The idea of rebuilding has become more and more prevalent in professional sports in recent years. With increasing regulations on free agency designed to keep players with the team that drafted them – in the NBA, players can make upwards of $50 million more in a contract by signing a super max deal with their drafted team – the draft is the only sure-fire way to develop a championship team. And that’s even true in the National Hockey League (NHL), despite teams like the Edmonton Oilers and Arizona Coyotes failing miserably at rebuild attempts year after year.
Of course, it eventually worked out for the Oilers when they landed Connor McDavid with their fourth first overall pick in six years. The Toronto Maple Leafs were fortunate in that their only first-overall pick in 30 years ended up being Auston Matthews, who scored four goals in his first career game and won the Calder Trophy in 2016-17. The Maple Leafs and Oilers, because of those players, are on upward trajectories and should be considered Stanley Cup contenders for the next decade. Meanwhile, teams that had their run of playoff success – and late-round draft picks – are on the decline. To quote Ricky Bobby, “If you’re not first, you’re last,” and if you’re last, you might as well make sure you get a top draft pick. These eight teams should certainly consider blowing things up and beginning “The Process,” while one of these seven teams listed will win the Stanley Cup next season.
15. Rebuild: Detroit Red Wings
This shouldn’t be a slouch on the Red Wings as Detroit made the playoffs for a NHL-record 25 consecutive years from 1991-2016. That’s an amazing feat for which management deserves a ton of credit, but when you’re that consistent for that long, there’s going to be a steep drop in performance, especially when you lose a future Hall of Famer in Pavel Datsyuk and are hampered with the contracts of Johan Franzen, Frans Nielsen, Mike Green, and Justin Abdelkader, among others.
It isn’t all doom and gloom in Detroit, however. The team is set to usher in a new era in a brand new building in 2017-18 and they’ve got some promising young players in Dylan Larkin (who experienced a brutal sophomore slump last season), Andreas Athanasiou, and Anthony Mantha. But there’s little to like beyond those players, especially on the blue line. The best thing for Detroit would be to trade Zetterberg and become one of the worst teams in the league.
14. Win: Anaheim Ducks
This is a fairly obvious inclusion as the Ducks have been popular picks in everyone’s playoff pool for years now. Since drafting Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, the team has continued a now longstanding era of success that began when Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer ran the show from the backend. They have done so with impressive drafting, particularly on defense, where the Ducks boast one of the most impressive young crops of players in the league.
But up front, the team has done well for itself. They got rid of Bobby Ryan years ago in what seemed like a backwards move, by Jakob Silfverberg, who they got in return, was one of their best players in the 2016-17 playoffs. Ryan Kesler, as much as he is hated, was one of the best value free-agent signings in recent years. And with John Gibson between the pipes, the Ducks will once again be a favorite to win the Stanley Cup next year.
13. Rebuild: San Jose Sharks
Like the Ducks, the Sharks have been in win-now territory for over a decade. For much of that time, the team had an above-average core featuring a dominant Joe Thornton, goal-scoring winger Patrick Marleau, and puck-moving defensemen such as Dan Boyle, Brent Burns, etc. Most of those players are still with the team, and Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are still decent second-tier options, but it’s becoming clear that the Sharks window has closed.
With Thornton and Marleau uncertain to return, the Sharks would be in tough to compete for a playoff spot next year. In fact, even if both players do return it’ll be tough. The team’s draft success has been questionable at best in recent years; it would be best for the Sharks to bottom out and get a top-five pick, something they haven’t had since 1998.
12. Win: Nashville Predators
The Nashville Predators came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last season, and if it wasn’t for the idiocy of video review, the team likely would have at least forced a Game 7. It’ll be interesting to see what the team looks like next season with the loss of James Neal and Pekka Rinne getting a year older, but there’s no reason to believe the Predators won’t be a playoff team in 2017-18.
Nashville boasts the best top-four defense group in the league with Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Matthias Ekholm, and Ryan Ellis, and lets not forget the team was missing Ryan Johansen in the Stanley Cup Finals. General Manager David Poile is one of the league’s best executives and it’s hard to imagine him not upgrading his team in the off-season. Even without any moves, the Predators still have enough talent to contend for the Cup.
