It could always be worse.
Sure, the Detroit Red Wings have one of the worst goal differentials in the NHL. Yes, apart from their top line, the offensive depth is less than ideal. Moritz Seider is absolutely carrying the team’s defense. But, as far as situations go, the Red Wings are not in a bad spot by any means.
The team is sitting pretty atop the Atlantic Division, just a hair away from missing the playoffs. While the Boston Bruins still have five games in hand above the Red Wings and are just three points behind, it’s fun to see Detroit in a playoff spot in late December. As far as rebuilds go, the Red Wings are defying expectations and making waves with their top-billed prospects. There’s a lot to love about this season — and, while the team still has a ways to go before contending for a Stanley Cup, they’re in a much better situation than these five teams:
1. Ottawa Senators
#Dorion says, "The rebuild is done. Now we're stepping into another zone," this doesn’t mean the #Sens aren’t going to continue drafting as we’ve seen. We are about to see what rebuilt teams do. Spend. Add key players via trade, moving prospects or picks. Focus on the standings!— Matty-Perth-Sens (@TrueFanNet) September 7, 2021
“The rebuild is done.”
Take a look at the NHL’s standings. Now scroll down. Keep scrolling. Down there, at the very bottom, just above the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes, you’ll see the Ottawa Senators. If this is what a finished rebuild looks like to general manager Pierre Dorion, Sens fans are in for a rough next few years.
The thing is, the Sens aren’t doing bad as far as rebuilds go. They trounced the Florida Panthers 8-2 and shut out the Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. Tim Stutzle looks like the real deal, and Thomas Chabot is genuinely coming into his own. Even Anton Forsberg has shown up in a pleasantly surprising way. There are quite a few reasons why the Sens have wound up on this list, but the main one lies in the team’s owner: Eugene Melnyk.
There has never been a time in the history of the Ottawa Senators that a player has played out his entire eight-year contract with Ottawa. Melnyk, known for his hands-on approach to the team, is the most unpredictable factor in the team’s operation. From expired McDonald’s coupons to his Twitter bot scandal, Melnyk always seems to have his hands in the mix when it comes to the team.
Giving Brady Tkachuk a big contract was like pulling teeth. Sooner than later, Stutzle and players like Josh Norris will look for a big pay raise. Will Melnyk pony up, or will this rebuild continue on for eternity?
2. Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks decided to go for an “all-in” approach, trading for Seth Jones, Tyler Johnson, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Opting for this strategy after publicly announcing a rebuild was a puzzling decision. What makes matters worse for the team is that they’ve continued to hilariously fall flat on their faces at every effort. The Blackhawks coughed up a two first round picks, a second round pick and Adam Boqvist for Seth Jones, a player that’s been on a steep decline for the last few years. He was immediately extended to an eight-year, $9.5M/year contract that will last through 2029-30.
This clip below is a microcosm of how Jones’ season has commenced:
unreal pass by seth jones pic.twitter.com/rb6CFlEMBn— noah hockey stick emoji (@capsboybebop) November 21, 2021
He’s been solid offensively, but his defensive efforts fall far, far short of what he brings to the table with scoring. Jonathan Toews has also hit a production nosedive, putting together just 13 points in 30 games on the season. Kirby Dach, drafted third overall in 2019, has just 46 points in 112 career games. Even Patrick Kane, the best player on their roster, has been nothing short of a defensive black hole. Their only saving grace comes in the form of Alex DeBrincat, who appears on pace for another 35+ goal season.
Even if the team somehow rights the ship and commits to a full rebuild, they still possess one of the worst prospect pools in the NHL. Combine this with stars in sharp decline and a controversy that’s left the team’s reputation irreparably damaged and you’re left with a sobering fact: the Chicago Blackhawks are going to be bad for a very long time.
3. Nashville Predators
Too good to be bad, too bad to be good, the Predators are somehow caught within the doldrums of being “pretty okay” yet again. The thing is, the team could absolutely go in either direction. They have the talent needed to make the playoffs, but they also have plenty of tradeable assets that could kickstart a serious rebuild. No matter which direction they choose to take, though, the ghosts of past deals appear poised to haunt them for years to come.
