The losing is the easy part.
That’s the conventional wisdom when it comes to the traditional NHL rebuild plan. You know the one: Strip away any and all veteran talent, clear out payroll, and lose big for a few years while racking up high picks that will turn into future stars.
Some would call it thinking long-term, or executing a strategic vision, or a five-year plan. Others might go with “tanking”. But it’s a popular strategy, one that can be seen in action in various cities around the league in any given year. The Buffalo Sabres have been on it for years. The Toronto Maple Leafs are doing it right now. Many Canucks fans are hoping their team is next.
But, we’re warned ominously whenever the topic comes up, there’s one big catch: the losing is the easy part. Anyone can do the teardown – it doesn’t take much vision to build a loser. But when it’s time to flip the switch and win again, that’s where it gets tricky. Sometimes, when it’s time to finally hit the gas, you find that the wheels won’t catch.
Ask any Oilers fan, after a full decade of watching their team rack up high picks and last-place finishes. Or anyone who rooted for the New York Islanders a decade ago, or the Florida Panthers, or the Atlanta Thrashers.
Or ask a Sabres fan today, as they watch a well-constructed young team work its way through growing pains, showing flashes of a promising future while still struggling to climb out of the basement.
All serve as cautionary examples: losing is easy, but flipping the switch is where it gets hard. It’s a slow and gradual climb back to respectability, one that can take several years of small steps before you can finally hope to re-emerge as a contender.
There’s one problem: lots of teams have flipped that switch just fine. Recent history shows us that it really is possible to go from last place to elite status remarkably quickly. There are no guarantees, and lots of opportunity to fail along the way. But it can be done, and has been, plenty of times.
Here are five teams that went from laughing stock to legitimate Cup contender in a very short amount of time – and some lessons that future tankers might be able to learn from them.
The teardown: The Hawks are a classic example of a team that spent years stuck in the dreaded mushy middle before finally biting the bullet and embracing the bad. From 1998 through 2001, the Blackhawks finished with a point total in the 70s for four straight years, never picking higher than eighth in the draft. (The one year they had a top five pick, in 1999, they traded it to the Canucks.)
They made the playoffs in 2002, but bowed out in the first round and then dropped back down to 79 points in 2003. With attendance dropping and fans turning on owner Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks were named ESPN’s worst franchise in pro sports in 2004.
Rock bottom: Beginning in 2003-04, the Blackhawks suffered through three straight seasons of bottom-five finishes. Combined with winning the seventh-overall pick in the draft lottery for the wiped out 2004-05 season, that gave them a solid foundation of high picks to work from. But they whiffed on the first two, taking Cam Barker third overall in 2004 and Jack Skille seventh in 2005.
The turnaround: The team turned the GM reigns over to Dale Tallon in June 2005 and saw him hit a pair of home runs at the next two drafts, landing Jonathan Toews with the third pick in 2006 and Patrick Kane first overall in 2007. Both players debuted in the 2007-08 season, one which began with Wirtz passing away and his son Rocky taking over. The Hawks missed the playoffs but improved to 88 points, then replaced coach Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville days into the following season. They made the conference final in 2009, won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and have been the league’s model franchise for on-ice success ever since.
The lesson: Winning starts at the top. Ownership matters, management matters, and coaching matters. If you don’t get those right, you’re not going anywhere. The Hawks are also a good example of something teams like the Oilers have missed: hitting on draft picks outside the first round, where they’ve found guys like Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Dustin Byfuglien.
And while Hawks fans may not want to hear it, there’s one more key lesson here: be really lucky. Both Toews and Kane wound up in Chicago largely due to some good fortune. In 2006, Toews dropped when the Blues (Erik Johnson) and Penguins (Jordan Staal) made picks they’d regret in hindsight.
And in 2007, the Hawks won the lottery and moved up from fourth to first in a draft that turned out to have only one elite player in the top five. Hey, you have to be lucky to be good.