The Avalanche Rebuild: How Long Will It Take?

David and I are following the same theme today.

The word "rebuilding" was tossed around among fans and beat reporters during the 2008-09 season, but with Woody Paige's recent and insightful (ghost written?) article about Pierre Lacroix along with Joe Sakic's statements during his retirement press conference, it appears as though the Colorado Avalanche have now fully embraced the idea.  The rebuild is on.

So now that we're all working from the same script, how long exactly does a serious rebuilding effort really take?  Two seasons?  Four?  More than that?

To get a good sense of how long a serious rebuild takes to turn a lousy NHL team into a good one during the salary cap era, I probed two recent examples of great teams that weren't great at all just a few seasons ago.  What happened to those teams in the first place?  What did they do to make things better?  How much of it was luck and how much was astute front office planning?

The Pittsburgh Penguins 2001-2009

The first and most obvious team to analyze is the Pittsburgh Penguins.  After sucking something awful for nearly a decade, they've appeared in the Stanley Cup finals two seasons in a row and took home the Cup in 2009. 

What happened:

Without any notable, big-name defensemen or a dedicated number one goalie, the 2000-01 Penguins went 42-28-9-3 and finished third in the Atlantic Division.  Though their final standing wasn't that impressive, the Penguins, led by the older-but-still-glorious duo of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, made it all the way to the conference finals.  Unfortunately, the New Jersey Devils were busy making a serious defense of the Cup they won the season before and the Penguins fell four games to one.  The next season, standouts like Jagr and Martin Straka were gone, and Johan Hedberg stopped standing on his head between the pipes like he had in the previous year's playoffs.  Oh, and Lemieux managed only 24 games due to recurring injuries.  Coach Ivan Hlinka lost the first four games of the season (including game one against the Cup champion Avalanche) and was fired.  Rick Kehoe replaced him and did a poor job.  The Penguins missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, finishing with a 28-41-8-5 record.

What they did:

Despite hanging on for another 70+ games over the next two years, Lemieux couldn't carry the team on his long-suffering back.  As it became clear the team wasn't going to succeed as it was built, the Penguins started dumping payroll: Straka, Alex Kovalev, Jan Hrdina and others were all gone.  The Penguins, gutted of talent and payroll, began focusing on drafting true talent.  In 2002, the Penguins picked up Ryan Whitney and Maxime Talbot.  In 2003, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall).  In 2004, Evgeni Malkin (2nd overall) and Tyler Kennedy.  In 2005, Sidney Crosby (1st overall) and Kris "Le Game" Letang.  In 2006, Jordan Staal (2nd overall).  Two top picks and two second picks, and every single one of them turned out to be a solid if not spectacular player.  Also, the Penguins turned to guys like Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik, drafted before the collapse of the team in 2002 but not ready to play in the NHL until later.

As soon as the Lockout ended and the cap was in place, the Penguins began targeting budget-priced veterans who could provide leadership, grit and a few points on the board.  Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair, Ziggy Pallffy, Jarkko Ruutu and Mark Recchi initially, then Gary Roberts, Petr Sykora and Marian Hossa.  Finally in 2008-09, the Pens found the perfect match of old and new: Crosby, Malkin and the other in-house draftees with Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis, Miroslav Satan and Bill Guerin.  That unlikely roster of vets proved to be just the right combination for Pittsburgh.

Clearly, the Pens got lucky in some ways.  Players past their prime produced above expectations (Satan, Guerin).  Younger players with limited skills made big splashes (Fedotenko, Chris Kunitz).  And players already achieving greatness didn't falter or disappoint (Crosby, Malkin).  Two deep playoff runs and one Cup later, it's clear the Penguins successfully rebuilt a terrible team in eight seasons.

The Chicago Blackhawks 2002-2009

What happened:

In 2001-02, a renewed Blackhawks team (which had missed the playoffs the four seasons prior) finished the season with a 41-27-13-1 record under new coach Brian Sutter.  Led by a solid-if-unspectacular offense featuring names like Eric Daze, Alex Zhamnov, Tony Amonte, Steve Sullivan and Michael Nylander, the 'Hawks overachieved all season.  By the playoffs, it was clear such a ho-hum collection of players and a mediocre starting goalie (poor Jocelyn Thibault) wasn't enough to get the job done.  Chicago lost in the first round to the Blues, four games to one.

The next season featured the same names (plus a superstar rookie named Tyler Arnason), but those names couldn't get any kind of winning rhythm together and the 'Hawks finished below the cutoff line with a record of 30-33-13-6.  They would miss the playoffs the next four years.  The seasons on either end of the Lockout were the worst, with Chicago managing just 46 victories total.

What they did:

Like the Penguins, the Blackhawks turned to high draft picks to fill out the ranks.  In 2003 they picked up solid D-man Brent Seabrook and power forward Dustin Byfuglien.  In 2004, they picked Cam Barker third overall and got reliable center Dave Bolland.  2005 was a dud draft for Chicago, but in 2006 they drafted Jonathan Toews third overall and Patrick Kane first overall in 2007.  With a very impressive group of young standouts, the Blackhawks then turned to veterans.  Martin Havlat (and his injury woes) was acquired at Ottawa's eventual expense.  Patrick Sharp came over from the Flyers and Andrew Ladd was traded from the HurricanesBrian Campbell was signed as a free agent.  The 'Hawks also relied on other young players either drafted by other teams or by Chicago before the decline: Matt Walker and Kris Versteeg, specifically.  And Chicago also picked up defensive forward Sammy Pahlsson at the trade deadline of 2008-09. 

The Blackhawks owed their vastly-improved 46-24-12 record not only to the strong combination of young and veteran players, but also to new president Rocky Wirtz and coach Joel Quenneville.  The death of Wirtz's father Bill and the firing of impeccably-dressed coach Denis Savard proved to be just the right moves for the 'Hawks to emerge in the Western Conference.  And despite Quenneville's insistence on platooning his goalies, Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin proved up to the challenge. 

While the Blackhawks were ultimately disappointed in the Western Conference finals by division rival Detroit, the deep playoff run and the excellent regular season record indicate that the once-glorious Original Six franchise is back in competition and ready to win again. 

...

Will the Avalanche have similar success?  They've begun the process well, drafting Matt Duchene and signing Paul Stastny to a long contract.  But other young players have underperformed so far or are just not that good, and some important veterans like Milan Hejduk and Adam Foote won't be around much longer.  The Avalanche will have to rely on both strong drafting and cap-efficient veteran signings.  It's not an easy process, and there's a fair amount of luck involved.

It's not a stretch to assume the Colorado rebuild could take just as long as those of Chicago or Pittsburgh.  Let's hope not, but don't be surprised.

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