Analyzing the outlooks of five rebuilding NHL teams

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock and top scorer Auston Matthews discuss the newfound excitement surrounding Leafs Nation due to the club’s recent run.

Not everyone can be a Stanley Cup contender…even if 22 of the NHL’s 30 teams are “above .500.”

That’s right — 22 NHL teams have accumulated more than half of the available points to them on the season so far, with the surprising Vancouver Canucks coming in at No. 22 with a 20-19-6 record. But no one is confusing them as a Cup contender.

Most of the teams you would consider contenders, though, were at or near the very bottom of the league not all that long ago. Pittsburgh, Washington, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Chicago and Columbus (if you want to go that far) have all had top five picks in the draft in the past 13 years, which were building blocks of the rosters they’re putting forth today.

Obviously, it takes more than losing for a few years to build a contending team; you still need to make smart acquisitions to fill out the roster and surround your star players with capable talent. If rebuilding was as easy as making a top five pick, this generation’s Oilers would have a Stanley Cup by now.

Like it or not “tanking” is a reality in today’s NHL, but that doesn’t mean every rebuilding team is undertaking that unsavoury process. There are stages to a rebuild and they don’t always stay on track. In fact, it can be more of a bumpy road than a track.

Here are some teams currently in a rebuild and a look at what kind of shape they’re in.

When Mike Babcock chose to become head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of the Buffalo Sabres before the 2015-16 season, the common line of thinking was that the Sabres were a year ahead of the Leafs in their rebuild. Less than two seasons later, Toronto looks like the team that’s ahead.

The Sabres, with a 17-17-9 record sit ahead of only the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference standings and are the fifth-lowest scoring team in the NHL with a 2.33 goals per game average.

How they got here: The Sabres were last in the playoffs in 2010-11 with a core that included Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Drew Stafford, Tim Connolly, Jordan Leopold, a second-year Tyler Myers and Ryan Miller in net. All of them have since been moved, most by trade. They’ve finished in one of the bottom two spots of their division four years in a row and have had a top-10 draft pick in each of those years.

“Frankly they tore down too much to get here,” Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News said on the Jeff Blair Show. “And that’s really what their undoing is, their bottom six is terrible. The Leafs did not tear down as much and ended up with Auston Matthews.”

Where they are now: It was assumed that a healthy Robin Lehner could keep the Sabres in the playoff hunt, but as Harrington alluded to, they are actually in a position most rebuilding teams find themselves in at one point or another — they have the top-end talent to get excited for, but the rest of the roster isn’t good enough to compete for a playoff spot. The Sabres now look like they’re behind the Leafs even if they have a comparable amount of high-end talent up front, a healthy Lehner, and a budding Rasmus Ristolainen on the blue line who is eating tons of minutes and is top 10 in defencemen scoring. In a situation like that, the coach’s tactics are going to be under the microscope and it’ll be a question of whether or not Dan Bylsma can get them to the next level.

“The system really is what’s holding this team back in my eyes,” Harrington said. “There is enough talent. I don’t want to hear about structure defensively and we have to be responsible and yada yada yada, I’m tired of that. You’re talking about a team that does have quality top six forwards. You’ve got Jack Eichel, you’ve got Sam Reinhart, you’ve got an Evander Kane, you just got Tyler Ennis back, you’ve got Ryan O’Reilly. I want to see this team go more.

“They are in too much of a defensive posture too often and that comes back to coaching and that’s how Bylsma wants to play. And you know what guys, if Bylsma was popular among the great players of the Pittsburgh Penguins he’d probably still be there. The system bothered the Penguins and that eventually got him out the door. If he wants to stay here, he’s going to have to push this team more in terms of pushing the pace, pushing the attack, they are a boring team too often.”

Where they go from here: If the Sabres are indeed now a season behind the Leafs as it appears, they have to stay the course. Remember, for the Leafs, this season was all about the beginning of good things to come, but that the end result was likely another low finish in the standings and a high draft pick, which would be perfectly fine.

