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.

  • supra steve

    Nice contribution from Rex, always one of the best commentators on the site. I do agree with the final consensus as well. You don’t just ‘start a rebuild’ sometimes you just end up there. And thats how I feel the Flames could end up, Jarome and Mikka end up as aging diminishing stars that may not be traded and we just end up bad, no selling off lots of assests, we just become bad.

    As well if you are going to compete after being that bad, its nice if you had some good assests mature that you acquired prior to being bad(think mid to late round picks), because after your top 5 picks kicks his entry level deal, you may just end up back in the middle of the back.

  • supra steve

    Nicely done Rex.

    I prefer to look at the Pens draft positions over the 5 year period of 2002-’06 (’02-5th overall, ’03-1st, ’04-2nd, ’05-1st, “06-2nd). They got some great players, could the Flames duplicate Crosby with a #1 overall–no.

    But if the Flames (or any team) had had these draft positions over the last 5 years, the players that were drafted in these spots were:

    2007-5th overall was C. Alzner

    2008-1st was S. Stamkos

    2009-2nd was V. Hedman

    2010-1st was T. Hall

    2011-2nd was G Landeskog

    That is a strong young core. So if the Flames gut the team and go on an extended skid and ride the lotto pick bus for a few years things would eventually turn for the better. Continuing with the status-quo is not a good option.

  • BurningSensation

    I think there needs to be an understanding that being awful a bunch of years in a row is simply not a guarantee of success. Likewise, dealing aging players for future assets is a minfield that can leave you legless and bleeding.

    Once upon a time Calgary traded an aging asset in Joe Mullen to Pittsburgh for a 2nd rnd pick. That pick turned into Nicolas Perrault. Who? Exactly.

    Also consider that even elite draft picks bust out leaving you holding the bag; Daniel Tkazchuk, Rico Fata, etc. Moving Kipper and Iggy for 1st rnd picks sounds good in theory, but if the picks don’t pan out you are left with nothing.

    The ‘mediocrity treadmill’ may suck, but the ‘stuck in the basement treadmill’ is infinitely worse.

    Elite organizations frequently are built on one or two HOF calibre players that they rebuild their organizations around as necessary. Detroit did not move out Yzerman for picks as his play declined, and they did not move out Lidstrom just because his birth certificate said ‘late 30’s’.

    The truth is that building a strong organization begins from the bottom up – the scouting department. Landing a gem late in the draft (Datsyuk), or finding a 2nd rnd player who becomes an all-star (say Chelios or Nieuwendyk) are the ways to improve the org.

    The second step is to improve your farm team – cuz if all they do is lose, all you are teaching your prospects is how to fail. Bring in AHL vets to carry the heavy loads and mentor the kids – and to help them u derstand what it takes to win.

    Third step is to have a GM who can win a trade, and preferably win one BIG. Vancouver turned fast skating thug Shawn Antoski into a slight framed skill winger who would over time blossom into Markus Naslund. The Flyers flipped an aging D-man to Atlanta for the now very steady Braydon Coburn.

    The good news is that Flames fans can see improvements in the first two areas – our scouting department has stopped targeting Chuko’s, Pelech’s and Nystrom’s and started landing bona fide players of real skill (Baertschi, Reinhart, etc). The farm team brought in a Krys Kolanos and put an emphasis on winning as part of development.

    Guys like Wiesbrod are absolutely key to rebuilding a team – much more than finding a GM willing to peddle Joe Mullen for a 2nd. Rebuilding the organization the right way is hard, trading Joe Mullen for a shot in the dark is easy. Let’s keep doing it the hard way, we’ll be better off in the long run.

  • RexLibris

    Thanks Kent.

    This was a very interesting process to begin and thus far I have been a little surprised at the small details that have emerged (I actually believed that Pittsburgh had garnered more of a return during their sell-off and was surprised and how little they received in some of those trades).

    There will be some emerging patterns in a few of the teams that I discuss, although the extent to which those patterns can be used to outline a path for the future of other restocking franchises is very limited.

    Oh, and just wait until I get to the Flames…
    muhwha-ha-ha-ha-ha. *tents fingers a la Mr. Burns*


  • supra steve

    Agree that the draft can be the key to sucess, and the Flames have shown improvement there. I don’t see Detroit grabing another Datsyuk or Zetterberg in the later rounds any time soon. We are not in any way in the same position as Detroit, who continue to make the playoffs. If Lidstrom is back next year, and Detroit is in 13th, not inconceivable that they would trade him to a contender like Boston did with Bourque. You never know.

