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VHL 30 in 30 #22: Dynasties

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Dynasties

The past decade has given the VHL several interesting storylines, on a team, individual, and overall organisational scale. There have been some low points but there have also been successes and two organisations knew everything about that for what seemed to be an eternity. They just met in the finals for the fourth time this decade in S29 after finishing off fairly quick rebuilds, but it's what they were before those rebuilds that is particularly interesting from a historical point of view. Of course the current HC Davos Dynamo and Toronto Legion could be seen down the line as big powerhouses of this era but there's no need to speculate when we already have in the bank, two of the greatest dynasties in VHL history. For more than half a decade, the Dynamo and Legion were the teams to beat in the league, were involved in different rivalries and were home to tons of future Hall of Fame talent, which all made them more than deserving of being a major talking point as difference-makers of the VHL's third decade.

It all started a bit before the decade cut-off of S20/S21 though, with the S18 VHL Entry Draft marking the real starting point of two dynasties. The draft was hailed as “freak” and was described in great detail in a prior article, and though that was a bit skewed being written just a couple seasons after the draft took place, the key fact has stayed true over time: the draft was one-of-a-kind and brought generation-changing players to the league. Davos and Toronto were right in the middle of it and that could be considered the top factor of their eventual success. The Dynamo, led by GM Chad Murphy, now sadly inactive, had been mired in a rebuild for quite some time, their last truly successful season coming during their championship of Season 13. They had just a couple pieces to build from before S18, namely defenceman Voittu Jannula and forward Xavier Martinez, but their own pick was nevertheless only second overall, and it took a very lopsided trade of Murphy's previous client Leander Kaelin to Helsinki in S16 to acquire what became the eventual first overall selection. That was good because Murphy himself foolishly gave away the second overall pick to Toronto and though their huge draft pick trade ended up being a bit less lopsided in the long run, it was still a sign of Toronto GM David Knight's smart managing, coming during an off-season of a huge Legion firesale which fetched a lot of S18 and S19 draft picks. Toronto's last cup actually came before Davos', back in Season 9, but they were a consistent contender over the past few seasons and seen by many as a healthier organisation than the Dynamo.

The big bright spot for Murphy's draft was of course picking goaltender Daisuke Kanou first overall, the prospect with the highest amount of TPE both before and after that date. Kanou would not disappoint, going on a first-ballot Hall of Famer career and he now has the playoff MVP award named after him, having won it a record three times, but few, including himself, expected all of his career success to come with one team.

“I had originally intended to play for whichever contender was available and I was not willing to go through rebuilds as I had wanted to attain as many championships as possible during my time with Kanou.” - Daisuke Kanou

Aside from Kanou, the Dynamo didn't bring in a lot of eye-popping prospects in S18. Murphy himself was going into the VHL as a defenceman and his good friend David Vidal, the sixth overall pick, was to join him there (they both eventually switched to play up front). Later selections for the team included forwards Pekka Jarmuth and Hamza Ahmed, but having given up their S19 first-rounder in the aforementioned Legion trade (second overall; Jaroslav Oslig) and just having Jannula and Martinez from before, Davos was overlooked by most teams as a threat then or in the future. All eyes were on the Legion who proceeded to select the “dream team” of  forwards Cedric Pollack, Peyton Nydroj, Biggie Shakur, and Greinke, alongside goaltender Aidan Shaw. Alongside Knight's new client David Walcott and some unaffiliated VHLM prospects, they would go on to one of the most dominant VHLM seasons, showing off their potential with a Founder's Cup championship with the Brampton Battalion. That was not it, though, as Knight's clever moves also brought in an unheard of three out of four lottery picks in the S19 entry draft; rest assured, the Legion were made to be the greatest powerhouse in VHL history and the contenders of the time (in S18 the Calgary Wranglers, Madrid Thunder, and New York Americans) were merely stopgaps before the storm.

