On Rebuilding – Part 1, The Pittsburgh Penguins



(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)

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By RexLibris 

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • RexLibris

    I can’t remember if the rumored Schenn deal would have been done before or after the Phaneuf deal. So fan sentiment would’ve likely been far different then since the Flames just absolutely bombed that trade. I still think you see Feaster ship one of the two out of Calgary at the draft. How else do we start this rebuild. Play out next season until one of them decides not to come back? Wait…..that’s not rebuilding that’s just being stupid….

  • supra steve

    Great article and excellent commentary and debate again.

    While the argument can be made which approach, model, or philosophy is the correct one between myth and fact; IMO there are a few factors which influence the outcome and results to becoming a contender or a pretender. After all the goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Since the finals start on Wednesday I will use the finalists from this season.

    Factor # 1: Timing
    • Finding the right coach who can mesh and fit the players and vice versa. Example: both NJ and LA changed coaches in the past year and look where they are right now.
    • To trade or not to trade. Sometimes trades are not necessary, sometimes they are. Again I will use NJ and LA: LA was willing to depart with Dustin Brown at the trade deadline, however decided against it. NJ could have traded Parise for future assets, but where would each of these teams be right now?

    Factor # 2: Luck
    • Drafting: Come draft day – every team believes they drafted the player who is going to help them win and garner success. LA best player: Kopitar drafted 11th overall. Parise 16th overall. Both players not even in the top 5 in their respective draft class, yet both have their respective teams on the cusp of glory.
    • Developing talent. When LA drafted Quick, they might have had an idea that he would be a good pro, however, they were banking on Bernier to be their goalie of the future. Same could be said of Brodeur, drafted with little fan fare but turned into the best goalie of the modern era. Sometimes GM’s can only hope and pray, but in the end they know they have to be somewhat lucky.

    Factor # 3: FATE, DESTINY, KARMA, or MOJO
    • Whatever you want to call it – every team and every player has “it”. For instance, the irony is would LA be in their position if they actually signed Kovalchuck instead of NJ. Or NJ

    Unlike tennis, golf or say being a 100m sprinter, where the pursuit for glory is individualistic in nature, there are too many dynamics in place when it comes to rebuilding or retooling a team. The only certainty as a fan is too have patience with the understanding of plenty of heartbreak

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Rex, I’ll be watching for blown trades in your analysis. Thus far, you’ve illustrated that Pittsburg did’nt get great returns on a few occasisons, that probably hurt. I wonder how a very bad trade can alter a teams fortunes and for how long. I would argue that the D. Sutter’s Phaneuf / Aulie trade for a $4M Stajen + Hagman was a major body blow to the Flames franchise and the impact will be felt for years.

    Losing two young top 4 defenders for an overpaid 4th center has hurt the Flames and will for more years to come. Now, I wonder which other teams stepped into a bear trap like that. To my memory, the only recent trade that was close to that bad was Dallas moving Neal for Goligoski.

  • Colin.S

    @ Colin: Yeah, I think that is most peoples fear is that we get the prospects & 1st rounders, we screw them up & we suck forever. This is where I say the Cap world allows you to be more proactive in moving assets. If you lose every trade, well thats just not good but even if these young prospects & 1st rounders dont pan out, it means you arent spending big $$$, which means you can poach, trade and beg for talent off other teams whose cups runneth over. 🙂

  • Colin.S

    Great column and great comments. I’m so glad I have finally found a place where true Flames fans can express their opinions.

    I think we should consider trading Kipper and Iggy, as much as hurts. We need new blood in the room. I’m not saying a full blown rebuild by any means. Just here my out for a second.

    How about we get rid of them for top prospects and picks, bring over Ramo, who I think is our goalie of the future. Maybe sign Vokun to a two year deal to help Ramo develop his North American game. We will have a ton of cap room to afford a top Dman and a couple top 6 forwards. Maybe even sign Jagr to a one year deal to help mentor Cervenka, since they were a force to be reckoned with in the KHL.

