It’s been up and down for the Detroit Red Wings this season, leading to debate within analysts and the fanbase as to where they truly are in the rebuild timeline.
Should they be further ahead? Will losing out and trying to get one more shot at the lottery help put them over the top? Should Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman and the front office still be trying to to acquire draft capital?
Regardless of where anyone falls in opinion, Detroit Hockey Now will look back at the Stanley Cup champions from the start of the Cap Era. From there, we will look at how they were constructed, how long their contention window was, and how many Cups they ended up with once it slammed shut. In the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, or St. Louis Blues, there may still be time left.
This will be the first in a series. In this piece, we’ll look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres.
Pittsburgh Penguins – Lottery Jackpots Speed Things Up
The Penguins were fortunate to draft Marc-Andre Fleury (2003, first overall), Evgeni Malkin, (2004, second overall) and Sidney Crosby all in a row (2005, first overall). Talk about hitting the jackpot. Beyond that, it supercharged a rebuild at the dawn of the Cap Era.
They’re also a unique case study in the Cap Era champions, getting a head start with franchise altering players three seasons in a row. In 2006, they took Jordan Staal second overall and while he didn’t produce like the latter two centers taken, but he still played a role during the Penguins’ playoff runs.
Malkin on playing with Crosby and Letang: "It's amazing. They are like my two brothers, one Canadian, and one French Canadian. It's not just hockey, it's life. We spend so much time together. Sid is an amazing guy. He's my favorite player, my favorite guy."
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) May 17, 2022
The Penguins’ success happened to coincide with three drafts that included top tier talent in Fleury, Malkin, and Crosby. Had they taken Jonathan Toews instead of Staal, one can only wonder how much more dominant they could have been. For Pittsburgh, the draft served as a rock-steady foundation that would carry them from its first playoff appearance to last season. Along with steady building through trades and free agency, the Penguins would pull the right lever at critical times during their window when it came to leadership changes, too.
What Can Pittsburgh’s Success Reveal for the Red Wings Rebuild?
Drafting all-world talents in consecutive drafts really helps things. Forgive the snarky response, but Pittsburgh’s run is unique because they literally hit the jackpot with nothing less than a second overall pick for four years straight.
Current President and then Anaheim GM Brian Burke once surmised that the “Pittsburgh model” was nothing more than winning a “god damn lottery.” That lottery culminated in 2005 netted the Penguins Sidney Crosby and set up a foundation for over a decade.
Pittsburgh would win Cups in 2009, 2016, and 2017 with Crosby as the captain. He will go down as one of the best players the game has seen. Unless Detroit gets unbelievably lucky in the 2023 lottery, there really isn’t much of a comparison. The Penguins drafted well, filled in the right pieces, but had a head start the Red Wings never had a chance to enjoy.
Buffalo Sabres – It Takes More Than Great Draft Position
The Sabres were certainly on the right side of the lottery balls during a brutally long rebuild. Last making the playoffs in 2012, Buffalo has been trying to exit the rebuild wilderness since. Also, 2012 was also the last time the enjoyed a winning season.
Buffalo has enjoyed more lottery success than Detroit–drafting second overall in 2015 (Jack Eichel) and 2016 (Sam Reinhart) while notching the first overall pick in 2018 (Rasmus Dahlin) and 2021 (Owen Power). Even with those high picks, Buffalo would balance the luck with poor decisions in free agency, trades, and personnel hires.
But the tide has seemingly changed recently. The Sabres have made shrewd trades, acquiring picks and players to bolster and build around their core.
🚨 OFFICIAL 🚨
The Golden Knights have acquired Jack Eichel and a conditional pick from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, and two conditional picks.
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) November 4, 2021
The Tage Thompson deal from 2018 has paid dividends that even the Sabres likely never dreamed possible. The Sabres currently sit third in the league in goals, and Thompson has 32 in 44 games. The Sabres appear to finally be rising after over a decade of trying to figure it out.
What Can Buffalo’s Rebuild Teach the Red Wings?
It takes a hell of a lot more than consistent lottery luck. While Pittsburgh drafted high and succeeded quickly, Buffalo didn’t experience such success.
The Sabres corrected course by taking some tough situations and trading their way into better players. This should delight Red Wings fans because Steve Yzerman’s record with trades has been impressive so far.
They also reveal the importance of selecting the right personnel. Buffalo has had six coaches since letting Lindy Ruff go back in 2012–which was the beginning of its losing ways. Three general managers have been at the helm since Buffalo let go of Darcy Regier in 2013. Kevyn Adams replaced Jason Botterill, who acquired Thompson, but it’s Adams who certainly swung some deals that acquired draft capital and impact players. Those deals also moved out some former high picks who weren’t panning out.
If there’s anything that’s close enough to the Red Wings, it’s Buffalo. Detroit hasn’t enjoyed the same lottery success, but Yzerman has used trades and free agency to try and build around his core. Could it mirror some of Buffalo’s decisions, and ship out mainstays like Tyler Bertuzzi at the trade deadline?