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The S18 Brampton Battalion

"My main rebuild goal was pretty evident to those around the league at the time. There were two parts to it: 1) Build a great dynasty, one that would last for minimum five seasons and 2) Build a team that focused on defense-first. I was tired of seeing teams unload their future for a years run at the cup and then slip into obscurity for the following few seasons. I knew that trend would continue which meant there would always be an opportunity to create a dynasty that would last many seasons given the amount of turnover the rest of the league was seeing. Also, everyone was focused purely on offence, offence, and more offence. I wanted to break that trend and try something different. I wanted to be known for being innovative at my position and I feel as if I was able to successfully achieve that. Those were my two main goals when building the Legion core starting in S18." - David Knight

The Toronto Legion were indeed focused on defence. Aidan Shaw was a goalie to rival Kanou as the league's best, the forwards were asked by the coaching staff to play a two-way game, and moves were made to secure an elite blue line as Walcott turned into a defenceman, James Bencharski was selected first overall in S19 and the second pick was traded for Frans Spelman. The Legion returned to the playoffs just one season after a complete roster overhaul and though they weren't yet ready to win a Continental Cup (a right reserved to the Wranglers over S18 and S19), the dynasty had begun for most people. They got a bit of a hit with the fading out from the activity picture of Pollack and Greinke, but seemingly only a little. Again, the real threat to their throne was overlooked, even though in S19, Davos started to take pretty big steps in the right direction. Over the off-season, they gave up the two later S18 picks mentioned (Jarmuth and Ahmed) for two better forwards, in another S18 player Anton Brekker and veteran two-way sniper Marek Schultz to play up front alongside Martinez. As well as trading yet another first-round pick for blue-liner Patrick Bergqvist and shoring up the roster with some quality depth, the Dynamo made a run to the finals few expected, though they were swept by Calgary.

In Season 20, Toronto made their move, having reached the necessary point of development and trading for former Wranglers center Lars Berger. Better yet, they signed Dynamo winger Xavier Martinez in free agency, leaving the Swiss team worse off than they were in Season 19 and stuck in a situation without much of a present or a future, according to most experts. The Legion, on the other hand, became a cup favourite with their star-studded roster, ready to begin a string of consecutive championships. Davos was still a bit of a threat from Europe, as well as the all-out offensive Riga Reign, plus the pesky Seattle Bears, Toronto's rising rivals, were gaining speed back in North America, but the Legion were still the top dogs on paper. The Dynamo, however, had something else to say, as with a mid-season move for defencemen Geno Esposito and Jordan Berglund along with the move of Murphy and Vidal up front to help out Schultz and Brekker, they pulled ahead to win the Victory Cup and then in a grueling seven-game finals battle against Toronto, pulled off a bit of a Kanou-led comeback in Games 6 and 7 to win the Continental Cup.

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Davos surprised everyone by taking the cup from under the Legion's noses

"The two seasons I was in Davos, GM Harvey Singh had been pushing really hard to win a championship, and in doing so, had done what he could to ice a competitive team. In Season 19, we failed to Calgary in the finals. Motivated by this, Harvey pushed even harder for Season 20, trading off a majority of our remaining draft picks for players that would put us over the top. Though we won that season, our resources were heavily depleted, but we still had a number of players that would fetch hefty draft picks. Prior to the S20 offseason, I had no hope for Davos' future, but Harvey managed to pull off some substantial trades that almost completely restocked our draft picks, and set the stage for the next dynasty to begin. By the end of it all, I guess I did see bright things for Davos' future, but I don't think I ever could have predicted the success they would end up having in the near future." - Patrick Bergqvist

However, as the star S20 defenceman Bergqvist says, Davos was still seen as a one-trick pony. A two-season period of contention isn't too rare in the VHL and that was what most people expected from the Dynamo. With Schultz retiring and Jannula, Bergqvist, Esposito, and Berglund all being shipped off to Toronto or Seattle, the team built by Murphy and then Harvey Singh seemed to be destined for mediocrity, especially if Kanou followed through with his plans of moving teams to win. It would be fair to say that they did take a step back during S21 and S22, but not really as much as expected. Led by Kanou's MVP-winning goaltending (though all the Tretiaks of the time went to Shaw, after whom the trophy is now renamed) and the remains of the cup-winning roster, notably Anton Brekker, Davos continued to remain a fixture in the playoffs and even went back to the finals in S21, where they were avenged by the Legion. It was really Toronto's time to shine though, getting past the rival Bears in their big battle of S21 and then completely dominating the league in S22 en route to a second straight Victory Cup.

