George McPhee had constructed a Stanley Cup Playoff team in 2002-03 that included the highest-paid player in hockey, a Vezina Trophy winner and two other All-Star-caliber skaters.
But something was amiss for the Washington Capitals. The $11 million man, forward Jaromir Jagr, was not producing at the level expected of him. Nor was he providing a boost at the box office. A franchise known for regular-season consistency (and postseason disappointment) wasn't moving forward or backward, and the roster was getting older and more expensive without improved results.
A terrible start to the 2003-04 season confirmed the suspicions of McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis. It was time to try something else.
Change was coming in the NHL. The Collective Bargaining Agreement was about to expire, and Leonsis expected radical differences when the new one was put in place.
A decision was made: It was time to tear down the aging house and start building in Washington. Nearly every veteran player of value, save for goaltender Olie Kolzig, was traded before the deadline in the 2003-04 season.
Draft choices and prospects were hoarded. Patience was preached. The on-ice losses were only beginning to pile up. Leonsis and McPhee were up front with the fan base, not hiding from the anguish of many long nights at the MCI Center set to come.
"There's a lot of risk in the strategy because if it doesn't work, it is really hard on the fan base," McPhee said. "You can talk to people about rebuilding and then try to do it, but it is a difficult process to go through. If it doesn't work, then that means you might miss the playoffs for seven or eight or nine years in a row. That's really difficult for a franchise to survive."
There was more losing to come, but June 26, 2004, was a day that changed the fortunes of the franchise. Ovechkin is the highest-paid player in the League now, and though the Capitals have yet to win the Stanley Cup, they have been one of the most successful teams during the past five regular seasons.
Ovechkin is one of the most popular players in the history of the sport, and fans have been filling Verizon Center, making it one of the more boisterous environments in the NHL when the team is rolling.
The Capitals are a rebuilding success story. The strategy is simple, but not easy to execute: Strip down the roster, lose enough to collect high draft picks, develop those picks and the other choices/prospects who have been collected -- and be patient.
One of McPhee's favorite phrases as the Capitals came out of the rebuilding phase and entered Stanley Cup contender territory was, "I knew we would wake up one day and have a good team." The process of getting there can be long and painful, but many of the elite teams in the NHL used this blueprint to join that group of Cup contenders.
Washington is not the most successful rebuilding story. The Chicago Blackhawks have won the Stanley Cup twice since plummeting to the bottom of the NHL standings for three seasons. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost in the Final and won the Cup in back-to-back seasons after four consecutive last-place finishes in their division.
The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup four years after back-to-back seasons as a bottom-three team. The Boston Bruins won the Cup four years after back-to-back last-place finishes in the Northeast Division, and nearly won again this past season before losing to the Blackhawks in the Final.
Other franchises would like to emulate these success stories. Fans in South Florida, Western New York and the two NHL cities on the Alberta prairies are going through various stages of the rebuilding process at the moment.
The NHL salary cap, which was exactly the type of radical change in the League's economic system Leonsis was expecting, has leveled the financial playing field. Each of the 30 NHL teams has made the playoffs since the 2005-06 season, and the Blackhawks are the only one to have won the Stanley Cup more than once.
This is the ninth season since the salary cap was implemented. It is no longer the "New NHL," and those players who ushered in a new era of the League, Ovechkin, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, are no longer kids.
Will the second phase of the salary cap era bring new NHL powerhouses? Will fans in Buffalo, Calgary, Edmonton and Florida be attending Stanley Cup victory parades the way they have in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh?
The simple answer is this: Using the "full-scale rebuild" model remains one of the preferred blueprints for team-building in the NHL, but it might not deliver the same level of return as it has in other cities.
"It is usually not up to the manager. It is ownership's call on how they want to do it," McPhee said. "You take your instructions from ownership. You certainly give your advice on it, and you say there's one way to do it and another way to do it, and pick which one you want to do and away you go. I don't think things have fundamentally changed. I think you have to be patient, draft well and develop well, and create the right culture."
STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM
The idea of rebuilding in this manner is far from new in the NHL. Losing now to win in the future has occurred at several points throughout its history. The most famous may have been in the 1983-84 season, when the Penguins "won" the right to draft Mario Lemieux by losing 58 of 80 games and finishing with a League-worst 38 points.
Losing for multiple seasons by a non-expansion franchise with the idea of obtaining a collection of players to build a contender was what helped transform the Colorado Avalanche into one of the League's premier teams in the 1990s. While in Quebec City, the Nordiques finished last for three consecutive seasons, and each of the players selected with the No. 1 pick in the 1989, 1990 and 1991 NHL Drafts (Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and Eric Lindros) was traded for players who helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in 1996, the franchise's first season in Denver.
