NHL rebuild rankings: Which teams are closest to contending?

Greg Wyshynski, ESPN

There’s been a revolution of candor in NHL rebuilding. Teams ranging from the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Rangers have been up front about the “pain” fans will have to endure as their teams bid adieu to beloved players and stagger through years of losing before rising like a hockey phoenix back to championship glory.

Currently, there are nearly a dozen teams in a rebuilding mode — although a few of them stubbornly refuse to acknowledge they’re in one.

Here is a ranking of the rebuilds, from the teams closest to returning to championship contention to the teams that are furthest from it. All roster and contract info is current as of July 25, and courtesy of Cap Friendly.

1. Carolina Hurricanes

Players 25 and under: 12

NHL players on entry-level contracts (expiry): Sebastian Aho, LW/C (2019); Andrei Svechnikov, RW (2021); Haydn Fleury, D (2019).

Top prospects in system: Svechnikov; Martin Necas, C (AHL); Jake Bean, D (AHL); Julien Gauthier, RW (AHL); Alex Nedeljkovic, G (AHL); Adam Fox, D (NCAA); Jack Drury, C (NCAA).

Draft pick forecast: The Hurricanes own all their picks through the fourth round through 2021.

The strategy: Under former general manager Ron Francis, the strategy was patience to the point of near stasis, as they held onto their draft picks, and a collection of young defensemen were nurtured while the team’s offense (which lacked depth at center in particular) sputtered. Don Waddell was part of that management team, and has since taken over as general manager under new owner Tom Dundon. At the draft, the team made an aggressive deal for defenseman Dougie Hamilton, trading away Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm.

But mostly, the strategy has been cost-effective and analytical, thanks in part to Eric Tulsky, a former hockey blogger who was recently promoted to Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy for the Hurricanes.

Is it working? If the Hamilton trade is a sign of moves to come, then yes. The anticipated trade of defenseman Justin Faulk for help up front would still leave Carolina with its top four defensemen locked up through 2021. Meanwhile, Aho is a burgeoning offensive star and Svechnikov could be a rock star for this team on the wing after going second overall in the 2018 draft.

Estimated return to relevance: The only two things giving us pause on the Hurricanes’ ascension to contender status is Rod Brind’Amour as a novice head coach and a current goaltending tandem of Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek; incredibly, that duo might be a downgrade from last season’s awful .897 team save percentage nightmare.

2. Arizona Coyotes

Players 25 and under: 11

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Clayton Keller, LW (2020); Lawson Crouse, LW (2019); Dylan Strome, C (2020); Brendan Perlini, LW (2019), Christian Dvorak, C (2019); Christian Fischer, RW (2020); Jakob Chychrun, D (2019).

Top prospects in system: Pierre-Olivier Joseph, D (QMJHL); Nick Merkley, C (AHL); Barrett Hayton, C (OHL).

Draft pick forecast: The Coyotes own all their picks through the fourth round through 2021, as well as the Blackhawks’ third-rounder next season.

The strategy: GM John Chayka has utilized the Coyotes’ limited advantages to build his roster. He has boldly used his draft choices on surprise selections (Keller at seventh overall in 2016, Hayton at fifth overall in 2018) and in one significant trade that netted him center Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta from the Rangers for a package that included young defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall pick in 2017. He has leveraged his cap space as an asset: Stepan and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (acquired in a trade from Chicago) were essentially cap casualties, while he also snagged picks and prospects for taking on the dead weight contracts of players like Pavel Datsyuk, Dave Bolland, Chris Pronger and most recently Marian Hossa.

The strategy has now shifted slightly to long-term contention, with free agent additions (Michael Grabner) and inking franchise players (Oliver-Ekman Larsson, signed through 2027) and flipping assets for other needs (the Max Domi for Alex Galchenyuk deal) while, for the most part, refusing to deal from a collection of other solid prospects.

But the biggest virtue here for Chayka has been patience, both thanks to ownership — which hopefully continues even as Andrew Barroway seeks to sell half this share — and the media marketplace, which is demanding but not the pressure cooker that, say, Toronto or Philadelphia can be.

