Going through a rebuild is not an easy situation for NHL teams, but there comes a time when most clubs need to start fresh and build a core of young talent for future success.
Rebuilding an NHL team, if it's done right, is a long process. The problem with that is owners and fans don't like long periods of losing, which doesn't generate a lot of revenue for most teams and fails to give the supporters much excitement late in the season. We have actually gotten to the point where general managers don't even like to use the word "rebuild" publicly, instead choosing to say retool or reload.
Teams like the Calgary Flames, who have held on to veterans too long and barely miss the playoffs each season, shouldn't be hesitant to rebuild. There's nothing worse for an NHL team than failing to reach the postseason by just a few points, because then the franchise gets no playoff revenue and will likely have a first-round pick outside the top 10.
So what's the best way for a team to do a proper rebuild? Going through multiple bad seasons, stockpiling high draft picks and making sure the young core of players is surrounded by veterans who will help them understand what it takes to win in the NHL.
Being a bad team for several years in a row is tough for owners and fans, but it's necessary to pick in the top five of the first round for three or four consecutive seasons. Since 2000, a large percentage of the players taken No. 1 and 2 overall have become quality NHL players. Since 2000, only two No. 1 picks (excluding 2012) have failed to become star players (Rick DiPietro and Erik Johnson).
A number of the teams that are currently among the top contenders for the Stanley Cup went through a period of three or four seasons in which the on-ice results were terrible, they got high draft picks and made some quality selections.
Two examples are the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. Here's a look at some of the notable first-round picks that these teams have made to put them in their current position.
|2003||Marc-Andre Fleury||1||-||2003||Brent Seabrook||14|
|2004||Evgeni Malkin||2||-||2006||Jonathan Toews||3|
|2005||Sidney Crosby||1||-||2007||Patrick Kane||1|
In the Blackhawks' case, they made many quality picks past the first round, including the selections of defensemen Duncan Keith, Dustin Byfuglien and Niklas Hjalmarsson, as well as forwards Troy Brouwer, Brandon Saad and Dave Bolland.
Both the Penguins and Blackhawks have proven that to build a consistent winner, the draft is the most effective way to collect the most young talent. In the salary-cap era, it's not smart to rebuild through free agency because player salaries are enormous and will continue to grow. Even third-line players make $2-4 million per season.
The recent signings of franchise cornerstone players such as Corey Perry (eight years, $69 million), Ryan Getzlaf (eight years, $66 million) and Travis Zajac (eight years, $46 million) have proven how expensive it is to sign/re-sign players who are/will be unrestricted free agents.
When young players come into the league on entry-level contracts, many of them don't start making over $3 million until year two or three of their NHL careers. For teams that don't operate on a large budget, it's important to make smart draft picks and not overpay to re-sign the players who become stars before they hit free agency. The St. Louis Blues are a good example of a team that has followed this model with positive results.
Drafting good players and re-signing them to team-friendly contracts—like what the Phoenix Coyotes recently did with elite defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson (six years, $37.5 million)—is the best way to establish a good young core while adding depth through free agency to build a well-rounded roster.
Another thing teams must do when drafting in the top 10 is to avoid taking too many players in one area. The Edmonton Oilers have held the first overall pick in three consecutive drafts and took a forward with each selection. They have acquired some good players with those picks (Taylor Hall in 2010, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, Nail Yakupov in 2012), but for a team that has serious issues on its blue line, taking a defenseman with one of these picks should have happened.
Teams that don't address more than one of their roster needs with multiple high draft picks prolongs their rebuild, and that's why the Oilers have the longest playoff drought in the NHL and still lack a true No. 1 defenseman and a No. 1 goaltender despite picking first overall in three straight seasons.
The final step in this drafting process is to give these players the time they need to fully develop. Teams must show patience with high draft picks—especially defensemen—since these players will be under immense pressure to play well because of their draft status. To ensure they make a smooth transition to the NHL level, the development of these high draft picks should not be rushed.
The New York Rangers have been patient with many of their first-round picks since the 2004-05 lockout, and they are reaping the rewards of this decision right now.
To surround these young draft picks with veteran players who will mentor and teach them, teams should make depth signings in free agency. For example, the 2008-09 Stanley Cup-winning Penguins roster included veteran players such as Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Hal Gill, all of whom provided the team with important depth and valuable experience.
At any stage of a rebuild, it's important for teams to not trade their first-round picks and/or young talent for veterans at the trade deadline to chase a playoff berth. We have seen too many instances over the years of owners and general managers trying to accelerate their rebuild or make a quick fix by acquiring rentals at the deadline and giving up valuable trade assets. If teams are going to rebuild, they must be willing to see it through to the end. Acquiring depth players through free agency at the right price is the smart move.
The Toronto Maple Leafs kept trading first-round picks over the last seven years and that strategy resulted in no playoff appearances and just one top-five pick despite several seasons of disappointing finishes. This season, the Leafs kept their top prospects, first-round pick and still made the playoffs.
When teams become playoff contenders, it's important to keep drafting well and developing young talent. This will allow teams to have quality assets to acquire veteran players for a playoff run, which is exactly what the Penguins did this season. Pittsburgh's tremendous depth allowed it to trade for Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and other veterans via trade and not give up any top prospects or players from its NHL roster.
Having this kind of depth also gives teams replacements for veterans who leave in the offseason as free agents. In a salary-cap league, keeping all of your good players is nearly impossible if they are paid what they're truly worth. This means that some important players will have to be let go, and the clubs that have NHL-ready prospects will continue to win and not be forced to rebuild again.
There are many steps to the proper rebuild (recapped below), and although the process will be frustrating at times, the end result is often worth it.
- Don't contend and pick in the top five of the first round for a few years.
- Make smart picks; don't take too many of the same kind of players.
- Let these players develop and bring them to the NHL only when ready.
- Don't attempt a quick rebuild with free-agent signings; it's too expensive in a salary-cap system.
- Don't give up on young prospects/players too early and trade them for expensive veterans.
- Surround the young core with high-character veterans who will provide experience and depth to the roster.
- Continue to focus on the draft even after a team becomes a contender. Those players could be used to acquire veterans at the trade deadline and/or replace star players who leave via free agency.
In most cases, fans are smart enough to know when a full rebuild is needed for their team to put together a long-term winner. They will stand by the team while it rebuilds and still support the club. However, a team can only sell hope to its fans for so long. At some point, results are expected. This is the situation that the Oilers currently find themselves in.
The best rebuild model is doing it from within, which is drafting high in the first round for a number of years in a row and developing these young players. Building a winner from outside the organization with free-agent signings and trades is too expensive and can often lead to salary-cap problems.
The hardest decision for a team to make is entering a full rebuild, but the sooner struggling teams (Calgary, San Jose and Buffalo for example) decide to go this route, the better off they will be long term.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.