The post-tank timeline for the Sabres has been a point of contention since it became clear that the Sabres were going to punt the McDavid/Eichel season. Whether you were pro-tank or anti-tank, the driving question was: when would it become worth it to purposefully lose as many games as possible? When would the Sabres be a playoff team again, if not a Cup contender? The extremes on both sides argued extreme positions – that they’d be back within a season or two, or that it’d take five years to get to that level. Most people settled in the middle – two or three years. There’s now a growing level of frustration among some of the fanbase, as it’s post-tank year two, and the results are just not there yet.
The Sabres barely contended for the playoffs this year, and will likely finish in just about the same place as last year. A lot of this can be attributed to injuries to key players and some shoddy roster construction, but, no matter the cause, I think it’s useful to look and see if it was right to expect year two to be a breakout at all. Let’s look at some other teams that have drafted ‘generational’ players and see if we can find a realistic timeline for contention.
2004 Washington Capitals – Alex Ovechkin
The Capitals sold off their assets during the 03-04 season – trading away Jaromir Jagr, among others – and finished third from last in the league. They won the Ovechkin lottery, and, when the NHL returned from its second lockout in the 05-06 season, the Capitals only slightly improved with Ovechkin, finishing fourth from last in the league. Ovechkin won that season’s Calder trophy over Sidney Crosby, putting up 52 goals and 106 points in his first season. (This was the far-off era when the NHL made a point of calling obstruction penalties, something they’ve forgotten to do since.) The next year, he scored “only” 46 goals and 96 points as the team once again finished fourth from last, with the exact same point total – 70 – as the year before.
The Capitals finally broke out in the 2007-08 season, winning the weak Southeast division with 94 points, good for 12th best in the league. Ovechkin had a career high 65 (!) goals that season, finished with 112 points, and won the Ross, Richard, and Hart trophies. Not too shabby. Ovechkin and the team’s regular season breakout can be attributed to their hiring of Bruce Boudreau as coach, as well as their signing of Nicklas Backstrom and some key veteran free agents, finally surrounding Ovechkin with a talented roster. They lost in the first round of that season’s playoffs, and have been something of a playoff disappointment in nearly every year since then. Still, they have made the playoffs pretty consistently and may yet win a Cup.
Timeline to contention: Third season.
2005* Pittsburgh Penguins – Sidney Crosby (and Evgeni Malkin)
The 2005 season didn’t happen, but in the 2003-04 season, the Penguins finished dead last with 58 points. They won the post-lockout lottery – beating out the Sabres – and were rewarded with this generation’s best player in Sidney Crosby. They also were lucky enough to have the second pick in the Ovechkin draft, snagging future Hall of Famer Evgeni Malkin. Crosby made his debut in the 05-06 season, scoring 102 points and finishing second in the Calder race, but the team remained in the league’s basement with, once again, 58 points, beating out the Blues by only one point.
Malkin made his debut the following year, winning the 06-07 Calder Trophy with an 85 point season, and Crosby upped his game in his second year, scoring 120 (!) points. Their combined efforts were enough to propel the team to the playoffs, finishing eighth in the league with 105 points, but they lost in the first round to the Senators, who you might remember beating the Sabres in the Conference Final that year. The Penguins made the Stanley Cup finals the next season, won the Cup the season after that, and then won it again last season. They’d probably have at least one more Cup if not for Crosby’s concussion troubles.
Timeline to contention: Second season; Two generational talents, though.
Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane (and Jonathan Toews)
I grew up in Chicago, so I remember the days when the Blackhawks were truly awful and only hockey die hards cared a lick about them. You could hear a pin drop in the United Center, an arena now referred to as “The Madhouse on Madison.” Anyway, after finishing third from last in the league, the Blackhawks lucked into Toews with the third pick of the 2006 draft. (The Penguins had Staal-mania after watching Eric Staal win a Cup for the Hurricanes that year and took Jordan Staal at number 2. There is a universe out there where the Penguins take Toews at two and have Crosby-Malkin-Toews as their centers for at least a couple of seasons; the rest of the NHL is thankful that they’re not in that universe.) Toews stayed in school for another year, and the Blackhawks finished in a tie for fifth from last in the league.
