The holiday season is a good time as any to remove our focus from the game-to-game ebb and flow of the Islanders' season thus far and focus instead on an important fundamental reality: after many, many years, the Islanders are a contender in the NHL and, while there are some significant concerns looming on the horizon (outlined here), should continue to be contender for the next several years. Gone are the days of following juniors and Bridgeport as closely as the NHL team, of focusing on draft rankings in January, of feeling conflicted about cheering an exciting win in March because we knew that the real impact would be a less valuable pick in June. This is a good thing.
What's especially satisfying about the current state of the Islanders is that this result was by no means inevitable. As the Islanders' own rebuild has shown us, rebuilds don't progress linearly but often encounter setbacks and delays. How many of us thought the 2010-2011 Winter of Grabner would be the springboard for a rebuilt Islander team with the FnGO line as a cornerstone? How many of us expected that strong series against Pittsburgh in 2013 to lead to a playoff berth - and more -- in 2013-14? Yet despite these setbacks, as well as some questionable draft picks and trades, the Islanders, under Garth Snow's management, has become one of the better teams in the league. The rebuild succeeded.
Even more, sometimes rebuilds fail altogether. What I sought to do in this post is to compare the Islanders' rebuild to the progress of other teams undergoing rebuilds of various sorts at roughly the same time. While this analysis admittedly lacks methodological rigor, as it is often difficult to define what constitutes a rebuild, I think I adequately defined the teams that have gone through a rebuild, what kind of success they have had and where the Islanders fall into the mix.
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The Islanders Rebuild
To begin, I defined the time period of the Islanders' most recent rebuild. Although Garth Snow never formally declared the start of the rebuild, an obvious candidate is the 2007 offseason. After the Islanders made the playoffs in 2006-2007, the franchise faced an obvious turning point. A bunch of their UFAs - among them Ryan Smyth, Tom Poti and Jason Blake - did not re-sign and Yashin was bought out. However, they weren't quite in rebuild mode yet: they had no first round picks that draft and ultimately signed a bunch of middling free agents to populate the roster. After finishing with the fifth worst NHL record in the 2007-08 season, the team was more clearly in rebuild mode and accumulated a large number of picks that turned into a draft haul full of players that would play roles with the team in subsequent years, including Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic, Matt Martin, Matt Donovan and Kevin Poulin.
The difficulty in pinpointing when the Islanders rebuild began points to a broader methodological issue - how do we look at crappy teams that are deluded into think they are competitive and therefore continue to trade picks and prospects and sign expensive UFAs but should be in rebuild mode? This is often the case with teams at the precipice of a rebuild. There is often a "cold shower" season that alerts the team that "yeah we're pretty shitty and should burn the sucker down." For the Islanders, the "cold shower" season was 2007-2008. Sadly, other teams undergo several cold showers before waking up to the reality of their shittiness.
It's a bit trickier to mark the end of the rebuild. It's tempting to designate 2011-2012 as the end of the rebuild as the team made the playoffs the following season. However, that season's result was somewhat flukey in light of the shortened season, a conclusion easier to come to in retrospect given the results the following season. Moreover, many of the key regulars that season were either short term stopgaps (Keith Aucoin, Colin McDonald) or clearly were not in the team's long term plans at that point (Mark Streit, Evgeni Nabokov, Andrew MacDonald). As we will see, rebuilding teams often will have a single flukey good season that might lull management into thinking the rebuild is over when it isn't. A more plausible year for the end of the rebuild is the 2013-2014 season. After that season, management acquired Leddy, Boychuk, Grabovski, Kulemin and Halak and made the playoffs in a convincing fashion the following season.
The Other Rebuilders
To identify teams that have undergone a rebuild during the seven seasons (2007-08 through 2013-14) of the Isles rebuild (most broadly defined), I looked at the teams with the worst record during this period. These include the following (stats courtesy of war on ice and Hockey Reference):
Edmonton (483 Points, -280 Goal Differential, 45.3% SA Corsi)
NY Islanders (505 Points, -312 Goal Differential, 47.4% SA Corsi)
Florida (523, -219 Goal differential, 47.8% SA Corsi)
Winnipeg (534, -201 Goal Differential 47.6% SA Corsi
Columbus (543, -163 Goal differential, 49.4% SA Corsi
Toronto (544, 203 Goal differential, 47.9% SA Corsi)
Tampa Bay (545, -156 goal differential, 48.6% SA Corsi)
Note that I didn't include Buffalo (which had the eighth worst record during this period) because they began their rebuild relatively late in the period in question making it premature to render any judgment of its success.
