Certainly some frightening moments down the stretch for Maple Leafs fans in this 2015-16 season, but the “goal”, if you will, of finishing last overall for the first time in franchise history since 1984-1985 has been met. Back then, the team ended up drafting Wendel Clark 1st overall, & in his rookie year, “roared” to a NINE-point improvement after being 21st of 21 teams.
As noted, this was far from easy, and though the Leafs won but one of their first ten games this season, finishing 30th looked damned near impossible heading into January after a November/December in which they stunned all onlookers by performing at a 13-8-5 pace. How? What? Yeah, feels like forever ago, I know.
A season sweep over the Dallas Stars? Yes, did that.
A 6-2-2 run to start November? Sure, exactly.
December wins in St. Louis, Colorado, Long Island, and Pittsburgh? I’m telling you – it wasn’t a dream!
But January’s harsh cold and winds also brought the Maple Leafs back to a reality that November and December’s results ignored. They weren’t a very good hockey club, and, as importantly, nor were they intended to be.
The eventual season-ending injury to James van Riemsdyk in early January, the trading of Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak, Nick Spaling, Shawn Matthias, James Reimer, and Daniel Winnik, all added to the eventual outcome for this Leafs’ season, despite the bright spots and production of the “kids” like William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Nikita Soshnikov.
The Leafs EARNED their 30th place finish, though after winning five of six in mid-March, it took a 2-7-0 finish to ensure it. But now the hard work stops and the praying begins. In the past four seasons, the last-place team has slipped to drafting 2nd overall, as we’ll document here. But as we all know, the danger this season for the Maple Leafs is slipping as far as fourth. The bottom line is, the odds are slightly worse for teams finishing 28th-30th in the NHL, and they’ve increased modestly for teams finishing 17th-27th, and if you don’t win the first “lottery”, there are still chances to move up to the second or third pick.
But, given there’s so much debate about “tanking” and how to do a proper re-build, it got me thinking: what’s been the track record for 30th place NHL teams, at least going back as far as the lockout? At least, for the past ten seasons, the 30th place team has been guaranteed of drafting no worse than 2nd in the Draft, with a 25 percent chance of getting the 1st overall pick. This ended up happening 5 of the 10 occasions, although the worst team hasn’t drafted first since 2011 when the Oilers were able to select Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
I thought we’d start after the 2005 Crosby lottery win by the Penguins, although it should be noted that even with Crosby’s astonishing 102-point rookie season, the Penguins finished with the exact same amount of points (58) as they had when they finished 30th of 30 teams in 2003-04, one point behind the Chicago Blackhawks. The Pens didn’t win the draft lottery that offseason before the lockout, the 28th-place Capitals did.
Washington takes Ovechkin, the Pens take Malkin, the 29th-place Blackhawks end up with Cam Barker. Don’t feel too bad for Chicago, I’m told they did better in future lotteries to come. Anyways, shall we?
30th place: St. Louis Blues
Lottery Result: Win – Draft 1st overall
Pick: Erik Johnson
Points Improvement: 57 to 81
Next Playoff Appearance: 2009, Eliminated in 1st round by Canucks, 4-0
Next Playoff Round Won: 2012
Summary: Johnson was top pick in one of the deepest NHL Entry Draft Top 5’s in recent memory (2. Jordan Staal (PIT), 3. Jonathan Toews (CHI), 4. Nick Backstrom (WAS), 5. Phil Kessel (BOS).)
Johnson had committed to University of Minnesota and played his entire season after being drafted by the Blues, as a Golden Gopher. Kessel & Staal played full rookie seasons at age 18, while Toews stayed in college hockey as well, and Backstrom stayed in Sweden.
How’d the Blues improve by 24 points? Better and healthier seasons from older veterans, that’s for sure. 36-year old Doug Weight was the team’s leading scorer, and longtime Blue Keith Tkachuk was very productive for 61 games, before being traded to the Atlanta Thrashers for their lone playoff run and season. The Blues had solid seasons from young players like Lee Stempniak (23 goals), Jay McClement, and rookie David Backes, and slightly more stable goaltending from Manny Legace, sent packing from Detroit.
