How Often Does Rebuilding Work?

Updated: January 10, 2018 at 7:09 pm by Scott Reynolds

Photo by Elliot via Wikimedia Commons

At about the half-way mark of the 2009-10 season, you could see the writing on the wall for the Edmonton Oilers. They were going to finish dead last, and the verbal from the organization suggested that what happened by accident that season was about to happen by design in the season that followed. The Oilers aren’t, of course, the only team to have used tanking as a strategy for ultimate success, and so I decided to find out how successful other teams were over the long term while using that strategy. Three seasons have come and gone since that time, so now seems like a good time to check in on how these clubs have improved.

In order to do this, some parameters need to be set. The most important one is in deciding what to call a rebuild. I began tha process by thinking about the shape of the league, which has changed significantly over the last few decades. In the 1980s, there were just five teams who missed the playoffs, so there’s no point in tanking. Either your club makes the playoffs, or they try and fail, but you get a top-five pick. Now fourteen teams make the playoffs, and being consistently at the top of that group is a horrendous outcome, which provides mediocre (and bad) teams an incentive to lose. As such, I decided to look only at teams who began rebuilding in 1991 or later (which just misses the Quebec Nordiques).

So how do you know when someone is tanking? I decided that any team with two top five selections in two different seasons over a three-season sample must be. That makes the first year of the rebuilding phase the first year the club has a top-five pick.  On the other side, I decided that a team wasn’t really out just because they made the playoffs once, and that you can only really see them fully coming out in hindsight. Thus, I required two consecutive seasons where the team in question goes without a top-ten pick, choosing the first of those two seasons as the beginning of the post-build period.

Finally, the main point of this little exercise is to determine which teams have been successful, and that means defining success. The ultimate goal of every team is to win the Stanley Cup, but there’s a lot of luck involved in that. Still, playoff success matters, and so I think a minimum of one appearance in the Conference Finals is a good criterion. But rebuilding successfully also requires sustain, so I decided that, in order to be successful, teams would need to make the playoffs for at least as many seasons as they spent rebuilding. Finally, I closed the “post-build” period after the team in question missed the playoffs twice (whether in consecutive seasons or not).

Here are the results:

A couple of quick notes to help with interpretation:

  • The “+” symbol means that the team is still in the post-build period. In the last few seasons, the criteria I’m using has cut that period shorter than it should have for St. Louis and Carolina, but I’d rather note that this is the case than play with the criteria.
  • Chicago and San Jose have both missed the playoffs once in the post-build period, but the other teams have made the playoffs each season since ending their rebuilding period.
  • A first overall pick is also a top-five and a top-ten, so it gets counted in all three categories.
  • I counted draft picks at the time the regular season ended instead of at the draft itself. If Columbus, for example, uses their 8th overall pick in a trade, they still get marked down as having had a top-ten pick. Toronto, on the other hand, never actually had a 2nd overall pick before they traded the rights to it away, which is why they aren’t on this list.

Of the 19 rebuilds that are finished, 11 of them took between three and five seasons, and none of the teams who took more or less time than that were able to meet both of the criteria I’m using for success. Of the teams on the bubble now, I think that Atlanta Winnipeg, and Long Island Brooklyn will have a hard time meeting both criteria with the talent they’ve got assembled now.

Even with those teams looking less promising, the post-lockout rebuilds seem to be doing better as a whole. Of the ten rebuilds that ended before the lockout, just two managed to make it past four playoff seasons in the post-build period. Of the nine completed after the lockout, we should see more than that (Pittsburgh and Washington are there, Chicago and L.A. should make it, and Phoenix could still join them).

Columbus is pretty clearly a gong-show — they’ve been rebuilding perpetually for their entire existence, and it sounds like they’re “starting” again. Yikes. Their mirror image, San Jose, has been remarkably successful with 12 playoff appearances in the last 13 seasons, and a strong core of players there to this day. They’re also a poster-child for having a great team that just hasn’t been able to win a Stanley Cup.

The overall results should serve to caution fans in rebuilding cities. You might end up with the sustained success of San Jose, but you could also end up with the sustained something else of Columbus. Just 12 of 19 completed builds have met at least one of the criteria I laid out for success, and just 5-7 will meet both of them. Tanking is easy, but using the fruits of that tanking to create sustained success isn’t.

Previously by Scott Reynolds