The promise is the same for every last place team in the modern history of the NHL: sure, they may stink now, but stick with them and those top draft picks will eventually turn the team into a contender. This is the current plan for the Oilers.
Is it a legitimate hope? How do last place teams fare, five years after the fact? In this three part series, we’ll look at three sets of teams: successful, middling, and spectacularly bad. We continue with the middling.
1995-96 Ottawa Senators
Synopsis: A textbook case of tanking to get to the top, except that they never made it to the very top.
1995-96 was the fourth consecutive miserable season for the expansion Senators, who set all sorts of standards for ineptitude. They stunk, they stunk badly, and in so doing they secured a lot of very good young players.
They didn’t all work out. Alexei Yashin’s relationship with the team was tumultuous, Alexandre Daigle was a major disappointment, while Bryan Berard was dealt to the Islanders. Even so, players taken in the early years – from top picks like Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk and Chris Phillips, to later picks like Daniel Alfredsson, Magnus Arvedson and Sami Salo- would become major contributors down the line.
Ottawa had a nice run of eight seasons where they were one of the best teams in the league, but the closest they came to a Stanley Cup was in 2006-07, where they lost in the finals to Anaheim. During the heart of their run they experienced a lot of playoff disappointment – three times they lost in the first round to Toronto (including a sweep) and twice to the Sabres in Round One.
A solid team with nearly a decade of generally strong play isn’t a bad endpoint, though of course it doesn’t match winning the Stanley Cup.
1996-97 Boston Bruins
Synopsis: There’s no perfect situation.
Boston’s last place finish was a bit of an aberration. They made the playoffs the next two seasons, and had made the playoffs for (literally) decades. Their sole dip into the basement was a productive one: the Bruins had two top-10 draft picks, and both of them turned out really well. Joe Thornton would go on to win both the Hart and Art Ross trophies, while Sergei Samsonov won the Calder the year after Boston took him.
It ought to have been a perfect situation: a high-powered team, aided by a pair of elite young talents. It wasn’t – Boston had a couple of decent seasons, never made much playoff noise, and only really started enjoying success after a lot of turnover and the departures of Thornton and Samsonov.
It really isn’t an analogous situation to the one the Oilers find themselves in.