Want to Win Big in NHL? Start By Losing

The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs between 2001 and 2007.

But they did lay the foundation for the teams that won Cups in 2009, 2016 and 2017 then.

Colorado, now two victories away from a championship, has followed a similar path to get there.

So, for that matter, did Tampa Bay, the team whose two-year run atop the league the Avalanche is trying to end.

The Penguins had the first choice in the 2003 and 2005 drafts (the former because of a trade, the latter because of a lottery), and picked Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby, respectively.

They owned the second choices in 2004 and 2006, and claimed Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.

Voila. They had the strength down the middle that’s been a critical factor in them reaching the playoffs for 16 years in a row.

Colorado, meanwhile, sat out the postseason three consecutive times on either side of a one-round appearance in 2004, and used high first-round picks in those years to add Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall, 2011), Nathan MacKinnon (1st, 2013 ) and Cale Makar (4th, 2017).

Tampa Bay had a stretch during which it missed the playoffs five times in six springs, but added franchise cornerstones Steven Stamkos (1st overall, 2008) and Victor Hedman (2nd, 2009) then.

Need more evidence about the impact early first-rounders can have?

Late in a decade-long stretch during which it missed the playoffs nine times, Chicago picked up Jonathan Toews (3rd, 2006) and Patrick Kane (1st, 2007). A few years later, the Blackhawks went on a tear, grabbing three titles in six years.

Of course, No. 1 overall picks come with no guarantees (remember Nail Yakupov?), And two or three or four world-class talents are not enough to allow a bad team to morph into a Cup-caliber one.

But the NHL’s draft format is designed to give its least successful clubs a chance to transform themselves from comical to competitive by adding high-impact prospects to their payrolls.

And, as the Lightning, Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins have shown – and the Avalanche might do soon – those early choices can provide cornerstones for what develop into championship squads.

*** Makar was the best defenseman in the NHL this season and figures to have a shelf full of Norris trophies before he retires. He also might be sprouting the most miserable excuse for a playoff beard of any prominent player since Sidney Crosby was a younger man.

*** Jason Botterill, who is Ron Francis’ assistant GM in Seattle, reportedly is on the short list of candidates to succeed Doug Wilson as GM in San Jose.

If he gets the job, Botterill will (re) join a large group of GMs who established their management credentials working as assistants to former Penguins GMs Ray Shero and Jim Rutherford.

They include Chuck Fletcher (Philadelphia), Bill Guerin (Minnesota), Patrik Allvin (Vancouver) and Tom Fitzgerald (New Jersey).

Botterill, who served under both Shero and Rutherford, had a three-year stint as GM in Buffalo and Don Waddell, now GM in Carolina, was a scout for two years during Shero’s tenure.

Oh, and Francis got his start in the front office when he worked under Rutherford in Carolina.

*** It’s a rather peculiar series of events playing out in Florida, where the Panthers are interviewing candidates for a coaching position that isn’t officially open yet.

Andrew Brunette, named interim coach after Joel Quenneville resigned last October, led the Panthers to the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, hasn’t been told that he’ll get the job on a permanent basis… but he hasn’t been told that he won’t, either.

Rick Tocchet, the former Pittsburgh Penguins winger and assistant coach, is believed to be among the candidates to take over behind the bench there. It would be interesting to see how he would fare in that role, because Florida’s roster is far better than the ones Tocchet oversaw during his stints as head coach in Tampa and Arizona.

*** Colorado’s domination of Game 2 and 2-0 lead in the Cup final makes it hard to imagine that Tampa Bay will manage to become the first team to win three consecutive Cups since the New York Islanders claimed four in a row in 1980- 83, but there are a couple of things to consider before announcing the parade route in downtown Denver.

One is that Games 3 and 4 will be played at Amalie Arena, where Tampa Bay is 7-1 in these playoffs. The other is that the Lightning have won their past 11 series, and you don’t do that without being resilient and able to overcome adversity.

For Tampa Bay, that includes losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final to the New York Rangers before running off four consecutive victories.

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