The Blues would dip slightly in points to 79 in 07-08, before making the playoffs in 08-09, getting swept convincingly by Vancouver in the first round. I always chuckle at the concept the Blues have had this crazy amount of success in the 21st century, given they’ve won only one playoff round in the past eleven seasons, but give them credit for regular season consistency, and their drafting has been reasonably good in Rounds 2-4, especially.
30th place: Philadelphia Flyers
Lottery Result: Lost – Draft 2nd overall
Pick: James van Riemsdyk
Points Improvement: 56 to 95
Next Playoff Appearance: 2008 – Eliminated in Conference Final by Penguins, 4-1
Next Playoff Round Won: 2008
Summary: This one hurts, but it took a while for the pain to truly begin. The Flyers had a 25% chance to nab Patrick Kane with the 1st overall selection, and the Blackhawks, who finished 25th of 30 teams, snuck up, against the odds, and got the big prize.
The Flyers didn’t rush JVR, much to the frustration of their fans, and he played two years at University of New Hampshire after being drafted, and didn’t make his Flyers debut until the 09-10 season, well past his 19th birthday. He put up a 35-point rookie season, playing regularly on the team’s 3rd line and getting occasional powerplay time. During the Flyers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, he contributed 3 goals and 3 assists, while being a healthy scratch twice in a 23-game playoff season.
Now, the point improvement. It still befuddles many how the Flyers were just so terrible in this 06-07 season, but the numbers never lie. The Flyers didn’t adequately replace either Keith Primeau or Eric Desjardins, key veterans who had both retired from the sport. Peter Forsberg put up 40 points in 40 games, but his soon-to-be-chronic foot and ankle problems had him in and out of the lineup constantly. Despite the presence of Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards, the Flyers couldn’t keep the puck out of their own zone, or the back of their net, and their starting goaltending, led by Antero Niittymaki, was terrible.
The goaltending improved slightly with the acquisition of Martin Biron from Buffalo, but in the lead-up to trade deadline, they moved Forsberg, Alexei Zhitnik (swindling the Thrashers and acquiring youngster Braydon Coburn), Kyle Calder, Randy Robitaille, and Petr Nedved. Despite a strong finish, the 06-07 Flyers won just 12 of their first 51 games, and were well on their way to their only last-place finish in franchise history.
They were bound to be better the next season with that core of Richards/Carter/Gagne, and the emergence of Scott Hartnell, and the free-agent signing of Daniel Briere made sure of it. The team thrived under John Stevens as head coach, and also got big seasons from Joffrey Lupul and Mike Knuble, the latter of whom would score the Game 7 OT winner in Washington in the first round, before the Flyers knocked off Montreal in their second round series.
30th place team: Tampa Bay Lightning
Draft Lottery: Won – Draft 1st
Pick: Steven Stamkos
Points Improvement: 56 to 66
Next Playoff Appearance: 2011
Next Playoff Round Won: 2011
This one seems a bit odd also, to finish 30th while being 17th in the league in Goals Scored (4 50-point players including Vinny Lecavalier’s 92, and Martin St. Louis’ 83), and after making the playoffs four straight seasons. But the Lightning couldn’t keep the puck out, either, with a goalie combo (before Mike Smith arrived after the Brad Richards trade) of Johan Holmquist and Karri Ramo.
This one also drives Maple Leafs’ fans crazy. In a bottom-out season for Toronto, Mats Sundin’s final one as a Leaf, Toronto was in 29th place, one point ahead of Tampa Bay on January 16th. The Lightning kept their sluggish pace, and tied with the LA Kings with 71 points for last place. The Kings had more wins are were slotted 29th. The Leafs would play February/March at a 16-9-1 clip (including 9-2-1 on the road!) and were headed to the draft to pick 8th overall. They traded a 2nd-rounder and 3rd-rounder to the Islanders so they could pick Luke Schenn at 5th overall. Had they finished with 5 fewer points, they end up 28th and could have drafted either Alex Pietrangelo or Zach Bogosian.
