Baptism By Fire and the Pittsburgh Penguins

Jonathan Willis
August 09 2009 05:00AM

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The 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins were a miserable team – the worst in the NHL in fact. They went 23-47-8-4, and were led in scoring by defenseman Dick Tarnstrom (52 points) and had ten different players who recorded a -20 rating or worse. The team also featured 17 players aged 25 or younger, including many high draft picks.

Five years later, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup – showing that the baptism-by-fire method helped develop those young players into champions, right?  Wrong.

Let’s consider the list of players under the age of 25 who played 10+ games for the Penguins in 2003-04. Players in bold had a role on the 2008-09 championship team:

  • Ryan Malone (23): 81GP – 22G – 21A – 43PTS, -23 (Draft: 4th round, 1999)
  • Milan Kraft (23): 66GP – 19G – 21A – 40PTS, -22 (Draft: 1st round, 1998)
  • Rico Fata (23): 73GP – 16G – 18A – 34PTS, -46 (Draft: 1st round, 1998)
  • Konstantin Koltsov (22): 82GP – 9G – 20A – 29PTS, -30 (Draft: 1st round, 1999)
  • Ric Jackman (25): 25GP – 7G – 17A – 24PTS, -5 (Draft: 1st round, 1996)
  • Tomas Surovy (21): 47GP – 11G – 12A – 23PTS, -8 (Draft: 4th round, 2001)
  • Tom Kostopoulos (24): 60GP – 9G – 13A – 22PTS, -14 (Draft: 7th round, 1999)
  • Matt Bradley (25): 82GP – 7G – 9A – 16PTS, -27 (Draft: 4th round, 1996)
  • Brooks Orpik (22): 79GP – 1G – 9A – 10PTS, -36 (Draft: 1st round, 2000)
  • Josef Melichar (24): 82GP – 3G – 5A – 8PTS. -17 (Draft: 3rd round, 1997)
  • Ramzi Abid (23): 16GP – 3G – 2A – 5PTS, -5 (Draft: 3rd round, 2000)
  • Jon Sim (25): 15GP – 2G – 3A – 5PTS, -4 (Draft: 3rd round, 1996)
  • Dan Focht (25): 52GP – 2G – 3A – 5PTS, -23 (Draft: 1st round, 1996)
  • Rob Scuderi (24): 13GP – 1G – 2A – 3PTS, +2 (Draft: 5th round, 1998)
  • Matt Murley (23): 18GP – 1G – 1A – 2PTS, -6 (Draft: 2nd round, 1999) ---
  • Sebastien Caron (23): 40GP, 9-24-5, .883 SV%, 3.74 GAA (Draft: 3rd round, 1999)
  • Marc-Andre Fleury (18): 22GP, 4-14-2, 3.64 GAA, .896 SV% (Draft: 1st round, 2003)

Interesting list, that. Only three of those seventeen players would have any kind of role on the team that would win the Stanley Cup just five years later. Only two of seven first round picks would end up having a role.

The Penguins at that point were three years into a rebuild that had seen them record 69, 65, and 58 points between 2001-02 and 2003-04. So this wasn’t a freshly gutted group; the Penguins were already well into their reconstruction and at this point it was fair to say that this collection of young players represented much of the fruitage of their rebuilding work. They had some decent non-NHL prospects at that point: Ryan Whitney, Daniel Carcillo, Erik Christensen, Maxime Talbot and Noah Welch were all prospects at the time, although here to we note that only Talbot was on the Stanley Cup-winning team (although Whitney at least brought in winger Chris Kunitz in trade).

The players getting developed in the NHL during Pittsburgh’s three seasons in the gutter actually had rather little long-term benefit to the franchise. To be sure, the picks acquired during these years were golden – Fleury, Malkin, Crosby and Staal were eventually reaped down the line, and to the benefit of the team. All the team had to do to get those players was survive a relocation scare, burn four seasons (plus the lockout) worth of games, and see virtually every prospect the team had at the start of the rebuild either flameout in the NHL or hit unrestricted free agency before the team was ready to compete.

The point? The reason that teams who do the scorched-earth rebuild eventually succeed has precious little to do with their young prospects getting NHL jobs, and a lot more to do with the incredible draft picks that end up getting stockpiled while those players fail spectacularly in the big leagues.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Skidplate
August 09 2009, 06:08AM
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The tough thing around these parts is the fan base would revolt if we were on the bottom of the standings for 3 years running. Of course, in hindsight it sounds great, we have Crosby, Malkin, Staal, but the torture we would have to go through to obtain these types of players I do not believe would fly in Oil Country.

