They swirl and swirl in the National Hockey League’s rebuild blender, the Floridas, Edmontons, Columbuses and Calgarys. Veritable smoothies of organizational incompetence.
But every once in a while the blender spits out a Los Angeles or a Colorado, proof that every so often one of these projects actually completes itself. As the Florida Panthers become the latest rebuilding team to abandon Plan A—or, actually, more like Plan G or H—we see more evidence of just how rare the successful rebuild has become.
The shining stars of the rebuild set, Chicago and Pittsburgh, won Stanley Cups in year seven of their projects. Florida, meanwhile has missed the playoffs 11 of the past 12 seasons, and Friday morning cleaned out their coaching offices. What year are they on in this latest rebuild? Honestly, who can say anymore.
Dale Tallon will tell you the rebuild began when he got there, so this would be year three. After three wins in 16 games this season, the GM fired all of his coaches, then got on a conference call with reporters and spoke words that long-suffering Panthers fans have surely heard before. “This is just the beginning,” Tallon warned. “If our players don’t respond to this then they won’t be Panthers for very long. We want people that want to be Panthers, and if they don’t want to be, we’ll accommodate them.”
The Panthers are finding out exactly what the Oilers are learning: That you can’t win when your best players are all in their early 20s. That you need commensurate veteran leadership around those young players to carry them through their inevitable runs of inconsistency, and teach them how the NHL game is played. You also need stellar goaltending, because breakdowns occur more and the chances allowed tend to be of a higher quality.
The problem is, when you are Florida there is never enough money to attack the free agent market in search of those veterans. And when you are in the early stages of a rebuild, you can only entice second-tier UFAs, or oldsters on the comeback like Tim Thomas. Because the good free agents all want to chase a Stanley Cup. So while then-Toronto GM Brian Burke made a huge trade early on to land Phil Kessel, and now the Leafs are a playoff team, those GMs who sit patiently on their drafted players are finding out—like the rest of us—that it might be a longer process then they had planned.
The Blackhawks were four years into it and found themselves no better than a 10th-place team in the West. “Then a couple of things happened,” says assistant GM Norm Maciver, then a scout for the Hawks. “That next summer we were able to sign Brian Campbell and also Cristobal Huet. The Campbell signing changed the dynamic. Now, with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Campbell, it was like, ‘Wow, this has the makings of a real, real good defence. Then Niklas Hjalmarsson gets called up mid-season. Now you’ve got a pretty solid top four, and the pieces are coming together.”
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane gain a little experience, Chicago adds a Marian Hossa the next summer, and voila! The Blackhawks do what Pittsburgh had done only 12 months earlier—cap off a seven-year rebuild with a parade down Michigan Avenue.
The Avalanche are five years into their project and it appears they have had their “Ah ha!” moment as well. It starts in goal, where Semyon Varlamov has raised his game entirely. His save percentage (.933) is 20 points higher than it has ever been in Denver and his goals-against average (2.10) is nearly a half-goal lower. A blue-collar defence, with names like Andre Benoit, Cory Sarich, Jan Hejda and Nate Guenin, has gelled into a trusty corps. The Ryan O’Reilly contract hold-out that stressed-out the Avalanche room last season is gone, as are Gabriel Landeskog’s concussion problems, and centre Matt Duchene has emerged as the best player of a core group that is now following in the slipstream of his maturation. Suddenly, an Avalanche team that cleaned house itself after a 29th-place finish last season is quite plausibly hockey’s best team on Nov. 8.
Tallon, meanwhile, just fired a room full of coaches he’d hired himself. He might want to ask Pierre Lacroix, Steve Tambellini or Scott Howson who gets fired next, when the blender continues to swirl fruitlessly.
It is usually the GM.