The Blackhawks won the lottery and picked Patrick Kane, and both made their debut in 2007. Kane won the Calder with a 72 point season, while Toews finished second in the voting with a 54 point season in only 64 games. The team finished that season 19th in the league with 88 points, within sniffing distance of the playoffs. The following season, the team broke out, firing their coach after four games and eventually finishing with 104 points – good for sixth in the league – and made it all the way to the Conference finals. Kane put up 70 points that season, and Toews finished with a very nice 69 points. The next year, they won their first Cup together, and the Blackhawks have since become a dynasty with three Cup wins this decade.
Timeline to contention: Second season; Two generational talents, though.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
The Lightning still had the core pieces from their pre-lockout Stanley Cup win, but sputtered to a 30th place finish in the 2007-08 season. They won the lottery, giving them the opportunity to choose between Stamkos and Drew Doughty with the first overall pick. They chose Stamkos, who struggled to get consistent ice time in his first season and put up “only” 23 goals and 46 points over the course of the season. The team actually finished with five fewer points than the year before, and finished 29th in the league. With 2009’s second overall pick, they selected Victor Hedman, who has since become one of the best defensemen in the league. In the 09-10 season, Stamkos broke out, scoring 51 goals and 95 points; Hedman made his NHL debut at age 19 and put up 20 points in 74 games; and the team improved to 24th in the league with an 80 point season – eight points out of the playoffs. Then came the breakout in the 2010-11 season, as the team surged to an 103 point season – seventh in the league – and made it all the way to game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. Stamkos finished with 45 goals and 91 points, but the team’s breakout can also be attributed to a new coach – Guy Boucher instead of Rick Tocchet –and the continued contribution of Marty St. Louis, who led the team with 99 points.
Things didn’t follow a prescribed path from there, though: in the year after their Conference Final run, the team finished with 84 points, missed the playoffs, and didn’t make it back to the playoffs until the 2013-14 season. In the 2014-15 season, they finally made it to the Stanley Cup, losing in six to the Blackhawks. They made it back to the conference finals last season, losing in seven to the eventual champions, but have struggled this year and will probably miss the playoffs. While the team has yo-yoed between contention and bottom feeding, Stamkos and Hedman have been excellent.
Timeline to contention: Third season, though it’s been complicated
New York Islanders: John Tavares
Tavares had plenty of “best prospect since Crosby” hype during his draft year, despite his below-average skating. The Islanders finished dead last in the 2008-09 season with a pitiful 61 points, won the lottery, and grabbed Tavares. He led the team in scoring the next year – notching 20 goals and 54 points – and the team improved to 4th from last with 79 points. The next season, Tavares again lead the team in scoring with 29 goals and 67 points, but the team stagnated, and again finished fourth from last with 73 points. In 2011-12, Tavares again led the team in scoring as the Islanders … finished fourth from last in the league with 79 points. (I’m sensing a theme here.)
Finally, during the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Islanders reached the playoffs, losing in the first round. I regret to inform you, however, that the Islanders finished fifth from last the following season, Tavares missing a chunk of the season with an ACL injury he sustained at the Olympics. They’ve made the playoffs the last two seasons, making it out of the first round once, but are not likely to make the playoffs this year. Tavares is still very, very good. The Islanders, however, are not.
Timeline to contention: Fourth season, though they’ve never become a Cup contender
Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon
The Avalanche struggled throughout the first half of this decade, finally getting rewarded with a lottery win after finishing second from last in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. MacKinnon was the recipient of plenty of hype during his draft season, even if he wasn’t the consensus pick among scouts at the top of the draft – plenty of people preferred Seth Jones to MacKinnon that year. Mackinnon was drafted first overall and joined a somewhat loaded forward group, led by lottery picks Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, along with Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly. At just 18 years old, MacKinnon put up 24 goals and 63 points in his first season, and the Avalanche, despite horrible possession numbers, finished third in the league with 112 points, losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Since then, though, they’ve fallen back to Earth, finishing ninth from last in 2014-15 and eighth from the basement last season, their point total decreasing each season. This season has been an utter disaster – the team is far and away the worst in the league, and in the conversation for worst non-tank team of the salary cap era. MacKinnon has not yet matched his rookie season’s point total in any of the three seasons since, but he’s still a great player – he’s just trapped on a bad, bad team.
