How do you build a winner in the NHL?
Or, more specifically, how do you rebuild one? How do you take a team that has fallen out of contention today and doesn't have the assets to win tomorrow, and reshape it into a perennial contender?
There are plenty of approaches, but one stands out as the most common: You lose. You lose badly, lose often, finish last, and collect high draft picks. Then you draft elite talent and watch it grow into a strong core, eventually supplementing those young stars with veterans and depth guys. And then you win, and win a lot, and everyone forgets about the miserable years that came before. Call it tanking or call it patience. Part of the plan is that you never admit you're following a plan, but every fan knows it when they see it.
It sounds so simple, and for some teams, it is. The Penguins used the approach to win a Cup. The Blackhawks won two. Of course, teams like the Panthers and Islanders haven't had as much luck. Nobody said it was foolproof. And not everyone approves. But you can't argue with success, and a look back at the last decade of Cup winners shows that the plan often works.
Today, various NHL teams are in different stages of the plan, but two stand out as the archetypal examples: the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. The two teams have followed remarkably similar roads. And yet, somehow, the destinations they've arrived at this year couldn't be more different.
Both the Oilers and Avs had spent much of their recent history finishing near the bottom of the league. Both had used the high draft picks earned in those lost seasons to assemble a roster packed with can't-miss forwards. Both brought in a former player from the franchise's past to make player personnel decisions. And both made a change behind the bench during the offseason, hiring a candidate without NHL coaching experience.
The Avalanche are the NHL's breakthrough story of the season, sitting at 14-3-0 for 28 points and first place in the Central. Even for the most optimistic Colorado homer, their success this year borders on the unimaginable. They have the league's best goal differential and have allowed the fewest goals.3 They've already had a pair of six-game win streaks. They're dominating.
And then there are the Oilers. Their season has been a disaster, with a 4-14-2 record that has left them last in the Western Conference. They've given up more goals than any other team by a mile,4 have won only once at home, and are already 14 points out of a playoff spot. We're not even halfway through November, and the Oilers are done.
How could this happen? Let's look through five critical factors in any rebuild, and see what we can learn from the Oilers and Avalanche.