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THN.com Blog: Finishing last doesn't guarantee future success

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

You’re the GM of a foundering NHL team in mid-February, your club’s chances of making the playoffs are about as good as Sean Avery winning a congeniality competition and your franchise’s fandom is clamoring for trades before the deadline. What to do?

Naturally, you make inquiries and listen to all offers that will help your team in the long run. What you shouldn’t do is blow up the entire model based on the premise that finishing last overall is a guarantee of eventual salvation. Recent history suggests otherwise.

The “you gotta be bad to be good” approach has merit. It allows teams to acquire blue-chip young assets via the draft. But being the biggest loser and finishing 30th out of 30 teams isn’t a foolproof elixir.

We examined the standings from 1995 thorough 2004 to determine the fate of the club that finished dead last, omitting the most recent seasons because not enough time has elapsed to fairly judge them. Here’s what we discovered:

• The team finishing last retained the first overall pick just four times, but none in the final six years of the period.

• On six occasions, a lottery winner leapfrogged all clubs ahead of them in the draft order to secure the first overall pick (non-playoff teams can move up a maximum of four draft positions, as per the draft lottery rules).

• Just two of the teams finishing last overall in our 10-year study (Tampa Bay and Carolina) eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup.

• Among the others, Ottawa and Pittsburgh have evolved into elite teams that haven’t yet experienced ultimate playoff success.

• The remainder – Atlanta, Boston and the Islanders – have won a combined one playoff round (the Bruins) since finishing in the league basement.

So if you’re the Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs or any other team within spitting distance of the last and you’re eyeing Steven Stamkos as the prize for your futility, don’t bank on getting him. And even if you do, don’t start looking for a jeweler who can make Stanley Cup rings. There’s still a huge divide between rock bottom and the summit peak and plenty of places to slip up in between.

The table below identifies the 10 last overall finishers from 1995-2004. Their cumulative playoff round victories following the year they finished in the basement, and through 2007, is listed in the last column, with Stanley Cup winners italicized.

Year

Team

Player

Pick

Subsequent playoff round wins

1995

Ottawa

Bryan Berard

1st overall

8

1996

Ottawa

Chris Phillips

1st overall

8

1997

Boston

Joe Thonrton

1st overall

1

1998

Tampa Bay

Vincent Lecavalier

1st overall

6

1999

Tampa Bay

no first-rounder

traded pick

6

2000

Atlanta

Dany Heatley

2nd overall

0

2001

Islanders

no first-rounder

traded pick

0

2002

Atlanta

Kari Lehtonen

2nd overall

0

2003

Carolina

Eric Staal

2nd overall

4

2004

Pittsburgh

Evgeni Malkin

2nd overall

0

Jason Kay is the editor of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend.

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