When rising salaries and escalating payrolls dominated the 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, teams looked for other ways to compete. Pittsburgh traded Jagr to Washington; that deal and other moves away from being competitive led to the Penguins finishing last in the Atlantic Division in 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2003-04.
They traded up from No. 3 to No. 1 in the 2003 NHL Draft and added goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. They missed out on the No. 1 pick in 2004 because the Capitals won the draft lottery, choosing Ovechkin, but the Penguins' consolation prize with the second pick, Malkin, has worked out just fine. Their luck changed the following year and the Penguins won the right to draft Crosby.
One final season of struggling led to the addition of forward Jordan Staal with the No. 2 pick in the 2006 NHL Draft, and the core of the team that would make the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 and 2009 was in place.
"A lot of it is the timing of when that happens," Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. "I don't want to call it luck or whatever, but to be able to draft Sidney Crosby, well, he's a franchise player. Real franchise players really only come along every so many years. You can have a bad year and get the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft, and it just might be one of those years where it wasn't really a high-end draft and you don't get that true franchise player. That happens a lot of years."
The Blackhawks lost to the Penguins in the 1992 Cup Final, and as the core of that team eventually eroded so did Chicago from contender status. The Blackhawks had missed the playoffs six times in seven seasons when Dale Tallon became general manager in 2005, but instead of looking for a quick fix, he decided to build slowly.
Two more long, losing seasons followed -- but so did the selections of Toews and Kane, and so did the first championship in 49 years for the franchise in the forwards' third NHL season in 2010.
One year after Tallon took over in Chicago, Dean Lombardi was named GM in Los Angeles. He had built a successful team for the San Jose Sharks, but they were unable to find postseason glory. The first three seasons of Lombardi's regime ended like the three prior to his arrival: without a spot in the playoffs.
Lombardi was able to add defenseman Drew Doughty with the No. 2 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, and the No. 5 pick in 2009, forward Brayden Schenn, became the centerpiece in a trade that brought Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles before the start of the 2011-12 season. That ended with the Kings winning the Cup for the first time.
"There isn't a day that doesn't go by where you don't think about [how long the success can be sustained], and even when you're going through the building process," Lombardi said. "Generally you want to get a little better every year, but what people miss sometimes in going through that process of improvement is getting younger every year. That's the trick. That's the old [New York] Islanders model. Like anything else in another business or in life, when you take that slow, methodical process, it lends itself to lasting, versus like a Ponzi scheme or some sort of quick fix.
"That said, you're up against a process that wants to strip you of what you're striving to do. That's the irony of it. There's always 29 other teams that you're trying to compete with and they're trying to knock you off, but there's also a system that wants to knock you off. You're fighting a war on two fronts, not only against the 29 other competitors but also an egalitarian system."
This method of roster building is not without pitfalls. Missing on a high draft pick can be damaging, and these teams did not make the long journey from the bottom of the NHL standings to the pinnacle of the sport without some missteps.
The Blackhawks had the pick after Ovechkin and Malkin in 2004 and selected defenseman Cam Barker, who has had an unremarkable NHL career. The year before Lombardi selected Doughty he also drafted a defenseman with a high pick, but Thomas Hickey, the fourth player taken in 2007, never played for the Kings before salvaging his NHL career with the New York Islanders.
It is also unkind to the job security of general managers and coaches. GM Craig Patrick started the rebuild in Pittsburgh but was replaced by Ray Shero. Dave Taylor started the process in Los Angeles before Lombardi took over. Mike O'Connell was the GM who drafted Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci for the Bruins, but Peter Chiarelli was in charge when they became the top two centers for a Cup-winning club.
Tallon also didn't make it to the finish line. He was replaced by Stan Bowman the summer before the 2009-10 season, the year the Blackhawks won the Cup.
"In general-manager speak, they don't have the same general manager there who drafted those players, or the same coach," Nashville GM David Poile said. "That's not a model that a current general manager would want to have to do because you usually don't live through those."
McPhee is an exception; Leonsis decided to allow him to oversee the rebuilding process and the success since.
WIND OF CHANGE
The salary cap has yielded unprecedented competitive balance in the NHL. The expectation was it would bring cyclical parity to the sport, just as the cap has done in the NFL.
Teams rise and fall in the NFL, with few teams able to sustain success for more than a few years in a row without needing to reload or rebuild. Franchises have a window of opportunity to compete for a championship, followed by a transition period before the next high tide, an up-and-down that was expected to be the norm in the new NHL economic system.
There was a cycle after the salary cap was implemented. In 2005-06, the elite teams in the NHL included the Dallas Stars, Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, franchises that excelled prior to the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season.
In the next few seasons, a new class of elite teams rose up to join the Detroit Red Wings, who have defied all expectations and remained a successful franchise for more than two decades. This group included teams that bottomed out and hoped to build a contending club through the draft.
Those general managers weren't planning for a short-term solution. Another of McPhee's fondest phrases was, "We're going to build a team that can contend for a long time."
