In a summer that saw the long-term signing of Loui Eriksson and the trading of young assets like Jared McCann and a 2nd round pick, much has been made of the Canucks’ plan, or apparent lack thereof, when it comes to the team’s future. Various sources have described the Canucks and their management team as confused or in denial, stating that the team should rebuild completely by shunning older players, trading off veteran assets, and fully embracing a youth movement. It many cases, it is outright stated that this is the preferred way to build a contender in the NHL, usually with the inclusion of promoting tanking as a quick path to success.
While it’s true that in the past, the NHL has witnessed some teams achieve success by way of dismantling their roster and intentionally trying to lose hockey games, things have changed. The NHL added a Draft Lottery in the 1990s after the embarrassing Mario Lemieux fiasco, which saw teams like the Devils and Penguins benching players that gave them a better chance of winning games. The NHL has recently made the Draft Lottery odds as open as they ever have been in league history, meaning that the appeal of tanking is at an all-time low. Still, one constantly sees fans and media types bemoaning the decisions of Jim Benning and co, and wishing the Canucks would start a full-on rebuild.
However, it seems fair to question whether this method really is a recipe for success. It is my contention that, in recent league history, the most lasting success has been found not by engaging in outright, burn-the-house-down franchise rebuilds, but by a more slow and steady influx of youth which is supported by a veteran core, a so-called retooling, although I prefer the term reinvigoration. Furthermore, these teams acquired their high draft picks from a legitimate downturn in team results brought on by aging or less-than-talented cores, rather than a seemingly intentional tank. In other words, the path that the Vancouver Canucks appear to be heading down currently.
In order to prove my theory, we’re going to look at the four franchises which have found the most lasting success in the NHL in the past decade: the Chicago Blackhawks, the LA Kings, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
To keep this as short and readable as possible, and also to simplify matters, we’ll focus solely on the seasons where these teams picked up their premier talent via the draft, and the seasons during which those teams integrated said young talent into the league.
The Blackhawks began their downfall just before the 2005 Lockout, as their core-to-be suffered from injuries (Eric Daze) and failed potential (Kyle Calder, Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell). After some astute draft picks in the preceding years, including Brent Seabrook as a mid-1st and both Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford as 2nd-rounders, Chicago stumbled by flubbing on the selection of Cam Barker in 2004.
2005-06 Season: Things really began to turn around for the Hawks after the 2005-06 season, which culminated with the drafting of Jonathan Toews at 3rd overall. However, despite the poor season pre-lockout, Chicago did not enter the season like a team seeking the lottery. They no longer had veterans Steve Sullivan, Bryan Berard, or Alexei Zhamnov from the previous season, but replaced them with players like Jaroslav Spacek, Radim Vrbata, and major free agent signing Martin Lapointe. Chicago also acquired Patrick Sharp early in the season, although he had yet to break out.
Even at the deadline, the Blackhawks did not exactly clear house, as Arnason was the only traded player of consequence. Spacek had been traded earlier in the season. This was not a team out to make wholesale changes.
Chicago didn’t even finish last in their division in 2005-06, as that honour went to the Blues. Still, the Hawks ended up with the 3rd overall pick, and grabbed future captain Jonathan Toews.
2006-07 Season: In the summer leading up to the 2006-07 season, the Blackhawks did some major rearranging, but still didn’t appear to be in rebuild mode. They got rid of the enigmatic Mark Bell but received Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski in return in what was essentially a three-way trade that also saw the Senators give up a 2nd rounder.
The Hawks also gave up on Kyle Calder before the season began, but dealt him for the very useful Michal Handzus instead of for futures. The team would later reacquire Calder before immediately flipping him for Jason Williams on the same day. Williams and Handzus were both young veterans ready to contribute immediately, and although Smolinski was dealt for a pick at the deadline, the team had kept Vrbata, Lapointe, Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore around for further veteran presence. However, the team still floundered to last place, and got to pick Patrick Kane with the 1st overall.