Anyway, the Lightning got better but there was turmoil. Erratic and controversial ownership with Len Barrie and Oren Koules, and the resurrection of Barry Melrose as an NHL head coach in Stamkos’ rookie season (he was fired after 16 games, replaced by Rick Tocchet), both contributed. But the team was better with Smith in goal most of the games, and a free-agent add of Ryan Malone, away from Pittsburgh, brought with him a 26-goal season. The Lightning still weren’t ready to contend and ended up finishing 29th in 08-09, bad enough to draft defenceman Victor Hedman 2nd overall. They’d be in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston two seasons later.
30th place team: New York Islanders
Draft Lottery: Won – Draft 1st
Pick: John Tavares
Points Improvement: 61 to 79
Next Playoff Appearance: 2013 – Eliminated in first round by Penguins, 4-2
Next Playoff Round Won: Still waiting…
Summary: This 30th place spot was always the Islanders to lose in spring of 2009, and had they not been careful, they would have. A 6-5-1 record in March put things in a precarious state, given the Avalanche and Lightning were close by in points and each had bad March results. But starting Yann Denis in goal for seven of the last eight contests can do wonders for losing, and the Isles finished safely in the cellar, winning only three of their final 12 games.
Tavares’ rookie season led to a very conscious youth movement by the Isles, some would make the case it was frugal financially to do so as well. Outside of 39-year old Doug Weight, and 32-year old Mark Streit, the kids really did rule the day. They added 26-year old Matt Moulson, plopped him onto the wing of Tavares, and he had his first of 3 straight 30-goal seasons. The rest of the core forwards were all under 25, including Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and a resurrected Rob Schremp after four lost years in the Oilers’ organization.
The Isles modestly improved by 14 points, but still found themselves drafting a Top 5 pick onstage in Los Angeles at the 2010 Draft, taking Nino Niederreiter. They made the playoffs in the 2013 shortened season, falling to Pittsburgh in six hotly-contested games, and last season, put up the franchise’s first 100-point season since 1983-84 (!!!!) only to fall to the Capitals in a 2-1 Game 7 defeat in D.C.
30th place team: Edmonton Oilers
Draft Lottery: Won – Draft 1st
Pick: Taylor Hall
Points Improvement: 62 to 62
Next Playoff Appearance: ???
Next Playoff Round Win: ???
Summary: This will be like a play where the same character keeps walking on stage, and eventually doesn’t need much background or introduction. We know the drill here — the Oilers made a stunning run to Game 7 of the Cup Final in 2006, only to spend a decade (and counting) in the playoff wilderness. The starting goalie through much of the most recent Oilers playoff appearances will be 47 years old this fall (Dwayne Roloson).
In 09-10, though, all concerned were sure it was rock-bottom for the Oil. Their 62-point season was 17 behind the 14th place team in the West, the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team with the 29th-best record, the Toronto Maple Leafs (74 points) didn’t even own their first round pick, or second round pick, nor the year after’s first round pick following Brian Burke’s Phil Kessel trade. So it was much better to be in the Oilers’ position than the Leafs, at least, right? I speak from experience in sports talk radio having commissioned several (and rejected as many, if not more) topics all revolving around: “Who will be better in 5 years? The Oilers or the Leafs?”. I’m still not sure we have an answer!
Amazingly, the Oilers in 09-10 didn’t look like 30th-place “contenders” in the early going. They had an over-.500 October, and a modest November. In fact, the Leafs start was so dreadful (3 wins in their first 19 games), that the Boston Bruins looked, for all intents and purposes, on the clock to make that first overall pick (Hall or Seguin?).
January 2011 is where the Oilers got down to business. They won NO games that month, grabbing two single points among the twelve games they played. Adding Hall as an 18-year old, Jordan Eberle at age 20 to a young mix already including Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Gilbert Brule, and Ales Hemsky was a blueprint for success, correct? Well, read on if you must….