For the Sabres, that will be a massive disappointment after they spent the summer throwing money at Kyle Okposo and acquiring pending UFA Dmitry Kulikov for a younger Mark Pysyk. But this roster is not worth giving up on again. The goalie seems to be in place, the defence is coming along and the top six forwards are there. If they end up finishing near the bottom, get a little lottery luck and pick in the top three this season, it could be enough to push the Sabres forward in a big way next season, when they may also add Alexander Nylander to the group. Don’t panic. Stay the course — but get what assets you can for the expiring contracts of Cody Franson and Kulikov at the trade deadline.

On the other side of the coin are the Leafs, who are light years ahead of where most expected them to be. Matthews and Mitch Marner are having all-time rookie seasons, Nikita Zaitsev has come better prepared for NHL hockey than advertised and Frederik Andersen has settled down from a bad start to the season to give the Leafs a sturdy last line of defence.

Of course, the only time Toronto made the playoffs since the 2004-05 lost season was in the lockout-shortened 2012-13, where they blew a Game 7 lead to Boston. That season perhaps gave Leafs management some misplaced optimism and led to the trade for Jonathan Bernier, and the re-signing of Dion Phaneuf to a seven-year deal before 2013 was out.

How they got here: Under GM Brian Burke the team refused to burn it down for a full-on rebuild, which many would agree the franchise is just recovering from. They could have had Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin, remember.

Instead, the Leafs have had a top-eight draft pick in four of the past five seasons, all of which have been huge building blocks to this roster. No longer was the team prioritizing “truculence” and “grit,” but speed and skill. Where they once drafted Luke Schenn and Tyler Biggs in the first round, now they were getting Morgan Rielly and William Nylander, among others.

Where they are now: Unlike Bylsma and the Sabres, Mike Babcock is playing a high-tempo style with the Leafs where, basically, he’s asking the defencemen to just not make a bad mistake in the defensive end and get it up to the skilled forwards ASAP.

As Chris Johnston wrote in an excellent breakdown of how the Leafs are trying to tilt the ice in favour of their forwards:

In some circumstances, that means executing a breakout by flipping the puck high into the neutral zone.

While that might seem like a desperate move where a team is surrendering possession, the Leafs think it actually produces decent odds of success because of skilled forwards like Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner who have a knack for winning puck battles.

The Leafs may still fall back and miss the playoffs, but their underlying numbers suggest they really are a pretty good team. Surely playoffs would be the No. 1 target, but missing and getting another high draft pick to add to the stable would be perfectly fine. They’re probably at a point where if they miss next year then it’ll be a disappointment.

Where do they go from here: Have to stick to the Shanaplan. Roman Polak is playing a role on the third pair and a more important one on the penalty kill, but if you can get any kind of draft pick for him at the deadline you do it. Same goes for Matt Hunwick. But there are fewer and fewer of those kinds of guys on this roster, and more young players the team will be moving forward with. That also means they aren’t ready for a big splash move where they give up a couple future assets for a “help now” player to get them across the finish line in at least a wild-card position — they’re still seeing just what they have here.

If James van Riemsdyk goes, it should be for a homerun return because he’s the kind of steady, 25-to-30-goal man who’s a perfect complement to the younger inexperienced players. And given all he’s been through on this team, he’s also the type who may take some sort of a discount to stay when his contract runs out after next season.

The Leafs aren’t far off, but they aren’t yet in a position to really get aggressive.

If there is a tanking team in the NHL this season it’d be Arizona, but that’s probably an unfair label for a squad that has all-star Mike Smith in net, signed their leading scorer, Radim Vrbata, off the free-agent market plus defenceman Alex Goligoski, and doesn’t appear to be in any rush to move their biggest trade chip, Martin Hanzal. The Coyotes are just in the early stages of their rebuild right now.

How they got here: The Coyotes got to the Western Conference final in 2012 on the back of an amazing performance by Smith but played above their heads and weren’t really in a position to sustain that success or push it forward. Always a budget team, the Coyotes lost leading scorer Ray Whitney to free agency that summer and have since had to move on from other key contributors such as Keith Yandle, while Shane Doan has slowed down. Even Smith has been inconsistent and unable to recapture his 2011-12 magic.