Oh ya, let’s not forget that high 1st round draft picks are not guaranteed.

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#2 Skidplate
August 09 2009, 06:09AM
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Skidplate wrote:

The tough thing around these parts is the fan base would revolt if we were on the bottom of the standings for 3 years running. Of course, in hindsight it sounds great, we have Crosby, Malkin, Staal, but the torture we would have to go through to obtain these types of players I do not believe would fly in Oil Country. Oh ya, let’s not forget that high 1st round draft picks are not guaranteed.

not guaranteed superstars...

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#3 SkinnyD
August 09 2009, 06:49AM
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I saw that team when they came here that December...was sitting right behind Fleury and his bright yellow pads - he was spectacular. And I believe we barely beat them.

It seems we're fairly well stocked with good prospects to develop - but I think what will actually hurt us is the cap and the number and type of contracts that currently have us handcuffed. Perhaps it will be the Eberle's and Rajala's that lead the significant climb back to competitiveness rather than the Cogliano's and Gagner's when we can't afford to re-sign them...

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#4 Westcoastoil
August 09 2009, 08:32AM
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This re-inforces how big a mistake it was to keep Gags an Cogs up their first year rather than letting them get one more season to dominate in the lower leagues - particularly since the D was left gutted after Pronger and Spacek left. The Oil missed the playoffs anyway, blew an opportunity to get a good pick and burned a contract year on 2 of their top young players. No wonder Lowe has lost all his hair

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#5 Bill Rizer
August 09 2009, 08:52AM
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@ Skidplate: Why won't it fly? We can't seem to attract elite talent via trade, or free agency so we need to draft some. Until then we'll be a lock for 8th-10th place every year. Now that's progress.

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#6 MattL
August 09 2009, 08:59AM
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Nice work, J-dub.

I like Scott Howson's approach to building a winner. You do it slowly, making one small, smart move at a time. A team like Pittsburgh, Chicago or Anaheim when they won recently, have windows dependent on young contracts. But you also need all the parts in place with reasonable contracts, like Detroit, or Carolina.

Just having a couple of superstars doesn't guarantee you anything. It takes several years of consistent good moves.

And even then, each year is a roll of the dice when you get in the playoffs.

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#7 Harlie
August 09 2009, 09:16AM
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Rob Schremp and Alex Plante say hi.

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#8 SK Rider Fan
August 09 2009, 10:34AM
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Why not just come out and say it? Tanking for 2 or 3 seasons is the most proven method for creating a contender in the cap world.

Lemieux even edmitted that they had a 3 year plan in place that would see them stockpile draft picks.

The Oilers have a decent group of prospects, but nothing that would make them contenders in the next three years. So why not tank 2 or 3 years?

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#9 Dave
August 09 2009, 10:44AM
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Tanking to stock draft picks, Balsillie, Delbiaggio/Leopol,Burke from Anaheim to Toronto, gambling,draft lottery ending with Crosby going to Pitt when they were on the brink of collapse and #2 going to Burke in Anaheim fresh off of his job with the league.

I'm really starting to wonder about the integrity of the NHL.

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#10 rOILty
August 09 2009, 10:48AM
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because it would be really depressing to watch...

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#11 Archaeologuy
August 09 2009, 11:07AM
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Oh man, Patrick Kane robbed and beat a cabbie over 20 cents. Best Day Ever.

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#12 typol99
August 09 2009, 11:24AM
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schremp is a bum...so brutal..guy is a baby and will; never be a starter in the bigsHarlie wrote:

Rob Schremp and Alex Plante say hi.
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#13 Chris
August 09 2009, 11:25AM
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@ Willis:

Great post. The Penguin team validates many of my theories about building a winner. 1) Like Lowetide, it's my contention that the team with the most legit NHL'ers usually wins. A coach can't win games when he has to play more than two or three guys in very sheltered minutes. 2) It takes only a few very special/ highly skilled players to put you over the top. (Remember point 1, though... everyone else must be steady and consistant) 3) Your team must be able to execute a variety of game-plans. When the Penguins couldn't beat Detroit in a puck possession game, they were able to successfully change to a more dump and chase style. To be a team with dimension, however, the bulk of your players need dimension. This seems obvious... but it's a point Oilers management has forgotten. 4) Prospects need to earn their time in the NHL by having consistant success at lower PROFESSIONAL levels.

