Plenty of teams have won without premier free agent signings, especially in the NHL, but baseball as well (Houston, SF). Free agents are only effective when there is no cap, or a soft cap like the NBA. Because they're generally inefficient, you usually need to overspend for that strategy to work.
Trades are more important in building teams, but you have to have something to trade.
In the end, drafting well and player development are the key to success, given that, you have more latitude to make free agent mistakes, and more assets to trade to finish out a roster.
In sports and life, most shortcuts end up as dead ends.
Hextall inherited an empty talent pipeline, teams that "reload" usually have a solid talent pipeline that allows them to trade off veterans for young players and quickly fill out the roster and turn it around - that's the one thing RA finally did at the end, rebuild the farm system through trades - now it's up to Klentak to do it through LA signings and the draft (i.e. fill in the organizational donut).
When you have a bad farm system or pipeline (hockey is more complicated than baseball, though both are centered around drafting 18 year olds), it's going to take 4-5 years to rebuild the system, and until that's done, it's extremely difficult to make a team sustainably competitive (i.e. not the 1993 Phillies) through free agency. Both the Phillies and Flyers started in 2014 (Flyers and Phillies both suffered two years of decay under status quo regimes). Both teams should be serious contenders by 2020.