2007-08 Season: Both Toews and Kane made their debuts this season, and although they played important roles right away, they were very much supplemented by a strong veteran presence. Included in this were the newly acquired Robert Lang, Andrei Zyuzin, and Sergei Samsonov, along with the oft-injured Havlat and high character veterans Lapointe and Williams, who had winning experience with the Red Wings. The team was backed by the great Nikolai Khabibulin.
From day one, Toews and Kane were able to slide in as important pieces but were not expected to carry the entire load themselves. They received more opportunity than expected due to injuries to Havlat and Williams, along with Samsonov’s poor performance, but still had players like Lang and the much older Sharp around to help carry the offensive load. Though the Hawks still missed the playoffs by three points, but greatly improved all around and began their swift ascent to the league’s peak.
Conclusion: The Chicago Blackhawks did not engage in a rebuild, but rather gained success by legitimately struggling for a few seasons, making some astute draft picks, and then integrating those young players into a veteran lineup. At no point did the Blackhawks stop making moves towards icing a competitive team. A good example of retooling and reinvigorating a less-than-optimal core, but a unique situation in that there wasn’t much of a base to rebuild in the first place.
The Los Angeles Kings:
The LA Kings began a streak of six straight years out of the playoffs in 2002-03. That year’s squad was veteran-laden, with such luminaries as Ziggy Palffy, Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Allison, and Lubomir Visnovsky, although injuries devastated the team’s chances. The Kings would continue to chase the playoffs for the next half decade, stumbling into some franchise-altering players along the way.
2003-04 Season: The Kings brought back Luc Robitaille before the 2003-04 season, and the team also saw the emergence of Alex Frolov, but the Kings failed to improve and once again missed the playoffs. The team had made a legitimate effort to add veterans like Roman Cechmanek, Jozef Stumpel, and Martin Straka, all at the cost of picks and prospects.
The team even made an effort to improve at the deadline, trading for Anson Carter and Nathan Dempsey, but ultimately they finished ten points out of a playoff spot. The team was by no means embracing a rebuild, but was still rewarded by the post-lockout pick of Anze Kopitar at 11th overall, along with Jonathan Quick in the 3rd round at the 2005 Draft. Their pre-lockout pick of Lauri Tukonen, also at 11th overall in 2004, was much less impressive, but the Kings still exited the lockout much better off than they had entered it.
2005-06 Season: The Kings once again loaded up for a playoff run in 2005-06. They added veterans like Jeremy Roenick, Pavol Demitra, and Craig Conroy, and picked up Mark Parrish mid-season. Though Kopitar did not make his debut, Dustin Brown did, and Frolov and Mike Cammalleri continued to breakout. The team still barely improved on their previous season, missed the playoffs by six points, and drafted 11th overall for the third straight year, picking Jonathan Bernier.
2006-07 Season: Four years into their playoff drought, the Kings were still not ready to rebuild. LA tried to leach off the Canucks recent moderate success by hiring Marc Crawford as coach and trading multiple second round picks for new starter Dan Cloutier. Rob Blake returned to the team, and Visnovsky, Conroy, and Mattias Norstrom remained as veteran pieces, with the last two in particular representing high character. Brown, Cammalleri, and Frolov all starred in offensive roles. This was the team on which Anze Kopitar made his stellar debut.
Despite all the talent up front, the team employed five goalies over the course of the season, including Yutaka Fukufuji, and dropped to near the bottom of the league. The trade deadline saw the Kings dealing Conroy and Norstrom for returns that included other veterans, as well as trading Brent Sopel for an impressive draft pick haul from Vancouver. The Kings drafted 4th overall, but unfortunately drafted the disappointing Thomas Hickey, although they did pick up Wayne Simmonds in the second.