Point #4 doesn't relate to the Penguins so much as the Oilers. Guys like Schremp shouldn't be able to win a spot with the big club just by having a good camp; a solid AHL/SEL resume should be a prerequisite. I'm also sick of watching so many of our guys pretty much bypass the AHL altogether and go through the growing pains of becomming a professional at the NHL level. This is a man's game. If you have a particularly special prospect, it may be okay to bring him along early; but he better be dumped into a dressing room filled with men; and not into a house full of kids playing rockband and eating takeout pizza.

As Oiler fans we have a soft spot in our hearts for the notion of assembling a pile of skilled young kids who can grow, learn, and eventually contend together. This is just a silly daydream. This side of the millenium, it's unrealistic to expect your scouts to fill the bulk of your roster in just a couple draft years. The Boys-On-The-Bus-Era was magic: a full on miracle. As the saying goes, lightining doesn't strike the same place twice. With complex systems play, parity, etc this is a man's league more than ever. Also remember, that under the current CBA guys like Gretz, Mess, Coffee, etc would all be on thier RFA contract before the first cup was won, and full UFA status before a dynasty was established. The 2006 Oiler roster is a more attainable model. If the same group of guys that skated out post trade deadline day had skated out on opening night: the Oilers may well have won the division. It was a group of MEN that almost won the cup.

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#14 typol99
August 09 2009, 11:25AM
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alex will be a starter.. I mean come on he is from the wheat city for ch%ist sakes @ Harlie:

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#15 typol99
August 09 2009, 11:26AM
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what a dumb yankeeArchaeologuy wrote:

Oh man, Patrick Kane robbed and beat a cabbie over 20 cents. Best Day Ever.
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#16 Colin
August 09 2009, 01:39PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Oh man, Patrick Kane robbed and beat a cabbie over 20 cents. Best Day Ever.

What? explain?

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#17 Colin
August 09 2009, 01:43PM
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@ Colin:

http://tsn.ca/nhl/story/?id=287230

wow. It didn't mention assault charges though. Be interesting to see if he gets time/ league suspension or not.

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#18 Librarian Mike
August 09 2009, 01:48PM
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@ Colin: hxxp://www.tsn.ca/nhl/story/?id=287230

Oh man, what a dummy.

What are the odds he cries at his press conference? I'm going with 3-1.

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#19 Chris
August 09 2009, 01:49PM
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@ Colin:

Google it. The cabby had the dollar but couldn't offer the additional twenty cents change when paid $15.00 on a $13.80 cab fare. Kane and his cousin then allegedly beat the cabby and kept all the money. Kane is being charged with second degree robbery, theft of services, and crimminal mischief by the Buffalo police. What kind of douche would pull something like this?

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#20 Hemmertime
August 09 2009, 01:56PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

... has precious little to do with their young prospects getting NHL jobs, and a lot more to do with the incredible draft picks ...

That doesnt make sense, because the draft picks they earned turn into Young Prospects getting NHL jobs.

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#21 Chris
August 09 2009, 01:56PM
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I can't wait for Saturday, November the 21st. The Oilers play the Blackhawks on a rare CBC game. Me, and my buddies are all going to wear Buddy Holly style glasses with cracked lenses and duck tape in Kane's honor. The heckeling will be merciless!

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#22 Chris
August 09 2009, 01:57PM
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*heckling*

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#23 Archaeologuy
August 09 2009, 02:24PM
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@ Chris: If only the Oilers wouldnt be penalized if everyone threw quarters onto the ice.

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#24 oil fan
August 09 2009, 02:27PM
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How does Kane not get charged with assult ? If you punch someone you get charged with assult. It wont matter anyway, the charges will be dropped or settled out of court. It is ironic that he just did a press release regarding being a role model. I would beat anything he cries.

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#25 Librarian Mike
August 09 2009, 02:28PM
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"No change? You're toast, buddy! I'm Patty f###ing Kane!"

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#26 Hemmertime
August 09 2009, 02:31PM
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Why is everyone ragging on Kane? He paid attention during his financial classes and makes sure things like Federov do not happen to him. The cabbie was thieving 20 cents from him and had it coming.

If you cant get 20 cents from Kane good luck stealing 40 million. Good on him for sending that message.

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#27 oil fan
August 09 2009, 02:33PM
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He wont miss a game over this. Like Heatly, Ray Lewis ( NFL), Stal1worth, ect. Use less you kill animals everything is all good.

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#28 Hemmertime
August 09 2009, 02:35PM
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The first thing the cabbie should have done is given another dollar to Kane due to the fact he was not adequately equipped to serve his customers. No jail time, maybe a slight fine but nothing major will come of this. Kane overreacted though, when I first read it I thought he pulled the cabbie out of the cab and went to town on him. With just a shot in the head he was saving himself from being robbed of 20 cents.