Though the salary cap limits a team's ability to spend, one product of the new system is an increase in long-term contracts. Creative and responsible GMs have been able to lock in their core players to long-term deals, often saving some salary-cap space as the player sacrifices short-term wealth for long-term stability.
"The one advantage you're hoping you have when they come through the system, is you know guys like [Anze] Kopitar, [Jonathan] Quick, Doughty," Lombardi said. "You have to decide to lock them up or not, and that's a harder decision than when you're sitting at the draft table. It is one thing to draft an 18-year-old. That's hard enough. The decision to give a 21-year-old that kind of money is even harder. Sure, they can play, but can they justify that contract? You're between a rock and a hard place. You're hoping he is what he is, and then you've got him, but there are all those risks with what happen to young people, whether or not they're going to continue to compete and work and things like that.
"You have a guy like Toews who came through the system and now he's got his second contract and he's set for life. How much more do you need? Now, he's winning and he loves the community and he's got a great core to play with. You're hoping he's like Tom Brady, where Brady will say, 'Look, I've got all the money, I've got the model, I've got everything I want, so clearly it is all about winning.'"
Malkin is signed to a contract that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2022. Crosby is signed through 2025. Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom are signed with Washington through at least 2020.
It isn't just the team's top two or three players. The salary cap has risen so much from its inception at $39 million in the 2005-06 season and is expected to continue to move upwards of $70 million in the coming seasons.
The Penguins were able to retain other key members of the core on long-term contracts, including defenseman Kris Letang and forwards Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. The Kings have six players signed through at least 2018-19.
"I certainly hope we are [contenders for years]," Bowman said. "It is a challenge to stay competitive. There's no doubt the world has changed with the salary cap. It's been around for eight years now, and it is difficult to sustain it, but it can be done. You need, No. 1, to find those top players, and then you need to keep them. Not only to find them, but they need to have success as a group. Every team has their core, right? It becomes about how good are they at getting results."
Nearly all of the teams that were considered elite five or six years ago have been replaced. The issue for those hoping to rebuild is, will there be room near the top of the NHL standings when they are ready to compete?
The Edmonton Oilers have already found out that turning a young core into a Cup contender doesn't always happen as quickly as it did in Chicago or Pittsburgh. The Penguins reached the Stanley Cup Final in Crosby's third season, when he was on his entry-level contract. They won the Cup the following year when Malkin and Staal were on their ELCs. The Blackhawks won the Cup in the third season for Kane and Toews.
This is the standard the Oilers have been held to. The winning in Oil Country has not happened "on time" in comparison to those other clubs. Forward Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, and forward Jordan Eberle, No. 22 in 2009, are in their fourth seasons, so their second contract, which pays each of them $6 million per season, has started. Forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick in the 2011 draft, has an identical deal that starts with the 2014-15 season.
Edmonton hasn't contended for a playoff berth in any of Hall and Eberle's first three seasons, and the Oilers got off to a bad start in 2013-14. Injuries have been a problem for Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, and the third of three consecutive No. 1 picks, forward Nail Yakupov, has struggled in his sophomore season and spent a couple of games watching as a healthy scratch.
"I think for the teams that aren't there yet, you've got to find those players, which they are probably doing through the draft, and then you have to have success as a group," Bowman said. "That's sort of the hard part. How do you do that? There's not one blueprint for that. You don't want to go through this and then have an extended period without having any success, because then you have to go back and reexamine the process.
"There's comes a point for every franchise where potential has to turn into results. Let's see some results from this. If you can get that, and teams like Pittsburgh, L.A., Chicago -- we've been able to have success -- then it leads to the next phase, which is sustaining it. That requires you to not only keep that group together but also to surround them with the right pieces."
TAKING THE LONG WAY
Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington ... toss in the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks as well, and don't forget Detroit. That's eight franchises with elite core players in place that could continue as Stanley Cup contenders for the next several seasons.
In any season there might be up to 12 teams with a legitimate chance to win the Cup, given the newfound competitive balance in the NHL, so there is room for more. However, there's not a lot of room, and there are plenty of franchises trying to find sustainable success.
Several franchises have decided against the "full-scale rebuild" blueprint. The Red Wings are the model for teams like the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes. Detroit has proven a team can be successful and competitive every season, and it doesn't take high draft picks to accomplish that goal.
Some of these franchises are going at team-building with this plan because their general manager feels it is the best option. Others might be interested in the path Pittsburgh and Chicago took, but the marketplace has to be taken into account.
Remember, the Nordiques did move to Colorado. The Penguins struggled financially for years and nearly left Pittsburgh. They and the Blackhawks had serious attendance issues before the teams started to win again.