Is it working? Mostly. The Coyotes posted the same standings points share (.427) in back-to-back seasons but dropped from sixth to eighth in their division. The success in the conference isn’t there — the Coyotes have missed the playoffs for six straight seasons — but on paper, this team seems to building toward a collection of vets in their prime and promising young talents meshing together. Hopefully they will play in front of a healthy goaltender, unlike last season.

Estimated return to relevance: A playoff berth in 2018-19 isn’t out of the question. Another .427 points share might warrant some deep self-reflection, however.

3. New York Rangers

Players 25 and under: 9

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Neal Pionk, D (2019); Anthony DeAngelo, D (2019); Pavel Buchnevich, LW/RW (2019)

Top prospects in system: Filip Chytil, C (AHL); Lias Andersson, C (AHL); Brett Howden, C (WHL); Vitali Kravtsov, RW (KHL); Igor Shestyorkin, G (KHL).

Draft pick forecast: The Rangers have all of their draft picks through the first four rounds through the next three seasons, as well as a conditional second-round pick from the Lightning in 2019.

The strategy: Rangers team president Glen Sather and GM Jeff Gorton declared to fans that the team was going to go into a rebuild that would cost them some beloved players and the Rangers (checks notes) went into a rebuild that cost them beloved players. Huh, go figure. Shouldn’t they be the ones offering five prospects and a $12 million-per-season contract for Erik Karlsson?

Of course, it helps when there’s already a decent core of players approaching or in their primes: center Mika Zibanejad, left wing Chris Kreider, right wing Jesper Fast, left wing Jimmy Vesey and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei. Not to mention Henrik Lundqvist, who can still be a deciding factor even later in his career.

Is it working? They jury’s out until the Rangers see what they have in players like Chytil and Andersson, and Rangers fans see how deep this additional roster reshaping could go (like a potential Mats Zuccarello deal).

Estimated return to relevance: If the youngin’s play beyond expectations and new coach David Quinn has the goods, the Rangers might creep back into the playoffs this season.

4. Buffalo Sabres

Players 25 and under: 12

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Tage Thompson, RW (2020); Rasmus Dahlin D, (2021); Casey Middelstadt, C (2020).

Top prospects in system: Dahlin; Brendan Guhle, D (AHL); Victor Olofsson, LW (AHL); Alexander Nylander, LW/RW (AHL); Rasmus Asplund, C (AHL); Marcus Davidsson, C (SHL).

Draft pick forecast: The Sabres own all their picks through Round 4 through 2021 except for their 2019 fourth-rounder and potentially their 2019 third-rounder, which Pittsburgh could receive conditionally. The Sabres own conditional first-round picks form the Sharks and Blues in 2019, and fourth-rounder from the Sharks in 2019.

The strategy: The concept of “a rebuild inside of a rebuild” is one Leonardo DiCaprio and a perpetually spinning top away from a hockey “Inception,” but it is Sabres GM Jason Botterill’s task in Buffalo. GM Tim Murray, who was crafting a roster around star center Jack Eichel after tanking during his draft year, was turfed. Botterill arrived to figure out what worked, what didn’t and how to fix it.

What worked? Murray’s drafts were pretty strong, so Botterill inherited a collection of prospects that included a potential Calder winner next season in the dynamic Middelstadt. Then the team lucked out, won the lottery and added franchise defenseman Dahlin last month.

What didn’t? The supporting cast around Eichel wasn’t deep enough, the defense wasn’t good enough and Robin Lehner was Murray’s guy in goal, not Botterill’s.

How to fix it? By shipping disgruntled center Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis for three roster players, by adding former Penguins in Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson and Matt Hunwick and by signing Carter Hutton as the veteran goaltending mentor to promising Linus Ullmark. And in the process, hoping to get some forward momentum for the franchise in Botterill’s second year at the helm.

