Despite commissioner Gary Bettman's denials, this was the NHL's year of the tank.
With top prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel available, Buffalo, Arizona and Toronto all bottomed out in the second half of the season, part of an ugly race to the basement that had an unprecedented effect on the standings.
Four teams finished with fewer than 70 points for the first time since all those shootout points were added to the mix. As a result, it took nearly 100 points to make the playoffs, with recent Stanley Cup winners Boston and Los Angeles missing out with 95-plus.
But six weeks after the season ended, and the lottery balls gifted the sad-sack Edmonton Oilers with McDavid, there's proof right in these playoffs that you don't necessarily have to get awful to be good.
Exhibit A: The Anaheim Ducks.
Exhibit B: The New York Rangers.
They are the league's two best examples of not needing to tank, and they're playing the Blackhawks and Lightning to a draw in what have been wildly entertaining conference finals.
In the West, the Ducks have had only one pick higher than 10th since 2005 – their average first-rounder was 17th in that stretch – and may have the best pool of young players and prospects in the league.
In the East, the Rangers haven't selected higher than 10th since taking netminder Al Montoya back in 2004.
How the NHL’s final four playoff teams were built
Getzlaf, Perry, Andersen, Lindholm, Fowler, Vatanen, Beleskey, Palmieri, Etem, Rakell
Kesler, Silfverberg, Maroon, Cogliano, Beauchemin, Despres, Thompson, Jackman
Lundqvist, Staal, Stepan, Kreider, Hagelin, Fast, Miller
Nash, Brassard, McDonagh, Yandle, St. Louis, Klein, Sheppard
Girardi, Zuccarello, Moore, Boyle, Glass, Hayes, Hunwick
Stamkos, Hedman, Killorn, Palat, Kucherov, Paquette, Nesterov, Brown, Namestnikov
Bishop, Coburn, Callahan, Garrison
Johnson, Filppula, Stralman, Sustr, Carle, Boyle, Morrow
Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Crawford, Saad, Kruger, Shaw, Bickell, Teravainen
Sharp, Oduya, Vermette, Timonen, Desjardins, Versteeg
Hossa, Richards, Rozsival, Darling
*- minimum five playoff games played
Both teams have been consistently in the contender mix, off and on. The Ducks are fifth in wins – in the regular season and playoffs – since 2005; the Rangers are sixth.
Between them, they have only one Cup, and the two most high-profile clubs that tanked – Chicago and Pittsburgh – have three, which is part of what has spawned so many copycats. But there are many other franchises that piled up high picks and didn't come close.
Edmonton. Florida. Atlanta (RIP), the Islanders, Columbus … There's a cautionary tale in there, especially when you consider how Anaheim has succeeded.
They've been smart. They've had to. The Ducks are a small-market team, even if they're in the shadow of the second largest city in the United States, and they're working with the NHL's fourth-lowest payroll this year.
If you analyze their drafts, however, they're littered with success stories, especially in the first few rounds. Their two superstars, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, were lifted out of the historic 2003 draft at 19th and 28th, but then there's Matt Beleskey (2006), Kyle Palmieri and Sami Vatanen (2009), Cam Fowler and Emerson Etem (2010), Rickard Rakell and John Gibson (2011) and Hampus Lindholm and Frederik Andersen (2012) all between sixth overall and 112th in a seven-draft span.
They also flipped Bobby Ryan and Jake Gardiner in key deals for Jakob Silfverberg (their top scorer these playoffs next to the two big guns) and François Beauchemin (their top defenceman).
That's their top two netminders (the cheapest duo in the league), top four defencemen and seven forwards.
Add in Ryan Kesler, Simon Després, Patrick Maroon and Andrew Cogliano via lopsided trades, and it's a deep cast that's been shrewdly assembled on a budget.
"They target high-talent players," explained Corey Pronman, ESPN's NHL prospects guru. "You really need to credit their scouting staff for staying on other team's prospects, too, which is something a lot of teams don't pay too much attention to."
The Ducks don't have a large front office or scouting staff, but the club is getting increasingly noticed for its work around the league. Bob Murray is a finalist for the GM-of-the-year award yet again after winning last season, and long-time director of amateur scouting Martin Madden Jr. – whose father is also in the department – is a candidate to be poached by a wealthier team.
More than anything, they're an example of how vital diverse player procurement and bargain hunting can be and that contending for a Cup is not necessarily contingent on having years and years of high picks.
There's a lesson in there for teams such as the Sabres and Maple Leafs as they continue their own reconstruction efforts. There's a lot more to team building than tanking, and it starts with filling your management ranks with bright bulbs.
Then filling your roster with talent, any way you can.
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