Timeline to contention: One mirage season; but really, not there yet.
Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid et al.
Ah, the Oilers, the arrow in the quiver of every single anti-tanker out there. “Oh, you think tanking works?” they’d slyly ask, before, invariably, bringing up Edmonton. The Oilers were bad enough to win three straight lotteries from 2010 to 2012, picking up Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov. Hall and Nugent Hopkins were arguably thought of as “generational” talents in their draft years, and both played pretty well in their early NHL years. Hall finished with 80 points in 75 games in his third NHL season, and Nugent Hopkins put up back-to-back 56 point seasons in his third and fourth seasons. But the team never finished above sixth from last and were awful enough to finish third from last during the 2014-15 season. Of course, the two teams they finished ahead of were the Coyotes and Sabres, who were shamelessly tanking.
So the Oilers were just awful, but not on purpose. As we all know, they still managed to luck into the biggest lottery prize since Crosby in Connor McDavid, and the rest is history. McDavid was injured for a good chunk of his first season, but put up over a point per game when he did play. The team around him was still awful, though, finishing second from last in the league. In the offseason, the team traded Hall for an above average defenseman in Adam Larsson, and signed Milan Lucic, but the roster still isn’t amazing. McDavid has been so good this season – leading the league in points – that he’s essentially lifting an average roster into the playoffs. For all the talk of the anti-tankers, the Oilers and McDavid eventually proved them wrong – it just took another insane stroke of luck and this generation’s best player to do it.
Timeline to contention: Two seasons post McDavid; seven seasons post Hall lottery win, because they’re the Oilers.
Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets: Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine
The Maple Leafs are probably going to make the playoffs this season, barring a truly Torontonian collapse. This has caused much consternation in Buffalo, as the Leafs have already made the leap out of the basement and into the playoffs in their generational player’s first season. Of course, the Leafs had a better roster surrounding Matthews this season than the Sabres did in Eichel’s rookie season, a better coach, and two other excellent young players in Mitch Marner and William Nylander aiding hin. (The Sabres have Sam Reinhart and are waiting on Alex Nylander; I’d probably pick the Leafs’ three over the Sabres, but it’s close). It’s useful to look at the Jets, who finished sixth from last in the league last year, as a more realistic example of contention timelines. They moved up in last year’s lottery and picked Patrik Laine, who already looks to be an Ovechkin or Stamkos level goal scorer. The Jets are right next to the Sabres in the standings this year, though, unable to break through in tough Western conference, despite having a bevy of young talent and a better defense corps than the Sabres.
Timeline to contention: one season for the Leafs, TBD for the Jets.
Teams that make it to the playoffs in the second season after drafting a generational talent also tend to have a lot of other talent on the roster, or at least another special player. The Penguins had Crosby and Malkin; the Blackhawks had Kane and Toews; the Oilers have McDavid, Leon Draisatl (third overall in 2014), and Nugent Hopkins; and the Leafs have Matthews, Marner and Nylander. For everyone else, it takes some time, and usually a series of other moves – nailing other draft picks, finding the right coach, firing the wrong ones, and making some good free agency decisions. The Sabres have yet to make those moves.
It’s entirely plausible that this year’s Sabres team would at least be in playoff contention had they gotten full seasons from Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, and Evander Kane, fitting them roughly into the two year timeline. It’s more likely that this team would’ve still been hampered by the d-corps, and missed the playoffs, but a three year wait is consistent with plenty of recent draft-based rebuilds. It’s up to Tim Murray to make the crucial next moves that will prevent this team from mirroring the Oilers (an extreme example), Avalanche, or Islanders. Having Jack Eichel makes team-building a lot easier, but the hardest part is taking that next step.