2007-08 Season: The Kings refused once again to embrace any sort of rebuild, and loaded up for 2007-08 with new veteran additions like Ladislav Nagy, Tom Preissing, Michal Handzus, Kyle Calder, and Brad Stuart. Young Jack Johnson arrived in a trade, and Patrick O’Sullivan had a breakout season. Unfortunately, the best goaltending solution the Kings found was Jason Labarbera, and the Kings managed to do even worse, plummeting to last in the West by a whopping eight points. The team made a couple of deadline deals to acquire picks, moving Stuart and Jaroslav Modry.
This would be the Kings’ one season at the bottom of the standings, but they made the most of it by drafting Drew Doughty at 2nd overall. Despite never really giving up on their playoff aspirations, the Kings had wound up in the lottery and acquired a franchise defenseman.
2008-09 Season: Doughty made his debut the very next season, as did Quick, and they found themselves on a competitive roster right from the start. Although the team had dealt Cammalleri for draft picks and Visnovsky for Jarrett Stoll and Matt Greene, the team was still bolstered by veterans like Handzus, Calder, Sean O’Donnell, and the mid-season acquisition of Justin Williams.
The Kings are a franchise that managed their age gaps extremely well, as played like Frolov, Brown, Kopitar, and Doughty all hit the league at different times, giving each the ability to get established and help provide a boost for the others when the time came. This is a great example of why teams really do need a range of ages represented on even the youngest of rosters.
The Kings did not make the playoffs this season, either, but improved on the previous season and remained somewhat competitive in a tough division. They made the playoffs the next year, and haven’t looked back since. It only took them four seasons to go from drafting Doughty to lifting the Stanley Cup.
Conclusions: The Kings managed to build a long-term contender while never once giving up on season-to-season playoff aspirations. They spread out their acquisition of young talent over a number of seasons, and slowly but surely introduced that talent into an established system of veterans, many of whom were notable for leadership qualities and high character. The perfect example of reinvigoration rather than rebuilding.
The Penguins had a swift downfall brought on by the aging of their core players, including Mario Lemieux. They went to the Conference Finals in 2001, but spent the next four seasons in the cellar of their division. To Canucks fans, this story should have some familiarity. Though the Penguins would fail to cash in on their first foray outside of the playoffs, that would soon change.
2002-03 Season: In the 2002-03 season, the Penguins had obviously failed to understand how poorly off their franchise was. It’s easy to understand why this might be, after all, Mario Lemieux was still putting up 90 points a season, and he was backed up by veteran talent like Alexei Kovalev, who was traded mid-season, Martin Straka, and Dick Tarnstrom.
Despite Mario’s heroics, the team’s lack of depth lead them to the bottom of the standings again, and although the Pens traded off Kovalev, Randy Robitaille, Jan Hrdina, and Wayne Primeau throughout the season, the team never dreamed of selling off the true core piece, Lemieux.
After a bit of shuffling on draft day, the Penguins walked away from this season with future starter Marc-Andre Fleury as their 1st overall pick.
2003-04 Season: Pittsburgh tread water for the 2003-04 season, likely knowing that their fortunes rested on Lemieux’s health. That ended up being a bad thing as Lemieux played only ten games, leading to another basement-dwelling season and the trading off of Straka along with veterans Drake Berehowsky and Brian Holzinger.
Strangely, Fleury made his debut this season, playing in 22 games and posting putrid stats. This makes for a good example of a young player coming onto a roster that is devoid of a veteran presence, and floundering. The Penguins would not make this mistake with future picks. Speaking of those picks, the Pens celebrated another lottery season with Evgeni Malkin 2nd overall, and then beat the odds in the post-lockout draw to get Sidney Crosby 1st overall in 2005. With two picks, the franchise had been reset.
2005-06 Season: There is such a stark difference when looking at the roster in 2005-06 compared to the previous season. Crosby made his excellent debut, but he had support from countless experienced players, including newly acquired Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, John Leclair, and Ziggy Palffy. Lemieux managed to play a quarter of a season, and Crosby got to spend the year living with his new mentor.