Edmonton. In the 2006 offseason, the Oilers found itself in a position similar to the Islanders in 2007. The team had success in the prior season (making the Stanley Cup finals). However, it was followed by the loss of several key players, including Chris Pronger. Predictably, the team was horrible in 2006-07, leading to the trade of Ryan Smyth and a division-worst finish. That offseason, the Oilers had three first round picks, suggesting a rebuild was underway. At the same time, however, the Oilers offer sheeted Dustin Penner, resulting in the loss of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd round picks in the 2008 draft, and spent a whole bunch of money on aging UFAs. The Oilers were mediocre the next two seasons, finishing with 88 and 85 points and missing the playoffs. Despite that, this "rebuild" was being called a success and management continued to sign expensive UFAs. It wasn't until the team's 30th place finish leading to the first overall pick in the 2010 that the team was in full scale rebuild mode. Since then, the team has been in a seemingly interminable rebuild. While they have had repeated first overall picks, not one of them has developed into an all-world player like Stamkos or Tavares yet. And management hasn't helped things with bad UFA signings (Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference) and questionable trades (Jeff Petry for picks). The Oilers are once again near the bottom of the league (though a crappy division puts them on the playoff bubble) with not much cap space to work with. Despite Canadian media reports of seeing light at the end of the tunnel, this team still seems years away from sustained NHL success.
Toronto. The other team that's still mired in a rebuild took a different path to get there. Despite some initial hesitation, by 2009 Edmonton identified a rebuild was necessary and stuck to it, but its rebuild has been plagued by incompetence and some bad luck. In contrast, partly due to the franchise's financial success and self-image and partly due to plain old stupidity, Toronto failed to commit to a rebuild until 2014 despite season after season after season of mediocrity. In the 2007 offseason, Toronto was coming off a somewhat successful season (remember, Toronto was edged out by the Islanders for the last playoff spot 2006-07). As it is wont to do, Toronto shelled out some money for a bevy of free agents, including the Islander's own Jason Blake. However, the team finished near the bottom the next two seasons, yielding 5th and 7th overall picks in the 2008 and 2009 drafts, respectively. But rather than pursue a rebuild, Brian Burke, brought on in November 2008 as part of a front office shakeup, traded its next two first round picks and a second rounder for Phil Kessel. Hilariously, the Leafs did not come close to making the playoffs the next two seasons without a first round pick to show for it (while those picks famously turned into Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin, they may have been even higher had Kessel not been on Toronto's roster).
Would management commit to a rebuild now? Of course not! While the next couple of offseasons did not feature anything approaching the absurdity of the Kessel trade, the team continued to operate as a potential contender, signing UFAs and their own players to expensive deals. And then, 2013. After a PDO-induced, James Reimer-fueled winning season resulted in an absolutely brutal playoff loss to Boston capped off by a monumental 3rd period Game 7 collapse, management went bonkers, giving a bazillion dollars to every over-the-hill, gritty player it could find, including Dave Bolland, Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson. As everyone except Toronto management and their boosters in the press predicted, the team failed to make the playoffs in 2013-14. After the season, Brendan Shanahan was brought in, placed the team on the path towards a rebuild, which began in earnest in the 2015 offseason, with the trade of Phill Kessel to Pittsburgh. The team seems fairly well-positioned right now with some fantastic prospects and young NHLers, including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly. Whether they will continue in this path of rationality remains to be seen.
Columbus. Columbus is yet another example of a team that prolonged their rebuild with ill-timed, ill-advised "win-now" trades. In 2007-08, Columbus was a bad team. But they did have a star inRick Nash, added some decent support players in Fedor Tyutin and R.J. Umberger and were developing several emerging talents such as Jakub Voracek, Steve Mason, Nikita Filatov and Derrick Brassard. In 2008-09 they made the playoffs and seemed to be on the rise. However, the team finished 4th worst in the league in 2009-10, which yielded them Ryan Johanson in the draft. After another poor finish in 2010-11, GM Scott Howson pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Voracek, the team's forthcoming 1st and 3rd round picks (the 1st was the 8th overall) for Jeff Carter and spent a ton of money on James Wiznewski. But of course, adding a center to play alongside Rick Nash and a PP specialist defenseman was not enough to turn a lottery team into a contender and only months later, with the trade deadline looming and the Jackets near the NHL basement, the team began shedding assets for futures, trading Jeff Carter and Rick Nash for a pair of first round picks and several players and prospects in two trades and used the second overall pick in the 2012 draft to select Ryan Murray.