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#29 Archaeologuy
August 09 2009, 02:43PM
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@ Hemmertime: Sure, the Cabbie didnt have exact change, that was his fault. But why was Kane asking for change back? What kind of cheap millionaire is this? What a douchebag.

Plus he should be suspended at least a game for conduct. You cant have guys in your league acting like hooligans without at least pretending to discipline them.

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#30 oil fan
August 09 2009, 02:46PM
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All cabs I have been in have change. The cabbie got what he deserved. He was trying to rip him off. This will not affect his ablility to travel to Canada. In fact i hope he gives a couple of our cabbies a punch. I imagine getting punched by Kane would feel like a 12 years old girl.

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#31 MattL
August 09 2009, 02:48PM
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Hemmertime wrote:

Why is everyone ragging on Kane? He paid attention during his financial classes and makes sure things like Federov do not happen to him. The cabbie was thieving 20 cents from him and had it coming. If you cant get 20 cents from Kane good luck stealing 40 million. Good on him for sending that message.

Yeah, for real. And lots of places, cabbies have to carry change, it's the law, so the cabbie was probably breaking the law. Kane is money smart, and a responsible citizen!

I think I'll wait for the trial on this one, INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY, folks. It's one of the best parts of our democracy/legal system, you're an ass if you disagree.

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#32 oil fan
August 09 2009, 02:52PM
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What do you guys think the oil should do with Cogs ? I really dont know, i like the kid but cant see him here for long. Penner was taking some draws last you maybe Penner on the third line with cogs and have them switch after the draw ?

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#33 oil fan
August 09 2009, 02:56PM
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patty o - horcoff - hemsky Pisani - gagne - nillson/schremp cogs - penner - moreau stortini - brule - strudwick/reddox

Souray - Gilbert Vish - Grebs Smid - staios/peckham

how does that line up look?

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#34 Milli
August 09 2009, 03:40PM
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What kind of a douche bag dosn't just leave the entire $1.20 tip????

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#35 Chris
August 09 2009, 04:12PM
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5:00 am. Must have been a late night at the gymn for Kane.

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#36 oil fan
August 09 2009, 04:29PM
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Dont you lnow how i am Im Patrick effin Kane give back my 20 cents sounds about right

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#37 oil fan
August 09 2009, 04:41PM
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Chris wrote:

5:00 am. Must have been a late night at the gymn for Kane.

Or heading to it lol.

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#38 oil fan
August 09 2009, 04:43PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

@ Chris: If only the Oilers wouldnt be penalized if everyone threw quarters onto the ice.

Yeah cause that sounds like a smart thing to do !!!

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#39 SkinnyD
August 09 2009, 04:59PM
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Hemmertime wrote:

Jonathan Willis wrote: … has precious little to do with their young prospects getting NHL jobs, and a lot more to do with the incredible draft picks … That doesnt make sense, because the draft picks they earned turn into Young Prospects getting NHL jobs.

Get a grip man. They were lucky those prospects happened to be Crosby, Malkin, and Staal. That's once-in-a-lifetime. It could just as easily have gone the other way depending on the draft year.

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#40 Librarian Mike
August 09 2009, 05:10PM
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SkinnyD wrote:

They were lucky those prospects happened to be Crosby, Malkin, and Staal.

Not to mention Fleury as the #1 the year before that...

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#41 Dallas
August 09 2009, 05:40PM
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SkinnyD wrote:

I saw that team when they came here that December…was sitting right behind Fleury and his bright yellow pads - he was spectacular. And I believe we barely beat them. It seems we’re fairly well stocked with good prospects to develop - but I think what will actually hurt us is the cap and the number and type of contracts that currently have us handcuffed. Perhaps it will be the Eberle’s and Rajala’s that lead the significant climb back to competitiveness rather than the Cogliano’s and Gagner’s when we can’t afford to re-sign them…

I can gaurantee you Gagner is going nowhere you idiot the oilers would lose hemsky before losing that kid what a stupid remark

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#42 oil fan
August 09 2009, 05:48PM
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Dallas wrote:

SkinnyD wrote: I saw that team when they came here that December…was sitting right behind Fleury and his bright yellow pads - he was spectacular. And I believe we barely beat them. It seems we’re fairly well stocked with good prospects to develop - but I think what will actually hurt us is the cap and the number and type of contracts that currently have us handcuffed. Perhaps it will be the Eberle’s and Rajala’s that lead the significant climb back to competitiveness rather than the Cogliano’s and Gagner’s when we can’t afford to re-sign them… I can gaurantee you Gagner is going nowhere you idiot the oilers would lose hemsky before losing that kid what a stupid remark

I agree

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#43 SkinnyD
August 09 2009, 05:59PM
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@ Dallas: @ oil fan: Nice to see the name-calling teenage contingent is well represented today.

