If rebuilding a hockey team correctly was easy, with a clear cut template, then we would not see as many teams with Stanley Cup droughts or no cups at all for that matter. Rebuilding in sports is an opportunity to make right on mistakes made previously. However, it is just an opportunity it is not a given. Several teams have been able to rebuild themselves from the bottom to become highly competitive teams in the National Hockey League: the Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals to name a few. They correctly identified the assets that they needed as an organization and acquired them, plus a bit of luck that is always present even for those who have the largest base of hockey knowledge. But how to correctly rebuild a hockey team will come later in this series. For now we will take a look at the other end of the equation, teams who have tried but ultimately failed to rebuild themselves. Three teams from each conference serve at the perfect example for rebuilds that have failed for various reasons, and we will try to look at why each of them didn’t work out the way the organization would have liked.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (snicker, snicker)
2. New York Islanders
3. Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets)
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
2. Edmonton Oilers
3. Minnesota Wild
What Method did the management of these teams attempt to use to rebuild?
Toronto Maple Leafs: Brian Burke said that he has a five year plan to turn the Maple Leafs into a winner. However, this so called five year plan really never seemed to pan out. Initially Burke said the right things and seemed to be doing to right thinks to straighten a Toronto Maple Leafs team that has fallen into a prolonged slump. Burke never really built the team through the young, the way most of successful rebuild have centered around. He made several moves, including the Phil Kessel move that gave the impression of wanting talent now and not waiting for the future. All teams need a veteran presence, but they also need a solid mix of youth. The Leafs attempted to rebuild there team from proven players and trades rather than the draft. Thus far it has backfired.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers’ policy is clear. Draft, draft and then more draft. This strategy has worked for several teams in the past. Think Pittsburgh (Fleury, Letang, Malkin, Crosby and Jordan Staal). However the problem with how the Oilers have been picking is that it has been one dimensional. They have taken the classic strategy “draft the best player available” and thus far it has backfired because they don’t have the goaltending nor the
defence to be competitive. However, with the first overall pick this season once again being theirs it appears that they will once again take the consensus best player in the draft. But whether they pick Nail Yakupov or defenceman Ryan Murray, or even trade their pick for a proven defencemen they Oilers have already set themselves a couple of steps behind with unbalanced drafting. All of their picks: Eberle, Hall, Nungent-Hopkins and Paajarvi all have offensive talent but cannot be counted on to play defensively. Which movement was the worst the team made during their attempted rebuild?
New York Islanders: The Islanders, like the Oilers have attempted to build their team through the draft. After originally going with a veteran movement when GM Garth Snow first signed on in 2006 the team has now shifted its view to the system that seems to be working the best for rebuilding teams. The problem so far for the Islanders is like the Oilers they have not been drafting goaltenders and defenseman, which is a huge problem. Drafting one dimensionally seems to be a common problem among teams who have failed rebuilds. In drafting Kyle Okposo 7th overall in 2006 they missed out on an opportunity to draft Jonathan Bernier, a goaltender who could have made a huge difference for them. 2008 was similar, when the team drafted Josh Bailey, a centre, 9th overall when they had a chance to draft some solid defencemen like Tyler Myers (12), Erik Carlson (15),
Michael Del Zotto (20) and John Carlson (27).
Columbus Blue Jackets: For Columbus other than Rick Nash the draft has never been kind to them. So this off-season they set out to build the team a different way, gaining excitement. They acquired Jeff Carter, a talented and well known player from the Philadelphia Flyers while traded for the rights to sign James Wisniewski from the Montreal Canadiens. Rick Nash finally had some solid players to play around him, the only problem was those players never really played for the team. Wisniewski was both injured and suspended for a large amount of the season and never really got to play the time he would have liked with the team. Meanwhile, Carter was shell-shocked from the trade and left the team soon thereafter after a disappointing injury filled fragment of the 2012 season. The team attempted to build via excitement, it quickly crashed and burned with that excitement never showed up.
