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To tank or not to tank?: How the Canadiens’ situation compares to recent Cup champions

Most of the teams who’ve hoisted the Stanley Cup have gone through rough patches. This is how they ultimately turned it around.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

“Rebuild.” It’s the word that was on every Montrealer’s lips this off-season, except for Marc Bergevin. And who could blame them? The selection of Jesperi Kotkaniemi over Filip Zadina, the injury to Shea Weber, and the trades of Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty all pointed to a Canadiens team looking past this season to the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and beyond.

The first two games slammed the brakes on those thoughts. Instead of the expected struggles, the Habs came out of the gate firing on all cylinders with a new playstyle and, dare I say, a new attitude. Now, the question in Montreal is whether this team is actually talented enough to build from, or whether this first week was all smoke and mirrors which should not distract the team from its ultimate prize: Jack Hughes.

In order to properly address whether the Canadiens should tank or not, we have to look at past precedent in the NHL. How long does a team have to tank to be successful? What sort of players are required from the tank? And was tanking alone sufficient to reverse the team’s fortunes?

Here, we examine the fates of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks, and Los Angeles Kings, to determine how they found themselves in the league basement, what worked (and what didn’t) for them, and how their situation relates to the one the Habs find themselves in at the moment.

Pittsburgh Penguins

The lean years

  • 2001-02: 69 points, drafted Ryan Whitney (5th overall)
  • 2002-03: 65 points, drafted Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall)
  • 2003-04: 58 points, drafted Evgeni Malkin (2nd overall)
  • 2004-05: Lockout, drafted Sidney Crosby (1st overall)
  • 2005-06: 58 points, drafted Jordan Staal (2nd overall)

Was it a planned tank?

Heading into a new millenium, the Penguins were a good team. All that changed when the team traded Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals in the 2011 off-season, sending the franchise into a tailspin that even Mario Lemieux could not salvage. The on-ice struggles translated into off-ice issues, nearly costing Pittsburgh their NHL franchise. If this was strategic, it was one hell of a strategy.

Why did tanking work?

Crosby, Malkin, and Staal gave the Penguins one of, if not the best centre spines in the NHL. Combined with Fleury’s excellent (albeit somewhat inconsistent) goaltending and some key free-agent signings such as Marian Hossa and Sergei Gonchar, the Pens went from bottom-feeders to Stanley Cup finalists in two seasons.

Still, it would take a mid-season coaching change, the savvy deadline acquisition of Bill Guerin, the emergence of third-round draft pick Kris Letang, and the heroics of Maxime Talbot to push them over that final hurdle.

Did it last?

The following season, the Penguins were certainly one of the favourites to repeat, but then ... they came up against this:

The year after, this happened:

Crosby’s prolonged injury woes, combined with Fleury’s infamous playoff goaltending meltdowns, meant that the Penguins could only muster a single conference final appearance in the next six seasons, something that would cost Dan Bylsma his job after the 2015-16 campaign.

Are they still among the league’s elite?

The thing is, when you have players of the calibre of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on your team, you’re pretty much always, at worst, a year away from contending (unless you’re the Edmonton Oilers). The Penguins retooled by changing their coaching staff, nurturing third-round pick Matt Murray, and taking some educated risks on reclamation projects like Carl Hagelin, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bonino. Oh, Phil Kessel falling into their lap didn’t hurt, either.

Overall verdict?

It has to be noted that of the Penguins’ five top-five picks during their lean years, only two are still with the team. Ryan Whitney never reached the lofty heights expected from such a high pick, Jordan Staal was jettisoned for salary reasons, and Marc-Andre Fleury became a liability in the latter half of his Penguins tenure. In that respect, it wasn’t the volume of top-five draft picks that allowed the Penguins to become a dominant force in the NHL for the better part of the last 15 years, it was the fact that Malkin and Crosby just happened to be available to them. Even then, would we be talking about the Penguins as an Oilers-level flop if Talbot hadn’t been a hero and Murray hadn’t panned out?

