Lose. Get high draft picks. Win. The Pittsburgh Penguins have done it twice. It should be that simple for all NHL teams, but as history and the current Metropolitan Division shows, it clearly is not.
For every comment, assertion, and even our ponderances to the rebuild affirmative, there is the real possibility that it doesn’t work in the upward linear fashion but instead a downward and horizontal stagnation that lasts far beyond anyone’s patience.
Look at the New Jersey Devils.
Nico Hischier. Jack Hughes.
New Jersey lost. They got a pair of top picks. They’re still losing.
The 2019 top pick, Hughes seems poised for his big-time breakout and could lead New Jersey back to respectability. GM Tom Fitzgerald (former Penguins AGM) has done a solid job building a new foundation for the organization.
But is it enough?
After 15 years of mostly losing seasons, the Columbus Blue Jackets finally made the playoffs for three years in a row before missing them in each of the last two seasons. They’ve perpetually picked in the top 10 of the NHL draft, and yet their stars are a trade acquisition and free agent signing: Patrik Laine and Johnny Gaudreau.
It took Columbus 18 years to win a playoff series.
When current Penguins GM Ron Hextall was the Philadelphia Flyers GM from 2014-18, he kept the team’s first-round picks and even added a couple.
On Sunday, colleague Sam Carchidi detailed the lack of value to the Philadelphia Flyers from those picks.
The Penguins traded their picks and won two Stanley Cups. Even if they didn’t win those Cups, they would have been competitive teams with a chance to do damage in the playoffs.
Isn’t that all you can ask?
And so we should compare rebuilding methods. Tear it down and lose vs. the current patchwork restocking that the Penguins are undergoing.
Hextall managed to fortify his roster this summer. The blue line is significantly better, with Jeff Petry on the second pairing. He kept his core, Rickard Rakell, and a first-round pick (Owen Pickering).
Hextall also added some young talent via trade, defenseman Ty Smith, which set up the Penguins’ trade for Petry.
Perhaps my position as both a Penguins writer and the head of National Hockey Now gives me a different perspective because l am involved in coverage for 14 other teams.
For every Colorado Avalanche, who stunk a few years ago and put the losing to good use, there are more teams like New Jersey, Columbus, and the Arizona Coyotes, who cannot find their way off the struggle bus.
The Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators appear to be building something solid, but it has been an arduous process for both, and neither has ascended beyond the bottom of the standings yet. It’s been six years since Detroit made the playoffs and nine seasons since they won a playoff series.
It has been five long years for Ottawa, too.
Last place can be a lonely, soul-crushing journey.
So, rhetorically, I’ll ask — looking back, which path would you choose for the Pittsburgh Penguins? Keep the stars and reconstitute the team around them, or let them walk and begin rebuilding from the ground up?
GMs in Trouble
One NHL team exec recently mused to the National Hockey Now family that a few GMs will be in trouble this season because of the salary cap mismanagement that has occurred this summer.
General managers spent. And spent. Never before have this many teams been over the salary cap limit with the season’s commencement so close. Too many roster bosses assumed they could shed salary on the NHL trade market, perhaps without realizing everyone else had the same idea.
Kind of like going to the beach on Labor Day weekend, except a few GMs will figuratively get stuck in traffic.
And a few owners might not be forgiving.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Hextall have an escape route should the NHL trade market and semi-reasonable offers be closed to them. Hextall can shimmy the Penguins’ salary cap number below the $82.5 million limit through a few demotions and maybe a bit of sacrifice.
The Calgary Flames had to attach a first-round pick to Sean Monahan to drop enough salary to sign Nazem Kadri. That’s the going rate to move money.
Keeping a first-round pick and current well-paid Penguins players outweighs losing a defenseman such as Mark Friedman or a forward such as Ryan Poehling or Josh Archibald to waivers.
From what we’re learning about Hextall and his thought process, having that worst-case scenario mapped out before going over the cap seems to be on brand.
Hextall is a planner rather than spontaneous or reactionary.
Not all teams are going to be as lucky as the Penguins.
And that goes for both rebuilding and escaping the salary cap crunch.