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): The Thrashers probably never had a chance at attracting too many free agent players so for them the goal was always building the team through the draft. They were pretty good at it too drafting Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley in consecutive years. The rest of the player this team acquired were usually through trade, the problem being the Thrashers had a bad tendency to trade away high end talent for very little in return. Most of the players they drafted would end up being a driving force with another organization as they jumped ship from Atlanta as soon as they had a chance. The hockey team never really recovered and ended up moving to Winnipeg in 2011.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild, like the Thrashers never really were able to attract big free agent names despite the fact that Minnesota is one of the biggest hockey cities in the United States and have produced several elite hockey talents. Therefore the Minnesota Wild had to adopt similar rebuilding principals to the Atlanta Thrashers. They acquired the most part of there players from trades and drafting. The problem being that they had to give up something in exchange for these players more than just salary cap space. The Wild quickly fell into problems when they were not able to acquire equal value on some of their trades and ended up losing a very key part of their team in Marian Gaborik.
Which movement was the worst the team made during their attempted rebuild?
Toronto Maple Leafs: One of the main problems the past couple of years for the Toronto Maple Leafs has been goaltending. Raycroft, Belfour, Toskala, Pogge and Gustavsson have all fallen despite high expectations for each one. The goaltending situation appeared to be fixed when James Reimer played sensational down the stretch for the Leafs a year ago but he fell into a sophomore slump this past season. Therefore the worst movement this team made involved a goaltender. That goaltender was Tuukka Rask, currently with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. Rask was involved in a swap for a promising young goaltender who won the Calder Trophy as a member of the Bruins, Andrew Raycroft. The difference between these two goaltenders? Raycroft is currently
with the Texas Stars of the AHL while Rask is hands down the best backup goaltender in the league. Why is he still a backup? Because the man in front of him is one of the top 5 goaltenders in the world at the moment. On 20 of the 30 teams in the NHL Rask would be a starter and a superstar. He could have changed everything for a Toronto Maple Leafs team who is one goaltender away from the playoffs.
New York Islanders: The worst move the Islanders ever made involved a goaltender, I think you who where I am going with this. In the 2000 entry draft the New York Islanders selected goaltender Rick DiPietro first overall. They quickly went to lock him away, signing him for 15 seasons. In doing so they shed themselves of another young goaltending prospect, this one named Roberto Luongo. Whatever your opinions are on the current Vancouver Canucks goaltender
it was to be said that he is far more healthy and a better goaltender than the aforementioned DiPietro. Who knows what the New York Islanders could have accomplished with Luongo in net. Luongo aside, the 2000 draft could have left the Islanders with plenty of talented options had they not picked DiPietro first overall. DiPietro has played 307 NHL games with a GAA of 2.84 and a SV% of .903. The second overall pick Dany Heatley has gone on to play 751 games, more than double DiPietro and score 742 career points to date. The third overall pick Marian Gaborik has also played over 700 games and has 647 NHL points. Luongo would have made a difference and with the
offence of Heatley or Gaborik this team would be in a far better position.
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): They have made plenty of poor moves with their star players in the past decade. However, the one which still could be the worst in the teams history involved a NHL superstar in Marian Hossa, currently with the Chicago Blackhawks. When the team found out that unrestricted free agent Marian Hossa would not be returning to the team for the next season they quickly traded him. The team he ended up with was the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team who would become cup finalists that season. For an Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets team that has lacked offense almost since existence it wouldn’t hurt to have a player who has scored 121 goals and put up 266 points in 289 games since leaving the Thrashers. In exchange for Hossa the Thrashers received Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a 1st round pick which turned out to be Daultan
Leveille. Armstrong played 179 games with the Thrashers managing 80 points before departing as a free agent for Toronto. Christensen played 57 games with the team over two seasons and had 23 points before being traded to
Anaheim for prospect Eric O’Dell. Esposito has still never played a NHL game, neither has
Leveille who is currently playing for Michigan State University. In all Marian Hossa and his 289 points were traded for 4 players and their combined 103 points, oh and it doesn’t end yet. The final piece sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins has been far more integral than Marian Hossa to the teams success. Yes Pascal Dupuis was the final piece that exchanged hands in this dismal dealing. Dupuis has forged himself an excellent career since joining the Penguins, playing 331 games and a scoring 174 points. So all in all the Thrashers traded 463 points for 103, and in a 4 for 2 strictly forwards exchange that is not at all a good thing.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets have always had problems when it came to drafting. Most of the time their draft picks will either have success with another team or disappear within their ranks. The main notable exception being Rick Nash who has turned himself into one of the NHL elite. However, some of the missed draft picks stand out above the others, specifically 2003 draft pick
Nikolai Zherdev. The problem isn’t necessarily Zherdev, who actually had a pretty good NHL career. He had 115 goals and 261 points in 421 games with the Blue Jackets, Flyers and Rangers before heading
back to the KHL this season. But Zherdev only spent 4 seasons with the Blue Jackets and while he put up some of the best totals in his career he was a minus every season. His best season being a minus 9. The real problem with Zherdev is he came in an exceptional draft class and Columbus missed out on several opportunities to take other elite NHL players. The list of players drafted after Zherdev in the first round alone includes: Milan Michalek, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, former Montreal Canadien Andrei Kostitsyn, Jeff Carter (who they would acquire briefly), Dustin Brown, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards and Corey Perry. Not to mention Loui Eriksson early in the second round. In drafting Zherdev the Blue Jackets missed out on an opportunity to have several elite NHL players in their dressing room. Having any of these players on the team would have improved the performance and quality of this team and they may not be in the situation they are in currently.
Edmonton Oilers: The worst move in the Edmonton Oilers’ recent history is not really their fault. During the 2005-2006 season, the first after the lockout, the Oilers made a serious run at their 6th Stanley Cup. The team eventually fell to the Carolina Hurricanes but in doing so proved to the rest of the hockey world that they were a force to be reckoned with. The team was led by one of the best defenders of the modern hockey era in Chris Pronger, a Norris and Hart trophy winning defender. During that 2005-06 Pronger put up 12 goals and 44 assists for 56 points in 80 regular season games. This performance only improved in the playoffs when Pronger scored 5 goals and has 16 assists for 21 points in 24 playoff games. Pronger was the key piece to the Edmonton Oilers success and part of a core of players that gave the Oilers a decent chance at being one of the NHL’s elite teams. The only problem was Pronger wanted a trade citing personal reasons. Pronger was eventually dealt to the
Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and a handful of draft picks, only one of which (Jordan Eberle) remains with the Oilers. Pronger became a hero in his first season with the Ducks leading them, with the help of Scott Niedermayer all the way to the franchises first Stanley Cup. While the trade with
Anaheim may not seem all that bad Lupul only ever got 28 points for the Oilers
before moving to the Philadelphia Flyers. Eberle may be the saving grace in this trade, but for an Oilers team that hasn’t been able to find a solution to its defensive problems Chris Pronger would have been a huge help.
Minnesota Wild: Marian Gaborik is by far the best player to have ever played in the Minnesota Wild organization. He is also one of the best players to come out of his home nation of Slovakia. So for the second time in 6 teams the worst move the franchise made in recent years involves a Slovakian player. While Gaborik was a member of the Minnesota Wild he was always considered too good for a team that was always mediocre at best. So in 2009 when his contract with the club expired after 8 years he decided he would leave for a team he evaluated to be a far better and more competitive team than the Minnesota Wild in the New York Rangers. Not only was New York a better hockey team as proven by their trip to at least the Conference Finals this season but in New York Gaborik would be firmly entrenched in the limelight of hockey. While this move was excellent for the New York Rangers and Gaborik it was a huge loss for the Minnesota Wild. The best player they have ever had left the team without bringing a single thing the other way. With Gaborik still on the team or prospect and players they could have acquired from New York or another team in exchange for Gaborik the team would be in a far better position offensive or defensively than they currently are.
What experience did the General Manager(s) of these teams have going into their position with the team?
Toronto Maple Leafs: When Brian Burke joined the Toronto Maple Leafs it came with plenty of fanfare. Burke came into the Maple Leafs as a popular and proven General Manager who had previously been a NHL GM with the Hartford Whalers, Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks. After years of waiting Brian Burke said all the right things after his appointment in Toronto.
New York Islanders: Garth Snow had a good career as a goaltender in the NHL playing with organizations like Philadelphia, Quebec, Vancouver and finishing off with the New York Islanders. Snow had no previous experience in any other form of hockey as he was quickly hired after retiring as a player in 2006.
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): The current General Manager of the Winnipeg Jets is Kevin Cheveldayoff.
