Two of hockey’s Original Six are alive and well in the Eastern Conference finals, which began Saturday with the New York Rangers’ 7-2 rout of the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1.1 The series is an interesting case study in the rebuilding of once-great clubs. No matter which of the two historic franchises prevails, the victor will have made it to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since it won hockey’s ultimate prize roughly two decades ago.2 Their long road back saw 19 different head coaches between them,3 payrolls both desiccated and bloated, and years of mediocrity that flouted expectations. But their twin decades in the wilderness taught them the value of drafting well and committing to smart spending.
North of the border, Les Habitants play the central role in Canada’s ongoing, agonizing Stanley Cup drought. The Canadiens are unaccustomed to going this long without a championship, and that’s putting it mildly. Over the course of the 77 postseasons between 1916 and 1993, Montreal hoisted the Cup once every 3.2 seasons on average. They won 24 titles; to this day, no other NHL team has won more than 13.4
The 1992-93 Canadiens won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1985-86.5 That championship team was good — and lucky. According to estimates of score-close Fenwick percentage (a team-possession stat), the 1992-93 Canadiens were the NHL’s eighth-best team at controlling possession, and they finished sixth in save percentage thanks to Patrick Roy, one of the rare goalies who could truly be said to possess consistently elite puck-stopping skills. Their luck often came in overtime, when the Canadiens won the majority of their playoff games; they went an incredible 10-1 in overtime during the 1993 postseason,6 including victories in Games 2, 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. (Historically, there’s essentially no correlation between how a team does from one overtime playoff game to the next, so Montreal’s overtime record undoubtedly meant the Canadiens were the beneficiary of good fortune during their ‘93 Cup run.)
The 1992-93 Canadiens were the fifth-youngest Cup-winners since the dawn of the Original Six era in 1943.7 Despite carrying over much of the same core of players into subsequent seasons, Montreal declined sharply, soon missing the playoffs for the first time in a quarter-century. Habs GM Serge Savard wasn’t able to wheel and deal his way to a new championship-caliber group,8 and aside from the 1987 and 1993 drafts9 the team did not restock well. According to a measurement of picking efficiency similar to one I used to evaluate NFL teams’ performances in the draft,10 the Canadiens were the league’s fourth-worst drafting team from 1988 to 1995.11
Making matters worse, the Canadiens were facing a weak national currency at a time before the salary cap. Because Montreal had to offer more money than U.S. teams did in order to get the same amount of talent, they found themselves at a competitive disadvantage. The Habs fell out of the league’s top 10 in payroll spending for the 1994-95 season,12 dropping to 16th out of 26 teams that season and 17th in each of the next two years. Unable to compete financially (they’d been a top-five payroll team as recently as five years earlier) and having strung together a series of mostly poor drafts, the Canadiens fired Savard in 199513 and spent the next decade mired in mediocrity.
Meanwhile in Manhattan, the Rangers were suffering much the same fate. Their 1993-94 Stanley Cup championship team had broken the Curse of 1940 and given Rangers fans their long-awaited redemption. The team was an incredible collection of talent, posting the fourth-best record and fifth-best estimated Fenwick close of any pre-2008 Cup winner,14 but also had the fifth-oldest roster in the league15 and was the 23rd-oldest Cup winner since 1943.
Instead of seeking out younger players, New York GM Neil Smith put the league’s oldest squad on the ice over the next three seasons (even recruiting a 36-year-old Wayne Gretzky to join a 36-year-old Mark Messier in the summer of 1996). While the Canadiens were struggling to contend with the NHL’s new financial realities, the Rangers had no such issues; their $44 million payroll in 1997-98 was the highest in NHL history at the time. But they were also committed to an old, overpaid roster that wasn’t producing — and, like Montreal, New York had compounded matters by drafting poorly over the previous decade.16
A number of key players on the Rangers’ 1993-94 championship squad had been acquired in the draft during the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Sergei Zubov, Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Nemchinov and Tony Amonte. But the subsequent batch of Rangers drafts produced first-round busts like Jeff Brown (No. 22 overall in 1996), Stefan Cherneski (No. 19 in 1997) and Pavel Brendl and Jamie Lundmark (No. 4 and No. 9, respectively, in 1999).
The lack of decent prospects made it difficult for New York to avoid extending its aging stars’ contracts or overpaying for veterans on the free-agent market. From 1997-98 to 2003-04, the Rangers never fell outside the NHL’s top four teams in payroll dollars spent, yet never had a season with a winning record. Smith was fired after a disappointing 1999-2000 campaign that saw New York finish 12 points out of the playoffs, but his successor, Glen Sather, didn’t fare better, missing the postseason himself in each of the next four seasons.
Both the Canadiens and Rangers were afterthoughts in the 2000s. But both teams began to turn their fortunes around after a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 schedule and radically shifted the game’s economic landscape.
Under the league’s new salary-cap system (and with the loonie gaining strength), Montreal steadily began to spend more on payroll, cracking the top 10 once more in 2006-07, and the top five in 2008-09. And while the Rangers initially spent huge sums of money on their players,17 Sather began reducing the team’s payroll in 2010 — dropping out of the top five for the first time in at least 20 years, followed by a 14th-place payroll ranking in 2011-12 and a 19th-place ranking this year.
The Rangers’ sudden, unprecedented reduction in payroll coincided with a newfound commitment to youth. After ranking among the league’s oldest teams each season going back to the early 1990s, New York transitioned to become one of the youngest squads in 2008-09, jettisoning aging stars like Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Martin Straka. This year, the Rangers’ only major contributors over 3018 are Henrik Lundqvist, 31, and Brad Richards, 33. And the team’s recent draft classes have supplied the Rangers with a host of talented youngsters such as Derek Stepan, Michael Del Zotto, Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin. (Undrafted free-agent gems like Mats Zuccarello help, too.)
In a similar vein, one of the biggest ingredients of Montreal’s turnaround has been a successful series of drafts by general managers Andre Savard, Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier, beginning in 200219 and cresting with strong hauls in 2004, 2005 and 2007. Under their stewardship, the team made a number of shrewd selections, like P.K. Subban at No. 43, Max Pacioretty at No. 22, Brendan Gallagher at No. 147 and Carey Price at No. 5. (Other 2013-14 Habs key players procured via the draft include Andrei Markov — a relic of the Houle era — and Tomas Plekanec.) All those players’ careers have exceeded what could reasonably have been expected from their draft positions.
Those picks may have been plain old luck — the year-to-year correlation for teams’ per-pick draft efficiency is very nearly zero, suggesting drafting skill is largely random in hockey, just as it is in football. Regardless, Montreal and New York still brought themselves back into relevance.
None of this guarantees a Stanley Cup this year. The winner of the Eastern Conference finals will face either the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, or the Los Angeles Kings, who are the best possession team in hockey. Neither the Canadiens nor the Rangers has looked especially dominant in the playoffs thus far, aside from the Rangers’ pasting of the Canadiens in Game 1. Both teams needed Game 7s to squeak past their opponents in the conference semifinals, and the Rangers needed that many to top the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, too. During the regular season, the Canadiens were not a strong possession team, still a major leading indicator of future team success.
Despite all of those caveats, it’s notable that one of these two teams is guaranteed a place in the final. Each lost its way during the previous decade, but by successfully rebuilding through the draft and not throwing good money after bad, they’ve provided a road map for once-proud franchises to get back on the path to the Stanley Cup.