Ryan Johansen, who scored 64 points three years ago, will make $8M for the next four seasons. Matt Duchene, who hasn’t scored close to 70 points in over a decade, is being paid $8M a year for the next five years. Roman Josi, the team’s best player, is signed through 2027-28 at a $9.059M/year contract. He turns 32 after this season. The team could absolutely make one last big push, but it might be more prudent to sit back, sell assets, and ride out the long, costly contracts.
Unfortunately, many of these high-priced deals have been rendered untradeable. Cost, term, and age make moving those deals an uphill battle at best. In addition, general manager David Poile has dedicated himself to a “competitive rebuild”. If this sounds at all familiar to you, I implore you to recall Ken Holland’s “kicking tires” era. Thus, the Predators are stuck between a rock and a hard place with no way out. The good news for Nashville fans is that there’s still some hope on the horizon: goaltending prospect Yaroslav Askarov looks like the real deal and pairing him with Juuse Saros should keep the backend on lock for the foreseeable future.
4. San Jose Sharks
Erik Karlsson’s resurgence is one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Beyond that, however, the San Jose Sharks are a team with a lot of questions and not a lot of answers. Their current salary cap situation is nothing short of a nightmare. Logan Couture, 32, is signed through 2026-27. Brent Burns will be 40 when he hits free agency in 2024-25. Marc-Edouard Vlasic turns 39 in 2025-26, the last year of his contract. Together, the three and Karlsson make up $34.5M in earnings, nearly half the team’s salary cap.
To make matters worse, this doesn’t even account for Evander Kane’s deal, which leaves the team with an additional $5.785M/year (or $7M/year if he returns to the NHL). They’re in a similar situation to the Red Wings of the mid-2010s: a fairly shallow prospect pool exacerbated by a caustic contract situation. Unfortunately, the Sharks don’t have Datsyuk or Zetterberg-caliber players on their books; they’re stuck with declining talent and a lack of overall roster direction.
The good news is, they’ve got resources on their side. Tomas Hertl will garner a massive return come trade deadline season. Jonathan Dahlen has been such a great surprise for the team. As far as the future goes, William Eklund looks like he’ll make a big leap next season. There’s no doubt that the Sharks are in for a rough next few years. But as far as rebuilds go, they can kick this one off with a bang by trading players like Hertl and Timo Meier for a bevy of picks.
Honorable Mention: Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes just can’t catch a break. Every time they look on the precipice of something big, things just get worse. From illegal training exercises to a complete teardown of the roster, it looks like it’s back to square one for the desert dogs. Their sheer mountain of picks have earned them a place off this list. They have eight picks in the first two rounds of this year’s draft — three in the first round and five in the second. If they trade Jakob Chychrun this season, they’ll have even more draft capital at their disposal.
As long as they don’t continue to draft Barrett Hayton-caliber players, this hard reset might be just what the Coyotes need to start fresh. Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz, and Chychrun are the only players signed through the next three seasons. The cards are in place — now it’s up to general manager Bill Armstrong to make it count.
5. Buffalo Sabres
Poor Buffalo. Every time they look ready to take the next big step, something goes wrong. Last season was just a shocking lack of effort all around. Every player seemed to regress in the worst possible way. Jack Eichel’s injury — and the team’s failure to handle it properly — led to their star shipping off to Vegas, where he looks poised to take on the top-line role with the Golden Knights. Rasmus Dahlin, who has been compared to Nick Lidstrom, looks like a shell of his former self.
Not a bad first NHL goal for the rookie!!!— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) November 7, 2021
Moritz Seider scores the @SUBWAYCanada OT winner to lift the @DetroitRedWings over the Sabres. pic.twitter.com/u1bHGzSnOZ
This season, while full of pleasant surprises (hello, Jeff Skinner resurgence!), looks like yet another wash for the Sabres, who will be in their 11th consecutive season removed from the offseason. The discombobulation of the organization appears to radiate from the top. They’ve gone through three general managers and four coaches in the last five years. With so much turnover and not enough consistency, the Sabres are struggling to steady the ship on yet another tough season.
The good news is, Owen Power is outstanding. The University of Michigan product is showing exactly why he was chosen first overall in the 2021 draft, absolutely dominating the NCAA on a stacked Michigan squad. Jack Quinn is poised to be a solid depth threat, as well. In addition, the Sabres have three first-round picks in this year’s draft. The problem, however, extends beyond their ability to draft. Developing their players and providing them with the resources they need to succeed has been the Sabres’ biggest struggle over the last decade. Will Power be enough to break Buffalo’s generational curse?