the team needs a slew of things to go right: luck, flexibility, and intelligent drafting. Fortunately, the Wings have two of the three at their disposal. With a handful of contracts coming to an end, Detroit has over $25M in salary cap space at their disposal.
In today’s NHL, free agency is not the answer to your problems. No longer can a team sign an up-and-coming star to a team-friendly deal to push them overboard toward the Cup. Now, overpayments and extensive contracts are the norm. Navigating this treacherous sea of finances is a battle every general manager has to undertake — and with more money on the table, Yzerman has a slightly higher margin of error over the rest of the NHL.
The downsides of perennially winning the lottery
Obviously, landing within the Zone of Pain is one of the least-ideal scenarios for any NHL team. Sure, hitting big on the lottery can pay off in dividends for a team. But, as we’ve seen with the Edmonton Oilers in the 2010s, sometimes, it just doesn’t pan out. Relying on the lottery to build a perennial contender is not an effective strategy. None of the Oilers’ first-overall picks (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Connor McDavid) have played a single game in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The New York Rangers are another great example. Outstanding play from Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Igor Shesterkin have helped to catapult the Rangers to the top of the NHL standings. First and second overall draft picks Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, on the other hand, have underwhelmed so far in their careers. Lafreniere was drafted in the same year as Lucas Raymond. Despite the offensive success of the Rangers’ system, Lafreniere has just 52 points in 135 career NHL games. (For reference, Raymond has 57 points in 82 games!)
The Zone of Pain: Final thoughts
Rather than look at the Zone of Pain as the agonizing center of the Venn Diagram, we should treat it as the middle of a bell curve. On one end lie the winners: the teams that infused high-end talent with key depth pieces. On the other sits the losers: teams that, even with their talent, have so far been unable to make the next big leap. Despite the fact that the team hasn’t won the lottery since Ronald Reagan was president, the team is in a good position. Success comes with faith, trust, and a boatload of talent and drafting luck.