Rebuilding 101: What tanking teams can learn from NHL success stories
There's not one formula for success, but there are some key commonalities.
On Tuesday, we broke down the assets and albatross contracts that are already in place for a hopeful Philadelphia Flyers rebuild. Short version: Daniel Briere has a lot of work to do (even beyond dealing with his wayward son).
On one hand, there isn’t some magic wand solution to rebuild an NHL team, or to pull off a sports rebuild in general. That said, learning from others is a key reason why humanity has thrived over the ages, so the Flyers might as well mix and match to use what generally works and try to avoid potential pitfalls.
You need top draft picks
Break down the core of virtually every successful NHL team, and you’ll almost always find a handful of high first-round picks. You don’t need to look any further than the 2022 Stanley Cup Final. While the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning both deploy ingenuity to build around foundational pieces, each team leaned heavily on blue-chippers such as Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule, but they are far and few between. Since the turn of the century, you could maybe point to two Stanley Cup winners who didn't lean on at least one top draft pick: 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 mid-to-late round picks, although Nathan Horton (third overall by Florida in 2003) was instrumental to their playoff success before getting injured in the Stanley Cup Final. The Red Wings are the best example, with only one (!) first-round pick on their playoff roster: Brad Stuart, taken third overall by the Sharks in 1998.
If there’s another message to comprehend, it’s also that the Flyers may indeed need to suffer through a few years of pain before making the gains needed to become relevant again. Even successful teams don’t necessarily ace every high draft pick. Chicago (Cam Barker, third overall), Tampa Bay (Jonathan Drouin, third overall) and L.A. (Thomas Hickey, fourth overall) all bungled top-five picks, but each team didn’t hinge its rebuild on a single player.
The Kings won two Cups in a span of three years after missing the playoffs for six straight seasons, during which they built a foundation by hitting on first-round picks like Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Brayden Schenn (a key piece in the Mike Richards trade), along with a few players in later rounds (Jonathan Quick, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez). The Blackhawks missed the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons before their run on championships. The Penguins picked in the top five in five straight years and walked away with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Ryan Whitney.
By denying the need to tank this season, odds are the Flyers won’t land Connor Bedard. It’s still possible, but the point is that winning the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery won’t solve all of this franchise’s problems in a single bounce of a ball. Let’s say a dream comes true and the Flyers draft Bedard, and he approaches the level of Connor McDavid. Ruminate on how the Oilers are still trying to surround McDavid with a suitable supporting cast, and you’ll realize that the Flyers need to load up. That will probably require multiple seasons of “tanking,” however you want to describe it.
Don’t get bullied by your own brand
Could the Flyers’ gory glory days as “The Broad Street Bullies” hold them back? It sure feels like the franchise may need to move on from the old guard.
Let’s say management insists that you pay at least some lip service to outdated concepts. This is, after all, a team that named its deranged-yet-delightful mascot Gritty.
The key might be to avoid overcorrecting. The Rangers are already trying to get out of mistakes made after Tom Wilson blew their minds with violence, but they’re likely stuck with Barclay Goodrow’s problem contract. If the justification for a series of mistakes around Rasmus Ristolainen was that he’s big and throws checks, then the Flyers already put themselves at a disadvantage living in the past.
Maybe the real key is not to force it. While the Devils still have a lot to prove, it’s remarkable that a team once known for a suffocating style of hockey has leaned into its slick superstar Jack Hughes and is now one of the most exciting teams in the NHL.
Find value, listen to the nerds
Technically, the Flyers employ some hockey analytics staffers. With some of their moves, it was difficult to tell.
Smart teams value a mixture of backgrounds, and identify market deficiencies. The Avalanche paid less in futures for a star defenseman (Devon Toews) than the Flyers did on a flawed blueliner (Ristolainen). You have a better chance of finding the next Valeri Nichushkin if you embrace the mindset that identified his utility long before he made mainstream waves.