30th place team: Edmonton Oilers
Lottery Result: Won – Draft 1st
Pick: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Next Playoff Appearance: We just did this
Next Playoff Round Won: This isn’t funny to everyone
Summary: The Oilers were more fun to watch than the prior season, with the additions of Eberle and Hall, plus Magnus Paajarvi, this wasn’t debatable. With most young teams (like this past season’s Sabres team) you expect a much better second half than first half, and given the Oil had 29 points in 31 games on December 16th, there was cause for optimism, but the results wouldn’t hold up.
Edmonton finished 28th in goals scored, 28th in goals against, and 30th in the standings, this time with the exact same number of points as the prior season, and ten points away from 29th-place Florida. Injury-riddled seasons from Hemsky and Horcoff weren’t helpful, and the issues were as common then as they have been for this entire era of Oilers’ hockey. Where are the reliable defencemen, and how do we get better goaltending? The pairing of Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin posted a .903 save percentage, while the league average was .913. As Pat Quinn had done the year prior, Tom Renney did in this season. Dead last.
30th place team: Columbus Blue Jackets
Lottery result: Lost – Draft 2nd
Pick: Ryan Murray
Points Improvement: 65 to 94 (55 in 48 games, pro-rated over 82)
Next Playoff Appearance: 2014
Next Playoff Round Win: ????
Summary: By the fall of 2011, the promising development of the Jackets’ first playoff experience in spring of 2009 (a 4-game sweep to the eventual Conference Champion Red Wings) seemed nothing but a distant memory. The team slipped from 92 points to 79 points in 09-10 and hovered in that same vicinity the following season.
An air of positivity though was created with the summer acquisition in 2011 of Jeff Carter from Philadelphia, that along with a recent Rick Nash contract extension, gave the CBJ fans some hope. After bombing on draft picks like Nikita Filatov and Nikolai Zherdev, building with younger players like Ryan Johansen (4th overall in 2010), Derick Brassard, and Nikita Nikitin was the way to go.
It couldn’t have gone worse out of the gate for these Jackets. After losing their first five games, Jeff Carter broke his foot and was lost for a month. Columbus started 2-12-1, and after 41 games (11 wins), head coach Scott Arniel was dismissed and assistant coach Todd Richards took over.
Before the trade deadline, the plan was in place to blow things up, and blow them up real good. The team would listen to offers for a less-than-happy Rick Nash. They traded Jeff Carter to Los Angeles after he was miserable and felt wronged by the initial trade from Philadelphia, after signing a huge extension there. Columbus got blueliner Jack Johnson and a 1st-round pick back for Carter, who would promptly play a key role in helping the Kings get into the playoffs, and winning the Stanley Cup soon after.
Columbus wouldn’t trade Rick Nash until the offseason when they made a deal with the New York Rangers, but they did unload Antoine Vermette and Sammy Pahlsson to lighten the veteran load on their way to 30th place.
Going into the lottery with hopes high, the Oilers ended up winning it, dropping the Jackets to 2nd overall pick. Would Columbus have taken Nail Yakupov, in retrospect? Scouts and team management I’ve spoken to always seem split on that debate. Either way, Yakupov went to the Oilers, and Columbus took stud blueliner Ryan Murray from Everett in the WHL 2nd overall.
Murray went back to Everett after being drafted, was injured and barely played, and played 66 games in 2013-14 as a rookie for the Blue Jackets, helping Columbus to their 2nd-ever playoff berth, and a close series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That noted, it always does seem like one step forward and several steps back in Columbus. They took a huge tumble this season from 89 points to 76 points, with more turmoil behind the bench (Todd Richards out, John Tortorella in) and will have a 9.5% chance at the first overall selection later this month.
30th place team: Florida Panthers
Lottery Result: Lost – Draft 2nd
Pick: Aleksander Barkov
Points Improvement: 62 (36 pts in 48 games, pro-rated over 82) to 66
Next Playoff Appearance: 2016 – vs. NY Islanders
Next Playoff Round Won: ????