    We are stuck at a crossroads, where the old ways have failed now three years in a row. We need drastic changes and a new identity. I have absolute faith in Feaster and Weisbrod. I don’t think the answer is in free agency and trades. The draft is important, but we can’t put all of our eggs in one basket.

  • RexLibris


    The Flames have had, by my count, two pretty decent drafts these past two years. In fact, they may be able to graduate 100% of their 2011 draft class to the professional leagues a year from now.

    Unfortunately they have also only had six of a possible seven draft picks in these past two years and are going to be shy a second round pick in each of the next two draft years as well.

    They have had a nice run here, to date. But it is still too early to say if John Gaudreau or Bill Arnold will become NHLers. And Feaster hasn’t shown the necessary commitment to retaining draft picks for the position that this team is actually in for any fan to be comfortable, in my opinion.

  • RexLibris


    Mismanagement is often tied to the collapse that teams suffer before a rebuild.

    The statement “no team willingly chooses to rebuild” has some merit in that few managers can defend the strategy “how about sink this ship so we can buy a new one?” to their bosses.

    When I get to the Flames and Oilers I’ll be able to go into a little more detail about ownership, mismanagement, and delusions of grandeur.

  • RexLibris


    All of these things play a significant role in the everyday life of a single person. Trying to track them over years in something as complex and evolving as a sports team is nearly impossible.

    The trick for us as fans and observers is to try and discern intentional success (or honest failure) from dumb luck.

    The interwoven nature of each of these facets is a recurring theme in the teams I’ll examine.

  • RexLibris


    Blown trades could just as easily be wrapped up into a larger category of Missed Opportunities (alongside trades never made, missed drafts within reason, and lost draft lotteries).

    It affects some teams more than others.

    I’m not going to get too hung up on poor trades, but certainly it will come up in the Edmonton and Calgary case studies.

  • RexLibris


    While I am a relative outsider in the World of Flamesville, I suspect the middle of June as the draft heats up and the beginning of July with free agency this site will become a hotbed of Iginla/Kiprusoff trade talk.

    I don’t know if the articles will garner as many hits as a Trade Sam Gagner post does on OilersNation, but it should be a good debate.

  • supra steve


    “And as my previous post shows the Trashers, Bluejackets, Islanders and Panthers were all trying the same thing, acquire high ranked young talent, lets see how well that is working for them. What says to you the Flames would do any better than the Blue Jackets when it comes to drafting?”

    I see these as bad/poorly run organizations. The Flames have had a bad stretch (in Iggy’s early years), I attribute that to the weak Canadian dollar as much as I do to poor management. But it did not last for 20 years.

    The Flames are not the Islanders or the BJ’s. Do you believe that they are such a weak organization that having 2 or more early (lotto) picks would net them no impact NHL players? Some early picks do not pan out, I will give you that. But, more often then not lotto picks become valuable NHLers. I just don’t see how bringing in young players and draft picks for our ageing stars is a bad move, since we are not getting into the playoffs anyway. Many have asked, “what guarantee have you got that this will work out?”. No guarantees available, just as keeping Iggy guarantees nothing.

  • BurningSensation

    Steve:”I just don’t see how bringing in young players and draft picks for our ageing stars is a bad move, since we are not getting into the playoffs anyway.”

    I don’t think that is a fair statement, unless you can see the future – in which case I could use some lotto numbers. Ottawa was everyone’s consensus last place finisher before the season started, and they not only made the playoffs, they gave the Rangers everything they could handle.

    The Kings barely made the playoffs, and but for some injuries (Jokinen’s late season swan dive was injury related), Calgary could well have been there instead of them. Once in, who knows?

    There is no question the team needs to get younger and reload with younger talent, talent we don’t have due to bad drafting from previous years. That doesn’t mean ‘trade Iggy+Kipprusoff’.

    Good teams keep their best players.

  • RexLibris

    @ Burning Sensation: Our best players havent been that good, hence no playoffs for the last 3 years. You think this is suddenly going to change? I for one are tired of paying to watch our best players fail to make the playoffs. I dont think its unreasonable to expect change.

