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

Can the Bruins learn team building from Stanley Cup champion Avalanche? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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

The Avalanche’s journey to the Stanley Cup wasn’t easy. There was a lot of pain along the way, and not just the frustrating second-round playoff losses of each of the previous three seasons.

Colorado missed the playoffs seven times in nine years from 2009 to 2017. It was pretty tough work, especially after winning two Stanley Cup titles and reaching the postseason 11 times in the previous 12 years.

The Avalanche weren’t afraid to be a terrible team. They were rewarded with big first-round draft picks and hit a lot of them.

Here’s a summary of the notable first-round selections in this window:

  • 2009: Matt Duchene, 3rd overall (traded in 2017 for multiple picks and D-Man Samuel Girard)

  • 2011: Gabriel Landeskog, second overall

  • 2013: Nathan MacKinnon, 1st overall

  • 2015: Mikko Rantanen, tenth overall

  • 2017: Cale Makar, 4th overall

During those nine years from 2009 to 2017, there were many draft misses, but the Avs made their key picks. Sure, good luck is part of it. 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 was also fortunate to have the No. 4 in a 2017 draft that included highly talented defensemen Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen. The Devils and Flyers picked Nos. 1 and 2 respectively in 2017 and both passed on those star defenders.

The avalanche has reached its lowest point. They were mostly bad for almost a decade. The reward was six top 10 picks from 2009-2017, forming their cup-winning core.

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Should the Bruins try something similar?

A strong case could be made for implementing such a strategy. The last time the Bruins finished in the top 10 with their own selection was in 2007 when they ousted Zach Hamill for 8th overall.

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

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The best way to attract cornerstone franchise talent is to essentially tank multiple seasons and hit the draft picks in the first few rounds. Unlike the NBA, the top 10 players almost never encounter the NHL free agency. If you don’t design them, you have to trade them, and that’s very expensive and risky.

Bottoming 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 as they called up Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Duncan Keith.

Check out 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 finals three years in a row. 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 long seen teams do bad, 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 picks since 2010). The Buffalo Sabers have made the top 10 for nine straight years and never made the playoffs in that span. The top player from this group, Jack Eichel, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights last year.

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

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It’s not just small markets or non-traditional markets that go through years of rebuilding. Original six teams also go through it. The aforementioned Blackhawks did. The Detroit Red Wings have been doing this for a number of years and it has produced future stars Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider.

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

The Bruins could have rebuilt after trading Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton ahead of the 2015 NHL Draft. They could have gone in a different direction after disappointing 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs amid the COVID bubble. Every time the Bruins have rebuilt or retooled in a meaningful way over the past 10 years, they’ve just scaled it back with mostly the same roster.

Results have been pretty good on the team’s defense – 13 playoff appearances in the last 15 years with a Stanley Cup title in three cup finals – but it might be time to finally embark on a difficult path.

The best way to attract cornerstone franchise talent is to essentially tank multiple seasons and hit the draft picks in the first few rounds. Unlike the NBA, the top 10 players almost never encounter the NHL free agency. If you don’t design them, you have to trade them, and that’s very expensive and risky.

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Check out the current roster of Bruins. It can’t compete with Avalanche or Lightning. Not even close. It’s also weaker than some of the Bruins’ top contenders in a loaded Eastern Conference that includes the Lightning, Leafs, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes, among others.

The top two players in the Bruins roster are Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Bergeron is an 18-year veteran and 36 years old. Marchand is 34 and has recently had surgery on both hips. The Bruins need to get younger, faster, and smarter. This is how NHL hockey is played now. Yes, toughness still matters, but the modern game is all about high-end offensive talent.

There are many ways to build a Stanley Cup winner. But the best way to build a consistent, legitimate championship contender for about five to seven years is through the draft. Eventually, when Bergeron decides to retire and Marchand is no longer an elite player, the time will come for the Bruins to make the wise decision and rebuild. When that time comes, Don Sweeney shouldn’t be making those high first-round picks.

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