Rebuilding 101: What tanking teams can learn from NHL success stories
On Tuesday, we broke down Albatross assets and contracts already in place for the Philadelphia Flyers’ hopeful recovery. Short version: Daniel Brière has a lot of work to do (even besides dealing with his wayward son).
On the one hand, there is no magic solution that would help rebuild an NHL team or rebuild the sport in general. Nevertheless, learn from others is a key reason why humanity has flourished for centuries, so Flyers can also mix and match to use what usually works and try to avoid potential pitfalls.
You need the best drafts
Break down the backbone of just about every successful NHL team and you’ll almost always find a few high picks in the first round. You don’t have to look beyond the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals. While the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning are getting creative to build on fundamentals, each team has relied heavily on top-notch players like Nathan McKinnon, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos.
There are sometimes exceptions to this rule, but they are very few. At the turn of the century, you could perhaps point to two Stanley Cup winners who didn’t rely on at least one top pick in the draft: the 2011 Boston Bruins and the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. Boston’s core players (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Tim Thomas) were drafted in the mid to late rounds, although Nathan Horton (third overall in Florida in 2003) was instrumental in their success in playoffs before being injured in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings are the best example: they only have one(!) first round pick on their playoff roster: Brad Stewart, whom the Sharks finished third in 1998.
If there’s another message to be understood, it’s that the Flyers may indeed have to go through a few years of pain before making the strides needed to become relevant again. Even successful teams don’t always win every top pick in the draft. Chicago (Cam Barker, 3rd overall), Tampa Bay (Jonathan Drouin, 3rd overall), and Los Angeles (Thomas Hickey, 4th overall) all unsuccessfully picked the top five, but each team didn’t depend on one player.
The Kings have won two Cups in three years after missing out of the playoffs for six straight seasons, during which they laid the foundation by winning first-round picks such as Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Brayden Schenn ( a key figure in the Mike Richards trade), as well as several players in the later rounds (Jonathan Quick, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez). The Blackhawks missed the playoffs in nine of the 10 seasons before they became champions. The Penguins finished in the top five for five straight years and left with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Ryan Whitney.
Denying the need to tank this season, chances are the Flyers won’t get Connor Bedard. It’s still possible, but the fact is that winning the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery won’t solve all of the franchise’s problems with a single ball bounce. Let’s say a dream comes true and the Flyers pick Bedard and he gets close to the level of Connor McDavid. Consider how the Oilers are still trying to surround McDavid with the right cast, and you realize the Flyers need to buff up. This will probably take several seasons of “tank”, whatever you want to call it.
Don’t bully your own brand
Can the Flyers’ bloody glory days as “Broad Street hooligans” hold them back? It’s like a franchise may need to move on from the old guard.
Let’s say management insists that you at least pay lip service to outdated concepts. After all, this is the team that named their crazy but adorable mascot Gritty.
The key may be to avoid overcorrecting. The Rangers are already trying to right the wrongs made after Tom Wilson brainwashed them with violence, but it’s likely they’re stuck with Barclay Goodrow’s troubled contract. If the justification for the series of mistakes around Rasmus Ristolainen was that he’s big and throws checks, then the Flyers have already put themselves at a disadvantage by living in the past.
Maybe the real key is not to force it. While the Devils still have a lot to prove, it’s notable that a team once known for their choke-holding style of hockey have put their trust in their nimble superstar Jack Hughes and are now one of the most exciting teams in the NHL.
Find value, listen to the nerds
Technically, pilots hire some hockey analytics employees. Some of their movements were hard to tell.
Smart teams value a combination of experience and identify market imperfections. The Avalanche paid less for their star quarterback (Devon Toews) than the Flyers paid for their failed blueliner (Ristolainen). You are more likely to find the next Valery Nichushkin if you adopt this mindset. determined its usefulness long before it became mainstream.
Sometimes that means diving into the basic stats to find hidden gems. In other cases, it is extremely important to notice blind spots for teams, including in the draft. While other teams talked themselves out of talent due to the lack of size, the Lightning loaded up on skills by finding gems like Briden Point and Nikita Kucherov. far beyond the first round.
Learn from your own mistakes
Bitter defeat can also be an important lesson from time to time, and change of tactics. In their rebuild, the Flyers need to find… well, the next Chuck Fletcher, and pull off the same maneuvers the Coyotes did with Shane Gostisbecher.
The Coyotes convinced the Flyers to buy significant draft picks to get Gostisbehere out of hand. From there, Arizona introduced Gostisbeher and traded him at the deadline for an additional third round player.
Brier can prove his worth early on by identifying handicapped teams that are just as impatient or desperate as Fletcher and trying their own versions of such tricky moves. Again, to create an elite team, you must look for waves of reinforcements, and not hope that your own choices and prospects will work out.
Bold deals in other sports could be key
Perhaps the best moves are the ones where the Flyers could innovate and make the Gostisbecher scam more like a pittance.
Look at the NBA And NFL, and you’ll find many examples of brilliant trades involving multiple first-round picks. Everything is more limited in the NHL, including with stars like Timo Meyer.
But what if the Flyers got creative and used better timing? Imagine, for example, the Flyers offering a daring trade that takes a problematic goalie contract out of the hands of a team (L.A.’s Cal Petersen or Edmonton’s Jack Campbell) and sends Carter Hart the other way. If Edmonton or Los Angeles viewed Hart as a star goaltender on a bad team, Philadelphia would offer several advantages at once. Wouldn’t it be worth multiple first rounds for two hungry teams, or a mixture of picks and prospects like Brandt Clark or Quinton Byfield?
A win-win situation can also be with a goalkeeper like Campbell or Petersen. If they continue to fight, it will only improve the performance of the tank. If they recover, you might be able to trade them in for more picks after saving some salary. In any case, it’s a much better way to spend a place in the salary cap than paying a bonus for lateral movement in free agency.
Inspiration from other sports could also encourage the Flyers to trade picks in the future. If management is truly in favor of rebuilding the Flyers under Brier or someone else, why not squeeze a future exposed first-rounder from an aging opponent by betting on impending retirement and fading talent, which ideally translates into a possible high pick. ?
Time for those sweet rookie deals when you can
Sure, you can capitalize on hidden gems and dodgy deals, but the biggest competitive edge you can hope for is a star player with an artificially cheap rookie contract (and sometimes cheaper second deals).
The most pronounced examples stretch back. The Penguins made it to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals in the last year of rookie Sidney Crosby’s contract, and won it all before Evgeni Malkin a year later. ELC expired. Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were in the final year of their rookie contracts when Chicago won its first modern championship. spent an extra year in the NCAA after compiling.
Bowen Byram thrived in the postseason as the Aves crashed out of the playoffs, and while most of their stars got paid, they did well in Nichushkin, McKinnon and Nazem Kadri.
So the short-term pain/long-term gain setup could also allow the Flyers to try to create windows of serious value. Perhaps this thought process could push the Flyers to develop a high-end “draft” instead of a safer low-ceiling player. The stars may even align for the Flyers to jump a little and catch Matvey Michkov, a prospect widely considered the second-best talent in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft but who will require patience as he has a contract with the KHL until 2025-2026.
Ultimately, any prediction for the Flyers’ recovery is limited because the franchise’s climate is still very hazy. As Part 1 of this series testifies, there are many challenges ahead, but also many opportunities for Brière to make his mark on this floundering franchise.
Even if the hooligans bother you, you have to admit that the NHL is more interesting (and wilder) when the Flyers are relevant.