That is when things really turned sour for the Legion. The defending cup champs put forth a ridiculously good performance in S22 and didn't just rely on Shaw, they also had improving individual statistics and probably the best roster of their whole seven straight playoff seasons. However, despite a 27-point advantage over the second-place Helsinki Titans and obviously even more over the North American second seed in rebuilt Calgary, the Toronto powerhouse fell apart in the playoffs and was pushed to seven by the latter and defeated in six by the former. It's hard to say if the Legion ever recovered, as with a mixture of age and a new salary bracket system creating more cap issues for the top contenders, they never were able to replicate that S22 performance. In S23, the Dynamo, with new-found defensive strength in Adam Schultz and Japinder Singh (as well as veteran Vadim Volkov) and big help up front for Brekker in the face of veteran star Markus Strauss and the new blood brought in by retooling like Pavel Koradek and Leeroy Jenkins, came back to full strength and reclaimed the Victory Cup. The Legion in the meantime fell to below the 100-point mark for the first time since S19 with the loss of guys like Spelman and Martinez and most importantly with Knight stepping down as GM, ending years upon years of consistency. Neither of the two teams actually made the finals that season, an anomaly among the seven years from S19 to S25, as the fourth-seeded Wranglers stunned the Titans in seven games, but while Davos seemed to be on the way up, Toronto's prime appeared to have gone by without that many championships.

There were two more hurrahs left of course in Seasons 24 and 25. The Legion won the Victory Cup in the first year when the Dynamo were for some reason again predicted to fall back down to earth; on the contrary they defeated Toronto in the finals in the third and final meeting of the two franchises, another classic Shaw vs Kanou showdown. Toronto still put forth that Knight-promoted top-tier defence, with Kristian Carlsson joining Bencharski and Walcott now, but their offence lacked punch beyond Phil Gerrard and Peyton Nydroj. The next season, management replaced Carlsson with Olivier Scarlett and Nydroj with Tarik Saeijs, an improvement if you consider Hall of Fame inductions but a disaster by the Legion's lofty standards on the ice. They were swept in the first round of their final playoff appearance before rebuilding, while Davos closed off their dynasty with another set of a Victory and Continental Cups, which completely pushed them over as the better franchise in the eyes of most VHL members.

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In the end, the Legion did do more winning than losing without a doubt

"The S19-S25 Davos was generally successful due to the balanced nature of the defense and offense. At any point during those years, I felt that as long I could play well enough to give my team a chance to just score 1 or 2 goals a game, that we would be able to beat the opponent. The defense in front of me was generally very balanced those years with good puck movers and those that could play well in the defensive zone. Then of course when Brekker was around, his ability to score the clutch goals was indispensable as I knew that as long as I kept my goals down below two, we always had a chance to win night in and night out." - Daisuke Kanou

"Was I surprised they ended up being the better dynasty? To me, Toronto were the best dynasty. We didn't win more cups, and I know that's what is the final judgement for most people, but I'll explain why I believe Toronto were the best dynasty and the greatest dynasty the VHL has ever seen. Over the course of Toronto's prime three seasons while I was in charge, the three seasons I built towards, Toronto were the class of the league and it wasn't even close. In that span we recorded 570 regular season points to Davos's 520, including winning 3 Victory Cups (including one of the most dominating displays in S22 with 126 points - the next highest was 99 points) and finished top of the North American Conference all 5 years. Davos squeaked into the playoffs in S21 by virtue of a tie-breaker and failed to finish top of the European Conference in S22 (in fairness, by virtue of tie-breaker too). We really were the dominating force in the league." - David Knight

It is difficult to measure success with two equally impressive cups in the VHL: the Victory and the Continental. However, in the eyes of most, the playoff victory is all that matters, even if it takes a bit of luck. It also isn't entirely fair to write off Davos' victories and say they weren't dominating, though perhaps not as good as the Legion in S22, the Dynamo actually had the same amount of Victory Cups from S20 to S25 (the two were the only to win the award in that time frame). Given Toronto's failure against Helsinki after that great regular season, the importance of the point domination loses further value, though you can't fault David Knight in looking for positives in the product he created.

