- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2008

As players beginning their NHL careers, Brian Lawton and George McPhee couldn’t have been more different.

Lawton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 draft, played in the NHL as an 18-year-old. McPhee was never drafted and he debuted with the New York Rangers in 1983 at age 24.

The two top decision-makers for rival hockey teams couldn’t have constructed their rosters much differently either. McPhee, the Washington Capitals general manager for more than a decade, rebuilt his club with patience through the draft and trades for prospects.

Lawton became the Tampa Bay Lightning’s director of hockey operations June 25. Three days later he began a massive facelift by adding more than half of the team’s 23-man roster in a matter of weeks.

The two teams are Southeast Division title contenders, but they also represent two different ways to build a franchise in the post-lockout NHL.

“We believed in doing it the way it has always been done - draft well, trade well, develop well - and we’ve got a core of homegrown guys,” McPhee said. “Things have really changed in the last three years. We already had our plan in place in the [old] system and why we were going this way. But now in this league with all of the free agents we have and so much movement, [what the Lightning did] may be the way to do it in the future.”

McPhee and team owner Ted Leonsis decided before the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season to blow up the team and start over. They decided to trade high-priced veterans for prospects and draft picks, take their lumps to collect premium draft choices, and build from within.

And to this point everything has gone according to plan. The Caps have added players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and top prospect Karl Alzner with high draft choices. Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and elite goaltending prospect Simeon Varlamov also joined the team through the draft. Washington acquired young players like Shaone Morrisonn, Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann through clever trades.

McPhee has sprinkled in veteran free agents like Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Jose Theodore, and the Caps - less than two years removed from four straight last-place finishes in their division - enter the 2008-09 campaign as Stanley Cup contenders.

The Caps belong to group of teams - that includes defending Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh, Chicago and Phoenix - that have built young, exciting clubs through the draft.

“Time will tell if the strategy works or not,” Leonsis said. “I think everyone right now wants to say the plan worked. Well, for me the plan was to win a Stanley Cup so I can’t say we’re there. With the old team I couldn’t close my eyes and envision us winning the Cup. I thought we could compete and be good - maybe get on a run. But when I close my eyes with this team, I can envision this team - maybe not this year but at some point - winning a Stanley Cup.”

Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004. But after the introduction of the new economic system and years of poor drafting, the Lightning last season won an NHL-worst 31 games and tied the Los Angeles Kings with a league-low 71 points.

For their dysfunction, the Lightning landed the No. 1 pick in June’s draft and selected forward Steven Stamkos to pair with three-time All-Star center Vincent Lecavalier. But the Lightning, with a new ownership group headed by Hollywood producer Oren Koules and former player Len Barrie, opted against the “draft and patience” formula.

Using a model similar to the one Philadelphia followed a year earlier, Tampa Bay pursued players aggressively. Lawton traded for the exclusive negotiation rights to players like Ryan Malone, Vinny Prospal, Gary Roberts and Brian Rolston - and signed them all but Rolston before they hit the open market July 1.

Lawton continued to collect key free agents like Radim Vrbata, Mark Recchi and Olie Kolzig in the first week of July while trading for talented young defensemen Matt Carle and Andrej Meszaros.

“After what happened last year finishing 30th, not winning isn’t an option,” Lawton said. “Our club needs to win, and we understand that and realize that. It is very easy to say, but you’ve got to back it up with actions. We believe that we backed it up with actions, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go to achieve our goals.”

With brash new owners, a recognizable coach in Barry Melrose and a fantasy hockey roster, the Lightning’s success or failure will pique the interest of many this season.

“Lots of people have tried and failed, and we’re aware of that. Those are the facts. We have a tall order to try and achieve,” Lawton said. “Whether it was an embarrassment finishing last in the league, or it is a first-time job like myself, first-time owners like our ownership group, coaches that have been gone so long they are treated as first-time guys, players that wanted new scenery - there is an environment for success being created here.

“It is an experiment and the results will play out in front of everybody. It is the greatest live TV going.”

The Penguins serve as both a model for the Caps and a cautionary tale for the Lightning. Like the Caps, the Penguins built a core of young stars through the draft and they reaped the benefits last season.

But there was also a point where they tried to change course with negative results. After winning the Sidney Crosby lottery in 2005, Pittsburgh decided to make a run for the Cup after the lockout. They signed Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair and Jocelyn Thibault to play with Crosby and a 40-year-old Mario Lemieux.

A bad start to the season only worsened, and by year’s end Lemieux and Palffy retired, LeClair was exiled and Mark Recchi was traded. The Penguins finished tied for the least points in the NHL.

“There were a number of reasons,” Recchi said. “I think we had different elements, and I don’t think we were as deep as this team is or Philadelphia was [last season].”

The Flyers ascended from 30th in 2006-07 to Eastern Conference finalists last year. The way general manager Paul Holmgren built his roster resembled Lawton’s methods - from adding the starting goaltender at the previous trade deadline (Martin Biron in 2007 for the Flyers, Mike Smith in 2008 for the Lightning) to creative trades before July 1.

“It is still a combination for everybody,” Lawton said. “Obviously Philadelphia took a big step forward last year, but what people don’t realize is not more than two years previously, they had playing in the AHL was [R.J.] Umberger, [Joni] Pitkanen, [Antero] Nittymaki, [Jeff] Carter, [Mike] Richards - all guys who came through the draft with the exception of Umberger who was a free agent signing.”

The Penguins and Flyers learned this offseason the new economic system could make it tougher for teams to keep those young, talented cores together for several seasons.

“The business has changed a lot,” McPhee said. “We used a model that has been used for many years, but it may not be able to be used as much in the future. We’ll see.”

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