clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gotta Burn It To Build It?

New, comments

Trevor Linden publicly and steadfastly eschewed the philosophy of a full tear-down rebuild, so naturally I had to dive in and see what I could make up learn about the history of #Tanking.

The 2014-2015 Buffalo Sabres.
The 2014-2015 Buffalo Sabres.
Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Trevor Linden caused more than a little buzz last week when he appeared on TSN1040's "Presidents Week" on the Midday Show with Matt Sekeres. If you happened to miss it, you can find the podcast here to listen to the interview in its entirety, you could also go to OneCanuck Blog and read Jeremy Davis' breakdown on what he thinks were the 7 best questions from the fans, and you should most definitely read "Rob the Hockey Guy" at VanCity Buzz take on the rebuild subject by looking at the key players on each Cup winner since the lockout and how they were acquired, asking whether the Canucks can build a winner without going in the tank.

The crux of the argument is the philosophy of #TankNation, basically those who believe that a full strip-it-to-the-bones and be bad to get good approach is the only way to go to build up a winner, and surely there's evidence in the fact that 6 of the past 7 Cup Champions (okay sure, it's only 3 different teams) were bottom-feeders who took advantage of top-3 draft picks to acquire the talent that eventually led them to the promised land. After the dumpster fire that was the 2013-2014 season in Vancouver, followed up by a rebound year that ended on a sour note in April, there have been more than a few in this neck of the woods pushing for Vancouver to follow the same route, especially so considering the Canucks were knocked out rather unceremoniously in the first round by a team that followed the exact same tear-down rebuild model themselves. Linden threw a bucket of water on that idea, causing many of us asked whether he had a point when he said:

"Let's be bad for seven, eight years or whatever that looks like. I don't know what that looks like. People say they want that..."

Well, first of all Linden played for the Islanders from '97-'99 so he should have a pretty good idea of what that looks like, so maybe he really is on to something after all. Therein lies the impetus of me filling your eyes with more pixilated hot air: How bad do you have to be to be good? For how long? Well let's get to it and find out!

(All facts and figures derived from HockeyDB.com, hockey-reference.com, NHL.com, and TSN.ca)

"The Dragon"

We need look no further than the Champs themselves. Needing no introduction for Canucks' fans, they are the "modern dynasty" that draws the envy on the entire league: The Chicago Blackhawks. Of course, because they're pretty much perfect, and that's largely due to the tandem of Jonathan Toews and notorious douchebag Patrick Kane who of course were drafted 3rd and 1st overall, respectively.

"So that's pretty much it, right? They were terrible, drafted high and developed a winner with their high-end talent."

Well, yes. But also no, not at all. Firstly, we quickly forget how long they were actually terrible for. Chicago missed the playoffs every year but one from 1997-'98 until their resurgence under the aforementioned Toews and Kane in '08-'09. That one playoff appearance? Ousted in 5 games by St. Louis. Chicago was shut-out 3 straight games and outscored 13-5 in the series. Ouch. That's 11 years (10 seasons- Thanks, Bettman) with 1 playoff win. One. That's bad. Real bad.

 photo Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 22.54.52_zpsaurkfvgl.png

From HockeyDB.com, Chicago's decade of mediocrity.

All sorts of incarnations of the Blackhawks lost in that era. Teams led by Steve Sullivan, Mark Bell, Tuomo Ruutu, Martin Havlat, Eric Daze(!), Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov... 8 coaches and 4 gm's led this abysmal decade in Chicago where you couldn't even see the games on local TV. They were completely irrelevant essentially, until Toews was drafted 3rd overall in 2006, followed by snagging Patrick Kane with the 1st pick in 2007. Fun fact (and I had forgotten about this): Chicago won the lottery that year. That's right, even Chicago-level sucking wasn't enough to get them their star winger, they had to win the f$@king lottery! In fine fashion too, I might add. They were slotted in the #5 spot and vaulted all the way into #1. They were a single ping-pong ball away from "landing" Karl Alzner instead of P-Kane. Could you imagine? Granted, Jakub Voracek was also available there, so who knows, but still, Voracek is not Kane. 3-cups in 6 years? Doubtful. Makes you think, doesn't it?

Now, of course there were several key pieces that were drafted during some of those gawdafwul years in ChiTown: Duncan Keith was picked in the 2nd round in '03, Brent Seabrook was #14 overall followed by Corey Crawford at #52 in '04, Bickell and Bolland (you remember them) were picked in '05. I'd also be remiss to leave out Cam Barker (#3, 2004) and Jack Skille (#7, 2005) as top picks in that era who did nothing at all in the NHL, so they still had plenty of misses at the draft table despite their inherent suckiness, and the core that eventually won were all drafted over a 5-year period, a total of eight years between drafting Keith and winning it all.