  • supra steve


    “The Kings barely made the playoffs, and but for some injuries (Jokinen’s late season swan dive was injury related), Calgary could well have been there instead of them. Once in, who knows?”

    I know. If the Flames had managed to squeek into the playoffs:

    a.I would have been shocked, as I predicted their 9th place finish before the season started.

    b.they would not be where the Kings are today–no bloody way. The Kings are a really good, up and coming team who underachieved during the regular season. The Flames are following a coach killing leader who’s best days are long behind him. If the Flames had played Vanc. in round one, Iggy would have lead this team straight to the golf course.

  • supra steve

    Nobody is saying Iggy and Kipper aren’t our best players. But they’re both 35+ if I’m correct, or Iggy will be turning 35 this summer or something like that. But when they retire and have no value left, tell me, how are we going to get better? Convince the next top UFA/RFA to come to Calgary? I don’t think so. We get better through drafting, if the organization is going to trade one of Iggy or Kipper, do it now while they’re value is at the highest. And for heaven’s sake get a decent first round pick back.

  • Parallex

    Dude, you won’t get a decent first round pick back.

    Who is going to want Kipper & Iginla? Teams pushing for a Stanley Cup, what teams push for a Stanley Cup? Good teams, Where do good teams draft? Low, Would a low pick be decent? Probably not.

  • Parallex

    @Burning Sensation

    Here, Here.

    Seriously, how did people some get it into their minds that subtracting good players from your roster and replacing them with lottery tickets is somehow a surefire road map to success. Madness, I say.

    We’ll have up to the trade deadline to reconsider (and I like next years draft more then this years anyways). Why don’t we just see if Brent Sutter (whose arrival ushered in the current era of blah) being rightly jettisoned improves things before committing the sports equivalent of murder-suicide.

  • Parallex

    Well, I’m not sure if it really matters how the Pens got there, just that they did and that it worked. Twice.

    Timing is everything, which is why the team would look like geniuses had they moved Iginla to LA and now look like fools.

    Calgary is 1 year removed from being forced into a rebuild. So, while ‘choosing’ to do a rebuild may never happen, maybe it should and at a sooner stage. All circumstances and situations are unique. Is it better than to wait until a team is forced into a rebuild?

    Regardless of circumstances, sucking and picking high gives about a 50/50 chance of becoming one of the better teams in the NHL. I’ll take that.

    Perhaps the article should take a look at teams that never rebuild, regardless of circumstance, and gauge their level of success.

    Team success is 100% drafting, but it’s also 100% development if you know what I’m saying.

    The Flames did neither very well for 2 decades.

  • Parallex

    @Parallex – so how are the Flames better off not having taken the package sent to LA?

    ….hmmm….something to build around vs. nothing to build around…..

    Iginla’s only use as an asset for the last several years is in a trade.

    Let’s not confuse a winning team not moving star vets, of whom they have many andwho are real leaders, vs a losing club not moving a single individual who thinks he IS the team.

    Improve things to what, exactly? First round suicide?

    I’ll never understand the love fest for a supposed superstar who has gotten his team past the 1st round once in 15 years.

    First you say don’t get rid of good players, then you say we’d get nothing for them.

  • RexLibris


    All teams rebuild. It is a natural cycle as players age.

    Even Detroit.

    Eventually Fedorov, Yzerman, Larionov, Konstantinov and all the others had to move on.

    Detroit’s trick is that they got exceptionally fortunate (generationally fortunate) in some of their draft picks and had in place a core that bought the time and space for those picks to develop at their own pace.

    They also had a very wealthy owner who has managed to buy his way out of the team’s mistakes.

    This series isn’t meant to justify or villify the process of rebuilding a team.

    Instead it is meant to focus on the path that teams took. Often there is a selective memory in people where the good old times have been so distorted that they bear little to no resemblance to what actually occurred. People will focus on the result and forget the many causes that lead to it.