The Colorado Avalanche just completed going from worst to first and winning the Stanley Cup in a mere five seasons. While it has been an incredible turnaround filled with smart signings, trades and savvy extensions to their top draft picks, the rebuild did not start five years ago.
It’s always difficult to pinpoint when exactly a rebuild is starting because so many teams are loath to admit it, but in the nine seasons between 2008 and 2017, the Avalanche made the playoffs twice.
In that time, they drafted Matt Duchene third overall (2009), Gabriel Landeskog second (2011), Nathan MacKinnon first (2013), Mikko Rantanen 10th (2015) and depending on how you want to count it, Cale Makar fourth (2017). That core grew and developed together, ultimately winning a Stanley Cup. Even the one member listed there that was traded — Duchene — netted them a return that included Sam Girard and Bowen Byram.
This isn’t to take anything away from the Avalanche’s rags-to-riches story. Rather, it is to highlight how long these rebuilds really take.
While drafting a superstar can and does make your franchise significantly better, it does not have the same effect in hockey as it would in, say, basketball or football.
As a start, let’s consider the 21 first-overall picks between 1995 and 2015, as they have generally had enough time in their careers to properly discuss them.
The first thing to note is that six teams drafted first overall more than once in that period — it’s not as simple as drafting first overall and then building around just one player. In total, just 13 teams drafted first overall through those 20 years. And it could have been less had the Florida Panthers not traded their top selection (more than once, I might add).
Consider that after drafting first overall, franchises missed the playoffs an average of 2.5 seasons following their selection. A few of those teams that were able to escape the purgatory shortly after were bad for so long that by the time they did finally select first overall, they already had a foundation coming along through the draft — such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Ottawa Senators in the mid-90s and the aforementioned Avalanche.
At the same time, among that group of 21 first-overall picks, eight have now won the Stanley Cup at least once. Draft first overall in that time period and have a near 40 percent chance of winning the Cup afterward? Who wouldn’t sign up for that?
The value of drafting high cannot be overstated — it’s going to take you some time to build from there, but having a potential superstar that is going to have a 10+ year career increases your odds of everything clicking at some point for your franchise. From 1997 - 2008, Hockey Answered found that:
“The average NHL player plays on average 4.5 years. However, when looking at the data in detail, the top 25 percent of players played an average of 12 years, whereas the bottom 75 percent played an average of two years.”
The Hockey Answered research also showed that, “from 2004 to 2014, 49.1 percent of players who were drafted played at least one game in the NHL,” and that, “Players taken in an NHL entry draft are typically three to four years out from playing their first game, and that is when the bulk of them will get their first taste of NHL action.”
At the risk of oversimplifying things, we can generally count on Cup winners and contenders having three strong lines and a strong top four defense group, along with a quality goalie. That’s 14 players of note. A top pick helps you account for one of those. And when you look at the entirety of a draft class beyond that, you’re looking at three to four years to bear additional fruit. So even if you knock it out of the park at the draft, it’s going to take five-plus years to see it out — three years for additional players to make the league, and a few more for them to develop (and even then, they’ll likely need more time than that).
So when we watch a Colorado vs. Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final, it’s noteworthy that both teams drafted first overall, or close to it, nine and 14 years ago, respectively — and as we know, Tampa’s run started earlier than this year.
All of that is to say with the draft ahead of us, when we look at these cycles of how bad teams ascend in the standings, you’re looking at a three-to-five year process just to set the foundation, followed by however many years it takes to develop.
Even when we look at the perceived faster ascensions, it’s not really as quick as it seems. Sidney Crosby only missed the playoffs in his rookie season in 2005-06, but here is Pittsburgh’s draft history surrounding that time period:
First round selection
Of course, a little luck also helps. Pittsburgh benefited from stacked draft classes. Not only did the Penguins get to select Sidney Crosby first overall, but Evgeni Malkin is one of the best second-overall draft picks of all-time. Some years simply feature better draft classes than others.
Considering how long it takes for this type of cycle to play out, that’s why you can’t ever draft for need, and when the draft occurs and we hear about about loose connections of slotting a player in a roster or having certain linemates, we are generally far away from that happening unless it’s a top-five pick stepping right into the lineup.
So moving a draft pick can suddenly be appealing even if you are technically rebuilding. That’s why a team like New Jersey supposedly shopping the second overall draft pick in this year’s class makes some sense.
Teams want to stay the course, collect draft picks, and create their core. Unless you are lucky enough to knock multiple picks out of the park in successive years, it’s not nearly a good enough plan. You need to win some trades, you need to get some wins in free agency and you need to develop players. And these wins can’t just be players that help round out your roster, they have to be core players that slot in at the top of your lineup.
Tanking and drafting high remains the best way to acquire elite players in the league. That’s true of every sport with a draft. But if you’re going to build through the draft, it’s going to take a long time.
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