I hope they keep both Cogliano and Gagner, but my point was that we have a few contracts that are going to be tough to give away (much less trade away) - and it may well jeopardize their futures here if the cap comes down substantially next year as it's predicted to do. We're up against the wall.

And to basically say that you're inside the mind of Tambellini and 'guarantee me that Gagner is going nowhere' and 'the Oilers would lose Hemsky before losing that kid' is about as ignorant as it gets.

But thanks for the opinion...too bad there isn't much to it other than piss, vinegar, and angst.

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#44 oil fan
August 09 2009, 06:31PM
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imo relax guy

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#45 gongshow
August 09 2009, 06:38PM
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way off topic, but what is the web address for the oilers messageboard? the old one is in active and i can't find the new one.

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#46 Dallas
August 09 2009, 06:59PM
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@ SkinnyD: I'm sorry but to say that the oilers would lose a talent such as Gagner who I and I'm sure oil managment values as close to a patrick Kane not saying he is as good but he is going to be damn good. And to say that the oilers would just get rid of him cause they can't afford him is horse crap there are options if need be ie buyouts demotions trades. And to say we can't trade Penner is crap somebody just wanted him and who knows what he will do this year to up his value. And other contracts are starting to run out so. Sorry

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#47 viss.99
August 09 2009, 07:53PM
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@ Skidplate: Skidplate speaks to truth we in oil county are fed up with not making the playoffs 3 yrs in row.

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#48 TonyT
August 09 2009, 10:09PM
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Bill Rizer wrote:

@ Skidplate: Why won’t it fly? We can’t seem to attract elite talent via trade, or free agency so we need to draft some. Until then we’ll be a lock for 8th-10th place every year. Now that’s progress.

8th-10th sure, dead last in the league for 6 years is something else entirely! The Oilers have done jackall this offseason and people (including myself) are ready to jump off a bridge, 6 years and I would have to come up with an entirely new and creative way to off oneself to justify that garbage!

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#49 SkinnyD
August 09 2009, 10:13PM
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Dallas wrote:

@ SkinnyD: I’m sorry but to say that the oilers would lose a talent such as Gagner who I and I’m sure oil managment values as close to a patrick Kane not saying he is as good but he is going to be damn good. And to say that the oilers would just get rid of him cause they can’t afford him is horse crap there are options if need be ie buyouts demotions trades. And to say we can’t trade Penner is crap somebody just wanted him and who knows what he will do this year to up his value. And other contracts are starting to run out so. Sorry

I'm with ya...really...I love watching him, and I'd hate to see him go. Hopefully he doesn't. My point was that K-Lowe sorta painted himself into a corner with the contracts, and the team could pay for it with some of its youth. I don't think you can say Gagner is better than Cogliano hands-down - what if one of them can't be re-signed at the end of this coming year because we don't have cap space? In my mind it isn't a slam-dunk who you try to keep...

As far as Penner - nobody else seems to have wanted him badly enough to actually offer a trade except Ottawa - and that was to get rid of their own excess baggage. Ya know?

Personally, I'm curious as hell to see what THIS team can do - after all, we all wanted a new coach and we got one. Maybe the jury will actually be out at the end of this season...and maybe that's when more of a true rebuild can begin with bringing in veterans to plug holes and allow our youth to develop - assuming we have cap & contract space to do that.

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#50 Antony Ta
August 09 2009, 10:29PM
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oil fan wrote:

patty o - horcoff - hemsky Pisani - gagne - nillson/schremp cogs - penner - moreau stortini - brule - strudwick/reddox Souray - Gilbert Vish - Grebs Smid - staios/peckham how does that line up look?

Horrible.

You have Pisani on the LW flanking Gagner (not Gagne, mind you) with Nilsson (not Nillson, my friend) or Schremp (he's an unproven AHL player, does he deserve to be a 2nd line NHLer?) on the RW where they don't play .. ever.

Better yet, you have Moreau on the RW with Cogs at LW and Penner playing center, a lineup of defensively questionable guys who can't win faceoffs or D-zone battles to save their grandmothers. You need at least 2 defensively sound guys for a 3rd line role.

And then you proceeded to place Stortini and Reddox on the wrong wings.

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