Before the coronavirus suspension, the Detroit Red Wings were on pace for the worst season in the salary cap era. That’s not an exaggeration; the Wings needed nine points in their final 11 games to tie the 48 the Avalanche had in 2016-17. In a full 82 game season, no other teams have finished below 52.
Whether the NHL returns or not, this is the fourth straight year the Red Wings will miss the playoffs and a lot of work will need to be done to return to contention.
The table below shows the five worst full seasons of the salary cap era. As another long off-season potentially begins, here are some lessons the Red Wings can learn from the way other teams navigated out of the bottom of the league.
Know Your Team
The easiest thing to do when things are at their worst is look for quick fixes to the roster. While next season’s salary cap hasn’t been announced yet (and damage from the shutdown could prevent the salary cap from going up) the Red Wings are projected to enter the off-season with over $37-million in cap space according to CapFriendly.com. But they don’t need to spend it all at once.
There are plenty of reasons off-season additions don’t work out, but a smart GM should know when his team is ready to take the next step and when it is not.
Buffalo Sabres GM Tim Murray learned that lesson the hard way in 2014. On July 1, after his team finished with only 52 points, Murray spent over $41 million on free agents Matt Moulson, Brian Gionta and Andrej Meszaros, and acquired Josh Gorges in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. Of those four, Gionta was the only player who made an impact for the Sabres, serving as captain for three seasons. The Sabres improved by only two points the following year and Murray once again made some big moves, acquiring Ryan O’Reilly and Robin Lehner in trades for picks and prospects. O’Reilly and Lehner both left Buffalo on poor terms three playoff-less seasons later and had career-years immediately after getting out.
The Philadelphia Flyers took some big swings too after finishing with only 56 points in 2006-07, signing Daniel Briere to an eight-year, $52-million contract and trading for Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen. These veterans joined a core that already featured Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and R.J. Umberger, and the Flyers found success quickly because of it. Philadelphia made a 39-point jump in the standings the next season, and went all the way to the conference finals. Three years later they came within two wins of the Stanley Cup, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, with Briere, Hartnell and Timonen all playing important roles.
After making the playoffs in 11 consecutive seasons before their 56-point campaign, the Flyers correctly bet that their poor showing was a one-off. As the Red Wings head into a fourth-straight year without playoff hockey, their outlook is much more like the Sabres. With so many holes to fill, some veteran additions on big-money contracts won’t be enough to turn things around and should be avoided until the team shows it’s ready to be competitive.
Mine For Young Talent
The goal of any rebuild should be to add young talent and the draft is the easiest way to do that. In 2020, the Red Wings will pick in the top four for the first time since 1990 but successful rebuilds find gems in more than just the first round. It might take longer for players in the later rounds to reach the NHL but the wait can be worth it.
The Arizona Coyotes are an example of a team that hit big in the draft after their 56-point season. The team drafted four regular NHLers in 2015, including Dylan Strome (No. 3), Christian Fischer (32), Adin Hill (76) and Conor Garland (123). While Strome hasn’t lived up to his high-ranking, he was traded to the Blackhawks for Nick Schmaltz, who’s been a reliable centre in Arizona.
The Sabres have not had much luck outside the first round in recent drafts. On the current roster, only eight players were drafted by the organization and only three were not first-rounders. The biggest success story in Buffalo recently has been Victor Olofsson, a seventh-round pick in 2014 who has 20 goals as a rookie this season, but for the most part, the Sabres have been forced to find players elsewhere because many of their draft picks haven’t developed into NHL players.
The Red Wings have had some modest success in this area in recent years with Filip Hronek (second-round, 2016), Tyler Bertuzzi (second-round, 2013) and the recently traded Andreas Athanasiou (fourth-round, 2012). But with 10 picks in 2020 and another nine in 2021, the team has an opportunity to add plenty of more talent. Talent that then needs to be developed into NHL players if this rebuild is to end anytime soon.
Find The Right Coach
Jeff Blashill has been behind the bench for the Red Wings for five seasons, with only one playoff appearance, but he wasn’t hired by the current management. And while Steve Yzerman said in February that he doesn’t “plan to make a change” this off-season, a key part of any rebuild is finding the right coach. Someone who can build a winning culture and be a stable presence while the roster undergoes plenty of changes.
The other teams that have had to rebuild from bad seasons have had mixed results in this department.
The Sabres have struggled to find a consistent coach for a while now, with six men getting a chance at the job over the past eight seasons. After Lindy Ruff’s 14-year stint behind the bench ended midway through the 2012-13 campaign, Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley have all failed to hold on to the job for more than two seasons. While things are expected to be different under current coach Ralph Krueger, the Sabres still posted a 30-31-8 record in his first season and will miss the playoffs for the ninth straight time.
On the flip side, the Colorado Avalanche got their hire right in Jared Bednar. The 48-point season was Bednar’s first behind the bench, but he was brought on in late August after Patrick Roy’s sudden departure. Since then, Bednar has guided the Avalanche to the playoffs in each of the next three seasons and he was a finalist for coach of the year in 2018.
The Avalanche are now a team on the rise and among the favourites to win the Stanley Cup soon while the Sabres are still searching for direction. The coach isn’t the only reason those teams are where they are, but they are important enough that Yzerman needs to make sure that when he decides to make a coaching change, he gets it right the first time.