  • RexLibris

    @Burning Sensation

    Your points are spot on in that drafting is now akin to the old saying about goaltending “it is 80% of the game, unless you don’t have it, in which case its 100%”.

    Rebuilding a team does not necessarily require a great amateur scouting squad (more on that later), but it certainly would be nice. A team can afford perhaps one 1st round bust if they spend five years in the cellar. More than that and things can begin to circle the drain quickly (more on that later, also).

    One thing I will mention though, when you say that “Moving Kipper and Iggy for 1st rnd picks sounds good in theory, but if the picks don’t pan out you are left with nothing”.

    If the alternative is that the players either walk away as free agents or buoy the team’s performance enough to hurt the draft position, is that doing the franchise any favours in the long run?

  • loudogYYC

    Good Job Rex. Slightly longer than your average post, haha.

    On a serious note, I’m really glad the history of rebuilds is being brought up, I’m kinda tired of hearing the same ideas Rex talks about at the beginning of he article.

    In really simple terms, it’s a dumb idea to tank 2 or 3 seasons so u can then depend on a few hyped up teenagers. Every time that has worked, luck and other key players have played huge factors as well.

    That said, the Flames have good to great players in place outside of Iginla and Kiprusoff. With Cammalleri, Tanguay and Glencross signed for next season, Baertschi won’t have to lead the team in scoring to be considered a successful draft pick. Same with Reinhart if he makes the team, Backlund, Cervenka and Stajan will be in charge of heavier work loads than his.

    What they definitely need is a few lucky picks to pan out soon and win a trade that will bear fruit now.

    The idea of an actual rebuild is overhyped. Flames are in much better position than Edmonton, St Louis or Chicago were in. I’m confident that if Edwards and King don’t get too involved and just let mgmt work, we’ll be in good shape in 2 years.

  • BurningSensation

    Rex Libris:”One thing I will mention though, when you say that “Moving Kipper and Iggy for 1st rnd picks sounds good in theory, but if the picks don’t pan out you are left with nothing”.

    If the alternative is that the players either walk away as free agents or buoy the team’s performance enough to hurt the draft position, is that doing the franchise any favours in the long run?”

    Except that is not the only alternative. Picks are only one possible return you might seek for Iggy or Kipper, and far more appealing to me would be dealing for young developed players. For example, assume for the moment that Calgary decides to move Kipper in a trade to Tampa Bay, would you rather get back Tampa’s 1st this year and a 2nd next, or Brett Connelly and Justin Tokarski?

    If you take the picks the draft might be strong or weak, and the players are further away from contributing. In Connelly and Tokarski you have more developed entities whose potential contributions are easier to assess.

    Sure, Tampa’s 1st might be a lottery winner that lands you a franchise player, but given the risks I would prefer the birds in the hand approach (unless a Kurvers for TO’s 1st type deal comes along!).

  • RexLibris

    “That is a strong young core. So if the Flames gut the team and go on an extended skid and ride the lotto pick bus for a few years things would eventually turn for the better. Continuing with the status-quo is not a good option.”

    I disagree with this a bit, firstly playing the season just to lose is a terrible idea in general. As well there is no garuantee your going to the lottery. And if your not getting a top 5 pick you may be in for a long long ride. I’ll give you an example.

    The following are the teams who have picked the MOST in the top 5 since 2004: Islanders(4), Capitals (3), Penguins (3), Blackhawks (3), Kings (3), Coyotes (2), Blues (2), Lightning (2), Thrashers (2), Avalanche (2), Oilers (2), Panthers (2) Blue Jackets (2). With a bunch of other teams with a pick here and there.

    Now for the very fun side of this, the list of teams who have had the MOST picks in the top 10 of the draft since 2004: Blue Jackets (7), Thrashers/Jets (6), Panthers (6), Islanders (5), Coyotes (5), Oilers (4), Leafs (4), Black Hawks (4), Wild (4), Lightning (3), Kings (3), Pens (3), Hurricanes (3), Senators (3), Blues (3), Capitals (3) and then a bunch of teams with 1 or 2 picks.

    The point I am trying to make, unless you are garuanteeing yourself that 1st or 2nd overall, you may be on that path of always trying to improve and never improving and becoming THE basement dweller. You NEED to have your 2nd/3rd/4th round picks to hit as well, because the article is talking about the Penguins, lets look at some of their better Depth picks.

    Goligoski would be 3rd round pick (using todays drafting rounds), Tyler Kennedy would be a fourth rounder and Kris Letang was a 3rd rounder. Goligoski got them Neal and Niskanen and they have both worked out well. They have a bunch of misses as well, but those 3 have worked out real well to the core of the Pens.

