Teams like Edmonton and Toronto are all the rage these days, with both franchises on the cusp of ending 82-game season playoff droughts that are over a decade long. Finally, these once dysfunctional franchises are finding their way through rebuilds done right.
But not every team is so lucky (or apt). Yes, in this very league, at this very moment, there are teams across North America failing to find their stride. Let’s take a look at three teams trying to be good and young, that are actually just young and ugly.
The Sabres are in the fifth season of a rebuild that’s seeing them awkwardly rise from the ashes. They’ve got all the pieces in place for a star group of forwards headlined by Jack Eichel. They’ve got a great goalie in his prime right now in Robin Lehner. But you need a good defense to go far, and you need a star defenseman to win it all. The Sabres have neither.
What do you get when you pluck one or two of Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian, Dmitri Kulikov, and Josh Gorges and put them on your defense? A potentially useful blueline. What do you get when you take all of these players, and built your entire back-end around them? A lottery team.
The Sabres defense is badly broken, and they need to make big changes. Their ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but that won’t happen unless they find both someone to anchor their blueline as well as a better supporting cast to put around that player. Since neither is easy to get, the Sabres are now in a position where they’ll need to look at moving one of their good forwards, such as Evander Kane, to get where they need to go.
The Hurricanes have the opposite problem of Buffalo. It’s been impressive watching them rack up good young defenseman after good young defenseman for the last several years. Right now they’ve got Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Haydn Fleury, Ryan Murphy, Jacob Slavin, and Jake Bean all combining to make a deep (and mobile) organizational blueline.
But the forward group is really barren.
Just like you need a #1 defenseman to win the Cup, you also need a #1 center (not to mention a really good winger to boot, and a lot of depth). The Hurricanes just don’t have that. Players like Elias Lindholm and Victor Rask are good, but you don’t want to build your forward group around them. Now the Hurricanes will need to trade some of their defensemen to try and consolidate the forward group. The biggest problem for them now is the sheer rarity of elite forwards becoming available via trade.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
This one is a little tough to judge since the rebuild is still young. It’s also tough to judge since I’m not even sure the Devils are actually trying to do a full rebuild.
They’ve gotten some good talent since Ray Shero took over. Michael McLeod and Pavel Zacha are two good young centers that have a good chance at being NHL regulars in at least some capacity. And they traded for Taylor Hall, who’s an elite winger in the league.
But front-end talent is a huge issue for the Devils. Guys like McLeod and Zacha are good, but you can’t win a Cup with those two as the foundation of your forward core. Players that were already in New Jersey like Adam Henrique, Damon Severson, and Corey Schnieder are also good, but they’re more supporting pieces, not cornerstones.
And a huge problem for a team that lacks elite talent and depth in all places is the possibility of Taylor Hall leaving the team. He’s slated to be a free agent in in 2020. That’s still three years away. And we rarely if ever see true stars hit free agency in the salary cap era. But Hall is one player I can legitimately see leaving, because there’s nothing sexy about the Devils. It’s not a hockey hotbed unless the team is winning. There are a lot of places nicer to live in. And the talent on the team isn’t very good. So what’s the selling point? I don’t think there is one. Even the possibility of a huge contract is negated by the fact that lots of other teams would be happy to give him one.
So the Devils better hope they can add some real, young, star talent to the team before 2020. Otherwise things could go from bad to worse.