The 5 Best Rebuilds in the NHL Salary Cap Era

In an era where teams can no longer solve their issue with free-agent splurges, drafting and development have become an essential aspect of long-term NHL success. This means that teams must draft, develop and, in key situations, trade their assets to push for the Cup. It would be excessively easy to simply finish last and hope for the best 18-year-old every year. However, as we have seen with the Edmonton Oilers, having a first overall pick is only half the battle. Between 2010 to 2016, they drafted Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid. Unfortunately, Yakupov never lived up to expectations. Nugent-Hopkins became a serviceable 2nd line centre. Taylor Hall was incomprehensibly traded for Adam Larsson in June 2016. Connor McDavid, well it’s kind of hard to mess that pick up. Today, Edmonton finds themselves with very few offensive options and a bewlow average defense.

 This goes to show that the best rebuilds are those that include excellent development and asset management. Teams that are able to find gems in the later rounds and develop assets into valuable trade chips usually end up on top. Some teams will develop and make little to no trades. Some teams will trade from a position of organizational strength in order to fill other holes. In the end, teams that are able to make wise trades and develop key prospects end up becoming contenders. Let’s take a look at the best NHL rebuilds since the beginning of the salary cap era.

Pittsburgh Penguins

This is quite simply the best case of getting lucky in the NHL. Who gets to draft Fleury, Malkin, Crosby and Staal in the top 2 of four consecutive drafts and not dominate? However, that isn’t even the era we are talking. We’re talking about the period between 2010 and 2015. This isn’t really a full rebuild if you consider that the Penguins we’re still stacked. However, by 2014, many were talking about the Penguins’ upcoming decline. Then new GM Jim Rutherford decided to change the status quo. He acquired Kessel, Hornqvist, Schutlz, Hagelin and Cole over the next two years.

The Penguins also developed homegrown talent like Maata, Rust, Guentzel, Murray and Sheary to complement the existing core. They brought significant depth to a team that sorely needed it after their one-two punch down the middle. Pittsburgh has re-emerged as one of the most dominant franchises in the NHL. They went on to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017 and don’t look to be slowing down. Even in these last playoffs, they pushed the eventual Stanley Cup winning Capitals to the brink. They are the powerhouse in the Eastern Conference and are built to compete for another few years. Not bad for a team that was labeled as old and declining as early as 2014. Crosby and Malkin get you to the playoffs every year, but that quality depth is what pushes you over the top.

Tampa Bay Lightning

This is also hard to judge since the Lightning are still not done contending. Since 2008, they have gone from the basement dwelling post-Lecavalier/St-Louis Bolts to yearly contenders. With Stamkos, and Hedman picked 1st and 2nd overall in 2008 and 2009 respectively, the foundation was put in place for a proper rebuild. What came after became even more important for this franchise. GM Steve Yzerman has been a shrewd believer of solid drafting over his 10-year tenure. His top draft picks have been very valuable to the franchise, but his strength came in the later rounds.

Since 2010 he was able to pull out the following beyond the 1st round: Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette, Matthew Peca, Adam Erne, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Taylor Raddysh and more. They have signed Tyler Johnson out of College and signed key free agents like Anton Stralman. Yzerman’s player acquisition is key at the draft table, but is almost just as good on the trade front. He was able to net two first round picks for an aging Martin St-Louis. He was able to trade disgruntled top young forward Jonathan Drouin in exchange for blue-chip defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. At this year’s deadline, Yzerman secured the services of Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller for multiple years.

The Lightning have gone to the Stanley Cup finals already once in the last 5 years and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year. They look primed to challenge the Pittsburgh Penguins for Eastern Conference supremacy. Yzerman has drafted incredibly well and has even more quality youth coming up in the next years. Signing both Stamkos and Hedman to hometown discounts will allow Tampa Bay to thrive for years. They have become a very attractive destination for free-agents and look primed for a Cup run.