"I'll speak for my market. We probably couldn't afford to do what Edmonton has done," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford said. "It is a Canadian market, and they've been up front about it. They've said, 'We're rebuilding and we're going to add these players.' They're still going to fill their building. Even though we haven't made the playoffs the past few years, with the exception of the second half of last year we've been competitive and stayed in it right down to the end. It is important for us to keep our fan base up. I think if we went that route, our revenues would drop off considerably, because people want a real competitive team here year in and year out."
Poile is in his fourth decade as a GM in the NHL. He was able to turn Washington into a consistent playoff team, and has done so with the Predators despite budget limitations.
"It is always good to be competitive," Poile said. "I think that's always what the goal is. You have a bunch of different franchises with a lot of different scenarios. It can be any number of reasons why they go in different directions. For us and staying competitive, that's the idea. As a general manager, my goal every year is to say to your team in training camp, 'We have a chance to win the Stanley Cup,' and for the coach and players to believe that. You do all you can to put yourself in that position.
"The Detroit Red Wings are the best example of that. They've stayed competitive for more years than anybody, and because of that they've become the model franchise. They've been a top franchise without any top picks. They do it with great drafting wherever they are. They made some significant draft picks later in the draft as well."
The bottom-out model remains a popular one. The Flames resisted for years but eventually traded veterans Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester and committed to playing young players this season. Tallon signed a bunch of players for the Panthers to get to the salary floor before the 2011-12 season but hasn't budged from his vision of the long-term project.
He intends to build a winner the same way he did in Chicago. The Panthers have one of the best collections of young talent in the NHL and more prospects in the system. Like the Oilers, this season has not started the way the Panthers might have hoped.
With goalie Jacob Markstrom, defenseman Erik Gudbranson and forward Aleksander Barkov in place, the Panthers, like the Oilers, are looking for the right complementary parts to help the young core grow into a successful team.
"I think that's why I got this job," Tallon said. "That's how I look at it. I know it works. I didn't know it before. It was [Rick Dudley] and [Marc Bergevin] and Stan [Bowman], Mark Kelley and myself, we had an idea [with the Blackhawks] and fortunately it worked. I'm going to stick to that plan. I think it is going to work.
"I'm getting more patient as I get older. Last year was a disaster because of the shortened season and the injuries, but look at what we're going to get. We're going to benefit from it. That's the way I look at it. We ended up with five guys in the top 100 picks [of the 2013 NHL Draft, led by Barkov at No. 2], and it is going to end up being a good draft for us, to go along with all the other good players we already have."
As Nill mentioned, part of the rebuilding process can be about timing. The Penguins ended up with Crosby and Malkin, but the Ottawa Senators had the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years and ended up with Chris Phillips and Bryan Berard, fine NHL defensemen but not game-changers.
As the Flames continue their rebuild and the Sabres get started, the 2015 NHL Draft might offer a player who can make the difference, someone who can make the plan to "lose and draft" a great idea.
"If you look at the teams that really hit in the draft, it was about getting the right pick at the right time," Nill said. "There's a young man by the name of Connor McDavid who is coming up in two years. Well, he's a franchise player. Somebody is going to draft him and he's going to be the cornerstone of the franchise for 15 years, for 20 years. Those players only come along so often."
It is clear teams can build a Stanley Cup champion by gutting the roster and building through the draft. The Blackhawks, Penguins and Bruins have proven that when the rebuilding plan comes to fruition, it is possible to keep the key members of the core together and contend for several seasons.
Those teams do not appear to be going away anytime soon. There is another group that wants to join them in the coming seasons. Phase two of the salary cap era has begun, with franchises in Edmonton, Florida, Calgary and Buffalo trying to replicate the success of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston and Los Angeles. It will be fascinating to watch.
"I think there's room," Tallon said. "Obviously there is room for anyone to get better. Chicago went from the worst team in the League, the worst draw, to being a consistent elite team. Pittsburgh did it. We were on the way to doing it before the shortened season and the injuries, but I don't worry about what Chicago or Pittsburgh does. I have a template and a blueprint, and I'm sticking to it. I know it works, and that's what I am going to continue to do."
Whether it involves intentionally stripping down the roster in the short term for long-term gains, or trying to build a contender with a different plan, some of the main principles remain the same.
"It is still drafting and developing, and you have to make sure you sign the right players. The guys who you determine are going to be part of the foundation have to be the right players," Nill said. "… Everybody wants the quick reset. Everybody sees what Chicago and Pittsburgh have done and where they are right now, but that was a long process. That was years of not making the playoffs. It is easy to see what they have now, but that was a slow, agonizing process. We're kind of in the middle of the process here. You still want to win, but you have to mindful of the long term as well."
BUILT FOR THE LONG HAUL
Team Cup winners Signed through 2017
Blackhawks 16 6
Kings 16 6
Bruins 14 6
Penguins 9 7
NOTE: Cup winners are players currently with the organization who were among the top 18 skaters and top two goalies during the championship run.
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