Should the Flyers Sam Hinkie this thing? Let’s explore why NHL rebuilds are so difficult.

With the Flyers now about 8 points out of a playoff spot, and consistently looking like an inconsistent team, many fans are wondering, what’s next?  How do the Flyers “right” this ship?

It seems as though new current management (Chuck Fletcher) has been brought in specifically to jump start the rebuild. Ownership wants the Flyers winning sooner rather than later.  However, after a successful “trusting of the process” from the 76ers over the past few years, many fans have hoped that the Flyers would take a similar approach to a hard “rebuild.”

Obviously, both the 76ers and the Flyers are professional sports franchises. However, the question remains, could the Flyers actually “Sam Hinkie” this thing successfully?

Modern History

There are four modern examples of a rebuild. Some are more “Sam Hinkie-ish” than others (selling off assets to attempt to win a #1 pick).  Let’s look at all four:

1) Buffalo Sabres

A few years ago, then Sabres GM Tim Murray decided to tank as much as humanly possible to ensure the best chance at drafting the current NHL’s best player Connor McDavid. The Sabres attempted to sell off everything, and even started a non-NHL goalie in the last 20 games of the season to ensure the highest probability at getting a first overall pick. In the NHL draft lottery system, the last place team is not guaranteed the 1st overall pick. In the case of the Sabres, they lost out to Oilers and received Jack Eichel second overall. Eichel has turned out to be a stellar pick, but he’s not McDavid. The next few years, the Sabres continued tanking but struggled to hit on a number of later round picks, including so far disappointing pick Alex Nylander (currently in the AHL).

It was only last season, when the Sabres hoped to finally be competitive, that they completely fell apart and received future star defenseman Rasmus Dahlin through finally winning the draft lottery. This season, the Sabres are highly successful. However, much of this seems to be riding on a handful of trades made by current GM Jason Botterill. The acquisition of Jeff Skinner has given the Sabres genuine scoring help, and Botterrill has brought depth to the Sabres organization as a whole. It seems fair that we could deem the Sabres attempt at the “Hinkie” option partially successful, but not fully. This is especially true considering it took players outside of the draft to fill the overall roster successfully.

2) Toronto Maple Leafs

Similar to the Sabres, the Leafs hit the reset button in the McDavid draft as well. Like the Sabres, the Leafs fell short of receiving the 1st overall pick. Instead, they received an excellent prize in fourth overall pick Mitch Marner. The following season, the Leafs traded most assets they had for picks and attempted to clear roster space. This turn-over led to the Leafs receiving the 1st overall pick in 2016 in Auston Matthews, a franchise center. The Leafs have also hit on later picks and other prospects acquired in trades. Travis Dermott (drafted), Kasperi Kapanen (acquired in the Phil Kessel trade), Andreas Johnsson (drafted), Zach Hyman (acquired from Florida for a draft pick), and others were all a part of this process.

The Leafs “tanking” has led to them becoming Stanley Cup contenders. Simultaneously, the Leafs have used their open cap space that was opened up through rebuild trades to sign the likes of John Tavares and Patrick Marleau. Both players have helped their rebuild process tremendously. Toronto had only a one year turn-around after their official “tank” year before they made the playoffs. This is somewhat of an anomaly, but also a testament to the Leafs excellent drafting (see star players Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Reilly). The Leafs are currently set up for a long run of regular season and playoff success.

We could deem the Leafs attempt at the “Hinkie” option a full success.

3) New York Rangers

The Rangers announced last season they are in full-on rebuild mode.  They traded away a number of their assets.

However, the Rangers have been unwilling to trade or convince their greatest asset to allow a trade. Henrik Lundqvist continues to be a top 10 NHL goalie, and in many ways, he is preventing the Rangers from participating in a “hard” rebuild. Lundqvist seems content to stay in New York, regardless of how bad the team in front of him is. His no movement clause insures this remains the case, plus the Rangers love what he brings to the table in terms of promoting the team off the ice.

For that reason, the Rangers remained competitive for a good portion of last season, and they are again this year as well. In 2018, the Rangers highest pick was at 9. They chose Russian winger Vitali Kravtsov, a somewhat surprise pick to many. While there is a chance Kravtsov may enter the NHL once his season in Russia is over, he is unlikely to be a high impact player for at least another season, if not more. The Rangers other first round picks in last year’s draft (both defensemen) are a ways off as well. Their immediate impact is far from imminent. If the Rangers finish middle of the pack again in the non-playoff picture, they will likely be picking around the 7-12 position once again. This also means they are unlikely to get a “star” player in that slot.

We could, therefore, deem the Rangers attempt at the “Hinkie” option as not likely to be successful, unless Lundqvist decides to move on.

4) Boston Bruins

The Bruins went complete stealth mode in their rebuild during the 2015 draft. In other words, most people did not realize the Bruins were, in fact, “rebuilding.” After winning a Cup a few years earlier, the Bruins were running into cap problems. Bruins management made a decision that they did not want to part with all of their star pieces. So, they settled on quick rebuild. In the summer of 2015, the Bruins parted ways with Milan Lucic (a good decision) and Dougie Hamilton (a not good decision). They then received three first round picks and used those picks to take three players consecutively. Notoriously, the Bruins could have taken Matt Barzal and Kyle Connor back-to-back with these picks. However, they settled on Jake Debrusk, Zach Synyshyn, and Jakub Zboril. Debrusk has excelled in Boston, but neither Synyshyn or Zboril are in the NHL, and question marks remain as to whether or not they are even NHL players.

Thankfully, the Bruins have drafted well with their later round picks. Because of that, they have a plethora of players on their way up or currently in their lineup. After parting ways with Claude Julien a few seasons back, current Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has his team firing on all cylinders. The Bruins were a Stanley Cup contender last season and will be again this season. The Bruins have made mostly good decisions regarding their cap space, using it to lock up Marchand longterm, as well as extending Chara and others. Even though they have made a few questionable drafting decisions, we can deem the Bruins “rebuild on the fly” a success.

So what should the Flyers do?

These are four very different scenarios, all with different results. For the Flyers to truly pull off the Sam Hinkie option, they would likely have to part with ALL players that would potentially help their team succeed. This means Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek would have to go, without question. If the Flyers are unwilling to part with these pieces, the Flyers will probably be closer to a Rangers rebuild. As Flyers fans know, the team is almost perpetually in a “win now” mode. Don’t be surprised if the Flyers follow a more Bruins-oriented model going forward. However, one can still hope if this season continues to regress that the Flyers would strongly pursue doing whatever it takes to try and secure a first overall pick.