11. Rebuild: Arizona Coyotes
For the 20th consecutive year, the Arizona Coyotes enter the season as a team that should completely strip it down and rebuild. The problem is that the Coyotes have already done that every year and it just hasn’t worked, whether because of inept management, poor player development, or lack of interested ownership. Regardless, Arizona has been a wasteland for years, even with a continual cycle of promising prospects.
Yet, the team seems to be embarking on a path of trying to be a competitive team, acquiring veteran defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and center Derek Stepan, who they called a first-line center in the biggest overstatement of the year. At the same time, the Coyotes fired its coach just before the draft and decided to release its all-time leader in every major statistical category, Shane Doan. The entire organization is a mess. Management certainly should continue to rebuild, but the best option would be to move the team to Quebec City or Seattle.
10. Win: Calgary Flames
The Calgary Flames made the biggest splash of the off-season to date when the team traded for Travis Hamonic from the New York Islanders. It was a bold move as the team gave up a first-round draft pick and two second-round picks despite Hamonic likely being best suited as a second-pairing defenseman. However, the price is right if the Flames are right in their belief that defense wins championships. The team is now blessed with a dynamic top-four of Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton, T.J. Brodie, and Travis Hamonic, which might rival Nashville’s defense.
Up front, the team has Superstar forwards in Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, along with other young players that could potentially break through. Sam Bennett is an intriguing player as he was dynamic in his first playoff series two years ago, but took a bit of a step back last season. The one thing holding the Flames back is their goaltending situation; the team acquired Mike Smith in June, who might only be a slight upgrade, if any, over Brian Elliot.
9. Rebuild: Montreal Canadiens
How Marc Bergevin continues to be employed by the Montreal Canadiens is a mystery to many. The General Manager whiffed on the P.K. Subban for Shea Weber deal, stressing it as a win-now move that would make the Canadiens better suited to winning a championship. Weber was fine in his first year in Montreal, but he couldn’t help the Canadiens from being eliminated in the first round to the mediocre New York Rangers. Subban and the Predators, meanwhile, took down perennial powerhouses en route to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.
Bergevin made a similar move in June, when he acquired Jonathan Drouin for prospect Mikhail Sergachev. On the surface, it seems like a win for the Habs, as they add a budding star on the wing, but Sergachev is lauded by most scouts as a future first-pairing offensive defenseman, something the Habs desperately need. They might make the playoffs again in 2017-18 on the strength of Carey Price, but with the cupboards completely bare in terms of prospects, the Canadiens should certainly consider giving Bergevin the boot and blowing it up.
8. Win: Toronto Maple Leafs
It must have been hard being a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the past decade or so, not only because the team has been so awful, but because its biggest rival, the Montreal Canadiens, has been consistently good. That appears to be changing. Auston Matthews is the type of player you draft that can immediately shift the fate of your franchise. He might not be a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid – he’s not far off – but he’s an uber-talented center with unmatched drive and work ethic. Including Mitch Marner and William Nylander and a young defensive core led by Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner, the Maple Leafs finally appear to be poised to contend for a championship.
It’s not just the players on the ice that inspire confidence; it’s the management, led by General Manager Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan, who came to Toronto with a plan to rebuild and perfected it.
7. Rebuild: New York Islanders
The New York Islanders were up against the salary cap with the prospect of returning the exact same roster a few short weeks ago. Since then, the Islanders have added Jordan Eberle from the Edmonton Oilers and dealt Travis Hamonic for draft picks. It’s really hard to say what direction the team is trying to go, but those two moves send mixed messages, especially since Hamonic had a great-value cap hit at $3.5 million per season.
The truth is the Islanders are hampered by some god-awful contracts, including the one the team gave to Andrew Ladd just a season ago. Not only did that deal affect the team’s short-term aspirations, it might also affect its ability to sign John Tavares, who is set to enter unrestricted free agency next offseason. The idea of Tavares to the Maple Leafs – or any other team – has always been overstated, but if the Islanders are still a mess a year from now, who’s to say he wouldn’t want to play elsewhere for a chance to win a championship?