Where they are now: The Coyotes know they’re in tough in a loaded Western Conference and specifically a Pacific Division that includes rising Edmonton and Calgary teams and the mainstay contenders in California. So, the Coyotes are in a spot where they’re picking up the contracts of Chris Pronger, Pavel Datsyuk and Dave Bolland to help get them to the cap floor and acquire some draft picks at the same time. Young GM John Chayka is preaching patience.

Dave Tippett just signed a five-year extension with the Coyotes in May of 2016 and they are highly likely to stick by him since he stayed with the team through heavy relocation rumours. Still, you have to wonder if his defensive style is a good fit for a young team. Smith’s comments following a Monday loss sound awfully similar to Harrington’s critiques of the Sabres.

“We were just playing, and it was blah. It was blah. And you can’t expect to play like that and compete against a really good hockey team,” Smith said. “That’s what we did tonight. We have to learn from it. Sooner or later, this organization’s got to move forward and not continue to have games like this.”

Where do they go from here: The road appears long for the Coyotes to get back to playoff relevance, but they may surprise with how quickly they get back on track. For this year at least we should expect them to trade pending UFA Hanzal at some point and the prospect of trading Doan is on the table. If the Sabres and Leafs are within a year of each other in their rebuilds, the Coyotes might be another year or two behind them.

Remember, while they have Max Domi who was building on a nice rookie season before he got injured, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is developing as a true No. 1 defender and Jakob Chychrun, who surprisingly made the team out of camp right after being drafted last summer, there is still plenty more to come. Arizona has three first-round picks from the past two drafts still to make their NHL debuts in Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller and Nick Merkley — the former two especially are anticipated to be huge contributors when the Coyotes finally do blossom.

And while Smith is 34 years old and unlikely to be around when the Coyotes take a step, 24-year-old Louis Domingue is working his way towards the starter’s job some day and is coming off a season in which he posted a .912 save percentage in 39 games. He’s only at .899 so far this season, but the team does rank last in shots against per game and average 2.6 more shots allowed than they did last season.

Ah, the rebuild on the fly: the honourable way to try and reconstruct a declining roster into a contender again.

The Canucks came into the season a popular pick to finish at or near the bottom of the NHL standings and while they still could end up in that position, they’re currently in the playoff hunt past the halfway mark of the season. So how can a team in the race with a lineup that includes Ryan Miller, Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson be in a rebuild? Here’s how…

How they got here: After getting to the Stanley Cup final and losing to Boston in 2011, the Canucks’ window of opportunity stayed open for a couple seasons after, which is something a team should never give up on. With luck such a huge factor in winning once you’re good enough to contend, you should take a hard run at any chance you get. Looking back, that window closed when the Canucks were swept by the Sharks in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Could things have been better? Perhaps. You have to wonder what the team would look like now had they kept Cory Schneider instead of Roberto Luongo for one more year. They would have been sturdier in net for the past couple seasons and in the years to come, but they also wouldn’t have their current leading scorer, who we’ll get to in a second.

There are a couple things to point at to answer how the Canucks got here. One, is that the core that made them a contender got old. Another is that years of failed drafts caught up to them. In seven drafts from 2006 to 2012, covering a time the Canucks’ window was open or opening, they picked just one player who is making a difference on this team: Ben Hutton.

Where they are now: To be honest, the Canucks are in denial. Whether they’ll admit it or not, Vancouver is in a rebuild, but the difference is that instead of tearing the whole thing down as Buffalo and Toronto have done, the Canucks are trying to stay competitive.

As Trevor Linden said in a far-ranging interview with Sportsnet’s Luke Fox earlier this season:

“What people fail to realize is the older group of players we had here—the Garrisons and Keslers and Bieksas and Higgins and Hamhuises—which are no longer with us, these are good people. These are leaders. Perhaps in Toronto that wasn’t the case.

