Rebuild 101: What Tanking Teams Can Learn From NHL Success Stories

On Tuesday, we broke down the assets already in place and Albatross contracts for a hopeful Philadelphia Flyers rebuild. Summary: Daniel Briere has a lot to do (besides dealing with his wayward son).

On the one hand, there is no magic wand solution to rebuilding an NHL team or doing a sports rebuild in general. That said learn from others is a major reason humanity has thrived over the centuries, so the Flyers might as well mix and match to use what generally works and try to avoid potential pitfalls.

Winning the draft lottery isn’t everything to rebuilding NHL teams, but it certainly helps. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)

You need top draft picks

Break down the core of virtually any successful NHL team, and you’ll almost always find a handful of top first-round picks. Look no further than the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals. While the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning both use ingenuity to build around basic elements, each team relied heavily on blue chippers like Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos.

There are occasional exceptions to this rule, but they are far and wide. Since the turn of the century, one could perhaps point to two Stanley Cup winners who haven’t drawn 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 from Florida in 2003) was instrumental in their playoff success before his injury in the Stanley Cup Finals. The Red Wings are the prime example, with only one (!) first-round pick in their playoff roster: Brad Stuart, who finished third overall in 1998 from the Sharks.

If there’s another message to understand, it’s that Flyers may indeed have to endure a few years of pain before they make the profits needed to become relevant again. Even successful teams don’t necessarily master every high draft pick. Chicago (Cam Barker, third overall), Tampa Bay (Jonathan Drouin, third overall) and LA (Thomas Hickey, fourth overall) all screwed up top five picks, but each team didn’t tie its rebuild to a single player.

The Kings won two trophies in three years after missing the playoffs for six straight seasons building a foundation by building on first-round picks like Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Brayden Schenn (a key piece in the Trade by Mike Richards), along with some players in later rounds (Jonathan Quick, Tyler Toffoli, Alec Martinez). The Blackhawks missed the playoffs nine of ten seasons before their run for the championships. The Penguins finished in the top 5 for five straight years, walking away with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal and Ryan Whitney.

By denying the need to tank this season, chances are the Flyers won’t land Connor Bedard. It still is possible, but the point is that winning the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery won’t solve all of this franchise’s problems with a single bounce of a ball. Let’s say a dream come true and the Flyers draft Bedard and he approaches Connor McDavid’s level. Think about how the Oilers are still trying to surround McDavid with a suitable supporting cast, and you’ll find the Flyers need to load up. That will likely take several seasons of “refueling,” however you choose to describe it.

Don’t let your own brand bully you

Could the Flyers’ bloody glory days as “The Broad Street Bullies” hold them back? It sure feels like the franchise may have to continue from the old guard.

Let’s say management insists that you at least pay lip service to outdated concepts. This is a team, after all, who named their wacky but adorable mascot Gritty.

The key might be to avoid overcorrecting. Rangers are already trying to get out of mistakes made after Tom Wilson forcefully blew them away, but they’re likely stuck with Barclay Goodrow’s problem contract. If the justification for a string of mistakes involving Rasmus Ristolainen was that he’s tall and throwing checks, then the Flyers have already put themselves at a disadvantage in the past.

Maybe the real key is not forcing it. While the Devils still have much to prove, it’s remarkable that a team once known for a stifling style of hockey has leaned on its slick superstar Jack Hughes and is now one of the NHL’s most exciting teams.

Find value, listen to the nerds

Technically the Flyers Hire some Hockey Analytics staff. It was hard to tell with some of her movements.

Smart teams value a mix of backgrounds and identify market imperfections. The Avalanche paid less in futures for a star defender (Devon Toews) than the Flyers paid for a faulty blueliner (Ristolainen). You have a better chance of finding the next Valeri Nichushkin if you make this your own identified its usefulness long before it made mainstream waves.

Sometimes that means delving into the underlying stats to uncover hidden gems. In other cases, identifying blind spots for teams is crucial, including in the draft. While other teams talked themselves out of talent due to lack of size, Lightning called on his skill and found gems like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov well outside of the first round.

Learn from your own mistakes

Once in a while, even a bitter defeat can teach an important lesson, and a change of tactics. In their rebuild, the Flyers would need to…well, find the next Chuck Fletcher and pull off the kind of maneuvers the Coyotes did with Shayne Gostisbehere.

The Coyotes convinced the Flyers to cough up significant draft picks to take Gostisbehere off their hands. From there, Arizona introduced Gostisbehere and timely traded him for another third-rounder.

Briere can prove his worth early on, identifying teams with cap challenges as eager or desperate as Fletcher and attempting their own versions of such clever moves. Again, to build an elite team, look for reinforcements rather than hoping your own picks and prospects will work out.

Bold trades in other sports could be a key

Perhaps the best moves are ones where the Flyers could innovate and make the Gostisbehere hoax look more like loose change.

Look at the NBA And NFL, and you’ll find plenty of examples of spectacular trades involving multiple first-round picks. Things are rather limited in the NHL, even with stars like Timo Meier.

But what if the Flyers got more creative and used better timing? For example, imagine the Flyers offering a bold trade that takes a troubled goalie contract from one team (LA’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 goaltender on a bad team, Philly would offer multiple advantages at once. Wouldn’t that be a deal worth multiple first rounds for two hungry teams, or a mix of picks and prospects like Brandt Clarke or Quinton Byfield?

Even with a goalkeeper like Campbell or Petersen it can be a win-win situation. If they keep struggling, it will only improve the tank job. If they recover, you might be able to trade them in for more picks after keeping some salary. Either way, it’s a much better way to take advantage of the salary cap space than to pay a premium for a sideways move to freelance.

Inspiration from other sports could also prompt the Flyers to trade for picks later. If management truly supports a rebuild of the Flyers under Briere or someone else, then why not seek a future, vulnerable first-place finisher from an aging competitor betting on imminent retirements and dwindling talent, ideally resulting in a possible big pick knocks down?

Plan these sweet rookie deals whenever you can

Sure, you can find value in hidden gems and sly trades, but the biggest competitive edge you can hope for is a star player with an artificially cheap rookie deal (and sometimes cheaper secondary deals).

The most prominent examples go back. The Penguins made it from Sidney Crosby’s rookie deal last year to the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals and won it all a year later, ahead of Evgeni Malkin ELC expired. Both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were in the last year of their rookie contracts when Chicago won its first contemporary championship, and Toews spent an extra year in the NCAA after they were drafted.

Bowen Byram thrived in the postseason as the Avs stormed through the playoffs, and while most of their stars got paid, they racked up good stats with Nichushkin, MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri.

So the short-term pain/long-term gain setup could also allow the Flyers to attempt to construct some windows of serious value. Perhaps this thought process can push the Flyers to design a high-end “project” instead of designing a safer, low-ceilinged player. The Stars could even align with the Flyers springing up a little and snapping up Matvei Michkov, a prospect considered by many to be the second-best prospect of the 2023 NHL draft but one who will require patience as he has until 2025 /26 is under KHL contract.

Ultimately, any prediction of a Flyers rebuild is limited because the franchise’s climate is still so bleak. As Part 1 of this series confirms, there are many challenges ahead, but also many opportunities for Briere to make his mark on this faltering franchise.

Even if the bullies bother you, you have to admit that the NHL is more entertaining (and wilder) when the flyers are relevant.

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