(Frequent commenter and…ugh…Oiler fan RexLibris recently contacted me about contributing a series of posts on rebuilding. As an unfortunate devotee to that perpetually incompetent organization just up the road, I figured he might have insight on the matter. Today we present his first article on the matter)
How many times have you heard the following?
“I don’t want my team to do a nuclear-style rebuild like the Oilers”? Or “the Penguins intentionally tanked so they could draft high”? How about “the only way to rebuild is to trade away all of your best players for high draft picks and blue-chip prospects”?
Whether you agree or disagree with any of those statements, they all beg the question “Is that really true?” I contend that there are as many ways to rebuild a team as there are winning styles of hockey and that success or failure in a rebuild is often as fickle fickle as winning a championship.
There is no single template, nothing to copy and paste into a paint-by-nhlnumbers.com recipe for instant success. A power forward, elite goaltending, strong defense, a superb center, roster depth, a healthy lineup, dressing room leadership; all of these things have been said to be crucial to a Stanley Cup win.
They have all had their place in past success stories, but there is no one key element to winning a championship (Okay, maybe having good players is key, but aside from that…). Is there a similarly oversimplified template for a rebuild other than “suck bad, draft high”?
An Islander fan might have something to say about that.
Myth Does Not Equal Fact
There needs to be a separation of myth from history in these common stories told about those NHL teams that have recently done the “handyman’s special”. My intention is to revisit the actions taken by several teams and ask the basic question: how does the history compare to the story?
The Penguins and Blackhawks have won after rebuilding. Washington is still trying to figureit out. L.A. looks like they might have finally taken hold of their opportunity after many years of slowly restocking their roster. The Oilers are hoping to build something successful. The Leafs tried an end-run around development and are back at the beginning of the process. The Flames are beginning one, and it could be argued they have been slowly, perhaps inadvertently, tearing themselves down for the past four years.
With that in mind, what was the actual history of the rebuilding attempts in several NHL cities these past few years?
The Usual Suspects
As mentioned, the teams I am going to discuss include Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, L.A., Toronto, the Islanders, Columbus, Ottawa, Florida, and, of course, Edmonton and Calgary.
First let’s look at the method that our first team took in their initial rebuilding phase: Pittsburgh – 2000 to 2006 – retained 1st round picks, drafting in the top five in five consecutive years.
For the first few years of the rebuilding era the Penguins, under Craig Patrick, really only seem to have shuffled the deck chairs on the good ship Penguin and the only notable talent they traded away was Alexei Kovalev in 2003. The deal had the Rangers getting Kovalev, Dan Lacouture, Janne Laukkanen and Michael Wilson while the Pens got Rico Fata (a Flames favourite), Richard Lintner, Mikael Samuelsson, Joel Bouchard, and cash. This is more or less the only trade one could point to where the Penguins deliberately sent away a veteran talent for a younger player (Samuelsson). Although the inclusion of cash in the deal, and Samuelsson’s eventual trade at the draft imply that youth and rejuvenation were not the primary motivation in making this deal.
In 2001 Craig Patrick moved Jagr for Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk and Michal Sivek. This was the proverbial first shot in the war that signified that the Penguins were putting financial concerns ahead of on-ice performance. It should be noted that the Jagr trade set off a bidding war and Patrick thought this return was better than any other he could have received from the New York Rangers. The Penguins at this time were not interested in rebuilding as we would recognize it today. They were merely interested in surviving. It is easy to forget now how close they were to leaving Pennsylvania with Jim Balsillie, formerly of RIM, hovering overhead like a vulture, threatening/promising to purchase the team and immediately move them to Hamilton.
Not until 2003, the halfway point of their rebuild, does one see the team acquiring the picks and players that would begin to impact the club in a way that we can associate with a stereotypical rebuild. The Penguins traded Mikael Samuelsson, a 1st and a 2nd round pick (Nathan Horton and Stefan Meyer) for the 1st overall and a 3rd round pick (M.A. Fleury and Dan Carcillo), then traded Johan Hedberg for a 2nd round pick that would become Alex Goligoski (later to be trade for James Neal and Matt Niskanen). These are the kinds of moves that most today would expect to see from a General Manager interested in hoarding draft picks and deliberately working to lay the foundation of a new franchise core.
Prior to 2003 the Pens were simply selling off what little they had in an attempt to reduce their losses. They then spent several years trying to stave off extinction. That they were a horrible team who decided to retain their draft picks and also won the NHL’s biggest lottery is more a matter of capitalizing on circumstance. Leadership, initiative, and opportunity will become hallmarks of many of the rebuilds in today’s NHL. The Penguins retained their draft picks because they couldn’t have afforded to pay the players they would have received in return, even if it had made them marginally better right away. In essence, Pittsburgh’s desperate financial straits forced them into prioritizing the very asset that would, in the end, bring them success
A change in management from Craig Patrick to Ray Shero after the worst of the rebuild and ownership drama had passed should also be taken into account. Patrick oversaw the team at its very highest and lowest from December of ’89 to May of ’06. It was Patrick who made the decisions to move up at the draft and pick Fleury, and who held on to the first round picks that became Ryan Whitney, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and so on.
So, could Pittsburgh be said to have deliberately chosen a path in 2002 to the bottom of the league in order to draft high, with the express aim of winning a cup only seven years later? Did they sell off Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Wayne Primeau, Martin Straka, and even Mark Recchi for these future assets that made them what they are today? Hardly. The only trade that had a significant impact on their roster when they won the cup in 2009 was the Samuelsson trade to move up and take Marc-Andre Fleury – and even then it’s arguable that MA Fleury was the most replaceable face on that club. Even into 2006, a season when the team would draft Jordan Staal 2nd overall, they were trading away 2nd, 3rd and 4th round picks for players like Libor Pivko and Patrick Ehelechner.
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
The myth that the Penguins sold off all of their old, expensive assets and, in a cost-cutting measure, deliberately decided to tank until the new CBA was negotiated, drafting high along the way, is simply wrong. They were lucky to be as bad as they were when they were, and they won the NHL’s greatest lottery prize. The Pittsburgh Penguins tripped and stumbled their way into a situation that offered them little or no recourse but to be terrible and draft well. That they were fortunate enough to find the right coach and talented enough to be able to dig themselves out of that hole is another story and one that I will leave to better analysts than I.
Copying this model of rebuilding a franchise would nearly impossible, not to mention rather irresponsible and almost pathologically fatalistic for a management group to attempt.