Washington Capitals

The lean years

  • 2003-04: 53 points, drafted Alex Ovechkin (1st overall)
  • 2004-05: Lockout, drafted Sasha Pokulok (14th overall)
  • 2005-06: 70 points, drafted Nicklas Backstrom (4th overall)
  • 2006-07: 70 points, drafted Karl Alzner (5th overall)

Was it a planned tank?

The Washington Capitals had acquired Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins in 2001 in hopes that he, together with Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, and Olaf Kolzig, would help the Caps recapture the magic of their 1998 run to the Final. Instead, the Jagr-led Caps failed to win a playoff round and Jagr’s salary was a driving factor in ownership deciding to cut overall payroll costs. On January 1, 2004, the Capitals were 11–23–3–1 for the season and a fire sale was on the horizon. Gonchar went to Boston, Jagr to the Rangers, Bondra to Ottawa, and Robert Lang, the team’s leading scorer, went to Detroit.

Even if Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin weren’t the top-ranked prospects that year, the fire sale would have made sense because the Jagr acquisition simply had not worked out the way that the Capitals would have liked. On the other hand, the Caps purposefully gutted their team of anything resembling talent and won three of the 18 games played after Lang was dealt on Feburary 27, 2004. When Ovechkin joined the Caps two years later, he immediately became the team’s leading scorer with 106 points (52 G, 54 A). Dainius Zubrus was second... with 57 points total.

Why did tanking work?

Alex Ovechkin (alongside his trusty sidekick Nicklas Backstrom) has unquestionably been the heart and soul of the Capitals organization since his arrival transformed a good-but-not-great franchise into one of the elite teams in the NHL, but Sasha Pokuluk was a non-factor and Karl Alzner never developed into a player that could play “third amigo” to Ovechkin and Backstrom the way that Fleury and Staal did for Pittsburgh.

Tha Caps’ resurgence was largely fueled through trades rather than directly via the draft, having acquired Tomas Fleischmann and the pick that would become Mike Green from Detroit for Lang, Brooks Laich from Ottawa for Bondra, and Shaone Morrisonn and the pick that would become Jeff Schultz from Boston for Gonchar. Two years later, Brendan Witt would be flipped to the Nashville Predators for the pick that would become Semyon Varlamov. When the Capitals faced off against the Penguins for the first of their many post-season clashes in 2009, all of these players were be in the lineup.

Did it last?

The Capitals penchant for post-season underachievement is the stuff of legend, but that shouldn’t diminish the fact that they’ve been consistently excellent since 2007-08. The NHL is a league of very fine margins, and one of the Capitals’ problems, especially in the early portion of Ovechkin’s career, was that they simply didn’t have anyone else step up. It’s easy to mock the Capitals playoff futility from 2009 to 2015, but remember, the difference between the Penguins and Capitals during that stretch was only a single Game 7.

Are they still among the league’s elite?

The Capitals finally got Ovechkin and Backstrom a supporting cast, and they did not have to suck back-to-back to do it. Young talents like Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson proved better options in key roster spots than the likes of Fleischmann, Laich, and Alex Semin had.

Most critically, the Caps managed to draft players who could legitimately play third wheel to Ovechkin and Backstrom in John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Braden Holtby, and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Add a few free agents still in their primes (T.J. Oshie, Matt Niskanen, and Lars Eller) to that list, and the Caps managed to improve their roster over the years despite not having a top-10 draft pick since 2007.

Overall verdict?

Much like the Penguins, the Capitals, so long as they had Ovechkin and Backstrom, were never far from elite status at any given time. Savvy drafting, talent development, and a few well positioned signings meant that despite internal hand-wringing about defence vs. offence tactics and 40 years of history on their back, the Caps were still well positioned to finally figure it out — and get a little puck luck for once — one of these years.

