Last Place Teams, Five Years Later: Losing Works. Ish.

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.

    • VMR

      You dont draft a great team, but you need to draft the building blocks of a great team. Once you have the pieces you need to make the moves to fit them all together. The low finishes help get the building blocks. Making moves without the pieces gets you a couple places in the standings for a year or two.

  • VMR

    I’ll take that Ottawa Senators team that was really good for 8 years over the Oilers teams that were just fighting tooth and nail for a chance at the #8 spot every year.

    Here’s an idea for your next series of articles. Look at all the teams that spent an extensive amount of time in the 8-12 spots in each conference and see how many of them turned into cup champions without first dropping near the bottom.

    I’ll give you a list of teams:

    The Minnesota Wild, 2000 – present; The Florida Panthers 1993 – present; St. Louis Blues lockout – present; Nashville predators 1998 – present; Columbus Blue Jackets 2000 – present; Phoenix Coyotes 1996 – present; etc.

    These teams are locked in cycles of futility, never getting good enough to really challenge for anything yet always thinking with just a few more pieces they can turn the corner and be good. They’re built on depth players and dont have the top end talent to dominate, they can win in the regular season playing perfect defensive trap style hockey that reduces the question of skill but they tend to falter when it’s playoff time and everyone tightens up.

    I’m trying to think of a team that has bucked this trend? Maybe Detroit but they were pretty bad in the 80’s until Steve Yzerman showed up and they built their team around him. It took years and lost of smart management moves, plus a big wallet to bring in free agents in the 90’s.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      I don’t think anyone denies that “tanking” is a legit way to potentially add elite talent.

      The point of contention is: What to do to surround those elite players with a competent support cast.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      I’d say the Panthers, Blues, BJ’s team all fit into the “tanked but but went spectacularly bad” catagory.

      Coyotes have been a damn good team for the past 2 years

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      Looking at the two teams in this years SCF is a pretty good indication of teams that spent extensive time as “average” and are now elite (your parameters of 8-12 is too tight, I bet their isn’t one team that actually spent 4+ years in those slots)

      Outside of the last 3 years or so the Bruins and the Canucks spent just as much time in the middle of the conference or outside of the PO as they did as elite teams.

      • VMR

        Canucks spent a lot of time in the late 90’s and early 00’s at the bottom of the league. There top two players, and last years Hart trophy winner and a candidate this year they got in a lottery spot at the draft. They got significant pieces by being one of the worst teams in the league, pieces that a team like Minnesota finishing a bit higher up the draft order never seem to pick up.

        Bruins might be a good example but that’s one out of how many?

        I think we all agree that it takes more than just the draft to build a team but what drafting in those early draft picks does is make you less reliant on luck. Some of these teams like Columbus and Minnesota havent got much from the draft, it might be poor scouting or maybe it’s just bad luck either way a little bit better draft picks and they would have had better chances at talented players.

        • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

          almost every team spends time at the bottom of the league if you go back far enough.

          I’d bet every single team out side of the Wings has a bottom 5 finish in the last 20 years.

          • VMR

            Sure, so what you need to do is judge the talent you have and decide if that’s enough to start making a push. I think most of the fans calling for a charge back to the playoffs asap are overating what we have or think that it’s easy to pick up the pieces we need.

            We are on the clock though. You can see with the Thrashers that losing your top end talent for nothing (or next to nothing) is not the way to build a team. The young guys have all bought into the rebuild at this point but if it stretches to the point when they’re UFA’s it’s a pretty good bet that they wont stick around, no matter how much they like the city or the fans.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Warrants mention that Thornton won his Hart and Art Ross trophies in a season where he played ~70% of the games for a team that wasn’t the Bruins.

  • The Sens are a bit of an anomoly. They were horrifically bad early on because they (so the story goes) didn’t have the laptop with the scouting information at the first draft. Having something like that happen would obviously set you back–even more than one would expect from an expansion team.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      Certainly luck is involved with the draft. Which team would not have chosen Daigle #1 in 1993? You can’t fault the GM there, but Ottawa did have a history of drafting guys without heart, Yashin comes to mind. And trading for them as well apparently – Heatley.

  • oilbaron

    i like how they said at the begining that “he is the best player available, and had to take him”. sounds allot like what im hearing in oilcountry regarding RNH