Last Place Teams, Five Years Later: Tanking Works!

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 in Edmonton, after Steve Tambellini’s previous plan (Quinn + Khabibulin = competitive team) fell through.

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 that have finished last over the past 10 seasons: successful, middling, and spectacularly bad. We start with the best of the bunch.

2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins

Synopsis: The team people have in mind when they talk about rebuilding through the draft.

Three seasons (and also the lockout) after finishing last in the NHL, the Penguins went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. That announced they had arrived as an elite NHL team; they won the Stanley Cup the year after that and though they’ve yet to repeat that win they’ve been a contender every year and look to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

In 2000-01, the Penguins lost to New Jersey in the Conference Finals. It was the final consecutive playoff appearance in a string of 11 that had been kicked off by the team’s Stanley Cup win in 1990-91. They fell off the face of the earth the next year and remained miserable for four seasons (and, including the 2004-05 lockout, five drafts). That timing was fortuitous, as it essentially gave the Penguins a bonus lottery pick – a fellow named Sidney Crosby. He joined a group of lottery selections that included Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal – with the exception of Whitney, the group that forms the core of the team even today.

Along the way, the Penguins snagged a bevy of useful NHL’ers in the later rounds: Erik Christensen, Max Talbot, Dan Carcillo, Paul Bissonnette, Matt Moulson, Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, and Kris Letang were all taken after the 60th overall pick during those lottery years. That’s what Lowetide would call a “nice cluster.”

There were threats of bankruptcy, relocation, and the team seemed to need saving at least once a month during the lottery years, but the Penguins came out of them with an unmatched combination of young phenoms and role players that have put them back on top of the league.

2002-03 Carolina Hurricanes

Synopsis: They aren’t the Penguins, but they do have a Stanley Cup.

The Hurricanes were one of the league’s more charming Cinderella stories in 2001-02, as the team that had never won a playoff round (and had one just one in their previous existence as the Hartford Whalers) advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. They lost to Detroit, of course, but I enjoyed the run all the same – not in the least because of Arturs Irbe and his ridiculously archaic pads/mask combination; he remains one of my favourite goaltenders to this day. Anyway, a year after that, the Hurricanes finished dead last in the NHL.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won the draft lottery, but thankfully for Carolina chose to snag Marc-Andre Fleury, leaving Eric Staal to the Hurricanes. Over the next two years, the ‘Canes would add third overall (Andrew Ladd) and fourth overall (Jack Johnson) selections to their prospect cupboard. Interestingly, the Hurricanes were in many ways the antithesis of the ‘tank your way to the Cup’ mantra; they would win the Stanley Cup in 2005-06, but Staal was the lone draft pick from the lottery years to have a significant impact. The defense was a patchwork group of journeymen (in order of playoff ice-time: Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward, Mike Commodore and Frantisek Kaberle) while the forwards were largely veteran: eight players had 15-or-more points in the playoffs, and five of them (Brind’Amour, Stillman, Recchi, Weight and Whitney) were over 30 at the time. In net, Martin Gerber was replaced by the ever-so-youthful Cam Ward, snagged 24th overall the year before Carolina collapsed.

The ‘Canes were a good, veteran team that caught some breaks (every Sabres defenceman getting injured in the Conference Finals, Dwayne Roloson going down in Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals) and had one lottery pick playing a major role. Unfortunately, this hasn’t proven to be a combination that had long-term longevity: the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs in three of four seasons since winning the Stanley Cup.

1997-98 and 1998-99 Tampa Bay Lightning

Synopsis: Draft picks are important, but smart management can make up for poor drafting.

Few clubs survive the kind of basket-case start to their history that the Tampa Bay Lightning experienced. It’s a long, long story for another day, but between cronyism, con artists, a female goaltender, mysterious owners without a clue or a care, the team stunk. 1997-99 represented the team’s sixth and seventh seasons.

Three more seasons would pass before the Lightning would qualify for the playoffs, and while they collected some good players they also lost virtually their entire early core along the way – of their five top-10 picks in their first six years of existence, none would contribute to the Lightning’s eventual Stanley Cup victory. Roman Hamrlik was dealt to Edmonton for an uninspiring collection of players (headlined by Jason Bonsignore). Chris Gratton was poached by the Philadelphia Flyers, who were all too aware of the Lightning’s financial struggles. Jason Weimer, Paul Mara and Daymond Langkow were also shipped out. Additionally, the Lightning dealt off their first round pick in 1999 in a series of moves that eventually landed them Dan Cloutier (among others). Finally, two more top-10 picks during the rebuilding years (Alex Svitov and Nikita Alexeev) were monumental disappointments.