However, having only been with the team for one season he can’t be held
accountable for the team’s shortcomings. Rick Dudley was the final General
Manager of the Atlanta Thrashers. Previous to joining the team he played in the
NHL with the Sabres and the Jets. He had plenty of experience in coaching at
several levels including the NHL before joining the Thrashers as a General
Columbus Blue Jackets: Just like all the previous General Managers mentioned Scott Howson played in the NHL. His career only involved one team, the New York Islanders. From there he transitioned into a managing career that saw him manage the Cape Breton Oilers and the Hamilton Bulldogs. He also served plenty of time as an assistant GM with the Edmonton Oilers before being promoted to GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Edmonton Oilers: Steve Tambellini, the General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers is somewhat of a household name in the NHL. The 53 year old played for the Islanders, Rockies, Devils, Flames and Canucks before retiring. He spent plenty of time with the Canucks organization in plenty of different positions including assistant GM. He also played an integral position in Canada’s 2002 Gold Medal at the Olympic Winter Games. A member of the British Columbia Hockey Hall of Fame he joined the Oilers as a General Manager in 2008.
Minnesota Wild: Chuck Fletcher never played professional hockey. But that didn’t stop him from getting involved in the sport. Fletcher, a Harvard graduate, has held plenty of positions with different NHL organizations. In terms of management experience he was the assistant GM for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team he helped lead to NHL success. In 2009 he was named the General Manager of the Minnesota Wild.
How long has the average player been on the team?
Toronto Maple Leafs: Since 2009
New York Islanders: 2009
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): 2009
Columbus Blue Jackets: 2009
Edmonton Oilers: 2008
Minnesota Wild: 2009
What is the average age of the roster?
Toronto Maple Leafs: 26.4 (T-2nd youngest in NHL)
New York Islanders: 28.4 (19th in NHL)
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): 26.4 (T-2nd in NHL)
Columbus Blue Jackets: 27.3 (10th in NHL)
Edmonton Oilers: 27.0 (6th in NHL)
Minnesota Wild: 26.7 (5th in NHL)
What is the payroll of each of these teams?
Toronto Maple Leafs: $63,463,825 (USD) 9th in NHL
New York Islanders: $49,107,418 (USD) 30th in NHL
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): $51,809,834 (USD) 25th in NHL
Columbus Blue Jackets: $61,340,354 (USD) 14th in NHL
Edmonton Oilers: $60,489,576 (USD) 16th in NHL
Minnesota Wild: $55,809,339 (USD) 20th in NHL
What position was the downfall of these teams?
Toronto Maple Leafs: For the Toronto Maple Leafs the downfall in their rebuild has been their goaltending. Since Curtis Joseph in the early 21st century Toronto has had failed goalie after failed goalie. With a goaltender who can compete this team is playoff caliber as was seen early on in this season and late last season.
New York Islanders: The Rick DiPietro move really set them behind and they haven’t been able to recover. Goaltending has always been a problem for the modern incarnation of this team and it doesn’t look like that will be changing any time soon.
Atlanta Thrashers (Winnipeg Jets): For the Thrashers and the Jets defensive play has been a huge problem. Zach Bogosian has not worked out at the back while Dustin Byfuglien is more of an offensive defenceman. The team sat 25th in
defence this season and look for that number to get worse if they don’t address the situation soon.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason looked like he would be the saving grace for this franchise when he won the Calder Trophy in his rookie season and looked like an elite goaltender in the NHL while doing it. But Mason has never looked the same since and the Blue Jackets have suffered greatly because of it.
Edmonton Oilers: The problem with the Edmonton Oilers has been that they haven’t had consistent anything. The Oilers ended up a middling to poor position in both GF and GA. At times the team could score plenty, at times the team had excellent goaltending and defence. The problem was that it wasn’t consistently that way and that is why the Oilers missed the playoffs again this season.
Minnesota Wild: Goal scoring. The Wild finished in last place in the entire league with less than 2 goals scored per game this season. That is a very poor total as it is very difficult to win games when you team is only scoring roughly one goal. Brining in Dany Heatley didn’t make the difference for the Wild who continue to miss Marian Gaborik.
In conclusion, every case is different when it comes to failed rebuilds. If I could definitely say what causes it I would be hired by every NHL organization. For the most part what I conclude is that goaltending is so big in the modern NHL. The most uniting failure from these teams has been poor goaltending. Also, big trades can often be big losses for teams and leave the team effected for the long term. Most players on failed rebuilding teams have spent 3 years with the team while most of them don’t pay their teams enough to be competitive in the league. Although the Toronto Maple Leafs are the obvious exception.