We have Daniel and Henrik Sedin here, who are very important to this organization and icons in the city. They’re not going anywhere. I don’t know how I walk into the room and tell these guys, ‘Strip it down.’ I’m not sure it’s fair to these guys. There’s different circumstances, be it in Toronto or Carolina or Vancouver, that require different routes. It’s not perfect, but I’m encouraged by the young players we’ve introduced, and we’ve got some young prospects.”

Where do they go from here: If the Canucks aren’t going to tear it down, they better make sure their drafts are strong — and that doesn’t mean just picking a useful player in Round 1. Hitting on more players the way it appears they did with Nikita Tryamkin in the third round of the 2013 draft is a must or else Vancouver will slide into the same spot Toronto has occupied for the past 10 or so years — too bad to contend, too good to bottom out and pick a top talent in the draft. Barring a lottery win of course.

As bleak as the outlook was for this team coming into the season (and it is still pretty bleak), promise is on the horizon and they could switch gears back into contender mode in the next few years without going full Oilers. Bo Horvat, who they got with the pick acquired in the Schneider trade, leads the team in scoring and could approach 25 goals and 60 points in his second season. We mentioned Tryamkin. Troy Stecher has been a great find as an undrafted signing and 23-year-old Hutton is earning a lot of playing time in his second season. And Olli Juolevi could be the best of all the young defenders. With 27-year-old Chris Tanev in the fold on a cap friendly deal for a while, the Canucks may actually be in a position most of these other rebuilding teams were never in: their blue line could be a surprising strength. That could give them a leg up as they make a push now and in the long run.

When was the last time you had a conversation with your buddies about the Carolina Hurricanes? Have you ever had a chat with your buddies about this team? If you’re looking for a new favourite team, it may be a good idea to hop on this bandwagon while there’s still plenty of room, because Carolina — like the Leafs — could jump into the playoff scene at any moment and may even be ahead of schedule.

How they got here: The Hurricanes last made it to the playoffs in 2009, where they lost in the Eastern Conference final to the Penguins. Since then, they have had five picks in the top 12 of the NHL draft. Now, Carolina hasn’t been in full rebuild mode since 2009. The acquired Jordan Staal in 2012 and immediately signed him to a 10-year contract to play alongside his brother and face of the Hurricanes franchise, Eric Staal. But rather than spur success with a deadly 1-2 centre combo, Eric began a sharp decline and Jordan has proven a better fit of a No. 3 (as he was with the Penguins) than a top-two line player with offensive upside.

Where are they now: While their attempt to push forward ultimately failed, it led to some nice draft picks which has put them in the promising position they find themselves. They’ve hit on some top picks, such as Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm and, we assume, Noah Hanifin. But what’s pushing the Hurricanes into a spot where they are one point out of the playoffs with three games in hand of the team ahead of them, is the performance and development of some later-round picks.

Victor Rask, a second-rounder, is second on the team with 32 points. Jaccob Slavin, a fourth-rounder, leads the team in ice time and plays all situations. Justin Faulk, a second-rounder, is second in ice time, an all-star and a Team USA staple now. Brett Pesce is a third-rounder with the best possession numbers among all blue liners on this team and is trusted with heavy PK minutes.

The common thread here of course is that most of those names are defencemen, giving the Hurricanes the most exciting blue line in the NHL to watch develop in the next few years. As fifth-overall pick Hanifin settles in, the D-corps will really take off.

Where do they go from here: The Hurricanes were similar to the Leafs in that they also probably expected a reasonably high draft pick again this season, but find themselves in the playoff hunt now. An indicator of how good a team actually is, Carolina was 11th in the league in CF% last season and are sixth this season, ahead of Pittsburgh. They are 11th in GF/G and 15th in GA/G. They’ve made some sneaky good acquisitions recently, such as Teuvo Teravainen from Chicago, but should still be taking more of a long-term view when it comes to big splashes. Making a costly trade for a veteran to push them forward, at the expense of a valuable future asset, should be off the table. But don’t sleep on the Hurricanes. If they fall short of the playoffs this season, they could be just a goalie (or a hot Cam Ward season) away from breaking out in a big way.

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