Is it working? There’s no question the Sabres have some promising planks in their foundation. With the addition of Dahlin, they have the essential ingredients for contention: two top centers (Eichel, Middelstadt) and a clear No. 1 defenseman (Dahlin) and a goalie (Ullmark). And Botterill has the luxury of adding a young supporting cast around them rather than the route Murray took (where art thou, Matt Moulson?)

Estimated return to relevance: That .378 points share in 2017-18 was extreme regression, hence the rebuild inside a rebuild. But there’s no reason this team shouldn’t be squatting in the playoff bubble in the next two seasons, and a contender in three years given their draft-pick situation — provided coach Phil Housley can make it all work.

5. Vancouver Canucks

Players 25 and under: 11

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Brock Boeser, RW (2019); Adam Gaudette, C (2020)

Top prospects in system: Elias Pettersson, C (SHL); Thatcher Demko, G (AHL); Olli Juolevi, D (Liiga); Kole Lind, RW (AHL); Jonathan Dahlen, LW (AHL); Quinn Hughes, D (NCAA)

Draft pick forecast: The Canucks own all of their picks for the next three seasons.

The strategy: After years of clawing to mediocre contender status — remember that Radim Vrbata signing? — the Canucks finally acknowledged their lot in life and began preparing for a post-Sedin Twins existence, which began in earnest last season when young stars Bo Horvat and Boeser began getting top-line ice time. They’ll be joined soon by Pettersson, who is considered one of the top offensive prospects in hockey.

The rest of the roster is, well, seemingly primed to struggle through one more season before the uptick back to postseason contention. Or does the fact the Canucks’ only major additions this offseason were fourth-liners Jay Beagle and Antoine Roussel indicate something different for you?

Is it working? Slowly but surely, yes. The Canucks are amassing an impressive collection of young players through solid drafting and some shrewd trades (like snagging Dahlen from Ottawa for Alex Burrows). Boeser was a Calder finalist. Pettersson projects to be one too. They have two solid goalie prospects in Demko and Michael DiPietro.

Estimated return to relevance: Give them another year in the tank, potentially dealing away veterans like Alexander Edler, and then give the kids some help in their pursuit of a playoff berth. And by that we mean “help beyond adding grinders to the fourth line.”

6. Montreal Canadiens

Players 25 and under: 13

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Nikita Scherbak, RW (2019); Atturi Lehkonen, LW/RW (2019); Noah Juulsen, D (2020); Victor Mete, D (2020).

Top prospects in system: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C (Liiga); Ryan Poehling, C (NCAA); Jack Evans, C (NCAA).

Draft pick forecast: The Canadiens own their draft picks through the fourth round over the next three years, as well as fourth-round picks from Calgary (2019) and Winnipeg (2020).

The strategy: Denial.

The Canadiens are a team with:

A superstar goalie in Carey Price who is turning 31 in August

A star defenseman in Shea Weber turning 33 in August who just underwent two surgeries in the span of four months

A roster with a gaping hole at center

A cloud of uncertainty hanging over their star top-line winger (and captain) Max Pacioretty, who has one year left on his contract and turns 30 in November

Yes, it’s true they’re going to be a bit younger, and landing Kotkaniemi in the draft might give the Canadiens the center that has eluded them. (He has been compared to everyone from Ryan O’Reilly to Anze Kopitar.) But look no further than Cayden Primeau and Charlie Lindgren as the encapsulation of Montreal’s plight: They’re arguably two of the team’s top 10 prospects (even though Lindgren is 24), but they’re both goalies and therefore stuck behind a guy signed through 2026 at $10.5 million against the cap.

Is it working? Clearly, as Marc Bergevin still has a job, and wouldn’t he have been unceremoniously fired by now were this not the case? Um, right? Anyone? Is this thing on?

Estimated return to relevance: Montreal had a division title sandwiched between two sixth-place finishes. And it should come as no surprise that Price was healthy in that sandwiched season, and was not in the other two campaigns. A healthy Price, Claude Julien behind the bench and some tenacious players up front could get the Canadiens a sniff of the playoffs next season, if missing Weber until December doesn’t submarine them.

