Say the words "Tank Nation" to Brian Burke and you'll likely get punched in the mouth. From the time the big Irishman took over the Leafs, he has committed himself to accelerating the process of making the Toronto Maple Leafs contenders in the Eastern Conference.
While the Phil Kessel deal purged the team of first round picks, thereby quieting the calls for the 'Tank Nation' strategy, there remains a significant number of hockey fans that feel that the proper way to rebuild is to take your lumps, finish in the bottom of the standings for a few years, and then look to compete a few seasons down the road. This 'Fail to Succeed' model has never made a lot of sense to me intuitively but I decided to look at from a more quantitative perspective to see if there's any merit to the strategy.
My measure of 'success' is any team that makes the conference finals. While there are varying levels of success a team can achieve, I think there are few teams in the league that would be anything other than satisfied with this result. By contrast, 'failure' is defined as any team that finishes in the bottom five in the standings.
The purpose of looking at last place finishes is to determine to what degree tanking for draft picks has proven successful. For this reason, I looked at last place finishes starting in 1995 and didn't start measuring top-4 finishes until 2000. I stopped considering last place finishes relevant in 2008 as I felt that draft picks during those years would largely have not been given the opportunity to develop and help their teams.
The results are a bit of a mixed bag.
High Success - Low Failure
The Detroit Red Wings had four top-4 finishes between 2000 and 2010 and never once finished in the bottom five. I'm reluctant to recommend that any team use Detroit as a 'model' as they have largely relied on replacing their star talent with late draft picks that become superstars in the NHL. Not exactly something you'd want to count on.
The Philadelphia Flyers also had four top-4 finishes and only once finished among the league's bottom teams. The resulting draft pick, James Van Riemsdyk, had very little to do with the team's success, thereby suggesting that the low finish did little to help the Flyers become the team they are today.
High Success - High Failure
The Anaheim Ducks spent three seasons in the league's bottom five and three seasons finished among the top-4. Draft picks Stanislov Chistov, Vitaly Vishnevsky and Chad Kilger were hardly franchise cornerstones however. The Ducks' success was largely predicated on free agency (Selanne, Niedermayer, Pronger) and exceptional goaltending (Giguere).
The Pittsburgh Penguins are perhaps the poster children for the tank-cycle teams. Like Anaheim, Pittsburgh also spent three seasons in the cellar and three seasons among the league's elite. The difference being, Pittsburgh took full advantage of their high picks, landing Malkin, Fleury and Staal as well as winning the draft lottery following the lockout season and grabbing Sidney Crosby. Older fans will recall similar results with Lemieux and Jagr. The cycle continues and the Penguins are back on the up-swing.
Low Success - High Failure
The New York Islanders truly set the watermark for NHL futility. Seven times they finished among the league's bottom five and not once have they finished in the top-4. This should be blamed more on ineptitude on behalf of their management than a problem with the tank strategy as the team has traded away such names as Jason Spezza, Zdeno Chara and Roberto Luongo.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the next best example. It's tough to be critical of any team that has won a Stanley Cup in the last decade, but the Lightning are the quintessential feast or famine team. In addition to their Stanley Cup victory, the Lightning have also seven times finished among the league's bottom five teams.
More to consider
The Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets have all finished in the bottom five 4 times during the time-period examined and all three of these teams look to be stuck in the bottom of the league standings for the near future.
The Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings have also finished in the bottom five 4 times but these teams are undoubtedly on the rise and look to be serious contenders in the coming years.
Other successful teams such as New Jersey or Colorado never fell in the bottom five category and have each seen three appearances in the top-4 group. These teams aren't really instructive from a 'team-building' perspective as the Avalanche's success was achieved with high-salaried players in an era without a cap. New Jersey has had the best goalie of all time - again, as with Detroit, not something a team should count on.
I suppose the conclusion we're forced to arrive at is that there is no magic bullet. True, there is a chance that finishing among the league's worst teams could yield a core of players similar to that of Washington or Pittsburgh. Equally likely however, you will end up with players such as those in Columbus, or Atlanta.
Multiple years of failure is probably the most likely way to build a dynasty, but the risks are equally great as you may find that your team has spent seven seasons at the bottom of the standings with very little to show for it. The truth of the matter is that a team doesn't need to rely exclusively on high draft picks to win. Philadelphia and Detroit are both examples of teams that show that assets can be brought in later in the draft or through free agency and can lead to sustainable success.
Brian Burke has decided that his measure of success, for the time being, is the playoffs. He's decided that he plans to get us there by trading first round draft picks for proven, higher-priced talent and replacing these low-dollar contracts by way of undrafted free agents. His model is unique; something no other team has done to the same extent.
Only time will tell which heading Brian Burke's incarnation of the Toronto Maple Leafs will fall under.