That offseason, the team hired John Davidson as hockey ops president, who hired the well-regarded Jarmo Kekalainen as GM. However, his record has been mixed. Some of his moves - trading three roster players -- Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore - to the Rangersfor Marian Gaborik and signing Nathan Horton to a 7 year contract— look bad in retrospect but he has managed to accumulate 6 first round picks in the last three drafts. The team's short and long term outlook isn't great. The team is dead last in the NHL this season - well short of expectations - with little cap space to maneuver. While they appeared to be emerging from the rebuild last season, that no longer appears to be the case.
To Be Determined
Winnipeg. In contrast to Columbus and Toronto, Winnipeg's rebuild has been almost boringly steady, lacking many dramatic trades or UFA signings. The team was actually great in 2006-2007, finishing first in their division with a roster featuring Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. The next season was a disappointment and led to the pre-deadline trade of Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh. That season would be the first of 5 consecutive bottom 10 finishes for the Thrashers/Jets, although there was slow and steady improvement during that period, with the team finishing with 84 points in 2011-12. The team nearly made the playoffs in the 2013 season. Yet unlike some other teams, they did not use that success as a reason to pull off a blockbuster trade or UFA signing. Instead they spent the offseason quietly signing their own players (Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian) to smart, multi-year deals. The team took a step back in the 2013-14 season, missing the playoffs. But the following season, they finished with 99 points and made the playoffs, and pulled off a blockbuster trade sending Evander Kane and Bogosian to Buffalo for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford and a first round pick. This season, the team is barely treading water but the roster is full of young talent and their possession numbers have been solid. However, there is some uncertainty on the horizon with many of their key players looking for big deals this coming offseason. This might be a case of a rebuild that was too slow and steady, with key players pricing themselves off the roster before the team has seen much success.
Florida. Florida was a floundering franchise for most of the first decade of the 2000s. After a second place finish in 1999-00, they failed to make the playoffs the rest of the decade. However, their point total steadily improved throughout the decade and in 2008-09, the team finished with 93 points and narrowly missed a playoff spot. After a terrible 2009-10 season, Dale Tallon was hired and a rebuild seemed to be on. Tallon traded Nathan Horton, Gregory Campbell, and Keith Ballardin the offseason. The fire sale continued during the season, with pre-deadline trades of Bryan Allen, Dennis Wideman, Radek Dvorak, Chris Higgins, Bryan McCabe and Cory Stillman. After another near basement finish, however, Tallon used his cap space during that offseason in a vintage 1980s Steinbrenner-esque shopping spree of around $30 million on nine mainly overpriced, over-the-hill players. While his rebuilt-in-a-day team made the playoffs that season, they quickly sank to the bottom of the NHL in the next two seasons. The team has rebounded since, with the help of a group of very talented young players and Roberto Luongo in goal. While the team missed the playoffs last season and they appear to be well-positioned for a playoff spot this season (albeit with weak advanced numbers) and one would expect this team to continue to improve as their core matures.
Successes (aside from the Islanders)
Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay's rebuild is probably the best of the group. However, it didn't start that way. Tampa Bay was a very successful team for much of the first decade of the 2000s, winning the Stanley Cup in 2003-04. However, the team exited the playoffs in the first round the next two seasons and in 2007-08, the bottom fell out, earning the team the right to pick Steven Stamkos the first overall pick. So rebuild, right? Wrong! Instead, the team's overbearing, meddling ownership group insisted that the team would win the division next season and ended up shelling out so much cash on players (including an 11 year contract to an injured Vinnie LaCavalier) that they were forced to trade the recently extended Dan Boyle for Matt Carle, who in turn was traded just a few months later. GM Jay Feaster resigned citing owner's interference into hockey operations. One of their offseason acquisitions, Radim Vrbata demanded permission to finish his season in the Czech Republic. Barry Melrose was their coach before being fired just a few weeks into the season. It kind of worked though as the team finished 2nd to last in the league allowing them to pick Victor Hedman in the 2009 draft. That June, Gary Bettman had a sit down with ownership regarding the direction of the franchise.
