Bruins

Can Bruins learn from Stanley Cup champion Avalanche on team building?

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The Colorado Avalanche had been knocking at the door of a Stanley Cup championship for several years. And on Sunday night, they kicked the door open, grabbed the best trophy in sports and hoisted it high into the air.

The Avalanche's path to the Stanley Cup wasn't easy. There was plenty of pain along the way, and not just the frustrating second-round playoff losses in each of the previous three seasons.

Colorado, from 2009 through 2017, missed the playoffs seven times in a nine-year span. It was a pretty rough stretch, especially after winning two Stanley Cup titles and reaching the postseason 11 times in the 12 previous years.

The Avalanche were not afraid of being an awful team. They were rewarded with high first-round draft picks and hit on many of them.

Here's a recap of notable first-round selections in that window:

  • 2009: Matt Duchene, 3rd overall (traded in 2017 for multiple picks and d-man Samuel Girard)
  • 2011: Gabriel Landeskog, 2nd overall
  • 2013: Nathan MacKinnon, 1st overall
  • 2015: Mikko Rantanen, 10th overall
  • 2017: Cale Makar, 4th overall

There were plenty of draft misses during that nine-year span from 2009 through 2017, but the Avs nailed their most important picks. Sure, there's lots of luck involved. They won the 2013 NHL Draft Lottery in a year with an elite center prospect in Nathan MacKinnon at the top of the rankings. Colorado also was fortunate to have the No. 4 pick in a 2017 draft that included ultra-talented defensemen prospects Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen. The Devils and Flyers picked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in 2017 and both passed on those star defensemen.

The Avalanche bottomed out. They were mostly bad for almost a decade. The reward was six top 10 picks from 2009 through 2017 that built their Cup-winning core.

 

Should the Bruins try something similar?

A strong case could be made for implementing that kind of strategy. The last time the Bruins picked in the top 10 with their own selection was 2007 when they took Zach Hamill at No. 8 overall. 

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The Bruins' prospect pool is quite weak -- one of the league's worst, in fact. The only star players under age 30 are defenseman Charlie McAvoy (24) and right wing David Pastrnak (26). Fabian Lysell shows plenty of promise as a potential top-six winger, but the 2021 first-round pick has never played in an NHL game. Mason Lohrei has top-four defenseman potential, but he also has yet to play in the NHL and will return to Ohio State for the 2022-23 campaign. After Lysell and Lohrei, the talent level in Boston's prospect pool drops off significantly. 

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The best way to acquire franchise cornerstone talent is to essentially tank for several seasons and nail the draft picks in the first couple rounds. Unlike the NBA, top 10 players almost never hit NHL free agency. If you don't draft them, you have to trade for them, and that's very expensive and risky.

Bottoming out worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins when they drafted Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. It worked for the Chicago Blackhawks when they drafted Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Duncan Keith.

Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2020 and 2021 and became the first team in the salary cap era to reach the Cup Final three consecutive years. The Lightning drafted nearly all of their top players from this run, including Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

We've seen teams be bad for a long time, get high picks and still struggle. The Edmonton Oilers are finally a contender but it took a long time and many first-round picks (including four No. 1 overall selections since 2010). The Buffalo Sabres have made a top 10 pick nine straight years and haven't made the playoffs once in that span. The best player from that group, Jack Eichel, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights last year.

Despite those examples, there's plenty of evidence that this strategy can work. The real question is whether Bruins ownership and Bruins fans would be able to stomach several years of bad hockey. It doesn't have to be seven or eight years. But what about three or four straight seasons of hard-to-watch hockey?

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It's not just small markets or non-traditional markets that undergo years of rebuilding. Original Six teams go through it, too. The aforementioned Blackhawks did it. The Detroit Red Wings have been doing it for several years now and it has produced future stars Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider.

 

The Toronto Maple Leafs, in the center of the hockey universe where expectations are always high, were awful from 2014 through 2017. The result was drafting superstars Mitch Marner (No. 4 in 2015) and Auston Matthews (No. 1 in 2016). William Nylander at No. 8 overall in 2014 was a very good pick, too.

The Bruins could have rebuilt after trading away Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton before the 2015 NHL Draft. They could have gone in a different direction following a disappointing 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in the COVID bubble. Each time the Bruins could have rebuilt or retooled in any meaningful way over the last 10 years, they've just run it back with mostly the same roster.

In the team's defense, the results have been pretty good -- 13 playoff appearances in the last 15 years with one Stanley Cup title in three Cup Final trips -- but it might be time to finally pursue a difficult path.

The best way to acquire franchise cornerstone talent is to essentially tank for several seasons and nail the draft picks in the first couple rounds. Unlike the NBA, top 10 players almost never hit NHL free agency. If you don't draft them, you have to trade for them, and that's very expensive and risky.

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Look at the current Bruins roster. It doesn't stack up to the Avalanche or Lightning. Not even close. It's also weaker than several of the Bruins' top competitors in a loaded Eastern Conference that includes the Lightning, Leafs, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes, among other quality opponents.

The two-best players on the Bruins roster are Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Bergeron is an 18-year veteran and 36 years old. Marchand is 34 and recently had surgery on both hips. The Bruins need to get younger, faster and more skilled. That's the way NHL hockey is played now. Yes, toughness still matters, but the modern game is about high-end offensive talent.

There are many ways to build a Stanley Cup winner. But the best way to build a consistent, legit championship contender for five to seven years or so is through the draft. At some point, whenever Bergeron decides to retire and Marchand is no longer an elite player, the time will come for the Bruins to make the smart decision and rebuild. When that time arises, Don Sweeney should not be making those high first-round picks.