How do you build a winner in the NHL?
Or, more specifically, how do you rebuild one? How do you take a team that has fallen out of contention today and doesn’t have the assets to win tomorrow, and reshape it into a perennial contender?
There are plenty of approaches, but one stands out as the most common: You lose. You lose badly, lose often, finish last, and collect high draft picks. Then you draft elite talent and watch it grow into a strong core, eventually supplementing those young stars with veterans and depth guys. And then you win, and win a lot, and everyone forgets about the miserable years that came before. Call it tanking or call it patience. Part of the plan is that you never admit you’re following a plan, but every fan knows it when they see it.
It sounds so simple, and for some teams, it is. The Penguins used the approach to win a Cup. The Blackhawks won two. Of course, teams like the Panthers and Islanders haven’t had as much luck. Nobody said it was foolproof. And not everyone approves.1 But you can’t argue with success, and a look back at the last decade of Cup winners shows that the plan often works.2
Today, various NHL teams are in different stages of the plan, but two stand out as the archetypal examples: the Edmonton Oilers and the Colorado Avalanche. The two teams have followed remarkably similar roads. And yet, somehow, the destinations they’ve arrived at this year couldn’t be more different.
Both the Oilers and Avs had spent much of their recent history finishing near the bottom of the league. Both had used the high draft picks earned in those lost seasons to assemble a roster packed with can’t-miss forwards. Both brought in a former player from the franchise’s past to make player personnel decisions. And both made a change behind the bench during the offseason, hiring a candidate without NHL coaching experience.
The Avalanche are the NHL’s breakthrough story of the season, sitting at 14-3-0 for 28 points and first place in the Central. Even for the most optimistic Colorado homer, their success this year borders on the unimaginable. They have the league’s best goal differential and have allowed the fewest goals.3 They’ve already had a pair of six-game win streaks. They’re dominating.
And then there are the Oilers. Their season has been a disaster, with a 4-14-2 record that has left them last in the Western Conference. They’ve given up more goals than any other team by a mile,4 have won only once at home, and are already 14 points out of a playoff spot. We’re not even halfway through November, and the Oilers are done.
How could this happen? Let’s look through five critical factors in any rebuild, and see what we can learn from the Oilers and Avalanche.
This has been the big one so far, so we might as well cover it first. Put simply, the Avalanche’s goaltending has been excellent, while the Oilers’ has been awful.
Starter Semyon Varlamov has put up a 2.01 goals-against average and .936 save percentage through 12 games for Colorado. Those numbers are excellent, and backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been even better — in five starts, he has a 1.00 GAA and .970 save percentage. Together, the two have given Colorado the league’s best save percentage. In fact, the Avalanche’s save percentage of .944 is 11 points better than last year’s shortened-season leader, Ottawa, and 14 points ahead of the 2010-11 Bruins, which stands as the best mark over a full season this century.5
Now go back to that save percentage list and scroll down. Keep going. All the way down to the bottom, where you’ll find the Oilers. Starter Devan Dubnyk began the season with an awful four games, appeared to rebound briefly, and has since settled into a stretch that could charitably be called disappointing.6 Backups Jason LaBarbera and Richard Bachman haven’t been much better. The situation is so desperate that the Oilers recently signed exiled head case Ilya Bryzgalov, essentially giving away useful defenseman Ladislav Smid in the process to clear financial room.
Dubnyk was a 2004 first-round pick who’s been brought along slowly. Bachman and LaBarbera were cheap free-agent additions this summer, and Bryzgalov’s deal was reasonably inexpensive. All told, the Oilers could carry all four goalies on the NHL roster for a cap hit of just $7.5 million, or slightly more than top guys like Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask make on their own.
So maybe there’s your answer: The Oilers tried to go cheap on goaltending, and it burned them. That makes for a nice, tidy narrative, but it doesn’t quite work, because the Avalanche went even cheaper — they’re spending just more than $4 million on Varlamov and Giguere, both of whom are on the final years of their deals.
Then again, “cheap” can mean different things. The Oilers got all four of their goalies without directly giving up any assets beyond cap space and the pick they used on Dubnyk. The Avalanche acquired Varlamov’s rights from the Capitals in an aggressive move during the 2011 offseason, giving up their 2012 first-round pick plus a second-rounder. Plenty of people hated the deal at the time, and it ended up costing them the 11th overall pick,7 but it looks good now.
Let’s make that our first lesson: Goaltending is critical, and you can’t be afraid to spend assets to go out and get it.
High Draft Picks
Each team’s core features three players who were picked in the top three overall, as well as several other key players who were high picks.
