How Long Should a Remodeling Take in the National Hockey League?
It’s about as broad a question as you can ask, but it’s also critical if you’re an organization going through the natural rebuilding cycle.
A huge number of factors come into play: a team’s ability to work through its immediate salary cap situation, a team’s fortune at the time of the lottery, the ability of coaching staff to positively grow players through development competitions. That’s just a microcosm of all the components in play. And of course no two situations are the same.
But renovations cannot be endless. No one would point to the Buffalo Sabers of the past decade as a successful rebuild. Despite consistently finishing near the bottom of the NHL standings and collecting valuable draft picks en masse, the organization has failed to come off the mat. The mistakes of the various front offices were endlessly and extensively discussed. So at some point a renovation can take too long.
I started thinking about rebuilding the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks, the two organizations that formed the rear in the 2016-17 season. Colorado and Vancouver would both take in the top five – the Avalanche-grabbing phenomenal defender Cale Makar, the Canucks-grabbing star center Elias Pettersson. Despite both teams finishing the year, the disparity in organizational talent was apparent. Colorado had a handful of talented and valuable players across the lineup (Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon were already on the list, as two examples), while Vancouver was winding down the legendary Sedin years and consequently expected a longer rebuild.
And yet we must recognize that Colorado’s smart roster has been built from that point on – trades involving Matt Duchene, Nazem Kadri and Devon Toews are a few clear examples of advantage trading from the Avalanche front office. While Vancouver has methodically gone through a grueling multi-year rebuild, the Avalanche quickly became the most dominant team in hockey.
Consider the two in contrast:
A lot went right for Colorado to recover like this. It feels like the franchise is in some ways an exception to the rule of how long the rebuild should take. But again, I ask: how long is too long, and what can history tell us?
To complete this analysis, I looked at teams from 2007-16 that finished in the bottom five of the standings each year, and then how those teams improved over the next five seasons. Not every bottom five team is rebuilding, and not every team that makes it to the playoffs in a following year has completed their rebuild, but it’s a sensible proxy for the two.
The chart below shows three measurements: the percentage of teams that would reach the postseason in the next five years, the percentage of teams that would finish in the top five of the standings in the next five years, and the percentage of those teams that would make it into the postseason. would finish in the bottom five of the standings for the next five years:
There is a clear direction within these teams – when elite teams fall, rebuilding teams invariably rise. Couple that with the laws of regression that always apply, and you see how these trends all follow a similar pattern.
But an interesting conclusion is that the chance that a team will be in the top five in five years is about the same as in the bottom five. That is, as unique as Colorado’s massively accelerated rebuild may seem, it’s equally unique to have such a poorly performing franchise for so many years.
So it makes sense that reconstruction organizations like the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators have a multi-year plan. It takes time. But it doesn’t last forever and shouldn’t last. At some point, organizational strengths (weaknesses) will manifest. For those judging front office and player development performance, it gives us a reasonable timeline to work with when it comes to expectations.
Rebuilds take time, but they shouldn’t be endless. And the longer they go on, the more critical we have to be about drawing up rosters.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference