Rebuild reports: Which NHL teams are making the most progress?
By Allan Muir Rebuilding a struggling franchise takes time and it's frequently a confounding and frustrating process. Witness the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders, former dynasties that have been stocking up on young talent for years with little to show for it. The Isles gained some traction with last season's return to the playoffs after a six-year absence, but the natives in Edmonton are understandably restless as the Oilers, absent from the postseason since 2005, continue to struggle despite three consecutive No. 1 overall draft picks (2010-12), three other Top 10s since 2007, free agent plum Justin Schultz, plus four head coaches and two GMs in the last five seasons. CAZENEUVE: Oilers and Islanders remain works in progress Here's a look at how the other notable efforts around the league are going:
Colorado AvalancheBuilding blocks: Forwards Nathan MacKinnon (age 18), Matt Duchene (22), Ryan O'Reilly (22) and Gabriel Landeskog (20); defenseman Tyson Barrie (22); goaltender Semyon Varlamov (25) On the way: Forward Michael Sgarbossa (21); defensemen Stefan Elliott (22), Chris Bigras (18), Duncan Siemens (20), Will Butcher (18) Movable parts: Forward Paul Stastny Missing pieces: Two top-pairing blueliners, top-six right wing Stumbling block: Forward Joey Hishon, a 2010 first rounder (17th overall), has been plagued by concussion problems and played just nine games since 2011. Timeline: Five years into a rebuild and just three months after making the first overall selection in the 2013 draft, the Avs look like a legitimate playoff contender this season. Much of the credit belongs to new coach/VP of Hockey Operations Patrick Roy, but the play of journeymen Nate Guenin and Andre Benoit has been key to stabilizing a wobbly back end. That's made life much easier on Varlamov, and the positive impact on his confidence has been unmistakeable.
Buffalo SabresBuilding blocks: Forwards Mikhail Grigorenko (19), Zemgus Girgensons (19), Cody Hodgson (23) and Johan Larsson (21); defensemen Rasmus Ristolainen (18), Mark Pysyk (21) On the way: Forwards Gustav Possler (18), Joel Armia (20) and J.T. Compher (18); defensemen Nikita Zadorov (18) and Jake McCabe (20) Movable parts: Forward Thomas Vanek and goaltender Ryan Miller Missing pieces: Scoring wingers, legitimate No. 1 goaltender Stumbling block: Just 23, blueliner Tyler Myers should be rounding into shape as a stalwart on the top pair. Instead, he looks like a player whose confidence is shot and can only be used in protected minutes. Timeline: The trade of forward Paul Gaustad for a first rounder back in Feb. 2012 kicked off a rebuild that has yet to truly hit high gear. The deal that sent winger Jason Pominville to Minnesota at the deadline could be key as it added Larsson and the pick that was used on Zadorov, but that should pale next to the impact of dishing Vanek and Miller. The legacy of GM Darcy Regier, and the long-term health of the franchise, could hinge on how he manages those assets.
Calgary FlamesBuilding blocks: Forwards Sean Monahan (18), Sven Baertschi (21); defenseman T.J. Brodie (23) On the way: Forwards Mark Jankowski (19), Morgan Klimchuk (18), Johnny Gaudreau (20), Emile Poirier (18) and Corban Knight (23); defenseman Patrick Sieloff (19); goaltenders Jon Gillies (19) and Laurent Brossoit (20) Movable parts: Forwards Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak Missing pieces: A top-six right wing, top-four defenders Stumbling block: The Flames expected 2008 first rounder Greg Nemisz would develop into the kind of bull-sized pivot who could match-up defensively against top centers by now. He looks like a bust. Timeline: For a team that just committed to a rebuild late last season, the Flames have reasonably decent depth in their system to go along with some interesting high-end prospects, but most of this talent is a couple of years away from being able to contribute. The development of Sieloff, who was kept in the AHL this year rather than returned to junior hockey, is particularly promising. So is the goaltending group, which includes Reto Berra and Karri Ramo on the current roster and national junior team keepers Gillies and Brossoit in the system.
Florida PanthersBuilding blocks: Forwards Alexander Barkov (18), Jonathan Huberdeau (20), Nick Bjugstad (21); defensemen Erik Gudbranson (21) and Dmitry Kulikov (22); goaltender Jacob Markstrom (23) On the way: Forwards Rocco Grimaldi (20), Vincent Trocheck (20), Quinton Howden (21) and Kyle Rau (20); defensemen Alex Petrovic (21), Michael Matheson (19), Ian McCoshen (18) Movable parts: Forwards Brad Boyes and Scott Gomez; defensemen Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney; goaltender Tim Thomas Missing pieces: A top-six right wing, top-pair defenders Stumbling block: Jacob Markstrom isn't as highly regarded as he was, say, two years ago, but the trajectory of a goaltender's development can be unpredictable. The Panthers are counting on him to be their goalie of the future. If he can't live up to that, there's a big organizational hole to fill. Timeline: The Panthers boast one of the deepest organizations in the league with a nice mix of skill, size and toughness. It's just a matter now of giving these kids the time and opportunity to find their footing. Two or three years from now, this could be a very interesting side . . . especially if GM Dale Tallon can turn a couple of his late UFA signings like Thomas and Boyes into young futures before the trade deadline.
Dallas StarsBuilding blocks: Forwards Jamie Benn (24), Tyler Seguin (21), Alex Chiasson (23), Cody Eakin (22), Valeri Nichushkin (18), Antoine Roussel (23); defenseman Brendan Dillon (22) On the way: Forwards Brett Ritchie (20), Radek Faksa (19), Jason Dickinson (18), Emil Molin (20) and Mike Winther (19); defensemen Ludwig Bystrom (19), Jamie Oleksiak (20), Kevin Connauton (23); goaltender Jack Campbell (21) Movable parts: Forward Ray Whitney; defenseman Stephane Robidas Missing pieces: A legitimate No. 1 defender; sizable shutdown defensemen; top-six right wing Stumbling block: Questionable defense Timeline: It took way too long for this organization to recognize that its core had passed its best-by date, but the Stars fully committed to a rebuild last year. Now, thanks to some aggressive decisions by new GM Jim Nill, Dallas is on target to become a team to be reckoned with in the West, perhaps as soon as this season. Seguin and Eakin are a terrific 1-2 tandem down the middle, and there's some real scoring punch on the wings. Refusing to include Chiasson in the Seguin trade was huge -- he'll be a reliable top-six scorer for years to come. Roussel is a hidden gem, a badger-fierce enforcer who is just as valuable with his gloves on. But outside of Dillon, the defense remains a question mark. There are a number of interesting options, including Patrik Nemeth, Troy Vance and Niklas Hansson, but the team has done a lousy job of developing blueliners of late. They need some of these picks to start paying off, or they'll have to move other assets to fill the hole.
Columbus Blue JacketsBuilding blocks: Forwards Boone Jenner (20), Ryan Johansen (21), Cam Atkinson (24); defensemen Ryan Murray (20), Tim Erixon (22), Dalton Proult (23), David Savard (22); goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (25) On the way: Forwards Alexander Wennberg (19), Kerby Rychel (19), Marko Dano (18); goaltender Oscar Dansk (19) Movable parts: None, unless pending UFA Marian Gaborik surprises by refusing to re-sign. Missing Pieces: No. 1 center, No. 2 defender Stumbling Block: Missteps early in the 2008 (Nikita Filatov) and 2009 (John Moore) drafts. Timeline: It's not a rebuild in their proper sense because the Jackets have never really built anything of consequence in the first place, but the arrivals of hockey ops president John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen finally gave the franchise a real sense of direction. The pair quickly put their stamp on organization, with a well-regarded 2013 draft class and the bold signing of Nathan Horton. Now that Murray is in the lineup, there's no real high-end talent in system, but there's decent depth at all positions. The trick now will be finding a true No. 1 center -- tough from where they'll be drafting -- and developing a solid group of young blueliners into an NHL-ready defense corps.
New York IslandersBuilding blocks: Forwards John Tavares (23), Josh Bailey (24), Brock Nelson (22); defensemen Travis Hamonic (23), Matt Donovan (23) On the way: Forward Ryan Strome (20); defensemen Griffin Reinhart (19), Ryan Pulock (19), Ville Pokka (19), Scott Mayfield (21) and Calvin de Haan (22) Movable parts: not much Missing pieces: top-six right wing; No. 1 goaltender Stumbling block: The failed development of Nino Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick in 2010. Timeline:The Isles are six years into a rebuild that began to pay dividends with a surprising playoff berth in 2013, but given the time and number of premium picks they've had to work with--13 top-40 choices in the past six drafts--the results haven't quite matched expectations...yet. The focus has been on building an elite blueline, and the pieces look to be in place for to happen. In fact, the talent pool is probably overloaded on the back end. The challenge for Garth Snow is to leverage some of those Best Player Available choices into another scoring forward and a goalie who has more upside than current backup Kevin Poulin.
Edmonton OilersBuilding blocks: Forwards Taylor Hall (21), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (20), Jordan Eberle (24), Nail Yakupov (20), Sam Gagner (24); defenseman Justin Schultz (23) On the way: Forward Toni Rajala (22); defensemen Oscar Klefbom (20), Martin Marincin (21), Darnell Nurse (18) Movable parts: Forward Ales Hemsky Missing pieces: Reliable, physical defenders, depth scoring and a goalie. Any goalie. Stumbling block: It's too early to be seriously concerned about the development of Yakupov...but feel free to worry a little. Timeline: The Oilers came into this rebuild three years ago with a couple of decent pieces, including Eberle and Gagner, and added premium scorers in Hall and Nugent-Hopkins with successive first overall picks. The jury's out right now on Yakupov, but the odds are still good that he'll develop into a dangerous scorer. That's five top-six forwards in hand, an enviable base for the future. The blueline is a work in progress, but Klefbom, Nurse and Marincin look like they'll be top-four defenders in time, along with Schultz. The one problem: the glaring need in goal might demand they part with at least one of those pieces. It seems like each successive loss in this year's brutal start is hacking away chunks of patience in Edmonton, but the right move is to find someone this group can grow with rather than a more experienced hand to stop the bleeding.
New Jersey DevilsBuilding blocks: Forwards Adam Henrique (23), Andrei Loktionov (23), Jacob Josefson (22) and Mattias Tedenby (23); defenseman Adam Larsson (20) On the way: Defensemen Jon Merrill (21), Steven Santini (18), Eric Gelinas (22), Damon Severson (19) Movable parts: Forward Jaromir Jagr; defenseman Marek Zidlicky Missing pieces: Everything but a goalie. Literally. Everything. Stumbling block: The obstinance of GM Lou Lamoriello, who continues to put his faith into high-mileage 30-plus players instead of accepting the inevitable. Timeline: Two years after reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the Devils are a franchise in steep decline. And while they may not yet embrace the concept of a rebuild, they won't have a choice for much longer. Finding a legitimate replacement for Martin Brodeur in Cory Schneider was a big step, but beyond that, this is a wasteland. There's little in the way of young talent at the NHL level and the prospect pool is inarguably one of the weakest in hockey, lacking true, high-end upside and utterly bereft of scoring potential. If there is a destination called Hope, the farthest place from it is New Jersey.