Chicago Blackhawks

The lean years

  • 1997-98: 73 points, drafted Mark Bell (8th overall)
  • 1998-99: 70 points, drafted Steve McCarthy (23rd overall)
  • 1999-2000: 78 points, drafted Mikhail Yakubov (10th overall)
  • 2000-01: 71 points, drafted Tuomo Ruutu (9th overall)
  • 2002-03: 79 points, drafted Brent Seabrook (14th overall)
  • 2003-04: 59 points, drafted Cam Barker (3rd overall)
  • 2004-05: Lockout, drafted Jack Skille (7th overall)
  • 2005-06: 65 points, drafted Jonathan Toews (3rd overall)
  • 2006-07: 71 points, drafted Patrick Kane (1st overall)

Was it a planned tank?

Probably not. The Chicago Blackhawks were a bad team for a long time, to the point where they were named the worst franchise in sports by ESPN in 2004. It didn’t help matters that the picks themselves were also bad (Yakubov played less than 100 NHL games, and of the rest, only Seabrook and Ruutu passed 500 NHL games). Furthermore, despite the futility, the team constantly tried to sign big-name free agents: even after gutting the roster in 2004 and winding up with 17 picks for that year’s entry draft, Dave Tallon went out and acquired Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin via free agency.

Why did tanking work?

As bad as the Hawks were in drafting in the first round, they were exceptional when it came to drafting in later rounds, selecting the likes of Duncan Keith (54th overall, 2002), Corey Crawford (52th overall, 2003), Dustin Byfuglien (245th overall, 2003), Dave Bolland (32nd overall, 2004), Bryan Bickell (41st overall, 2004), Troy Brouwer (214th overall, 2004), and Niklas Hjalmarsson (108th overall, 2005). They even managed to ship out some of their less successful high first-rounders for useful pieces. Cam Barker was dealt for Nick Leddy in 2010 while Jack Skille was traded for Michael Frolik in 2011.

Kane and Toews may have propelled the Blackhawks out of the cellar, but it was the supporting cast, and the front office’s ability to constantly replace supporting parts over the years, that guided them to three Stanley Cups in six seasons.

Are they still among the league’s elite?

Maybe. Large long-term contracts to Kane and Toews have left them hamstrung for several years now when it came to the salary cap, forcing them to trade promising players such as Teuvo Teravainen. In previous years, the Hawks were able to recover by bringing up new waves of talent, but the jury is out as to whether Saad, Alex DeBrincat, and Nick Schmaltz can resurrect a team that missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2008.

Overall verdict?

By this point, it’s starting to sound like a broken record, but the Hawks’ success, like that of the Penguins and the Capitals, was driven by their constant ability to support their elite duo with a rotating cast of not only complementary support players, but even elite ones. The Blackhawks will serve as an interesting case study going forward, as they may be the first to have to deal with an age-related decline in their core elite talent.

Los Angeles Kings

The lean years

  • 2002-03: 78 points, drafted Dustin Brown (13th overall)
  • 2003-04: 81 points, drafted Lauri Tukonen (11th overall)
  • 2004-05: Lockout, drafted Anze Kopitar (11th overall)
  • 2005-06: 89 points, drafted Jonathan Bernier (11th overall)
  • 2006-07: 68 points, drafted Thomas Hickey (4th overall)
  • 2007-08: 71 points, drafted Drew Doughty (2nd overall)
  • 2008–09: 79 points, drafted Brayden Schenn (5th overall)

Was it a planned tank?

Like the Hawks, the Kings were bad for a longer stretch than the Penguins and the Capitals. The constant presence of a star player or two — Zigmund Palffy, Luc Robitaille, Pavol Demitra, Lubomir Visnovsky, Rob Blake, Michael Cammalleri — kept the Kings in “decent-but-not-good-enough-to-make-the-playoffs” territory until they decided to invest in Dan Cloutier prior to the start of the 2006-07 season. Needless to say, it didn’t work out.

The Kings would cycle through five goalies that season and an astonishing seven the next before settling on a then-23-year-old named Jonathan Quick. Management’s failed gamble with Cloutier not only allowed Quick to rise to the top of a crowded field, it also netted them Doughty.