Sooooo.... yeah. It almost makes one feel a little sorry for Chicago fans but that goes against the laws of physics. Still though, that's some pretty bad stuff to have to look at for 10 years, even if they did make up for it in pretty short order.

Verdict: Far too many really horri-awful very bad years for me. Throw in the fluke lottery win and I vote against, but it's close. Major points to Stan Bowman for playing Salary Cap Roulette to perfection and keeping the good times rolling.

Flightless Birds

The long-thought-of poster-child of the "draftists" was of course the team looked at as the poster-child of the post-lockout era, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Be bad, draft Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal 1st,2nd,1st and 2nd overall, respectively, in consecutive years then go win a cup. I just vomited in my mouth a little bit writing that. What makes it even worse is that there's an argument to say Pittsburgh didn't even make the best choices at the draft table, considering Fleury went #1 in the deepest draft in league history, and Staal was chosen one pick before Jonathan Toews. Yikes. Of course revisionist history is too easy looking back at old drafts, but still... *shiver*

Of course the reality of the situation for the Penguins in the years leading up to the lockout was the fact that they were bleeding money, playing in the oldest arena in the NHL and the team was under constant threat of relocation. The blow-up began with the trade of Jaromir Jagr for a bag of pucks and things didn't get any better from there. Things were pretty ugly in western Pennsylvania until Crosby came along, though of course there's that little nugget of the "Sid the Kid Sweepstakes", the bizarre lottery devised to give every team a chance to draft 1st overall coming out of the 2005 season-stealing lockout, in which of course Pittsburgh won the jackpot.

So again the draft lottery played a major role in a "rebuilding" team mining gold that would eventually pay out in the form of a Stanley Cup. Now of course this isn't to say- actually yeah, I'm saying it. The 'Pens' got lucky.

OT: You can't talk about the Penguins and "rebuild" without bringing up the infamous '83-'84 Lemieux Tankjob. Here is a very good piece about this from the guys at Hockey-Graphs.

Verdict: Pittsburgh was a mess that happened to pull off a quick turnaround tankjob, but Sidney Crosby has a way of making light work of such tasks. I have to vote against, just too much luck involved, and too many REALLY bad times before the good.

The Have-nots: Panthers and Islanders

One simply does not discuss rebuilding, tanking, drafting high, or any combination of the above without also bringing up the curious case of the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders. I mean, as much as Pittsburgh, Chicago and LA are the poster-children for building a winner in the modern NHL, FLA and NYI are, well:

Homer discussing a mid-February Panthers-Islanders game in 1998.

These teams were bad, but not just bad, bad for a reeeaaaalllly long time. "How long?" you ask? Well, let's put it this way: Between 1997 and 2003, Florida and Long Island combined for 20 (twenty!) First-round draft picks (the Islanders alone had 9 in 4 years). Now, to be fair New York did manage a few short years of almost-relevance beginning under Peter Laviolette (Mike Peca ftw), with 4 playoff appearances in 5 years, although they were not able to win a round.

Florida, well... Let me just show you their entire history. Again, thanks to HockeyDB:

 photo Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 22.56.55_zpshrnzxfud.png

That's a lot of red.

So, obviously you can't just be bad for a while. You sort of need to be bad with a plan. Or at least you need to find a plan when you're scraping the bottom year after year and are more relevant as a late-night talk show joke than a hockey team. Simply being bad for a while and accumulating top draft picks alone isn't enough to build a winner. We can forgive these poor fools just a little due to awful ownership and market situations, but still. I mean c'mon.

Verdict: Just.. I mean, I can't... It's just terrible. Even though I brought them up as a counterpoint more than anything, these teams were terrible for years and have barely anything to show for it. You can't just be bad, you need management who knows what to do with all your high draft picks. Losers who lose just because they're losers is a non-starter.

Drinkin' (out of the Cup) in LA

I'm sorry for that, but I truly believe that one can never pass up an opportunity to reference Bran Van 3000. The Kings are an interesting case, regardless of this writers' shameless use of late-'90's Canadiana. Like our friends the Blackhawks and Penguins, the Kings were a pretty-friggin'-bad team for a lot of years around the early-to-mid oughts.

I finish with the LA Kings because they're pretty much the most interesting example of recent teams to build up from very little. Sorta like Chicago, we want to look at them and see a team that wasn't very good, drafted Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty a few years apart with a sprinkle of Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick thrown in and all is well. Really though, the Kings were a bit of a train-wreck for quite a while in the years surrounding the lockout, missing the playoffs for 6-consecutive seasons (not years- thanks Bettman).

"No big deal, right? They were terrible, drafted high and developed a winner with their high-end talent."

