The Avs are in the middle of a rebuild. There's no surprise there. It kickstarted in '09 with the draft and has continued over the next two years. Old players have been released and young players have taken their place. Assets have been moved to get the pieces still needed and the group of core players has started to form. But despite the strong progress, there's still a long path to travel before this set of Avs can reach the Cup.
But is all of this new territory for the organization, or have we already been here before, many years ago? Here's where I need your help. I know that the Quebec Nordiques went through a rebuild in the late '80s and early '90s. I've been able to piece together some information (included after the jump), but I need some help filling in the gaps. I wasn't around back then (I was born in 1990), but if you can bear with me for just a bit before kicking me off your lawn, I'd really appreciate your input.
I've also included the similarities I've found between the late '80s rebuild and the current one. Again, if there are any errors, let me know.
The Quebec Nordiques were formed in 1972 as one of six original World Hockey Association teams, a league that capitalized on the lack of hockey in some major cities and challenged the dominance of the NHL. Since they didn't honor the NHL's reserve clause (it bound a players rights to the club even after their contract had expired) and were willing to pay more, 67 former NHLers joined career minor leaguers, college kids, and Europeans in the new league. The Nordiques had 7 players that made the jump, including 2-way defenseman J.C. Tremblay, the club's first star.
The Nords started slow, but were in the playoffs by their 3rd season. They won the Avco Cup in '77 and were competitive until the end of the league. In 1979, the WHA merged with the NHL and the Nordiques were one of the clubs that survived. They were then forced to go to a dispersal draft and could protect only 3 of their players, but they still ended up with 13 former Nordiques back on the roster. They also snagged a promising young winger that had spent his first season with the now-defunct Birmingham Bulls: Michel Goulet. They struggled their first season, but a new coach and a couple Stastnys helped turn that around. Peter and Anton played 39 games in '80-'81, and Marian joined them the year after that. Thus the first core of the NHL organization was formed: LW Michel Goulet, LW Anton Stastny, C Peter Stastny, and RW Marian Stastny. (please correct me if I'm wrong here). Marian left via free agency for Toronto in '85, but the other three were the basis of the early team. Other honorable mentions would be RW Real Cloutier, who was a star of the WHA Nordiques before he was traded away in '83, and LW Marc Tardif, also a star from the WHL days that retired in '83.
The team was competitive for 7 years, making the playoffs from '81 to '87. They even won the Adams Division in '86 and made it to the Conference Finals twice in that time.
But in '87-'88, that run came to an end. I'm not sure exactly why (again, a little help), but I do know their coach left and they had instability at that position for the next 5 seasons. They lost one of their best fighters before the '87-'88 season (Dale Hunter) in a trade with the Caps. They had slump near the beginning of the that year (which caused a coach to be fired) and an 8 game slump right at the very end that cost them their playoff berth. They finished with 69pts in 80 games in '88. The next year saw 61pts, last in the league. Anton Stastny left. In '89-'90, the team only managed an appalling 31pts. Both Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet were traded mid season. Not even Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur (with the Nords from '89-90 and '90-'91) could stop the spiral. The first core of the team was gone, their days with the Nords over.
But during that time, the Nordiques had been drafting well. The trade that sent Dale Hunter to the Caps sent back the 1987 #15 overall pick which became Joe Sakic. The Nords then used their 1988 #3 overall on defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn and picked up Valeri Kamensky and Alexei Gusarov in the later rounds. Mats Sundin joined in '89 as the #1 overall, and Adam Foote at #22. Owen Nolan was #1 overall in 1990, and #1 Eric Lindros and #24 Rene Corbet were taken in 1991. The subsequent Lindros trade resulted in the rights to 1991 #6 overall Peter Forsberg, 1990 #4 Mike Ricci, 1990 #25 Chris Simon, an a 1993 first rounder that turned into #14 Adam Deadmarsh coming back to Quebec. This drafting establish what would be the second core of the team: C Joe Sakic, C Peter Forsberg, and D Adam Foote. The other players were important, but those three were the bedrock the team was built on.
The 1992-'93 season was a big one for the Nords. They acquired RW Scott Young in a trade with the Pens, and he, Sakic, Owen and Sundin all hit the 30 goal mark. The Nordiques DOUBLED their point total from the prior year (52pts in 80 games in '91-'92 to 104pts in 84 games in '92-'93) and made the playoffs. They stumbled a bit in '93-'94 due to injuries, but finished with a respectable 76 pts, only 8pts out of a playoff seed. More importantly, they acquired key assets through trades, such as C Stephane Yelle, D Sylvain Lefebvre, D Uwe Krupp and the 1994 DAL 3rd rounder that would become Chris Drury. The next year ('94-'95), they finished first in the Eastern Conference, but lost in the 1st round.
That summer, they became the Avalanche. They added the final pieces - LW Warren Rychel, pesky RW and vet Claude Lemieux, offensive-defenseman Sandis Ozlinsh, veteran Mike Keane and a goalie named Patrick Roy. And what to you know, BOOM! Stanley Cup. They lost a few pieces after that year, moved some players around, signed players they had drafted and developed (1994 #72 Chrs Drury and #87 Milan Hejduk, 1996 #167 Dan Hinote, and 1998 #12 Alex Tanguay and #20 Scott Parker), added Ray Bourque and BOOM! another Stanley Cup in 2001. They slowly fell of production wise after that until '08-'09 brought about the start of the current rebuild process.
