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 simply awful.
2005-06 St. Louis Blues
Synopsis: One first round loss in the five years after finishing last.
There’s a lot that can be said about this club, but the easiest way to sum it up is thusly: five years after being the worst club in the NHL, the St. Louis Blues have yet to win a playoff game.
2005-06 was the first time the Blues failed to make the playoffs since 1978-79. They had never won a Stanley Cup but they had been in the thick of it against the best in the Western Conference for a decade (they were eliminated by the powerhouse Red Wings four times in nine seasons during that span). They’d won the Presidents’ Trophy and gone to the Conference Finals in the five years before finishing last. It was a blow.
Over the next three years, St. Louis would take 11 different players in the top fifty selections of the draft, including a first overall pick (Erik Johnson) and a fourth overall pick (Alex Pietrangelo). Although some of those players haven’t turned out, the Blues did add some nice pieces – guys like David Perron and Patrik Berglund – to a system that already had youngsters T.J. Oshie and David Backes. Those four form the nucleus of the St. Louis forward corps, along with Chris Stewart (acquired in a trade with Colorado that saw Erik Johnson go the other way). Pietrangelo is the club’s top scoring blue-liner. Yet, five years after hitting rock-bottom, the best the Blues can show is a four games-to-none sweep at the hands of Vancouver in 2008-09.
2000-01 New York Islanders
Synopsis: Clubs can trade their lottery talent for established players, but the trade-off for limited short-term gain is long-term pain.
2000-01 marked the end of a long stretch of playoff futility for the Islanders. After two miserable years in the mid-90’s, the Islanders showed some signs of progress from 1996-98, but then crashed for three consecutive years, culminating in a last place finish in 2000-01.
Along the way, they accumulated a lot of top talent, as they should have, given that they had 11 top-10 picks in seven years. Naturally, they didn’t all turn out: Brett Lindros and Mike Rupp come to mind as guys that never delivered on expectations. Even so, the Islanders acquired Wade Redden, J.P. Dumont, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer, Tim Connolly, Taylor Pyatt, Rick DiPietro and Raffi Torres. Only one franchise player in that mix, but the makings of a strong supporting cast are there.
Naturally, this being Mike Milbury’s team, these players were traded off. Wade Redden was part of a deal that brought in Bryan Berard, among others. J.P. Dumont was sent away before playing an NHL game, for a whole lot of nothing. Roberto Luongo (and Olli Jokinen, just for good measure) went away for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. Eric Brewer (and some sweeteners, because as we’ve noted this is Milbury) went to Edmonton for Roman Hamrilik. In fact, with the exception of Rick DiPietro – injured and signed forever – every player on the list above was sent away. Milbury also sent away the second overall pick the Islanders got as compensation for being so terrible (and Zdeno Chara, as a sweetener) in trade for Alexei Yashin.
All those trades bought some short-term success: the Islanders jumped straight into the playoffs the next season, and would continue to do so in four of the five seasons following finishing last. However, they were eliminated in the first round every time, and are now nearly back to where they started.
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The dynasty Canadiens clubs built their teams in no small part thanks to fleecing new teams of their high picks in trade for established players with more limited upside. Mike Milbury is the anti-Pollock.
1999-00 and 2001-02 Atlanta Thrashers
Synopsis: Some franchises use lottery picks as the foundation of a playoff team. Other clubs just stink forever.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the last four expansion teams in the NHL, it is this: a bad general manager can destroy a perfectly good hockey market.
The Atlanta Thrashers joined the league in 1999-2000, and in their first six seasons took a player in the draft’s first 10 selections six times. They did get some sub-par players: Patrik Stefan was serviceable journeyman but fought through injuries and never turned into an impact player, while Boris Valabik is still trying to claw his way out of the AHL. Yet, despite those misses, Atlanta did collect some fairly impressive talent: Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley are bona fide stars, Braydon Coburn’s a good defenseman, and (when healthy) Kari Lehtonen is a legitimate starter.
We’ve seen teams do more with less. Carolina won a Stanley Cup with just one impact player from the lottery. Unfortunately, the Thrashers never built a team around Heatley and Kovalchuk the way Carolina did around Staal – even in their best season (2006-07) Greg de Vries and Niclas Havelid were the top defensive pairing, and players like Jon Sim, Brad Larsen and Jean-Pierre Vigier were playing key roles up front. That is not, and never was, a recipe for success.
No amount of high-end players can compensate for inept management.