After a poor season 2009-10 season, the team was sold and hired Steve Yzerman as GM, who would turn the franchise around. Yzerman did not drastically remake the team that offseason but added enough new pieces to dramatically improve the team's record in the 2010-11 season. The team finished second in their division (albeit with terrible possession numbers) and advanced to the third round in the playoffs. Although the team would fail to make the playoffs the next two seasons, Yzerman continued to add talent through the draft and smart trades and signings while generally avoiding making stupid decisions. In 2011, Yzerman might have had one of the greatest NHL drafts ever, turning a mere 6 picks (the highest of which was the 27th overall) into four NHL players who are currently on the roster. In 2014, now-retired Martin St. Louis was traded to the Rangers for Ryan Callahan and picks. Cory Conacher, who looked like a potential Calder Trophy winner at the time, was traded for goalie Ben Bishop. Bishop is the team's starting goalie while Conacher is nowhere to be found. By the 2013-14 season, the team returned to the playoffs and made the Stanley Cup finals the following year. This season, the team is on the playoff bubble thus far but seems poised for success for years to come.
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While the discussion above doesn't reveal any rebuild magic beans or even any hard and fast rules, I think it does give rise to some general observations.
Commitment is important
While a navigating a rebuild obviously requires a smart, well-informed front office that can successfully make good decisions regarding player assessment and develop and manage a budget, the most important decision in a rebuild should be easy in theory: recognizing that a rebuild is needed and committing to it. However, financial and other factors make the decision to dismantle a contender and endure years of losing a difficult one to make as a practical matter. As shown above teams regularly either fail to recognize the need for a rebuild or prematurely abandon it due to one successful season. Toronto made both mistakes, which led them to lose important draft picks and devote tons valuable cap space to useless players. Tampa Bay, Florida and Columbus all made versions of this mistake as well. As for the Islanders, Garth Snow should be commended for committing to the rebuild early in the process and sticking to it, however, it should be pointed out that Garth wasn't exactly presented with the array of choices other GMs have. Budget constraints and the unwillingness of UFAs to sign with the team made the kind of rebuild-wrecking shopping sprees some other teams have engaged in impossible. In addition, while Snow by and large remained very committed to the rebuild throughout his tenure, one can look at the Vanek trade as the result of Snow wrongly concluding that 2013's playoff finish meant the rebuild was over and their success was sustainable. The loss of a first round pick was mitigated somewhat by the Griffin Reinhart trade but not having that extra 2015 first rounder is a real cost that can't be ignored.
Luck is important too
While it's hard to call a franchise that snagged three straight first overall picks and a first overall a couple of years later unlucky, if Edmonton had the opportunity to exercise its 2011 and 2012 picks in the 2004-05 or 2007-09 drafts, they may be a Stanley Cup contender right now. With all due respect to Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, neither are franchise-altering talents one comes to expect from the first-overall pick. That's just an extreme example of how much factors well beyond the control of management, such as timing, injuries or the physical and mental development of 18 year old boys, play in the progression of a rebuild.
High draft picks are not enough
Edmonton and Winnipeg's struggles demonstrate another point. While they both patiently followed the rebuild formula of scoring high picks year after year, this plainly has not been sufficient. And this is where more successful rebuilds have distinguished themselves. The Islanders only emerged as a contender after smartly parlaying some of their prospects and picks into Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk and through some shrewd UFA signings. Tampa Bay similarly filled out key pieces of their roster through later round draft picks, the Bishop and St. Louis trades and the Stralman signing. In fact, both Edmonton and Winnipeg probably extracted more raw talent than the Islanders from the last 5 or so NHL drafts. But without being able to successfully swing complementary trades or signings, filling out a full roster is difficult. These kinds of moves are the most challenging for a GM and both Snow and Yzerman really distinguished themselves in this regard.
While rebuilds are hard, maintaining a contender is harder
Of the seven rebuilds discussed, only two appear to be clear successes with Florida being a close third. So clearly, rebuilds are hard. However, as LA Kings GM Dean Lombardi recently told ESPN:
He's the first to admit that maintaining success has presented a new set of challenges he's still figuring out.
"Trying to do that now. Figure it out," Lombardi said. "I wish I could tell you the script. You learn, you can't be too ashamed to know you don't know it all."
One need only look at the bottom half of the NHL standings and count the number of perennial contenders of just a few years ago struggling with an aging roster and limited cap space. Both the Isles and the Lightning are potentially facing key departures over the next couple of years and will be faced with the challenge of figuring out which players to resign and how to replace the production of those who don't.
But for now, lets enjoy it while it lasts.