Sometimes that means diving into underlying stats to unearth hidden gems. Other times, it’s crucial to notice blindspots for teams, including at the draft. While other teams talked themselves out of talent because of a lack of size, the Lightning loaded up on skill, finding gems like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov far outside of the first round.
Learn from your own mistakes
Every now and then, a bitter defeat can also dole out an important lesson, and a change in tactics. In their rebuild, the Flyers should find… well, the next Chuck Fletcher, and pull off the sort of maneuvers the Coyotes managed with Shayne Gostisbehere.
The Coyotes convinced the Flyers to cough up significant draft picks to take Gostisbehere off their hands. From there, Arizona featured Gostisbehere and traded him away at the deadline for an additional third-rounder.
Truly, the Flyers' timeline with Shayne Gostisbehere, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Tony DeAngelo is ... pretty horrifying. Also the sort of mistakes that were critiqued in the moment, not just in retrospect.
— James O'Brien 📎 (@cyclelikesedins) March 14, 2023
Briere can prove his value early on by identifying cap-challenged teams who are as eager or desperate as Fletcher was, and attempt their own versions of such shrewd moves. Again, to build an elite team, you should seek out waves of reinforcements, rather than hoping your own picks and prospects work out.
Bold trades in other sports could hold a key
Perhaps the best moves are ones where the Flyers could innovate, and make the Gostisbehere swindle look more like chump change.
Look at the NBA and NFL, and you’ll find plenty of examples of splashy trades involving multiple first-round picks. In the NHL, things tend to be more limited, including with stars like Timo Meier.
But what if the Flyers got creative, and deployed better timing? Picture, for instance, the Flyers offering up a bold trade that takes a problem goalie contract off of a team’s hands (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 goalie on a bad team, Philly would offer up multiple benefits at once. Wouldn’t that be a deal worth multiple first-rounders for two hungry teams, or a mixture of picks and prospects like Brandt Clarke or Quinton Byfield?
It can be a win-win situation with a goalie such as Campbell or Petersen, too. If they continue to struggle, it merely enhances the tank job. If they rebound, perhaps you can trade them for more picks after retaining some salary. Either way, it’s a much better way to spend salary cap space than paying a premium for a lateral move in free agency.
Inspiration from other sports could also prompt the Flyers to trade for picks further down the line. If management truly supports a Flyers rebuild under Briere or someone else, why not squeeze for a future, unprotected first-rounder from an aging contender, banking on impending retirements and declining talent ideally translating to a possible high pick?
Time those sweet rookie deals when you can
Sure, you can extract value from hidden gems and shrewd trades, but the biggest competitive advantage you can hope for is a star player on an artificially cheap rookie contract (and sometimes cheaper second deals).
The most pronounced examples reach back. The Penguins made it to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final in the last year of Sidney Crosby’s rookie deal, then won it all a year later before Evgeni Malkin’s ELC expired. Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were in the final year of their rookie contracts when Chicago won its first contemporary championship, and Toews spent an extra year in the NCAA after being drafted.
Bowen Byram flourished during the postseason as the Avs tore through the playoffs, and while most of their stars were getting paid, they lined up nice value in Nichushkin, MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri.
So, the short-term pain/long-term gain setup could also allow the Flyers to try to engineer some windows of serious value. Perhaps that thought process may nudge the Flyers toward drafting a high-end “project” instead of a safer, low-ceiling player. The stars could even align for the Flyers to jump up a bit and snag Matvei Michkov, a prospect many view as the second-best talent of the 2023 NHL Draft but one who will demand patience as he’s under KHL contract through 2025-26.
Ultimately, any forecast of a Flyers rebuild is limited because the climate of the franchise is still so cloudy. As Part 1 of this series attests, there are a lot of challenges ahead, but also plenty of opportunities for Briere to put his stamp on this floundering franchise.
Even if you’re bothered by the Bullies, you have to admit the NHL’s more entertaining (and wild) when the Flyers are relevant.