Why did tanking work?

The thing is, if not for Doughty, the Kings could have been right up next to the Oilers in the Failed Tanking Hall of Fame. Thomas Hickey never played a regular-season game for the Kings and Brayden Schenn only managed nine before being dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers. Doughty and Quick, together with Kopitar, gave the Kings an elite player at forward, defence, and goaltender; a foundation to build from.

Trade acquisitions like Jeff Carter (for Jack Johnson), Justin Williams (for Patrick O’Sullivan), Dustin Penner (for Colton Teubert), and Mike Richards (for Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds) turned the Kings from a good team into a great team. Yet it would take an all-world performance from Quick in 2012 (.946 save percentage in 20 playoff games) for the Kings to win the Stanley Cup.

Are they still among the league’s elite?

Another big maybe. And perhaps the Kings were never really elite. Unlike the other three teams looked at here, the Kings haven’t won their division since 1991 (when it was still the Smythe). Their first Stanley Cup came on the back of Quick, their second saw the Kings fend off eight elimination games during three consecutive series which went the distance. Since then, they’ve alternated first-round exits and missing the playoffs altogether, and last year, not even a performance by Quick which was better than his 2012 run (.947 save percentage in four games) could save the Kings from being swept by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Overall verdict?

Cloutier is the best thing to have ever happened to the Los Angeles Kings franchise — even better than Wayne Gretzky. It took three bites at the apple to come out with one Drew Doughty, but without him, the Kings dynasty sputters on the launchpad.

Montreal Canadiens

The lean years

  • 2002–03: 77 points, drafted Andrei Kostitsyn (10th overall)
  • 2004–05: Lockout, drafted Carey Price (5th overall)
  • 2006–07: 90 points, drafted Ryan McDonagh (12th overall)
  • 2011–12: 78 points, drafted Alex Galchenyuk (3rd overall)
  • 2015–16: 68 points, drafted Mikhail Sergachev (9th overall)
  • 2017–18: 71 points, drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi (3rd overall)

Is this already a tank?

The Habs have been fortunate/unfortunate enough to not endure/enjoy consecutive playoff-less seasons since 2001. Yet, at the same time, they’ve now had the same number of top-five draft picks since the lockout (three) as both Washington and Chicago. Heck, they even managed to steal one of those three players (probably the wrong one) away from the Capitals.

If these picks had been grouped together between 2002-2008, we would have called it a tank, no questions asked. However, the Habs currently have assets directly tied to their first-rounders from five of these six draft years (Price, Tomas Tatar, Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, and Kotkaniemi) on their active roster.

So, have the Habs already executed their tank? Do they still need to keep tanking?

This is the elephant in the room. The common thread between Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles appears to be that having one elite player means a trip to the league basement, two elite players makes you decent, but three or more are required to really make a team a contender.

The answer to the question “should the Canadiens tank?” lies in the answer to the question “how many elite players do the Canadiens have?”

The optimist will say that Carey Price can be the best goalie in the world, that Shea Weber is an exceptional defenceman equal to or not far off P.K. Subban, that Brendan Gallagher is emerging as a rival to Brad Marchand, and that Jesperi Kotkaniemi can be the centre that the Habs have searched for since the mid-1990s.

The pessimist will point to Price’s knees, to Weber’s foot, to Gallagher’s wrist, and to Kotkaniemi’s pre-draft ranking.

If Weber and Price are still elite, if Gallagher and Kotkaniemi are poised to join them, if Artturi Lehkonen, Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Noah Juulsen, and Victor Mete are ready to emerge as key players that would fit on any NHL roster, then the Canadiens have no reason to do anything other than let the season play out as a product of the players’ efforts.

If Kotkaniemi is the only bright light on the roster, then the Canadiens would be best served with a complete fire sale of anyone over the age of 30, resulting in multiple years in the league basement.

Perhaps an answer based more on objective fact than partisan opinion will develop by the end of this year.