One of the most common conversation topics around roster construction in any sport currently centers around tanking. The common line of thought is that if you aren’t immediately contending for a championship or already into the upswing of your rebuild, then your only course of action is to tank for a high draft pick. Even though that’s the accepted line of thinking now, it doesn’t answer whether tanking actually works. That answer could differ depending on the sport, but in this series we’ll examine the NHL.
We’ll take a look at some of the teams that have tanked in later portions of this series, but to start I wanted to examine the teams that have been successful. In this article, I’ll look for trends among all Stanley Cup champions since 2009 and examine if they could be considered to have tanked along the way. I’ll also highlight key things anyone would take away in order to be successful in any type of rebuild.
To start, I’ve put together figures examining these cup champions in the years leading up to their championship. In the cases of Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I only examined the years leading up to their first championship.
Figure 1 – Place in Standings
There are two interesting trends to be found in tracking the place in the final standings:
1.) The first four champions all were in a rebuilding phase leading up to their championship windows; they then require examination of if that was tanking and how they were successful.
2.) The two most recent champions were very successful in the years leading up to finally breaking through: is that an anomaly, or the sign of successful roster construct changing?
Tracking the success over time using two other metrics (Points and Points Above/Below the Playoff Line) tells a similar story.
Figure 2 – Points
Figure 3 – Points Above Playoff Line
Given those trends and statistics, the next step is to look at how these teams became successful.
Stanley Cups – 2009, 2016, 2017
Without much question, the most successful franchise since the lost 2004-05 season has been the Pittsburgh Penguins, so they're the team will examine in the most detail.
One key to their success, likely the biggest, has been that they were able to draft Sidney Crosby in the 2005 draft and have had the best player in the world for most of the time since. That would be a huge point in favor of tanking, but what else has helped Pittsburgh to be successful?
1.) First, I would argue that the Penguins weren’t tanking in the 2003-04 season, they were rebuilding. The difference in my mind is that most teams that tank try to do so quickly – they offload assets in a hurry in order to be bad for one or two seasons in order to have a greater chance at their prized pick. The Penguins weren’t that – they were just a bad team for years prior to drafting Sidney Crosby. Whether intentional or not, they were part of a long rebuild and not trying to quickly turnaround with a “tank”.
The Penguins benefitted from that approach in two ways. First, they had been building assets along the way instead of needing to start from scratch once they had Crosby. Key parts of the Stanley Cup winning 2009 team were already in the system prior to the 2004-05 lockout, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik, Max Talbot, Alex Goligoski, and Ryan Whitney.
Pittsburgh was also aided by the structure of the 2005 draft lottery – the fact that they had missed the playoffs for the prior three seasons was part of what gave them a higher probability for the first overall pick of the 2005 draft. The other portion of that factors into the next point.
2.) One other odd thing about the Pittsburgh rebuild is that their poor performance in 2003-04 benefitted them for more than one year; this is one point that does not help to identify trends for other teams looking to rebuild. They lost the 2004 lottery, but were still able to draft Evgeni Malkin who would have been the number one pick in most years. Malkin wasn’t able to leave Russia yet anyway, but if he had been and the 2004-05 season was played, Pittsburgh may not have been in position to draft Crosby.
It’s tempting to think about how Pittsburgh could have been even better if they had been able to draft Alex Ovechkin, but this may actually be another area where there was some luck involved for Pittsburgh. The other factor involved in determining draft odds was winning the draft lottery over the prior four seasons. It’s not possible to know if Pittsburgh would have won the Crosby lottery with one of their other two balls, but their odds improved without having Ovechkin. (It’s worth noting that Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t count against Pittsburgh because that draft pick originally belonged to Florida).
3.) The lockout year had another impact that aided Pittsburgh’s rebuild – the style of the NHL was much different coming out of the lockout than it had been before. Multiple teams who had struggled previously were now better suited for the style of new NHL; in fact, we’ll see that one trend that can benefit teams is in looking for a playing style that is a market inefficiency. In the case of teams coming out of the lockout, this was teams who had adopted a more skilled and fast-paced style such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
4.) The biggest struggle that teams have after tanking is that they don’t have enough organizational depth to surround their new star; this is especially true since it’s rare for the unrestricted free agent market to be an efficient way to build depth. For Pittsburgh, they were aided in this fact by Evgeni Malkin having to stay in Russia for an additional year. This allowed Pittsburgh to gain one more high-draft pick, Jordan Staal, who was a very effective depth piece behind Pittsburgh’s stars.
5.) In relation to the point above, if a team is rebuilding it’s important that they hit on their draft picks in the years leading up to drafting their star. I already mentioned a lot of those names that were already in the system previously, but it’s an especially important point. When you compare Pittsburgh against teams like Buffalo and Edmonton that have struggled despite having a star player, one of the differentiating factors is draft picks from the surrounding years not living up to expectations.
