Rebuild. The annoying word that any fan hates more than a kiss cam on a first date. Yes, we all know that ‘rebuild’ is simply code for ‘Your team sucks’ but it is a vital part of any team’s sustained success in professional sports. Players get old, they get lured away with piles of money, or sometimes, whether for lack of skill or effort, they just aren’t good (Looking at you, Semin.) Sometimes in any GM’s life, he looks at his team and realizes that he needs to start over. Well, for our hometown Hurricanes that process feels like it has taken forever. 8 seasons without tasting the playoffs will do that for a fan base. Yet if all these self-appointed expert amateur bloggers are to be believed, a successful conclusion to Ron Francis’ rebuilding efforts may be just around the corner, and not a moment too soon. Maybe. Hopefully. Please for the love of all things hockey, let it be over.
Well, whether or not the Hurricanes are nearing the light at the end of the reconstructive tunnel, the fact of the matter is that most every team has NHL team gone through the dark times of rebuild. Some come out ahead, some stay as doormats. Each GM has their own strategy on how to bring back the good times, usually based around the franchise’ unique situation in fan base, talent pool, and amount of cash on hand. To that end, there are three instruments for these GM’s to use to varying degrees:
- Acquiring Players via Trade
- The Draft/Player Development
- Signing Free Agents
Every team’s GM will use all three of these tools, but usually, each has one that they tend to use more than the others. This article will analyze certain teams that have successfully rebuilt before the Hurricanes, what methods they used, and provide a 100% biased analysis of whether or not it really worked.
The Traders: Jacking Another Team’s Assets
The current shining example of rebuilds can be seen in the form of the Columbus Blue Jackets. First of all, how weird is it that I actually said those words? Secondly, because of that, and the slightly ridiculous road they took to get to their present success, GM Jarmo Kekäläinen’s team is a solid example, good and bad, for Ron Francis and the Hurricanes. While Kekäläinen, and his predecessor Scott Howson, drafted a few of their current key point producers (Atkinson, Wennberg, Werenski), the Blue Jackets have primarily been a wheeling-and-dealing organization of the trade. Arguably the most crucial player to the Blue Jackets 2016-17 success has been Seth Jones, acquired in the January 2016 blockbuster for Columbus-drafted talent Ryan Johansen. He’s been the anchor of the #4 ranked defense (based on Goals Allowed/Game) in the entire league. The Blue Jackets also benefitted from Chicago’s salary-cap woes (sound familiar?) by stealing Brandon Saad for a plethora of prospects (of which, only Artem Anisimov has turned into a regular contributor.) Elsewhere Nick Foligno, Jack Johnson and Sergey Bobrovsky all arrived in Columbus via the trade. As for the results? Well, Howson was fired and Kekäläinen was hired in 2013, so let’s look at the team’s finishes since then.
Columbus in the Last 5 Seasons
- 2012-13: 24-17-7, 55 points, no playoffs
- 2013-14: 43-32-7, 93 points, Lost 1st round
- 2014-15: 42-35-5, 89 points, no playoffs
- 2015-16: 34-40-8, 76 points, no playoffs
- 2016-17: 32-11-4, 68 points, currently 2nd in EC, NHL
It’s fair to say that the trade has been the instrument which built the foundations of their newfound success, but it comes with a significant cautionary tale. In their failed effort to convince Rick Nash not to leave Columbus, in 2011, they traded a young Jakub Voracek along with a 1st rounder who became Sean Couturier and a 3rd (Nick Cousins) for a proven top-6 in Jeff Carter. Carter ended up hating Columbus and was traded four months later, while Voracek blossomed an 80 point scorer and currently anchors Philly’s second line with both Couturier AND Cousins. Coincidentally, Howson was fired a year later. If that trio was still in Ohio, who knows how much better the Jackets could have been.
The Drafters: Catching Lightning in a Bottle
Before we get into our best example of draft rebuilds, let’s just make it clear that Edmonton and Pittsburgh do not count in this category. The Oilers have had 6 Top-5 picks in the last 7 years, and are only just now starting to contend. Terrible example. While the Penguins have been much better after their rebuild, they had 5 Top-5 picks in a row from 2002-06, including two (you know darn well who I’m talking about) who have already scored 300 goals each in their first ten seasons. That is just cheating. I’m also going to leave out large market teams like:
- Chicago (Amazing drafts though, thanks)
- Los Angeles (Drafts from 2008-11 also stellar)
- Boston (Slightly less impressive)
- Toronto (Nobody in the US cares).
No, our top example of draft rebuilds is our old Southeast Division rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, their rebuild was heavily jumpstarted by the selections of Steven Stamkos (1st overall, 2008) and Victor Hedman (2nd overall, 2009) along with the trade returns of players like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and yes they are having a down year in 2016-17 due to injuries, but Steve Yzerman is still a draft master, and he didn’t even draft Stamkos or Hedman. 8 of the team’s top 9 scorers were drafted or signed as undrafted by the Lightning (Kucherov, Hedman, Drouin, Johnson, Palat, Killorn, Stamkos, Namestenikov) Only 4 of those 8 were first rounders. Yzerman found Ondrej Palat in the 7th round with Tyler Johnson being the guy found in the unwanted bin. Counting Johnson, Yzerman, who was hired in 2010, has since drafted 8 players that have played in over 100 games for the Lightning.