Yet, the Lightning struck pay-dirt in 1999. Nine of the 11 picks had no real impact, but two did: Vincent Lecavalier, taken first overall, and OHL teammate Brad Richards, snagged in the third round (the joke was that Tampa Bay’s budget was so tight they could only send scouts to one city, but whatever truth there was to that Richards was a phenomenal pick). Those players, together with cast-offs Martin St. Louis, Dan Boyle and late-round pick Pavel Kubina, formed the nucleus of the club that won the Stanley Cup in 2004 – five years after they finished last in the league, in 1998-99.

The selection of Lecavalier was obviously important, but represents only part of the story: the Tampa Bay Lightning won despite not getting much from their many high draft picks. They won on the backs of (among others) two guys who most NHL managers couldn’t be bothered to grab for free.

    • VMR

      You should have posted this back in the late 90’s when they were taking Steve Kelly instead of Doan or Iginla!!!!

      As it is you’re a little late, scouting has improved dramatically since the arrival of Stu.

  • Tha Legion

    im not sure the oil can pull off something similar with ST at the wheel. the article the other day (cant remember by who) showing a list of the transactions he has made in his tenure so far, really,really scared me.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Interesting post, JW. Good work.

    Just wondering if you’d considered also examining the Nordiques/Avs, circa 1988 to 1996 – particularly the three No. 1 picks in a row. Here’s hoping the Oilers don’t finish last three times, but the Nords/Avs are an example of how drafting well for a long time can keep you in contention for a long, long time.

  • striker777

    ST needs to pour more money into scouting. There must be an evaluation system for our scouts. Those that dont provide excellent scouting – need to be replaced by new and more eager staff. Brad Richards drafted in the 3rd round….enough said.

  • paul wodehouse

    … this is almost all OK with me Jon…it’s a good history lesson

    except for one thing…

    you have no faith in whether our GM can get out of his own way during the time when he should be taking the right draft picks …can he do it?

  • paul wodehouse

    Nice – This follows along what I suggested when you opened things up, asking your readers for topic ideas. Good work. Untill the OIL show they are willing to spend up to cap, forget about it. Doug Weight’s comments were a good reminder of the last team the OIL was decent: they were competing against teams with $40MM of extra payroll. Yes salary cap has narrowed this, but when is the last time we’ve hit the cap or been a top-5 team in terms of salaries? Ever?

  • Ducey

    Yes salary cap has narrowed this, but when is the last time we’ve hit the cap or been a top-5 team in terms of salaries? Ever?

    Uh, 09-10 they were over the cap…

  • Chris.

    There definately is an element of luck when building through the draft. If the Oilers had had two consecutive last place finishes half a decade ago our first line would feature Crosby and Ovechkin (assuming Prendergast wouldn’t of F’d that up)…

    There is also a lot of luck involved with the later rounds. I mean Nashville scouts look pretty smart grabbing Weber in the second round; but let’s face it: if they were really, really smart (and not just a little bit lucky) they would have grabbed him with their first pick.

    • VMR

      That’s totally, completely the point about this rebuild – and any other rebuild, for that matter.

      Good old fashioned luck.

      Obviously, the more scouts you have out there, the better, but I refuse to give too much credit where it isn’t due.

      In a 30-team league, with scouts sitting in every arena from here to Siberia, you’re very lucky if you can scoop up guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg and Byfuglien as late as the Wings and Hawks did.

      That’s why I’m willing to ease off on Tambo a bit – just a bit. No matter what, he’ll need luck to make this rebuild work – the same luck every other GM of every other great or very good team gets.

  • VMR

    “they would win the Stanley Cup in 2005-06, but Staal was the lone draft pick from the lottery years to have a significant impact.”

    Pretty sure Andrew Ladd knocking Roloson out of the series had a significant impact as well:o)

  • SurfacetoAirMissile

    I understand the big picture is to build a winning hockey club and try to sustain that success over a number of years while being in contention for Stanley. Not to mention winning is far more enjoyable than losing… especially if you have season tickets.

    However, the team is in full rebuild mode from the bottom up….. some people forget to stop and smell the roses. We have some great young hockey players to watch develop and sometimes people are so busy bitchin about the guys who don’t lace up the skates, they seem to forget about the ones that do. Hall, MPS, Eberle, Petry, Omark and Dubby all had great starts to their NHL careers. I certainly enjoyed watching them, even if they stumbled multiple times through the season….. it just made good games seem great i.e. Hall Hat trick, Omark’s shoot out goal and many other highlights through the year.

    I know, it is the offseason and when it comes to the Oil, what else is there to talk about? A little perspective can help pass the time until the draft.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    From the general trend of Tambo’s moves, I agree with him but it would be nice to see a stronger veteran presence there to support and teach the youngsters. Tambo is guilty of some several questionable moves but for some reason he instills hope in me. Maybe that’s my downfall.