    Unless you are going to be drafting 1-3 for 3, maybe 4 years and find great complimentary peices in the 2nd/3rd/4th round, you could find yourself finishing out of the top 5 but in the top 10 and being a pretty well staple basement dweller.

  • beloch

    This article does bust the myth that the Pens cunningly planned their tenure in the basement to rack up picks and become a powerhouse. However, it doesn’t really address one thing I’d like to see covered:

    Is spending time in the league’s basement really necessary for a rebuild? Some teams make the playoffs almost every year and still manage to draft well and develop a steady stream of talent. How do they do it? Other teams sink right to the bottom, pick in the top 3 multiple years in a row, but then get stuck there. Why? Has the Oilers’ rebuild stalled? Can the Flames put themselves on the path to a championship without becoming the Oilers first?

  • RexLibris

    @ Colin

    No reading ahead! πŸ˜‰

    I’m going to touch on depth drafting a bit more later on, but as it concerns the Penguins, while their depth drafting hasn’t been as noteworthy as their first round picks the high performance of those picks has allowed a slower progression and development of later round prospects.

    Part of having high-end players is that it can allow for a more thorough development path for depth prospects.

  • supra steve

    @RexLibris, when I was counting up all the top 5/10 picks I looked at all of Pittsburgs depth drafting and other than those guys its pretty well crap, but I highlight those guys because they generated TOP talent(Kennedy was very regarded here for his possession ability to move the puck in the right direction), Letang is probably their #1 Dman and Neal is now a top forward. You don’t always have to hit with a depth pick, but if you can nail that depth pick and turn it into a top 3 forward or top 2 D man you are doing yourself a huge service. What draft pick have we had in any round after 1 that we have turned into a 40 goal man, or 1st pairing Dman?

  • RexLibris


    I’ll be examining several teams’ approaches and some of their results to-date.

    It will generally be up to the reader to decide if they are to be considered successful.

    Essentially, Pittsburgh could be said to be the template that every rebuilding team (or at least that team’s fans) have in mind as a destination.

    One of the goals of the article is to examine the path and determine what factors could be duplicated, avoided, or are entirely up to chance.

  • RexLibris


    Talbot, Christensen, Moulson, Bissonette and Carcillo have all had decent careers that would seem to prove they covered the draft day bet. Unfortunately many of them have flourished outside the Penguins organization.

    That being said, amateur scouting does what it can for a team. After that it is up to the GM.

  • RexLibris


    I would think there are a lot of factors other than just the draft, for Example Phoenix(hopefully not stealing thunder here again). There is a MASSIVE difference in Phoenix pre and post Dave Tippet.

    Again starting in from the 2004 draft, 04 picked 5th, 05 picked 17th, 06 picked 8th, 07 picked 3rd, 08 picked 8th, 09 picked 6th and then Tippet was hired and suddenly in 10 picking 22nd, 11 picking 20th and in 12 picking 27th.

    Again, you can have a lot of high draft picks, but if you are not using them correctly or have the proper people in place to run the show, it isn’t going to help you. Tanking for the sake of tanking is a dumb idea.

  • RexLibris

    Christensen is very meh. He is very typical of guys you could get in the third round or later. Talbot is a pretty good depth find. Carcillo and Bisonette are replacement level guys and again, can be found in the 5th-7th round by any GM.

    Moulson I must have completely missed when going through, that is another good later find.

    But again the Goligoski and Letang selections I emphasize because of the roles they played(Goligoski more in the trade) in securing TOP line talent. Other than Moulson all the names you mentioned are far from top line.

    Even the lowly Flames have managed to take depth players and turn them in to NHLers. Boyd, Pardy, Prust and Bouma are all/were NHLers and they were 3rd or later, but again, replacement level. Brodie was a good later find, but again his ceiling may be 2nd pairing at best. David Moss was great value for were he was drafted. But again Pittsburgh managaed to turn later rounders into what could be argues as easy first round talent.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    Great post Rex. Must have been in your element being allowed/expected to post your propensity for detail like this:)

    I really only have one issue with comparing modern day rebuilds to historical ones like Pitt & Chicago that started before the lock out/ cap world. The Salary Cap was a historical event in the NHL. It & the recovery of the Canadian dollar literally leveled the playing field for 2/3rds of NHL teams. It also spawned more & more teams to allocate more & more resources to scouting & drafting(with the exception of the premadonna GM we had for too long)but even the Flames are getting into the new NHL millennia. Depth picks are going to have more of a flavor of luck as compared to due deligence to it.