The Oilers had the first-overall pick for three straight years between 2010 and 2012, and came away with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov. They’ve also had three other recent top 10 choices: Sam Gagner, their second-line center, at no. 6 in 2007; Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, who never panned out in Edmonton and was traded to the Blues for David Perron this summer, at no. 10 in 2009; and Darnell Nurse, who was sent back to junior after training camp, at no. 7 this year. They also have Jordan Eberle, who was the 22nd pick in 2008.
The Avalanche have spread out their top picks, taking Matt Duchene at no. 3 in 2009, Gabriel Landeskog at no. 2 in 2011, and Nathan MacKinnon at no. 1 this year. Those are the only recent top 10 picks they’ve had, though they did get Duncan Siemens with the 11th pick in 2011.8
Which Big Three would you rather have? Duchene and Hall are the best players right now, which you’d expect given that they’re the oldest of the bunch. Hall had a breakout season last year9 and has been good so far this year when he’s been healthy, while Duchene is tied for fourth in the NHL in goal scoring. For now, it’s close to a wash.
Landeskog and Nugent-Hopkins may be a wash, too, though that’s a tougher comparison because of the roles they play. Nugent-Hopkins is a playmaking center, while Landeskog plays more of a two-way role and provides leadership.10 They’ve put up similar numbers this year, though Nugent-Hopkins’s minus-13 rating is a concern if you pay attention to plus/minus.11
That leaves MacKinnon and Yakupov, and here’s where the fun starts. MacKinnon has been fine for a rookie, chipping in offensively and generally staying in the background. Yakupov, on the other hand, has been a lightning rod. When he scores, he celebrates wrong. When he doesn’t score, he’s a bust.12 And now his agent seems to be agitating for a trade. It’s fair to say that Act 1 of the Nail Yakupov era is not going well.
All that said, I’m not sure there’s much of a gap between the team’s top-end draft picks. But there’s one young star we haven’t mentioned yet: 22-year-old Ryan O’Reilly. He’s a strong two-way playmaker who was the Avalanche’s second-round pick in the 2009 draft. Meanwhile, the Oilers haven’t hit on an impact player outside the first round in years.13
O’Reilly doesn’t tip the scales all that far toward the Avalanche, since if we’re counting him then we should count Eberle, too. But he can still teach us our second lesson: It’s not enough to hit on your first-round picks. Eventually, you’ll need to get lucky on a later-round pick or two.
But What About the Blue Line?
You may have noticed that in that last section, we only mentioned two defensemen — Nurse and Siemens, neither of whom has played an NHL game. When it comes to building their current rosters through the draft, both the Oilers and Avalanche have focused on forwards.
That includes two cases where the conventional wisdom said otherwise. In 2012, the Oilers could have passed on Yakupov and gone with highly regarded defenseman Ryan Murray. Since they already had Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, many argued it would make more sense to take a blueliner. The Avalanche faced a similar dilemma last year when they had to choose between MacKinnon and Seth Jones, who was the draft’s top-ranked prospect.14
In both cases, the teams went for the forward, and in both cases they were second-guessed heavily. But history says they probably made the right move. Forwards peak earlier, which means they’re easier to project as 18-year-olds. Every team wants a stud defenseman, and GMs look like geniuses when they find one, but they’re a much riskier pick, even at the top of the draft. Playing it safe by using a high pick on a comparable forward seems like a wise strategy.
Which is all well and good, but you still need to build a blue line, and Edmonton and Colorado went into the season without a clear-cut top-pairing workhorse. If anything, the Oilers looked to be in better shape, with promising young pieces like Justin Schultz and Jeff Petry supplemented by veteran free-agent signing Andrew Ference, while the Avalanche left everyone wondering when they’d finally make a move to address the position.
How’s that all worked out so far? Well, we’ve already covered where these teams rank in terms of goals against. The Avalanche have been shutting teams down, and they’ve done it without even having a true breakout performer.15 They’ve just been a solid unit top to bottom. Meanwhile, the Oilers have had some reasonable individual performances, but the group as a whole has been a mess.
The lesson here? It’s probably that defense is important, but goaltending can make an average blue line look stellar — or awful.
Of course, preventing goals isn’t just about blue-line talent and goaltending. There’s another important piece …
If you were a cynical type,16 here’s how you may have described the coaching hires made by these two teams: The Avalanche went out and hired a guy who’d sell tickets, while the Oilers went out and hired a guy who’d win games.
