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How Long Does An NHL Rebuild Take?

As an Edmontonian and a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, I've often wondered how long this current rebuild is going to take. Year after year, fans are assured that things will be different in the upcoming season. Progress will be made. But, if you've cheered for organizations like the Detroit Lions, Kansas City Royals, or Atlanta Hawks, you know that the process of turning a franchise around is not always a quick one. The process can take years and may never even result in anything more than a playoff appearance. Of course, there's a flip-side to these depressing examples. Many, as will be outlined in this series, have gone from the bottom to a championship in only a matter of years. Continue reading 76ers fans. 

With this is mind, we decided to take a look at the four major sports leagues to break-down the length of a rebuild. Granted, not all rebuilds are the same. In fact, some "rebuilds" aren't even really even a rebuild. Some teams, like the San Antonio Spurs of the 90s will only be one year removed from a successful seasons and add a game changer like Tim Duncan. Similarly, some teams, such as the Indianapolis Colts after the Peyton Manning injury in 2012, will only have one missing piece and draft his replacement. So, it should be pointed out at this stage that we're not talking about those franchises. We're talking about the Oakland Raiders' of the world: those which hit rock-bottom and may still be struggling to get out of it. 

To come up with a methodology for this exercise, I decided to look at the draft. As we all know, this is how North American sports leagues maintain parity and reward franchises for their failures. I decided to select those franchises which had top five picks in 3 out of 4 consecutive years, going back to 1999-2000 seasons. I figured one season outside the bottom five, only to return there the following year doesn't really count for a success. It's more likely to be attributed to a lucky one-off. Some exceptions are given for especially poor seasons, like back to back last place finishes, or cases where the team picked sixth/seventh instead of fifth in one of the seasons.

I chose 3 seasons as the cut-off to hopefully eliminate teams that had a strong roster foundation but only a couple missing pieces or were hit hard by injuries one year. A prime example of this would be the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and made the playoffs in the two following NHL seasons before coming in last place in 2007-2008. Adding Steven Stamkos to a roster which already included Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier (both producing close to a point per game at this stage in their careers) isn't a full-on blow up like the franchises included below. Of course, an argument can be made that this is the proper way to rebuild – adding young talent to a roster which already has veteran stars. While a valid case can certainly be made for this, many of the top teams across the four major sports leagues at one point had a group of top picks. For the most part, tanking seems to work.

I'll begin the series by looking at the NHL to answer my original question on the Oilers. MLB, NBA, and NFL to follow shortly.

To start, it's important to distinguish between successful and unsuccessful rebuilds. Some teams are just run poorly and are really in a perpetual rebuild. This is a fundamental flaw in this type of analysis: how do you quantify an unsuccessful rebuild? Is it infinite, 10 years, the amount of time between the first and second “rebuild”? I thought it would be better to just split the two (successful and unsuccessful) into separate buckets. I then wanted to assess the length of time before turning the corner and did so by setting a few milestones: 1) years to make the playoffs, 2) years to reach the conference finals, and 3) years to win a championship.

Successful NHL Rebuilds 

Since 2000, 11 teams have qualified as rebuilds using the criteria outlined above: Carolina, Chicago, Columbus, Edmonton, Florida (twice), Los Angeles, the NY Islanders, Pittsburgh, Washington, and Winnipeg/Atlanta. Out of these 11, I would classify 4 (Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Washington) as being successful, 3 as being failures, 3 as being undetermined, and 1 as ineligible. 

Carolina is the one ineligible team as theirs is a bit of an odd-case. The Hurricanes “rebuild” is very similar to that of the Lightning mentioned above. They made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2001-2002 and followed this with a dismal season and ultimately selected Eric Staal number 2 overall. The following year, they actually came in 11th out of the 15 team Eastern Conference but traded into the top-5 in the draft. They were then awarded a top-5 pick in the 2004-2005 locked out season before winning the Stanley Cup the following year. This isn't really comparable to the other situations. 

Chicago Blackhawks (2004-2007)

The Blackhawks rebuild could really go back much further than this as the team had only made the playoffs once between 1996-97 and 2008-09. But, sticking to the criteria above, 2004 was their first pick inside the top 5 in a series of consecutive years. Dale Tallon was famous for stockpiling picks and made of the most of his first round selections in 2006 (Jonathan Toews) and 2007 (Patrick Kane). Interestingly, the first picks in the other years didn't contribute that much to their turnaround (Cam Barker in 2004, Jack Skille in 2005, and Kyle Beach in 2008). A lot of the important pieces were found in later rounds and through trades.