But Stanley Cup contention is only going to happen if Montreal takes another leap back for a high draft pick, smartly parlays Pacioretty into future assets and plays the long game despite the age of its star players. A few more smart moves — like utilizing their cap space to acquire Joel Armia from Winnipeg through a Steve Mason buyout — wouldn’t hurt, either.

7. New York Islanders

Players 25 and under: 6

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Mathew Barzal, C (2019); Anthony Beauvillier, LW (2019)

Top prospects in system: Ilya Sorokin, G (KHL); Josh Ho-Sang, RW (AHL); Kieffer Bellows, LW; (AHL); Linus Soderstrom, G (Sweden); Devon Toews, D (AHL); Oliver Wahlstrom, RW (USHL); Noah Dobson, D (QMJHL)

Draft pick forecast: The Islanders own all their picks in the first four rounds in 2020 and 2021, but don’t have their own picks in rounds 2-4 in 2019. They do own Calgary’s second-rounder in 2019.

The strategy: Imagine a dining room with an absolutely resplendent wooden table as the centerpiece. Imagine purchasing the glass wear and the flatware all the other trappings, all in service of that glorious sturdy table. And just as you’re about to tie the room together, you discover the wooden table has left for Toronto because that’s where its roots are.

Imagine no more, and gaze upon the Islanders, whose strategy shifted the moment John Tavares chose to leave for the Maple Leafs. The Islanders still have a number of promising young players, especially Barzal. They still have two goalies of the future, although when one of them finally comes over from Russia remains a bit of a mystery. They have a new general manager in Lou Lamoriello, whose arrival included a quite successful 2018 draft class for the Isles. (And who will be tasked with reshaping the veteran aspects of the roster, especially on the blue line.) They have a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Barry Trotz. They have many things to be optimistic about …

… in the long run. For now, the team appears prepared to take a significant leap back for a season. Lamoriello’s reaction to Tavares leaving was a hasty scramble for veteran free agents and getting Matt Martin back to reunite a fabled fourth line. Take a breather. Pray for Jack Hughes. And go undefeated against the Leafs, obviously.

Is it working? C’mon, this is like a kid asking “are we there yet?” 10 minutes into a five-hour car ride. Ask us after the 2019 draft lottery.

Estimated return to relevance: During Mat Barzal’s next contact with the Islanders, because if it’s not with the Islanders, hoo-boy …

8. Detroit Red Wings

Players 25 and under: 5

NHL players on ELCs: None

Top prospects in system: Michael Rasmussen, C (WHL); Filip Zadina, RW (QMJHL); Dennis Cholowski, D (WHL); Filip Hronek, D (AHL); Evgeny Svechnikov, RW (AHL).

Draft pick forecast: The Red Wings own all their picks through the fourth round in the next three drafts, and own the Islanders’ second-round pick in 2019 and the Golden Knights’ third-rounder in 2020.

The strategy: Let us know when you locate one.

The Red Wings missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1983. That futility ended the following season when Steve Yzerman arrived in Motown, but there isn’t anything resembling that kind of transformative player on the Red Wings’ roster or in their system. The Gustav Nyqvist generation has yielded to the Dylan Larkin generation, which will yield to the Rasmussen and Zadina generation up front.

But the foundational defenseman the Red Wings have been seeking since the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom still eludes them. At the very least, coach Jeff Blashill has stated he will defer to younger players when it comes to ice time if a roster spot is between a newbie and a veteran. “I say that because we need different results, and part of having different results is improving internally, and that can come with new guys being in spots,” he told the Detroit Free Press.

Is it working? It’s a roster with more players older than 34 (six) than under the age of 24 (five), so to call this a team in transition would putting it mildly. It’s also a team that currently has $2.828 million in cap space, and has entrusted the general manager who got them in this pickle (Ken Holland) with getting them out of it.

Estimated return to relevance: This is a team that needs to get worse before it gets better, purging the roster of veterans and cap space, and then hoping a combination of the draft and shrewd veteran acquisitions can position them as a contender. But the current management hasn’t inspired much confidence to that end. There’s way too much loyalty to veterans past their expiration date or, failing that, an overvaluing of them.