Tampa Bay Finishes Under Yzerman
- 2010-11: 46-25-11, 103 points, Lost EC finals
- 2011-12: 38-36-8, 84 points, no playoffs
- 2012-13: 18-26-4, 40 points, no playoffs
- 2013-14: 46-27-9, 101 points, Lost 1st round
- 2014-15: 50-24-8, 108 points, Lost Stanley Cup Finals
- 2015-16: 46-31-5, 98 points, Lost EC Finals
The draft dominance by Yzerman (along with savvy trades for players like Ben Bishop and Ryan Callahan) has resulted in the Lightning playing in 3 of the past 6 Eastern Conference Finals. Regardless of play this season, that’s an absolutely stellar track record for a rebuild. Further, if their current prospect performance is any indication, nobody should be expecting the Lightning to stay near the bottom for any sustained period of time. 2016 2nd round (58th overall) pick Taylor Raddysh, a potential steal in the making, has dominated in juniors this season, scoring 71 points in just 34 games for the Erie Otters (on a line with 2015 #2 overall Dylan Strome, and recently-acquired Hurricanes prospect Warren Foegele), and tying Julien Gauthier for the Team Canada lead in goals during the World Juniors with five.
All that being said, the Lightning’s rebuild comes with a cautionary tale too. Yzerman has only drafted two defensemen (Nesterov, and the traded Radko Gudas) that have played more than 34 NHL games since he came on in 2010, filling the non-Hedman slots via trade and free agency. The result? Tampa Bay is currently 23rd in team defense, allowing almost three goals a game.
Free Agency: The Minnesota Miracle
Ah yes, here we are at what I call the Toronto method. Okay, so this writer is just a little bit biased against the free-agent based rebuild, but that fact is, this doesn’t really work. At least not with Toronto’s hidden Tim Horton’s vault of Canadian dollars. Toronto has made the playoffs just once in the last 12 seasons, in 2012-13. Since the end of that season, they have spent a collective $111.7 million on outside free agents (not including re-signings) and have not finished a season higher than 9 points out of a playoff spot.
The four teams that have won a Stanley Cup since 2009, the Penguins, Bruins, Kings and Blackhawks, all had free agents play prominent roles on those teams, but each also had their star cores built through the draft. Yet so many teams, and the fans that root for them, cling to the notion that free agent splashes bring new heights of success. Well, in recent years many teams have tried:
- Detroit spent $35 million on free agents this past offseason.
- Dallas spent $21 million the year before
- Buffalo spent $48 million the year before that.
All three teams are currently sitting outside the playoff picture. Heck, the Canadian teams combine to double the entire GDP of Canada every July, and it’s been 24 years since one of them has won a Stanley Cup. In fact, there is only one relatively successful rebuilding team whose current core of star players is even slightly made up of free agents. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Minnesota Wild.
Following the 2011-12 season, Minnesota had missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. GM Chuck Fletcher had taken over in 2009, saw a Wild team with an aging core of players, and had just traded their top defenseman, Brent Burns, to San Jose for prospects (including Charlie Coyle). They had used the draft to get future defense stalwarts Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba and offensive weapon Mikael Granlund, but they wanted to make a bigger splash. Well the Minnesota Wild did a giant cannonball that offseason when they committed a combined 26 years and $196 million to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise. The next year was relatively quiet, spending ‘only’ $7.5 million on an aging Matt Cooke, but the following three years saw the team spend:
- $19.5 million on forward Thomas Vanek (since bought out) in 2014
- $26 million for the recently-acquired Devan Dubnyk in 2015
- $12.8 for Greatest Hurricane Ever, Eric Staal and former 1st rounder Chris Stewart in 2016
Unlike many of the teams that spent so heavily however, the Wild hasn’t missed the playoffs since they started their splurging effort in that 2011-12 season, and is currently in 1st place in the Western Conference. They may have not yet made it past the second round of the playoffs but Minnesota is the one team that proves that successful free agent-based team building is (kind of) possible. An important note, however. Minnesota’s spendy ways also helped the league restrict free agent contracts in the next CBA, so this strategy is now a lot harder.
Post-Splurge Minnesota Finishes
- 2012-13: 26-19-3, 55 points, Lost 1st Round
- 2013-14: 43-27-12, 98 points, Lost 2nd Round
- 2014-15: 46-28-8, 100 points, Lost 2nd Round
- 2015-16: 38-33-11, 87 points, Lost 1st Round
- 2016-17: 31-11-5, 67 points, ?
The Multi-Directional: Only in Florida
While every team combines to some degree, some teams have no apparent formula. They just like to use all three tools, I’m sure with the intentional malicious intent to throw all of us hockey bloggers off our game. The Florida Panthers are the current example of team with a GM who likes to play with all the cards. Their core is made up of an insane mixture of drafted talent (Ekblad, Huberdeau, Trochek, Barkov), trade acquisitions (Luongo, Yandle, Reilly Smith) and expensive free agents (Jagr, Demers, Jokinen). Coincidentally the results of their rebuild have been all over the place. After winning the Southeast in 2011-12, they:
- Missed the playoffs the next three seasons
- Scored 103 points in 2015-16 only to get bounced in the first round.
- Are currently sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference in 2016-17
Who are the Panthers after their rebuild? I honestly don’t have the slightest clue, but their weirdness warranted a paragraph. Also, tip of the cap to Jaromir Jagr for being the only active player to begin his career during the George H.W. Bush presidency.
Looking at the Hurricanes Rebuild….in Part 2
All of these rebuilds hold valuable lessons that Ron Francis should (and likely did) keep in mind in his reconstruction effort. Since the effort began in 2014, Ron has used all three of his instruments to pretty solid effect. And will discuss all of it, in detail later on. Part 2 of this article will discuss the Hurricanes rebuild in depth, taking a look at each phase of the team’s efforts and where it might go from here. Stay tuned and so long!