The Rebuilding Process
Step 1: Accept you have a problem and clean house. What triggers a rebuild seems to be the same - the team slips out of the playoffs and keeps getting worse until it becomes clear something's not working. The team then jettisens its old core, some through retirement and some through trades. Therefore, 1989 was the offical start of the first rebuild as Michel Goulet and Peter Stastny were both shipped off. Even though the team had been struggling before that, they finally accepted the fact that the past was over and moved on during that season. The Avs made the same call in 2008 after Sakic was injured and later retired.
Step 2: Draft. Even though he was technically brought in before the official rebuild began, Sakic was the first of the Second Generation on the team. It took the Nords the next 5 years to draft Leschyshyn, Kamensky, Gusarov, Sundin, Foote, Nolan, and Lindros, and even then, not all of them became core members of the team. However, their subsequent trades are what made it possible for the Cup runs in '96 and '01. Duchene came in in 2009 as the first of the Third Generation, and O'Reilly, Elliott, Barrie, Hishon, Pickard, Malone, Landeskog, and Seimens have joined him since. The Avs have drafted well and condensed what took 5 years for the Nords into just 3. Looking back at last time, it seems fair to surmise that not all of them will be members of the Avs when the team returns to competitiveness, but they will at least serve as important trading pieces to bring about a successful core.
Step 3: Start to bring other young players from other teams. The original Nords did this all pretty much in one move when the made the Lindros deal; C Forsberg (core player), C Ricci, and LW Simon came back in return. But they weren't the only ones - RW Scott Young was 25 when they brought him in, C Stephane Yelle was 21, and D Jon Klemm was 22. The current Avs have brought in D Ryan Wilson, D Kyle Quincey, LW Peter Mueller, LW Kevin Porter, RW Daniel Winnik, D Ryan O'Byrne, D Erik Johnson (core player), and G Semyon Varlamov (core player) since the beginning of the rebuild. All are young, and as of right now, all look to have a future with the organization.
Step 3 is where the Avs are currently. If the majority of this season goes well, I think they'll transfer into step 4 this off-season.
Step 4: Bring in the missing pieces and the Vets. The Second Generation Avs hit this point in '95. They traded for a physical player who knew what it took to win Cups in Claude Lemieux, the young offensive-defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, the veteran and former NHL captain Mike Keane, and of course, the most critical piece: world-class goalie Patrick Roy. The current Avs are getting to this point - that's why I think we'll see a bunch of trades over the next 12 months as Step 3 draws to a close and Step 4 begins. The current Avs are in a unique position though - if the salary cap drops this summer, there could be a number of really good free agents on the market. The Avs will have tons of capspace and lots of contracts available to acquire some of final pieces. Basically, if we have a good off-season, I could see it cutting a year or so off of the rebuild time.
As it's shaping up right now, the Third Generation Avs are still without enough top-flight wings. Milan Hejduk (a member of the 2nd Gen) will be leaving soon, and someone needs to be there to take over for him. Other veterans will also need to be added - players around the age of 30 that have been in the NHL for at least 7 or 8 years and know what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. We already have one of these in Giguere. They act as mentors and safety nets for the young core players.
Step 5: Compete and Sustain. The goal of any rebuild is to create a Dynasty. The Second Generation Nords/Avs did exactly that. After they got Roy, they went into "win-now" mode and got a Stanley Cup out of the deal. But they didn't neglect Step 3 and 4 - good drafting and bringing in the final pieces (Bourque) is what brought them the Cup in '01. But after that, they started to decline. Why? Partially it was the CBA, but more than anything it was this organization's tenancy to look to the past instead of the future. They brought back Yelle, Keane, Foote, Forsberg (twice), and others later in their careers. Although the fans liked it - those were the guys from the golden days afterall - the Avs were so caught up in sentimentality that they forgot to concentrate on the draft. In the salary-cap era of the NHL, competitive teams have to draft well if they want to stay competitive. When the old core finally crumbled and collapsed, there was no farm team to replace it. That negligance is what caused the Second Rebuild in the first place.
Moral of the Story: The Avs have been here before. In fact, Sakic (who is now in our front office, helping call the shots) had a front row ticket to the show back in the late '80s early '90s and saw exactly how it's done. So far, this rebuild has progressed faster than the last because of superior drafting, but it's still going to take some time. I'll bet that we can expect a busy offseason for acquisitions this year, both via free-agency and trades. A few additional young players need to be signed, but the vets will start coming in soon. If all goes well, next season ('12-'13) will see the Avs wrap up Step 4 (missing pieces) and the season after ('13-'14) will have them headed into Step 5 (competing).
But once we reach that compete stage, we can't neglect our drafting like we did last time. If the Avs would have had stronger draft years from '00 to '08, they probably wouldn't be in this position. Painful rebuilds are the direct result of the neglect of the farm. Hopefully Sherman and Co. will have learned from the last rebuild and keep allowing Pracey to work his magic. If the goal of this franchise is another dynasty (and I can almost assure you it is), then the draft is the key to keeping it alive.