9. Ottawa Senators

Players 25 and under: 6

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Colin White, C (2019); Christian Wolanin, D (2019); Thomas Chabot, D (2020).

Top prospects in system: Logan Brown, C (OHL); Drake Batherson, C (CHL); Filip Chlapik, C (AHL); Brady Tkachuk, LW (NCAA); Filip Gustavsson, G (AHL).

Draft pick forecast: The Senators have all of their draft picks through the first four rounds over the next three seasons … except their first-round pick and third-round picks in 2019, which is very “ouch.” They own the Penguins’ third-rounder in 2019 and the Blue Jackets’ third-rounder in 2020.

The strategy: There are many things in life for which an instruction manual does not exist. To that list we can add: There is no instruction manual for coming within a goal of the Stanley Cup Final in double-overtime of a conference final Game 7; trading both a top two-center and a first-round pick to acquire a star center with a desire to escape his team’s alleged rebuild; and then descending into a massive rebuild themselves marked by off-ice scandal and the near certainty that a franchise defenseman will be traded before he leaves of his own accord. Oh, and the team owner is perhaps the most hated man in the NHL that doesn’t have a desk in the league front office.

Where were we … ah, yes, strategy. The Erik Karlsson trade, and whatever it yields, will help establish some semblance of strategy, one assumes. Because the typical path back to respectability — trade a star, bottom out and resurface with a lottery pick of a franchise player — is a road that leads to Denver, where the Senators’ pick next season resides.

Is it working? Ottawa isn’t a complete wasteland. There are still Mark Stone and Cody Ceci. White and Brown will be game-changers, and Chabot was named MVP of the 2017 World Junior Championship, despite playing for the silver medal team. Gustavsson, whom GM Pierre Dorion snagged in the Derick Brassard sell-off, is a goalie of the future. And Tkachuk, whenever he arrives, should be great. But the success of whatever plan Dorion has for the team all depends on what trading Karlsson nets the Senators, and what baggage (re: Bobby Ryan’s contract) Ottawa manages to hitch to him.

Estimated return to relevance: Right around when Eugene Melynk gets that downtown arena.

Should they rebuild?

Anaheim Ducks
Players 25 and under: 6

NHL players on ELCs: None.

Draft pick forecast: The Ducks have all of their picks, save for a third- and seventh-rounder in 2019.

Should they rebuild? The good news is that their outstanding defense and goalie John Gibson are all under the age of 27. The bad news is that Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler are all over the age of 33. That said, we give the Ducks a small window in which they could win … although Kesler’s fragility is a concern.

Chicago Blackhawks
Players 25 and under: 8

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Nick Schmaltz, C (2019); Dylan Sikura, C (2019); David Kampf, RW (2019); Victor Ejdsell, C (2019); Alex DeBrincat, RW (2020).

Draft pick forecast: The Blackhawks have all their picks through the first four rounds over the next three seasons, save for their third-rounder in 2019. They also own Boston’s fourth-round pick in 2019.

Should they rebuild? They sorta are? Absent any other options because of the salary cap and a legion of no-move clauses, the Blackhawks have attempted to build a supporting cast for well-compensated veterans like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook with younger and cheaper labor. The hope is that a healthy Corey Crawford can get the Blackhawks another crack at a championship. The reality is that GM Stan Bowman should do whatever is necessary to purge players like Seabrook and Artem Anisimov and use that cap space to really bolster the roster. Hey, we hear Artemi Panarin might be available next summer …

Minnesota Wild
Players 25 and under: 7

NHL players on ELCs (expiry): Jordan Greenway, LW (2020); Joel Eriksson Ek, C (2020).

Draft pick forecast: The Wild have all of their picks for the next three years save for their fourth-rounder in 2019, which is owned by the Coyotes.

Should they rebuild? GM Paul Fenton has been tasked with “tweaking” rather than rebuilding this roster. While the Wild don’t necessarily need to go into the tank, these “tweaks” probably need to go beyond a cosmetic change into something a bit more fundamental.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images