- Years from start to make the Playoffs: 5*
- Years from start to make the Conference Finals: 5**
- Years from start to win Stanley Cup: 6

*Start is defined as the year of their first top 5 pick in the series of seasons
**Win or Loss

Los Angeles Kings (2007-2009)

The success of the Kings rebuild can really be traced back to the 2005 draft when the team drafted Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Quick. 2007 was the low point for the franchise however with the team finishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings and it started a streak of back-to-back-to-back top five selections. They made the most of their 2008 pick, selecting Drew Doughty at number 2, and have been trending upwards since then. Add in some quality trades and finding depth players via signings and solid drafting, and you've got a team poised to make multiple Cup runs.

- Years from start to make the Playoffs: 3
- Years from start to make the Conference Finals: 5
- Years from start to win Stanley Cup: 5

Pittsburgh Penguins (2002-2006)

Fleury – Malkin – Crosby – Staal. That's three all-stars and four quality NHLers in four consecutive drafts. Add in Ryan Whitney, who was selected 5th in 2002, and subsequently traded to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz, and you can see why the Penguins are perennial Cup contenders.

- Years from start to make the Playoffs: 5
- Years from start to make the Conference Finals: 6
- Years from start to win Stanley Cup: 7 

Washington Capitals (2004-2007)

The Caps rebuild isn't really on the same level as the others listed above; at least not in terms of wins and longevity. The Caps have yet to make the Stanley Cup or Eastern Conference Finals, and are no doubt trending in the wrong direction at the moment. That being said if you're a fan of the Oilers, Islanders, or Panthers you'd take six consecutive playoff appearances. At this point, you'd probably take a winning season.

- Years from start to make the Playoffs: 4
- Years from start to make the Conference Finals: n/a
- Years from start to win Stanley Cup: n/a 

Best of the Best: Maybe I'm being persuaded by the recent Stanley Cup win, but I'm going with Los Angeles here. Unlike the Penguins, the Kings didn't get the luxury of drafting a generational talent like Sidney Crosby. A case could certainly be made for the Blackhawks but I'm giving the edge to the Kings as their stay at the bottom of the standings wasn't quite as long as that of the Blackhawks.

Unsuccessful NHL Rebuilds

The Columbus Blue Jackets (2000-2003), Florida Panthers (2001-2003), and the Atlanta Thrashers (2000-2002) fall into this category. While the Blue Jackets and Thrashers were more in a “building” their teams from scratch phase, I didn't rule them out as other expansion teams around that time fared much better. The Wild made the playoffs three of their first seven NHL seasons and the Predators made the playoffs seven times in an eight year span. No such success for the Blue Jackets (8 years before making the playoffs) or Thrashers (6 years before making playoffs). I've highlighted this below by comparing the winning percentages of the expansion partners:

Predators vs. Thrashers:

Blue Jackets vs. Wild:

Worst of the Worst
: The Panthers have to be considered the worst of the bunch. Not only did this team miss the playoffs from 2000 to 2012, but their 2012 season seems to be a bit of a fluke and the franchise is in the midst of another rebuild. They also had a 5+ year head start on the other expansion franchises making them a pretty clear example of how not to build a team.

To Be Determined

The teams that currently fit the criteria of 3 out of 4 years with top 5 picks are the Edmonton Oilers (2010 start), the Florida Panthers (2010 start), and the NY Islanders (2009 start). I think it's also safe to say that Buffalo's current rebuild will fall into this category at some point.

A commonality in the success examples above is that each team made the playoffs within 5 years from their first top 5 pick (average: 4.25 years). While it's not a huge sample, it's a decent measuring stick. There also seems to be another cut-off at around that 6 year mark for making the Conference Finals. If the team doesn't take that next step by then, they might plateau or see a bit of a regression.

Inkpen -1

Going back to my original thought on the Oilers, the most similar example might be the Quebec Nordiques of the late '80s/early '90s – the last team to have three first overall selections in a row. The Nordiques followed a similar pattern to the teams listed above: 5 years from their first top-five pick to make the playoffs and 8 years to win the Stanley Cup (as the Colorado Avalanche of course). So, I don't think there's any need to press the panic button on the Oilers just yet. That being said, I have a hard time seeing the 2014-15 version of the team, their fifth since their first top 5 pick, making the playoffs. Maybe I have my hometown blinders on, but I'd give them until the 2015-16 season before saying their rebuild is more like the Panthers' than the Blackhawks'.

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