Fleury won the starting job, and other youngsters like Colby Armstrong, Ryan Malone, and Max Talbot got their starts amongst a veteran-laden roster. While Crosby earned his minutes right away, all of these players benefitted from not being asked to do too much upon their arrival in the NHL. The team once again sank to the bottom of the standings and was rewarded with Jordan Staal at 2nd overall, but they were much more competitive than they had been in recent seasons, and only dealt Recchi at the deadline. The next year, Malkin would make his debut and the team would make the playoffs. The year after that, they made the finals, and the year after that they won the Cup.
Conclusions: This situation has some obvious parallels to the Canucks. The Penguins saw their downfall come as a result of the aging of previous franchise players, but kept Lemieux around to welcome in the next wave of talent to the league. The Penguins obviously had some extreme luck when it came to the lottery, but they made sure to make the most of it by immediately surrounding that talent by quality, high-character veteran experience. This was a handing off of the torch, as much a reinvigoration as a retool.
Tampa Bay Lightning:
The Tampa Bay Lightning took a little longer than other teams to stumble from greatness, making the playoffs in the two seasons after their Cup championship, before a brief trip to the cellar.
2007-08: This was the first awful season for the Lightning, but it wasn’t intended to go that way. The Lightning spent the off-season bolstering the roster with additions like Filip Kuba and Chris Gratton, acquired for a 2nd round draft pick. (at this point, it’s hard not to notice that each of the teams discussed seemed to deal 2nd rounders even when at their worst, something Benning has been heavily criticized for.)
Still, despite solid performances by Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Brad Richards, the Lightning were so out of the picture by the deadline that they dealt Richards and Vinny Prospal in separate deals. It appears that goaltending was the major weakness that led to this drastic decline, along with a loss of faith in coach John Tortorella.
It seems silly for a team to get the 1st overall pick when their roster already features a 27-year old prime Lecavalier, but that’s what happened when the Bolts picked Steven Stamkos in the summer of 2008.
2008-09: Stamkos made his debut the next year, and the team immediately moved to add some character veterans to the mix by reacquiring Prospal and picking up Gary Roberts, who would go on to train Stamkos in the summers. The team also added Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi as free agents. The team did deal Dan Boyle and Filip Kuba in the off-season, but compensated a bit by picking up Andrei Meszaros and Lukas Krajicek. Overall, it seemed like the focus was on insulating Stamkos up front at the cost of a weakened blueline.
Like Crosby and Kane before him, Stamkos dazzled in his debut after a slow start, but he was never asked to carry much of the offensive load, as St. Louis and Lecavalier still had strong seasons. The team once again finished near the bottom, and picked up Victor Hedman 2nd overall in the summer.
2009-10: Hedman, too, made the NHL right away, and the Bolts took further steps to ensure he stepped onto a competitive roster. Hedman was provided with a veteran Swedish partner in Mattias Ohlund, and the team also added Alex Tanguay.
Once again, St. Louis and Lecavalier were around to provide veteran support as Stamkos overtook the team scoring lead and the title of franchise player. The team still missed the playoffs, but improved greatly, finishing third in their division. Their draft pick that year, Brett Connolly at 6th overall, was a bust, but the team was well on their way to becoming a powerhouse. The team would go to the Conference Finals the very next year, and after stumbling for a couple years, continues to be an Eastern powerhouse.
Conclusion: The Lightning may be the closest mirror to the Canucks’ current situation. The presence of aging-yet-still-effective veterans Lecavalier and St. Louis is similar to the presence of the Sedins in Vancouver, and the hope is that the Sedins can mentor incoming young players like Lecavalier and St. Louis did for Stamkos and Hedman. The Lightning avoided a complete rebuild and reinvigorated the franchise while still hanging on to the previous franchise cornerstones.