Winnipeg Jets

When Kevin Cheveldayoff was given the reigns of the newly relocated Winnipeg Jets, he had work to do. Winnipeg is not a very attractive destination, so his focus quickly became drafting and development. After 6 years of mediocrity and one playoff appearance, the Jets have matured into a powerhouse. They didn’t have the luxury of a first overall, so thy maximized on the development of their top picks. The picking of Mark Scheifele, who wasn’t even ranked in the top-10 of his draft year, started the party off right. The Jets then added Jacob Trouba, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrisey, Kyle Connor, and Patrik Laine to a young core.

Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler evolved into elite players at their respective positions and leaders in the room. Cheveldayoff also proceeded to make great value trades when necessary. The Evander Kane trade, the last high pick from the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise, was excellent. It returned Tyler Myers and Joel Armia amongs other assets. They were also able to sell off aging assets like Andrew Ladd for key picks and prospects. Needless to say this is a strong young core moving forward.

What is even more incredible is the value contracts handed out to Ehlers, Byfuglien, Myers and Scheifele. They are all under market value for their respective positions. They currently have a projected $34 million in cap space lined up for next year in order to re-sign Wheeler, Trouba, Hellebuyck, Morrisey, Myers and Laine. They should be able to add another $3-4 million in cap space as the salary cap increases. Their great asset management has now paid off and the Jets look like they’ll build on their breakout season going forward.

Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks were in the same position as the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2004. Both teams were in the basement of the NHL standings but rarely in the top 3. Their 2004 3rd overall pick, Cam Barker, was a total flop. However, after the 2004 NHL lockout, Chicago changed their scouting style. They proceeded to draft Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in back to back drafts. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook simultaneously emerged as top-pairing defensemen.

It seemed like they had begun turning the corner. However, by 2008, they still lacked a few pieces to make a huge push. The Blackhawks acquired Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp and Kris Vertseeg. All of those players were developed into solid impact players by 2010, along with Byfuglien, Troy Brower and Dave Boland. The last piece of the puzzle came during the 2009-2010 season, and he is future Hall of Famer Marian Hossa. The free agent, who had gone to the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row, was ready to head back to the promised land with the deepest and youngest team in the NHL.

From their 2010 Stanley Cup winning team, they have to unload such players as Ladd and Byfuglien due to cap concerns. However, they continued to produce strong and winning seasons. Their acquisitions of Nick Leddy and drafting of Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad quickly filled those holes. The emergence of future number 1 goalie Corey Crawford led the Blackhawks to another championship in 2013.

From 2010 on, GM Stan Bowman was able to keep his team at the top because he never let his rebuild end. He traded key secondary players for valuable futures to re-plug in his lineup. The constant flow of assets to complement his core of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith and Seabrook was essential. Ultimately, the magic has all but died out recently. However, by 2015, the Blackhawks had become the first team to win 3 Stanley Cups in the same decade since the Oilers in the 80s. Not a bad re-build and ensuing re-tool if you ask us!

Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators are had a very unique push towards their current success. They only ever picked in the top 5 of an NHL draft one in the last decade. That pick was Seth Jones and he no longer plays on the team. GM David Poile has simply drafted very well and partook in excellent trades. By 2013, the franchise was headed back to the bottom of the NHL Standings. After a few successful seasons that led to a few playoff berths, the Predators had lost many star players. Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Alexander Radulov, Martin Erat and David Legwand had all left by 2013. Things did not look good for the franchise by that point.

They had made a few quality draft picks in Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Matthias Ekholm, Colin Wilson and Colton Sissons by 2013. Prior to the 2013 NHL Draft, David Poile began his rebuild by trading veteran Martin Erat to Washington. The return for longtime Predator was Washington’s 2012 1st round pick, Filip Forsberg. Poile followed up his great 2013 with a solid 2014, where he drafted Kevin Fiala and Viktor Arvidsson. He also traded Patrick Hornqvist in exchange for scoring winger James Neal, rounding out a solid top-6.