Summary: The Panthers, in 2011-12, put together one of the most unusual one-off successful regular seasons in the past couple decades. With GM Dale Tallon signing players on July 1, 2011, it seemed, simply to bring his club to the salary floor (including Jose Theodore, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, and Tomas Fleischmann), and trading for Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, and Mikael Samuelsson, it looked like a hodge-podge of been there/done that veterans.
Somehow, it worked, they gelled and played very good hockey, won the Southeast Division, with 94 points, and lost their first-round playoff series to eventual Conference Champion New Jersey on home ice in overtime of Game 7.
Well, there was zero of that magic circulating in the lockout-shortened 48-game season for the Panthers. Winning only 4 of their first 15 games, the Panthers ended up scoring a league-low 2.27 goals/game, while the goaltending, shared by Theodore, Scott Clemmensen, and Jacob Markstrom posted an abysmal .891 combined save percentage. Despite the presence of 19-year old rookie Jonathan Huberdeau and his solid season, no Panther even posted 35 points in a 48 game season.
The 13-14 Panthers were no better result-wise, and it led to Kevin Dineen’s dismissal in his 3rd season with Florida after just 16 games (only 3 of which were wins). Success is fleeting given Dineen was all the rage taking the Panthers to that division title and playoff berth just 18 months earlier. Alexsander Barkov joined the team as a rookie after the team’s Draft Lottery “defeat” (the Avs won the Lottery and selected Nathan MacKinnon 1st overall), and Barkov’s play was encouraging, especially towards those who questioned his selection ahead of either Jonathan Drouin or Seth Jones.
Florida had two interesting developments occur with their goaltenders – after a bizarre divorce from the Boston Bruins, Stanley Cup winning goalie Tim Thomas returned to the NHL after a one-year sabbatical. He joined the Panthers on a tryout basis in camp, won the job, and was the Panthers starter, until the NHL Trade Deadline came. Thomas was dealt to Dallas, and a very familiar and popular face returned, in that of Roberto Luongo.
Luongo had been a Panther for five seasons, never having played a playoff game. He was traded to Vancouver where he played 64 playoff games over the next seven seasons and was the gold-medal winning goaltender at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He’s a huge reason why the Panthers have overcome their struggles and are back in the playoffs for only the second time in the past fifteen seasons. Another big reason is the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
30th place team: Buffalo Sabres
Lottery Result: Lost – Draft 2nd
Pick: Sam Reinhart
Points Improvement: 52 to 54
Next Playoff Appearance: ???
Next Playoff Round Win: ???
Summary: Reality finally set in for the Buffalo Sabres. After making the playoffs in four of six post-lockout seasons, the spring of 2013 saw the Sabres miss the playoff a second-straight season. With an older core and some free agent moves and trades clearly working against the team, the conscious decision seemed to be to support a bottom-out phase, at least of two years in length.
The Sabres in the fall of 2013 chose to go young and new first-round picks Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, and other youngsters, Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, all made the team out of training camp. Thirteen games into the season, veteran scorer Thomas Vanek was moved to the New York Islanders, and a season-long bidding war for veteran star goalie Ryan Miller that saw him traded to St. Louis for a very brief playoff experience. Fan favourite Steve Ott went with Miller to St. Louis. Matt Moulson who came over in the Vanek deal was flipped to the Minnesota Wild for their playoff run.
The year also saw some bizarre front office changes. Both GM Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston were fired on November 13th. The same day saw the hiring of Pat LaFontaine as team president and Ted Nolan returning after a decade-and-some away as interim head coach. LaFontaine, though, would quit on March 1st, a couple months after hiring Tim Murray as his new general manager.
With Aaron Ekblad as the consensus #1 pick, the Sabres held out hope they’d be as fortunate as they were in their expansion summer when the spinning wheel landed on Gilbert Perreault — it was not to be, and the 29th-place Panthers won and selected Ekblad 1st overall. Despite some scouts liking both Leon Draisaitl and Sam Bennett better than Sam Reinhart, the Sabres went with Reinhart 2nd overall.