    Now saying that, my response to those that correctly point out that 1st round picks arent a guarantee of a good player so why trade aging assets like Kipper & Iggy. I disagree in that, yes picking 20th or 25th gets you a much riskier no guarantees player. But if you pick up enough picks & use(parlay) them to get that top 5 pick, you can eliminate some of that risk. Smart GMs will navigate their way & learn how to rebuild much quicker than ever before. The salary cap allows that to happen. I can guarantee one thing, if we dont try to maximize the return for our aging assets & they walk or retire with Flames getting zero returns, we are looking at adding at least 2 years on to this rebuild we are about to embark on. If LA didnt make trades to acquire Richards & Carter, are they in the Cup? Its a brave new NHL where GM’s with courage is mandatory & too much fatal.

  • RexLibris


    There are many factors.

    Phoenix is a unique case because of the highly unusual financial constraints. They have had to simultaneously build a fan base and a team.

    The first you do by winning, the second is often done (from scratch, which is basically where they started) by losing.

    They have tried both methods and have had more success in this later era because they have had exceptional management and coaching.

    The Flames could start on the road down the middle, but several things would have to change. This is going to make up a part of my look at their situation in this series.

  • RexLibris


    Yeah, I’ll try and keep the rest of them a little under my 2000 word standard. πŸ˜‰

    The rebuilds were entered into prior to the salary cap, but the idea of a hard cap was an open secret for the NHL, so most teams were maneuvering their contract situations prior to the lockout in advance of a new “financial landscape”.

    Also, Chicago and Washington could be argued to have entered into a rebuild more or less at the exact time of the new CBA. Pittsburgh is the only team that began drafting consecutive top five picks prior to the new CBA and this was largely fueled by financial concerns.

    No example is a perfect fit to what many fans hold up as a “proper rebuild”. Pittsburgh is closest.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      Good first crack at writing Rex. Haha.

      This is a great discussion you’ve initiated and the Pittsburg experience is a great starting point. At the risk of getting too far ahead, it would be interesting to compare the top draft pickers (the set of teams you are going to examine), with teams like Boston and Vancouver and teams that built successful teams differently.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    The Flames are starting to address this problem. They made a solid top 6 pick (hopefully tp 3) in drafting Baertschi. Markus Granlund looks like he’ll be able to crack the Flames lineup in a couple years. Wotherspoon may become a depth defender, not too sure. But the picks of John Gaudreau (high risk/high reward) and Laurent Brossoit are showing how the organization has already improved under Feaster.

    So if they continue in this path, and are able to trade one of (not both) Iginla or Kipper, than they can hopefully get another solid first round pick and continue to pool our prospects.

  • Wanyes bastard child

    The biggest similarity between the Oilers & Flames & the reason why I think this could be a very painful rebuild for us is that Flames & Oilers have basically post cap mismanaged their ways into the big rebuild rut. Both teams were one win away from a Cup in consecutive years & both are where they are. I dont think anyone on FN or ON would say we had top people managing these franchises over the past 5-6 years. Many horrendous decisions by both management teams. There are still many that dont think Flames have the right hockey people in place to move forward cleaning up our mess. I think if JD replaces Ken King, many of us would breathe a hell of a lot easier.

  • supra steve


    “Again, you can have a lot of high draft picks, but if you are not using them correctly or have the proper people in place to run the show, it isn’t going to help you. Tanking for the sake of tanking is a dumb idea.”

    And what do you call trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result next time?


    “Except that is not the only alternative. Picks are only one possible return you might seek for Iggy or Kipper, and far more appealing to me would be dealing for young developed players. For example, assume for the moment that Calgary decides to move Kipper in a trade to Tampa Bay, would you rather get back Tampa’s 1st this year and a 2nd next, or Brett Connelly and Justin Tokarski?”

    I don’t disagree, I would have been thrilled with the rumoured LA deal for Schenn 2 seasons back, That deal in itself could quite possibly have changed our whole outlook on what the rebuild might look like. If Schenn was playing in Iggy’s place this past season, then we would not be drafting 14th next month. What, top 5? In that type of scenario you get your cake, and get to eat it too. Not sure that a deal that sweet could be got for Iggy anymore. THAT is the one that got away.

    • Colin.S


      “And what do you call trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result next time?”

      That all depends if we are going into next season with the exact same roster and the same coach(the second is a no). If we were still trying to play each season with a core of Regehr, Iggy, Bouwmeester and Jokinen that would be insanity. However Feaster has shown willingness to change the Roster and get younger rather than continually get older and more “experienced” as in years past.

      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? What happens if we end up selling everything off and we are just continually bad and we keep waiting for that right pick? Wouldn’t that be insanity as well?