The Legion were of course a top force in the VHL for a good chunk of a decade, but when it comes to deciding which one's better, most people would say it's the Dynamo. They had to defy the odds to win after few took them seriously back in S18 and even S21 and for Toronto's relative bad luck, they did have more luck, but a lot of it came from skill. Both squads iced so many great players during the seven seasons as mentioned throughout this article: a head count of all the Hall of Famers suiting up for the teams during the profiled era is a phenomenal fifteen with potential for more. Perhaps the worst piece of luck for both dynasties is the fact they took place at exactly the same time, though it was a treat to watch their battles and follow seasons with little room for error for all contenders, it would have definitely been interesting to see each dynasty in its individual era of dominance. However, what happened has happened, and this scenario has probably made it easiest for comparison purposes and has treated us to some remarkable storylines over the years. The era of Davos and Toronto will be one of the easiest to distinguish because of them and the players they employed (primarily from the S18 draft class) and that is great from a historical standpoint. Now, to almost conclude this article, we'll let David Knight take to the stage again with his quotes.

"As for the amount of cups it won us? Unfortunately, you cannot really control what happens in a 7-game series the way you can over the course of a long season. Since it's a random simulation program, pretty much anything can happen over those 7 games - it's essentially a coin flip. Over the course of a long season, however, things even out to the way they should be and the cream of the crop rises to the top. What I'm trying to say is that Toronto was extremely unlucky not to win more cups than Davos as we were the better team during that time. Davos also had their fair share of luck with one year having that ridiculous loan trade and in S20 being over the cap. That's not a slight on them, though, I respect immensely what they were able to achieve. When all was said and done however, I truly believe Toronto was and is the greatest dynasty we've seen to date in the VHL." - David Knight

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The Victory Cup: dominated by Davos and Toronto from S20 to S25

"The atmosphere was good, but nothing great. Season 24 we had a locker room full of awesome people and there was always something to talk about in the LR. We had high hopes for that season. The S25 championship team though was a bit of a different story. We didn't have a whole lot of actives, so it was a lot quieter. We knew that after this season, most of us would either be retiring or moving on, so we did what we could to make the best of it, but it still was nothing spectacular. Winning that season was nice, but it was also a bit sad because that marked the end of our the Davos era, and we all knew it was time to go elsewhere." - Leeroy Jenkins

Knight and Jenkins also both signify another key point for these two great dynasties: smart management. Knight being mentioned as such makes sense since he was a long-serving GM and the mastermind of the Legion core's creation back in S18. Jenkins, on the other hand, is an example of a great GM, being the first overall pick in the S23 entry draft; the fact that Davos GM Harvey Singh managed to acquire that pick while remaining one of the league's top contenders is an excellent example of how he managed to keep the Dynamo afloat and then improve them after the Season 20 championship. All great VHL teams have been built because of smart drafting and trading and of course these two teams weren't an exception and they made it look quite simple and straightforward, mainly because it is. Dynasties like such are something to strive for and go a long way to creating league parity, always the ultimate goal in the VHL.

"I am very pleased with the team I built. Obviously it was bitter-sweet only winning one championship but we were quite an unlucky bunch. I don't think anything went wrong from S22 to S25, well after S22 I stepped down so I'd rather not comment on anything beyond that, it just wasn't meant to be - STHS had it in for us, more specifically me! I mean, David Walcott was kicked out of the enthralling triple overtime that saw Lars Berger score to win the championship for Toronto in S21 so even that was bitter-sweet. I think anyone who played for the team would tell you that it was one of, if not the, favourite team they played for. We had it all - great chemistry, insane skill, confidence, flair for the dramatics, a bit of a bad-boy rep, and a whole lot of swagger. There isn't anything I would change about my dealings with that team. It still remains my favourite period of the league ever." - David Knight

And that, calling the first half of the VHL's third decade their favourite may be something which unites quite a few members, as in terms of activity and league-related topics, the HC Davos Dynamo and Toronto Legion dynasties definitely had quite a positive impact on the league's history.

End of Part 22
Special thanks to David Knight, Daisuke Kanou, and Patrick Bergqvist/Leeroy Jenkins

 

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