After all, Patrick Roy may be a legend in Colorado, but he’d never coached a minute at the pro level. His success in junior notwithstanding, it was hard to imagine he was the best candidate available. And given that he was hired by Joe Sakic, another Avalanche legend who’d just recently been appointed VP of hockey operations, it felt like a move meant more to rekindle old glories than to produce many new ones.
Dallas Eakins, meanwhile, had just spent four successful years with the Maple Leafs’ AHL team, and was arguably the most sought-after new coach in the league. He seemed like a perfect fit for a young team ready to finally make the leap.
What happened? On Roy’s side, the Avs seems to have responded to his intensity,18 and he’s been emphasizing a faster pace while replacing the team’s zone-based defensive approach with a man-to-man system. And, of course, he’s had excellent goaltending. That helps.
Eakins is a more interesting case. For a rookie NHL coach, he’s not afraid to do things differently. He lets his assistants handle the morning skate, and his near-obsessive emphasis on conditioning extends all the way to the media. He also brought a new defensive system that came to be known as “the swarm,” attacking the puck aggressively in the defensive end without as much emphasis on strict defensive positioning.
That sounds nice in theory, and Eakins made it work in the AHL. In Edmonton, it was a disaster, with the young Oilers often caught well out of position while their wide-open opponents waited patiently in scoring areas. Eakins is now in the process of abandoning the system.
He also tried to send a message of accountability to players, scratching everyone from Yakupov to grizzled veteran Ryan Smyth. When you win, that sort of thing plays great with fans and media. When you lose, you look desperate. It’s fair to say Eakins has spent most of the season looking desperate.
It’s dangerous to judge players based on a few weeks of one season; it’s ludicrous to do it for coaches. Eakins is a smart guy, and I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t go on to a long and successful NHL coaching career. If there’s a lesson here, it may be one about the risk of overreaching with new approaches. Or maybe it’s just one we already knew: Any coach looks smart with excellent goaltending.
Anyway, we said we’d try to find five lessons, but I guess we only found four. Still, that’s pretty good, and I think we’ve definitively proven why the Avalanche have been so much better.
We cool, Colorado fans? Awesome. Go ahead and close your browser tab. We’ll see you tomorrow for the grab bag.
Are they gone?
OK, everyone else follow me to the next section.
Here’s the deal: While the Avalanche are clearly a much better team than most of us expected them to be, there’s also strong evidence their success has been heavily influenced by good luck that should even out.
Let’s start with that remarkable goaltending. To put it bluntly, it’s completely unsustainable. Unless you believe that the Avalanche will put up the best season of goaltending this era has seen (by far), their overall save percentage is going to drop, and probably drop sharply.19
So while the Avalanche goalies may still end up being very good, they can’t possibly be this good.20 And chances are, neither can their shooters — the team’s 11.2 shooting percentage21 is also on the high side, ranking second in the NHL.
As you’d expect, this has all left the Avalanche with a sky-high PDO22 of 1063, which leads the league by 10 points. Meanwhile, their Fenwick percentage23 ranks in the league’s bottom half, which is not what you’d expect to see from a legitimate top-tier team.
Scoff at those kind of advanced stats if you want,24 but the Avalanche have had good luck by other measures too. They’ve been relatively healthy so far, and they’ve had a middle-of-the-pack schedule that was heavy on home games.
None of this means the Avalanche aren’t a good team, or that all their success has been due to good luck. Just some of it. The question is how much, and how far back to earth they’ll fall. They’ve already banked enough points to be a playoff team if they can play even slightly better than .500 the rest of the way. But continue to contend for a division title? It’s just not likely.
This is the part where Edmonton fans are hoping I say their struggles have been caused by bad luck. Well … sort of. The Oilers have certainly fallen on the unlucky side of things this year, with a PDO of 967 (largely due to the terrible goaltending). They’ve also had a tougher time with injuries, losing key players like Gagner and Hall for significant stretches, and played a road-heavy schedule.
But the Oilers’ Corsi and Fenwick percentage ranks near the bottom of the league, indicating they’re being legitimately outplayed most nights. And they’ve had a relatively easy schedule, playing most of their games against the vastly inferior Eastern Conference opponents that everyone else in the West is beating up on.
The Oilers’ luck will improve. But again, they’re already 14 points out. It’s too late.
So What Have We Learned?
If you’re the GM of a team that’s about to embark on a rebuild, it’s not enough to just lose a lot and then cash in your premium draft picks. You also need to:
• make sure you have a goalie (or two) that you trust
• draft elite forwards, including some in the later rounds
• figure out a way to build a solid blue line
• hire the right coach
• and, maybe most importantly of all, be really, really lucky.
Easy enough, right?