6.) The other factor that separates all of the teams in this list from those that have struggled is goaltending; especially in the playoffs, a team can’t get by without having at least above average goaltending. Pittsburgh initially drafting Marc-Andre Fleury helped get to a championship in 2009, and it’s no coincidence that they reached their goals again while Matt Murray was performing extremely well.
Examining Pittsburgh gives us a starting point; with other teams we’ll look at which items they have in common and what other attributes they might show.
Stanley Cup - 2018
Presidents’ Trophy – 2010, 2016, 2017
Washington is linked with Pittsburgh because of Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby entering the NHL at the same time. So which items are similar and different from Pittsburgh?
1.) Unlike Pittsburgh, you can make a strong argument that Washington did choose to make a quick decision to tank. They went into the 2003-04 season intending to contend, but then traded away most of their stars after struggling early in the year. This allowed them to have the third-worst record in the league and then draft Ovechkin; however, it’s worth noting that they didn’t finally get a Stanley Cup win until they had built much more depth offensively.
2.) The quick tank did also result in Washington still being poor in 2005-06 despite Ovechkin starring. Washington benefited in that they certainly hit on the high draft pick they received because of that – other than Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom has been the most important member of the team in their current run of success.
3.) Washington became a great regular season team after the lockout largely through their offensive success, especially having a mobile and offensively focused defense. Similar to Pittsburgh, this benefited from a style that had not been valued prior to the lockout.
The Capitals also seemed to exploit another inefficiency when they won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Seeing that the NHL was becoming smaller and quicker, the Capitals build a team with much more size than many of the teams they would see in the playoffs. This is another good example of benefiting by finding a market inefficiency.
4.) The Capitals hit on picks surrounding the drafting of Ovechkin – Alexander Semin was already on the team prior to the lockout, and the Capitals drafted Backstrom, Mike Green, Semyon Varlomov, Michal Neuvirth, and others. That has continued over time, despite not having many high draft picks the Capitals have been efficient at finding NHL-quality players.
While their record in trades has been more mixed, the TJ Oshie acquisition was also important. This continued to build scoring depth that was vital to getting over the hump.
5.) The other thing that differentiated the Stanley Cup winning Capitals from some of their other seasons was strong goaltending – the Capitals had strong goaltenders over time, but Holtby’s performance in the playoffs was much stronger than in those prior years.
The other Stanley Cup Winners since 2009
Chicago Stanley Cups – 2010, 2013, 2015
Los Angeles Stanley Cups – 2012, 2014
Boston Stanley Cup - 2011
St. Louis Stanley Cup – 2019
1.) Did any of these teams perform an actual tank for their stars?
In my opinion, none of these teams performed what we would consider a tank. The closest would be the Blackhawks; they’re also the only other team on this list with a number one overall pick. However, they were more similar to Pittsburgh – a team that was involuntarily bad for multiple years. That also allowed Chicago to build some of the depth that tanking teams lack; they drafted Jonathan Toews the year prior to Patrick Kane, and the team coming out of the lockout already had Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson was already in the system.
2.) All of these teams found systems that benefited them compared to the rest of the league. Chicago was similar to Pittsburgh and Washington in building impressive offensive depth, those they also had strong two-way play. Boston and Los Angeles each had offensive talent, but were largely built on limiting the offense of the high-scoring teams around the league. Meanwhile, St. Louis continued the trend of the 2018 Capitals in performing well in the playoffs with a team that was larger than most others.
3.) Each of these teams built depth by hitting on draft picks surrounding their star players, and often by finding their stars lower in the draft. Boston’s highest pick was Tyler Seguin at 2ndoverall, but drafted Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron in the 2ndround, and Brad Marchand and David Krejci in the 3rd. The Kings drafted Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown in the middle of the first round and Jonathan Quick in the 3rd, then built more depth through trades that benefitted the team. We’ve already covered the depth of Chicago, and St. Louis drafted well despite being consistently at the top of the league (including Vladimir Tarasenko at 16th).
4.) All of these teams had strong goaltending in their playoff runs. Tim Thomas and Jonathan Quick won Conn Smythe trophies, Jordan Binnington was a star for St. Louis, and Chicago got good to great goaltending from Corey Crawford, Scott Darling, and Antti Niemi in their Stanley Cup years. All of these teams show that it’s almost impossible to win a Stanley Cup without a strong goalie.
Lessons for Rebuilding Teams
Based on examining these teams, there are a few lessons for teams in their rebuild and determining whether to tank:
-Be patient and build depth – All of these teams benefitted from having impressive depth, and the Capitals showed that it’s hard to achieve playoff success without that even if you do have high-end talent.
-Find a team-style that benefits your talent and exploits inefficiencies – As we’ll see when examining metrics in many sports, the best thing a team can do is find the players that other teams are undervaluing.
-Find your goalie – No player can have as much impact in the playoffs as a strong goalie; they can also be the player that prevents a team from tanking, so teams often don’t have a strong one if they go that route. It’s no surprise, but it’s incredibly important that a team find their goalie during a rebuild.