6. Win: Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers are the league’s poster franchise for the importance of rebuilding to gain a winning program. Sure, it didn’t work for a number of years, but if you pick first overall enough times, you’re bound to get a franchise-altering player who can instantly turn the team into a contender. And that’s exactly what Connor McDavid is. When the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby, you almost knew they were going to win at least one Stanley Cup. That’s the same kind of confidence McDavid inspires in Edmonton.
You do, however, need more than one player, and the Oilers have the Messier to McDavid’s Gretzky in Leon Draisaitl. Although General Manager Peter Chiarelli has made some questionable moves in the past year or so, he also picked up goaltender Cam Talbot, who was a breakout star last season, and added players like Milan Lucic, Adam Larsson, and Mark Letestu.
5. Rebuild: New York Rangers
Are the Rangers finally realizing the importance of building from the ground up? The team dealt veteran center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and offensive defenseman Anthony DeAngelo. The team might still make moves in free agency that signal it’ll be going for a Stanley Cup in 2017-18 – such as signing Kevin Shattenkirk – but they’ll only be fooling themselves.
Aside from Lias Andersson, who the Rangers added with the seventh pick, the team only drafted in the top-ten once since 2004 and it used that pick to select Dylan McIlrath. Needless to say, there’s a drastic need for an influx of good, young players. Making matters worse, Andersson was the team’s first first-round pick since 2012 and none of its draft picks in the previous three years have played in the NHL yet.
4. Win: Pittsburgh Penguins
There’s going to be a steep decline for the Pittsburgh Penguins at some point, but it isn’t going to be next year. Sidney Crosby has had concussion concerns for quite some time, but he has managed to have the best calendar year of his career last year, and Evgeni Malkin was a beast in the playoffs last year. Add in Matt Murray, who has backstopped the team to two Stanley Cups in his first two years in the league, and the fact the Penguins didn’t even have their top defenseman, Kris Letang, in last year’s playoffs, and you can bet the team will be competing next season.
Phil Kessel’s contract is eventually going to be regrettable, but he should have at least another two good seasons ahead of him. The prospect cupboard is bare, but its core is still at its best, and there have been rumblings that Jim Rutherford is hoping to add a major piece through either free agency or trade in the off-season.
3. Rebuild: Washington Capitals
The most difficult decision in professional sports is knowing when to decide simply being good isn’t good enough. And with the Washington Capitals, you could make the case that the team is better than good; they’ve been a regular season powerhouse for some time now, but have failed to advance beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, often being foiled by the Pittsburgh Penguins. With Alex Ovechkin getting older and seeming to become more of a perimeter player, it’s hard to believe the Capitals can overtake the Pens in the near future.
Sure, they’ll make the playoffs in the next few seasons with its current core, but past failures make it tough to believe they’ll do anything substantial in the playoffs. Trading Alex Ovechkin could net the team an impressive haul of prospects and picks, but you can understand management – and ownership – being hesitant.
2. Win: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs by one point in 2016-17, but had the best second half of all teams in the league. Nikita Kucherov proved himself a mega star in the league and could have even warranted Hart Trophy consideration, while Victor Hedman established himself as one of the league’s three best defensemen.
The Lightning had the second half they did without Steven Stamkos, who was on pace for a great year prior to suffering a season-ending injury. He’ll be back healthy in 2017-18 and should boost the team’s chances at contending; remember, the Lightning were in the Stanley Cup Finals just a few short years ago. General Manager Steve Yzerman has shown himself to be one of the league’s best executives, and you can count on him improving his team in the off-season.
1. Rebuild: Los Angeles Kings
Unlike the Pittsburgh Penguins who won multiple Stanley Cups and still appear capable of competing, the Los Angeles Kings are nowhere near contending for a championship. The team had its two Stanley Cups, so a rebuild will be much easier to swallow, but it’s something that needs to happen sooner rather than later.
It appears as though the Kings took the first steps in doing so by bringing in former players Rob Blake and Luc Robaitaille as executives, but there’s plenty of players that need to be shown the door. Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, in particular, are on contracts that are going to hamper the team’s ability to be competitive for the next five seasons. Anze Kopitar, meanwhile, had the worst year of his career in 2016-17. He could still earn an impressive haul through trade, as could Drew Doughty. Both deals could certainly kickstart another rebuild.
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