Heading into the 2016-17 season, there was something odd going on with the NHL's 30 teams. For the first time in years, everybody was trying to win.
That sounds like it should be standard operating procedure, but it's not, at least in today's NHL. In recent years, a handful of teams have clearly gone into each season with the intention of losing. Oh, the league swears that tanking never happens, and you're supposed to use terms like "strategic rebuild" in polite company, but fans know better. With surefire franchise players like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews waiting for whichever team could secure the top pick in the last two drafts, some clubs were more than happy to camp out in the cellar and improve their lottery odds.
But not this year. This year, everyone came into the season looking like they were actually trying. It was kind of nice.
It was also two months ago. A quarter of the way into the season, it's becoming clear that some teams just aren't as good as they'd hoped to be. And it won't be long before the NHL's tank brigade starts to appear, engines revving as the race for Nolan Patrick begins.
So today, let's try to answer the question: Which NHL franchise is most in need of a good ol' fashioned rebuild?
Clearly, we don't need to do this for everyone. We can eliminate any team that's already contending, or reasonably close to it. That's a tricky thing to define, but let's go with this: Any team that's won a division title or been to a conference final over the last two seasons is considered a contender, and we won't worry about them hitting the reset button any time soon. That knocks 11 teams off the list.
We're also going to rule out a few teams that are already rebuilding, or were very recently. That means Buffalo, Toronto, Arizona and Edmonton are all out; nobody expects them to start over again so soon. And of course, we're not going to worry about the expansion Golden Knights, since you have to build something before you can rebuild it.
As it works out, that leaves us with 15 teams, or half of the current league. That seems about right. So let's start with the teams that are in the best shape and count our way down to the dregs as we ask the question: Is it time to tank?
15. Nashville Predators
The case for: They've had a disappointing year so far; after being a trendy preseason pick to contend for a Cup, they've struggled to even stay in the playoff mix.
Blame PK! Photo by Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
The case against: They've spent years building toward contender status, and seemed like they'd arrived this year. Pulling the chute because of a tough 20-game stretch would be a classic case of overreacting to small samples. They're reasonably young, the cap situation is solid, and the prospect pipeline is already in decent shape. With Pekka Rinne having just turned 34, goaltending is going to be an issue at some point soon, but otherwise, they should be fine.
The verdict: David Poile knows what he's doing. Next.
14. Philadelphia Flyers
The case for: They haven't won a playoff round since 2012, and a disappointing start to the season already has them looking like a long shot to break that streak this year.
The case against: The Flyers are a good example of a team that's spent the last few years executing a reload instead of a traditional hit-rock-bottom rebuild. They've only picked in the top ten of one of the last five drafts, but GM Ron Hextall has been building patiently and amassing good young players. Between Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, they've already got some excellent young talent.
The verdict: Philadelphia fans aren't known for their patience, but Hextall deserves some time to see his plan play out.
13. Winnipeg Jets
The case for: In five seasons since returning to Winnipeg, they've yet to win a single playoff game. And they've been a letdown yet again this year, struggling to climb into the playoff race in a tough Central Division.
The case against: They're already the league's youngest team, with a stocked pipeline that had some experts handing them future Stanley Cups—and that was before they added a legitimate blue chip stud in Patrik Laine. If anything, they're one of the teams that might want to be moving picks and prospects to make a leap right now.
The verdict: Hope can only sustain you for so long, and at some point soon, all that future potential has to start translating into something in the present. If it doesn't, that will fall at the feet of coach Paul Maurice, or maybe even GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. But a rebuild? Not for a while yet.