2022 NHL Draft: How a team’s life cycle defines strategy

Where do the Sharks fit in the life cycle of an NHL team, and what can we assume about how that will impact off-season moves?

I think about this tweet a lot.

I wonder if general managers think about this too, as they prepare for the draft and free agency. Betting on yourself as a general manager means trying to navigate the waters to build the right team to win a Stanley Cup.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning have proven their way results in continued success, not everyone is at the same place in the pursuit of a Cup. Some teams are working to go from basement dwellers to simply competent, others from playoff contenders to Stanley Cup winners, while some wander the NHL desert looking for a reason to bet on themselves.

Every NHL team is at a different point in the team’s life cycle and that point can change very quickly (Hi, Montreal) or last a long time (Buffalo, Pittsburgh). Breaking down these cycles, there are five stages a team can stop in their life cycle. It isn’t a flow chart that moves step by step, but it does tend to go that way.

Stanley Cup Contenders

These are your cream of the crop, the best teams in the NHL. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes, etc. — these teams have the right combination of star power, depth and je ne sais quoi, whatever it is that has made them the best teams in the land.

With that comes the privilege of not caring as much about the draft. The goal is to win the Stanley Cup and an 18-year-old in Moose Jaw isn’t going to help with that goal in the current season. Stanley Cup windows are small and they are trying to capitalize on this moment. Sure, they will need to be smart about the draft, but that isn’t the biggest need or focus. These teams will worry about the future later and care not of your mock drafts. They have a trophy to try to win.

Playoff Contenders

Playoff contenders sit in a very precarious spot. These are teams like the Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars and Washington Capitals. They are either past Cup-contending days (Caps) or a good team that is searching to become a great team (Stars).

These teams can enter the draft with different mentalities, depending on the likelihood of moving forward or backward in the life cycle. They could be looking to reload, trying to find a player who can help an aging core, or maybe they are looking at how to add the next impact plater to push the team into playoff contention a little longer, or they could be looking at the window shutting and it might be time to start the teardown process. They value draft picks, but are willing to move them if the right offer is there.

The Creamy Middle

This is arguably the worst place to be as a franchise and your San Jose Sharks are here. These are the teams that usually are too good to be bad and too bad to be good. They are directionless and are either trying to convenience themselves of something they are not, or just plain clueless about what the team actually is.

These teams make it difficult to assess how they will approach the draft. They usually have middling prospect pools, because they’ve been unable to draft high or have traded picks away. So they could try to add to their pool with mid-round picks, but the caliber of player isn’t quite good enough to actually build a core around. Maybe they trade picks for NHL players, but the prospect pool will continue to get weaker from the attempts to stave off the inevitable. It’s a tight rope to walk a “retool” instead of a rebuild and few see it through with success.

The Young and Fun Core

These teams are exiting the rebuild and starting to think about contending, even if they haven’t quite figured it out yet. They have been bad for a few seasons and the fruits of that labor (and drafting) are starting to pay off (New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings). They may not be good, but they’re starting to look better.

These teams typically have cap space to spare, since they’ve been cycling out of old, bad contracts and are looking to add to a young talented core in order to start to competing. Their draft picks are still valuable, as they look to add the final pieces who can fit in with current players, but could also be looking at adding veteran players who can help accelerate the team into the next phase of its life cycle.

The Rebuilding

There is something beautiful about life coming from death and that’s what these teams are all about (Buffalo Sabres, Arizona Coyotes, Seattle Kraken). These teams are in the asset management phase of life. They are trying to grab as many draft picks as possible to build up their rosters, sometimes from scratch. They will trade star players (Sabres), take on contract mistakes (Coyotes) or stand pat trying to figure things out (Kraken), but they want high picks and as many as them as they can acquire. The real fun is the off-season, watching highlights of potential prospects and reading mock drafts about the franchise’s next savior.

So what does this all mean?

Every team is in a different phase of team building and keep that in mind when approaching how they treat the draft, trades and adding free agents. What makes sense for one team doesn’t make sense for another.

So when people throw out trades, such as Timo Meier for the second-overall selection, does that make sense for both parties? For the Devils it does: they are in that Young and Fun Core, trying to become a playoff contender.

But does it make sense for the Sharks? They have said multiple times that the goal is to become a playoff contender and their actions have barred that out. Re-signing Tomas Hertl to an eight-year extension, not trading James Reimer at the deadline, not trading and then re-signing Alexander Barabanov — these are all the actions of a team that isn't trying to slide into the rebuilding phase.

While the second-overall pick would be very interesting to a rebuilding team, is Logan Cooley or Juraj Slafkovský helping the Sharks make the playoffs next year? Probably not.

This is something to keep in mind when looking at potential moves that the Sharks may or might not make heading into the draft and on draft day. While a new general manager will bet on themselves, for now, Joe Will and the Sharks’ brain trust are betting on how the team is going to make the playoffs next year and we have to operate under that lens until proven otherwise.

Now, whether or not it’s the right move for the franchise in the long term is a different bet.