The Sabres in the offseason would do very little to strengthen their team, again, by design. They bought out the remainder of Christian Ehrhoff’s lengthy deal and also the disastrous deal of Ville Leino was used as a compliance buyout so there were no salary cap implications for either player.
Moulson quickly returned after signing a long-term deal, but has never returned to the form he had on Long Island playing on the top line there. The Sabres traded for Josh Gorges, and signed Brian Gionta and Andrej Meszaros. Still, few expected the Sabres to be anywhere except in the McDavid/Eichel sweepstakes in 2014-15, and no one was wrong.
30th place team: Buffalo Sabres
Lottery result: Lost (again!)
Points Improvement: 54 to 81
Next Playoff Appearance: (see Oilers, Edmonton)
Next Playoff Round Win: (you people….)
Summary: The misery continued for the Buffalo Sabres on the ice in 14-15, but their fans seemed quite onboard with the “process”. The educating began early, and the prior year’s lottery “loss” (meaning no Ekblad in Buffalo) meant there shouldn’t be anything left to chance. Finishing in 30th was the only way for the franchise to guarantee a transcendent player in a unique draft class. Win the lottery and get Connor McDavid from the Erie Otters. Lose, drop to second and be perfectly pleased with Jack Eichel, from Boston University. Both players appeared, to scouts collectively, as better prospects than any selection at all from 2011-2014. There might be some interesting Eichel/Hall or Eichel/Seguin debates from 2010, but we’ll leave that for another time.
A 3-13-2 start for the Sabres set the tone early on. The goaltending, split by Michal Neuvirth, Jhonas Enroth, and Anders Lindback, finished second-last Edmonton – 30th) in the league allowing 3.34 goals/game. No team scored fewer than the Sabres 1.97/game.
After losing the lottery famously to the Edmonton Oilers, the Sabres “settled” for Jack Eichel, and he became worth the price of admission very early on in his rookie season. Like a house being remodeled with the newest appliances and lighting, the Sabres traded with Colorado to get Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart’s first full season was a 23-goal success, and Evander Kane, when healthy and when not dodging controversies, was effective if not a bit below expectations with a 35-point season in 65 games.
The Sabres finished 10-5-2 in their last 17 games, and their 81 points was good for 23rd overall. They’ll have a 6% chance at the first overall pick later this month.
A lot to take in, yes. But here are some bullet points to remember about the Maple Leafs and their first last-place finish in 31 seasons:
* There’s a better than 47 percent chance the Leafs are drafting 4th overall. Be conscious of this number, and channel your frustration if/when it does happen!
* 5 of 10 30th place teams have drafted 1st overall since 2006.
* Only ONE of TEN 30th place teams since 2006 made the playoffs the very next season (the ’08 Flyers)
* Only TWO of TEN 30th place teams since 2006 made the playoffs either the next season (’08 Flyers) or second season after (’14 Blue Jackets)
* The average point increase for 30th place teams (pro-rating the 48-game 2012-13 short season) is 16.4 points/season. If the Maple Leafs are 16 points better in 2016-17, they’ll finish with 85 points, and likely draft in the Top 10 again.
* The Sabres “model” should provide some element of encouragement for the Maple Leafs, though I’d argue Toronto is heading into a potential “Eichel year” this season, unless they get the big free agent prize (Stamkos – I believe they will) and/or the draft prize (1st overall and Auston Matthews). If neither happens, fans can brace for another year of losing and another Top 5 Draft pick. Even if you have “moderate intent” on finishing 30th as an organization, and I think we’d agree the Leafs did, you can’t accomplish such and claim you’ve got a lot of pieces you’re ready to win with. There are some, but without transcendent players like Chicago and Pittsburgh ended up drafting, there are zero quick fixes. The Lightning, Jackets, Islanders, and Avalanche can attest to that, let alone the Oilers