Well, kinda, but also not at all. I mean, of course they grabbed a large chunk of their core with the high draft picks they accrued in that era, but they had a tonne of misses then as well. Names like Lauri Tukonen, Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert surround Kopitar, Brown and Doughty, not to mention the fact that key players in their Cup-winning teams were either free agent signings or trades. Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Marion Gaborik were all traded for, and key pieces like Willie Mitchell and Jason Williams were UFA signings. Now, that's not to take away from the "gotta be bad to get good" theory, bad teams typically have cap space to sign free agents, and young assets teams covet in trades. So 6 seasons of near-futility (they put up a good fight though) to win 2 cups in 3 years seems like nothing, and I think there's a bit of truth there, but the path the Kings took was one of the uglier ones to be sure.

Verdict: I'm calling this one a yes by the squeakiest of margins. 2 Cups in 3 years is just enough to offset the 10 years of fugly that were the Kings. Call me in the morning and I might change my mind again, but for now they're in the black. (Oooh, look at me getting all word-playin'!)


"But of Course the Oiler--"

No. No, no... Just, no. Not even. Don't start with me. Same goes for Toronto.

Flamers and Sabres

This could almost be the "to be continued" portion of the show, as we could be talking about the "Flames Model" in a few short years, and Buffalo could be the shining example of everything #TankNation holds near and dear.

These are interesting teams to watch at the moment, obviously Calgary will ride 18-year-old Sam Bennett all the way to the Stanley Cup because CBC, and Buffalo shrugged off all labels, gave zero shits and went full TANK, resulting in 2 of the worst seasons ever seen, but of course are now about to hit the upswing with "the other guy", Evander Kane, Tim Horton's spokesman, and a goalie they paid so much for Vancouver went tilt because they expected the same from Eddie Lack. The great irony with that of course is that the most obvious tank job in 30 years resulted in Buffalo getting leaped on the draft board by a lottery winner. The hockey gods have a sense of humour.

Regardless, if either of these teams were to win a cup soon I think there might be a pretty big rethink on expected timelines of tanking- sorry, rebuilds. Yes, Calgary was a middling team for a number of years before they began the big sell-off, and the same could be said for Buffalo, but the sheer speed at which these teams dove to the bottom and began their ascent is quite interesting. Can't call it till we see some real results for either team, but I will say that at least at this point it looks promising, though we'll see how much regression bites Calgary this year, as they have to adjust to actually having expectations for a change.

Verdict: Let's stay tuned and revisit these guys in a year or two.

Sooo.... What'cha sayin' then?

Well honestly, I'm starting to think Linden had a point. A look at the Big 3 (post-lockout) and I see a lot of years of real bad. Sure, the diehards will always be there because Hockey, but the best laid plans of mice and all that...

There is an awful lot of luck involved in drafting, but especially now where you draft. As the NHL prepares to level the playing field even more in regards to the lottery starting next year, tanking just doesn't seem like a sure bet. It's awesome if the dice rolls your way, but the odds are increasingly stacked against you. Of course the higher you sit the less you could fall, but again there is no guarantee. If you're bad, you're bad and let the chips fall where they may. Such is the cycle of professional sports. Doing it on purpose however looks actually to be dicey these days, with no guarantee of landing the big fish at the draft table. I might be convinced otherwise in a few years, but for now I think I actually agree with Trevor on this one.

The problem I have though is that it is extremely difficult to acquire the level of talent that is available at the top of most year's draft boards outside of said draft. Elite talent does not fall on your lap, like almost ever. It's an incredibly difficult fact to reconcile if you don't believe in blowing it up, because how else do you get that level of talent?

There are examples of course. Corey Perry, Claude Giroux, and Vladimir Tarasenko were all mid-to-late 1st round picks. On the defensive side, Erik Karlsson was drafted at #15, Shea Weber, PK Subban and Duncan Keith were all 2nd rounders, Nik Lidstrom was a 3rd. Forwards like Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and of course Pavol Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg were all late round picks and of course there's the undrafted stars like Martin St. Louis and Tyler Johnson. Other elites like Of course these are all outliers, but so is winning a lottery (Unless you're the Oilers).

At the end of the day I think it simply boils down to smart management. The good teams will find talent in the draft regardless of where they pick, and the smarter GM's will augment their young talent through smart signings and trades. Of course the best talent is at the top of the draft and you have to be at the bottom to get there, but that road is a long, ugly and painful, and you still have to have a bit of luck on your side, but that is certainly the best way to get the best players.

If Trevor Linden doesn't like the way that looks that's understandable, but he's taking a huge risk (which seems to be becoming a trademark of this regime) in thinking that they can find Sedin-level replacement value picking in the middle of the pack. It's possible, yes, but if they miss on a couple picks the team may very well be on the fast track to the bottom anyway, whether Linden likes the way it looks or not.