By 2016, it became clear that the Predators had developed their prospects brilliantly. They looked to be a team on the rise, but lacked a true #1 centre. They utilized their strength on defense to trade youngster Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Boom! There’s your #1. By June of that year, Poile was also able to complete another blockbuster that rocked the world. Long-time Predator Shea Weber was traded for the explosive P.K. Subban, as Poile was looking to speed up his defense.

This past season, Poile was able to trade Samuel Girard and a few more assets to secure his team’s future at centre. The Predators acquired and extended Kyle Turris, making this the deepest roster in Predators’ history. The Predators, along with the Jets, were the best teams in the Western Conference this year. They look poised to compete for the Stanley Cup for the next few years after seemingly coming out of nowhere. The last 6 years of Poile’s work has elevated him to legendary status in the NHL. Needless to say, the Predators did a full 180 in less than 4 years without any of the luxuries afforded to the teams above. That’s pretty impressive to say the least.

Future Rebuild Breakout: Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers are onto something rather special lately. Unlike the 76ers, who are openly discussing “The Process”, the Flyers rebuild has been rather low-key.  Since 2013, the Flyers have drafting and developing some quality talent, especially on defense. Between 2013 and 2015, the Flyers drafted a defenseman with their first pick in each draft. Defensemen like Travis Sanheim, Samuel Morin, Robert Hagg, and Ivan Provorov have served as the foundation on this new identity for Ron Hextall’s Flyers. The focus on defensemen was a huge organizational shift for the Flyers, who were mostly known for their offensive depth.

The Flyers followed up those quality top picks with some excellent secondary picks like Travis Konecny. However, their last three drafts are probably the most impressive of any franchise in recent memory. German Rubstov, Wade Allison and Carter Hart were all picked in the first two rounds round of the 2016 draft. Rubstov projects as a top-6 centre, Allison a top-6 winger and Hart was the best goaltender in junior last year.

The Flyers followed up their impressive 2016 NHL draft with a ridiculously lucky NHL Draft Lottery win. They got the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NHL Lottery draft when they were scheduled to pick in the teens. They proceeded to draft Nolan Patrick 2nd overall. However, the more impressive pick came later in the 1st round with Morgan Frost 27th overall. He went on to lead the best team in junior hockey, the Soo-St-Marie Greyhounds, in scoring with 112 points in 62 games. They followed up that draft with Isaac Ratcliffe in the 2nd round and Matthew Strome in the fourth round.

Their addition of Joel Farabee and Jay O’Brien in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft further solidifies their exceptional prospect pool. The crazy thing is that the team still has Couturier, Giroux, Simmonds, Ghostisbehere and Voracek on the roster. The Flyers look like they will be ready to contend once Carter Hart is ready to take over in net. The very patient Flyers fans may end up having very similar success to the above teams if they are lucky. With many of these players ready to break-out in the pros in the next two years, it is very probable to see them rise to Eastern Conference contender status. Of course, it could all go horribly wrong as well, but they have drafted and developed extremely well. Time will tell.

Rebuilding and Maintaining

Rebuilding is not an exact science. Some teams will just try to finish as low as possible to get the best draft pick. Some teams are simply better at extracting value from key trades. Some teams are just better at acquiring project players and developing them well. The result is a resurgence to the top of the NHL standings and that’s what counts. Many teams have had difficulties admitting to such a strategy, but if Toronto can rebuild, so can you!

The recollection of quality assets is a must in a salary cap era. Developping these players has become essential to the long-term success of a franchise. In as such, teams that have done a horrid job of developing, I’m looking at you Montreal, ultimately find themselves needing to restock their prospect cupboards and build for the future. The parity in this league will always make rebuild an inexact science. There’s a lot of luck involved in most cases. Needless to say, the best rebuilds in history led to the greatest teams of this generation. 

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