The Hurricanes game Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins offers a look at another team that was really bad but rebuilt into a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup. The Penguins are 1 of multiple teams that went from being a a bottom dweller to being rebuilt into a team capable of making it to the Stanley Cup Finals (and in most cases winning it). Other teams who have recently accomplished this include the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning and Los Angeles Kings.
The NHL draft gifts automatic superstar foundation
This post takes a look at the timeline and process for the Penguins rebuild to see if there is anything that the Hurricanes can borrow as they attempt to accomplish similar. From 2001-02 through 2003-04, the Penguins missed the playoffs, finished in last place in their division and actually managed to top the previous year’s poor performance by doing even worse in the next season. The Penguins’ timing for playing abysmal hockey was incredibly good. The perfect storm of a poor record, the loss of the 2004-05 to a labor dispute and some luck with ping pong balls almost singlehandedly put the Penguins on course for a rapid rebuild with a couple elite players as its foundation. The 2002-03 season yielded Marc-Andre Fleury with the first overall pick and never in NHL history has a single poor season yielded as much of a return as the Penguins 2004-05 season. First, the Penguins obtained a ‘can’t miss’ scoring forward in Evgeni Malkin with the second pick of the 2004 draft. Then the lockout and some ping pong balls did even better awarding the Penguins with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft and the opportunity to select generational talent Sidney Crosby. The short-lived learning period for the aforementioned stars yielded 1 more poor season that netted Jordan Staal with the second overall draft pick in the 2006 NHL draft, and along the way the Penguins selected Kris Letang with the third round pick in the 2005 NHL draft.
Against the backdrop of a tough run of 4 years in Pittsburgh that saw attendance plummet to an average of 11,877 in 2003-04 and rumors swirling about the team moving because of lack of help building a new arena in Pittsburgh, a core of elite players were parachuted into the situation from the NHL draft and more or less rescued the struggling franchise.
The team was 3 deep at center with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and also added the best young goalie that draft chips could buy plus an offensively-capable defenseman who fit well in the go-go offense driven by Crosby and Malkin.
A rapid ascent led by the core
Crosby’s rookie season of 2005-06 was the last learning season and also added the last blue chip draftee to the mix in Jordan Staal. From there, the Pens rose up as fast as Crosby, Malkin and company could carry them which was pretty fast. The team made the playoffs in Crosby’s second season of 2006-07, made the Finals in 2007-08 and then won the Stanley Cup in 2009 which was Sidney Crosby’s fourth season in the NHL.
A more detailed season by season analysis of the Penguins roster during the rapid ascent would show some savvy moves adding veterans and scoring-capable wings to the mix, but that should not distract from the fact that the Penguins rebuild was for the most part driven by the drafting of young superstars.
What might this mean for the Carolina Hurricanes?
In a league in which more than half of the teams make the playoffs, it is possible to push into the playoffs with a deep lineup or even a late hot streak, but I think the challenge of being legitimate Cup contender requires a couple superstars that help a team rise above. The Blackhawks’ story is similar in this regard as is the Lightning’s successful rebuilding process (though it has yet to yield a Stanley Cup win).
It is maybe not the only way, but for the Hurricanes to follow a path similar to the Penguins’ rebuild would require at least a couple of the Hurricanes’ top players to develop into superstars not just good players. Of the ‘older young players,’ Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk seem to teeter on the fence of being good NHL players versus taking the next step and pushing into the same category as the Ovechkins, Backstroms, Stamkoses, Hedmans, Johnsons, Crosbys, Malkins, Toews, Keiths, Kanes and others that lead the perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Is 1 or more of these players capable of taking 1 more step upward into the elite category that drives wins and competes for Hart Trophies? Of the next wave of high draft picks (Elias Lindholm, Haydn Fleury, Noah Hanfin) all were drafted with the expectation that they could 1 day become elite players, but none have yet to become more than decent middle of the roster NHL players. Is it possible that 1 or more of Lindholm, Fleury or Hanifin develop into NHL stars? Or is it maybe possible that we are seeing 1 or more of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce or Sebastian Aho do that from a lower draft position?
When I net it out, the Hurricanes seem to have an interesting mix of players who could play their way up into that elite level that generally populates the top 2-4 roster spots on consistent NHL winners. I actually think the Hurricanes are capable of pushing up into the playoffs through improved roster depth and balance, but I do think the level higher than that will require at least a couple legitimate superstars.
What say you Canes fans?
Do you agree that it will take a couple superstars for the Canes to push up above the middle of the pack and yearly playoff contention? Or do you instead think the Hurricanes can use a different model heavier on depth and balance possibly lacking elite superstars?
Do you think the Canes already have these elite players on their roster? If so, who do you see as current or future elite NHL players?