What can the Oilers learn from the Flames’ rebuild?

On Saturday night, the 2018-19 regular season ends for both the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers. For the third time in five seasons, the Flames are headed to the playoffs. For the fourth time in five seasons, the Oilers are not.

The turning point for the season for both teams came on Nov. 17 at the Saddledome. Heading into that game, the Flames and Oilers were separated by two points in the standings. The Flames gutted out a 4-2 come-from-behind win. Since then, they’ve gone 39-15-6 and the Oilers 25-27-8. One team had another gear (or two) at their disposal while the other, quite simply, did not.

Pending the result of Saturday’s finale, the gap between the two teams will be roughly 30 points.

Let’s talk about rebuilds

To get to the root of the difference between the two teams, it’s worth examining their respective rebuilds.

The Flames began their rebuild at the end of the 2012-13 season when they traded Jarome Iginla. They were not particularly good in 2013-14, but have generally enjoyed an upward (if uneven) trajectory apart from dips in 2015-16 and 2017-18.

Based on them having a sub-.500 points percentage in all but one season since 2009-10, let’s take that season as the beginning of the Oilers’ rebuild. Their trajectory has been uneven, with just one playoff appearance surrounded by seasons finishing between six and 35 points from the postseason.

The Flames’ rebuild was preceded by them getting very little value for their four best assets – Robyn Regehr (traded), Jay Bouwmeester (traded), Jarome Iginla (traded) and Miikka Kiprusoff (retired) – while the Oilers drafted first overall four times. So how come the Flames have fared so much better than the Oilers?

Here are lessons the Oilers can learn from the Flames.

Don’t do things halfway

You cannot half-rebuild your team, otherwise known as “rebuilding on the fly.” You’re either committing to the phases or you’re not. Rebuilds typically begin with an accumulation phase, a scenario where the team signs some inexpensive depth players to shepherd the team for a couple seasons and then jettisons everything of value for picks or other futures.

Flat out: if you’re going to be rebuilding properly, you have to commit to living lean for a season or two so you can accumulate enough young assets that you can leverage to rapidly improve.

Let your kids develop elsewhere

One of the most frustrating things about watching the Oilers for the past decade from three hours south has been seeing the treatment of young players. Promising young men routinely came into town, were asked to save the franchise, and then inevitably disappointed and settled into a cycle of frustrating mediocrity.

Unless they absolutely blow the doors off in training camp, talented young prospects shouldn’t be around during the most painful rebuild years. Sean Monahan was an exception, in the sense that he was physically mature enough to hack it in the league and the Flames had enough center depth (from before the rebuild) to shelter the heck out of him.

Beyond Monahan (and Matthew Tkachuk, who joined the team midway through the build) forcing their way onto the team, the Flames have been good about sheltering their kids by allowing them to develop elsewhere. Your kids shouldn’t be the ones stewarding the team through the rebuild, they should be the beneficiaries of having the veterans take care of it.

Identify your core and add to it

(Re-)building a team is like building a house: you need to identify your foundation and build around it. Perhaps you’ll have some veterans you want to retain – like the Flames did with Mikael Backlund and Mark Giordano – but aside from a couple key pieces the focus should be on expanding the core group either by drafting and developing or swapping assets for upgrades.

The Flames stuck to their drafting for the most part, but weren’t afraid to trade their 2015 first round pick for Dougie Hamilton (who was then swapped in the trade that got them Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin) or their 2018 first round pick for Travis Hamonic. The challenge is accumulating enough picks through other trades that making these big swings doesn’t hamper the ability continue to draft well.

The two general rules here are:

  1. Don’t be afraid to move picks to add to the core.
  2. Only move picks to add to the core.

Make the draft count

If you’re picking, find players you can develop to help add to the core. If you’re trading the picks, make sure you’re getting value.

In terms of turning picks into NHL games and points, the Oilers have done a pretty good job.

2014 314 116 349 309
2015 181 40 320 381
2016 248 179 139 37
2017 24 3 26 5
2018 0 0 7 1

But look at what each team has to show for their picks and swaps involving picks (or players acquired via picks) from the past five drafts:

  • Flames: Rasmus Andersson, Juuso Valimaki, Matthew Tkachuk, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone, Elias Lindholm, Dillon Dube, Mike Smith, Noah Hanifin, Oliver Kylington, Andrew Mangiapane and Sam Bennett
  • Oilers: Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl, Anthony Stolarz, Zack Kassian, Oscar Klefbom, Connor McDavid and Jesse Puljujarvi

Sum it up

You know what would be an absolute blast? A playoff Battle of Alberta. But it’s incumbent on both the Flames and the Oilers to put together strong teams that could put together a battle worthy of its history. The Flames have pushed through their rebuild and emerged as one of the NHL’s top teams, but the Oilers need to get their ducks in a row and finally finish off their rebuild.

Folks throughout Alberta, and beyond, are tired of waiting.

    • Spider you muda&@#ker

      So true! I know its easy to dump on the Oilers I know I love to aswell but they have two of the top ten players in the world. It definitely takes a team to win in the NHL the Oilers are proof of that but those two players can make up for alot of deficiencies on there roster. All this dialogue from the talking heads that the Oilers are years away from being competitive and that Mcdavid will walk is questionable. Teams do 180’s from year to year the team up north might be no different next year. All it takes is a few changes and a couple different players on your roster and you can go from pretenders to contenders flames are proof of that.

      • oilcanboyd

        Oilers had 6 players with career seasons in 2018-19; Calgary only had 5! So don’t say that the Oilers have only 2 players. Dumping McLelland for Hitchcock, the self-proclaimed “the Fixer” helped zero as they played .500 hockey the whole season. Their biggest problem was in the nets as Talbot and KHL Koskinen both struggled with consistency. If the Oilers fix the Net problem they will be back in the playoffs.

        • Albertabeef

          “Oilers had 6 players with career seasons in 2018-19; Calgary only had 5!”
          This statement is so incorrect. I can count at least 10 Flames with a new career high points or goal totals. That is not including rookies. Technically rookies are almost automatically having career years, and we had 5 play for good chunks. I would say you should at least include Mangiapane, Andersson, and Kylington as they are no longer Calder trophy eligible. However Janks, Hath, Hanafin, Czarnik, as well as the top 5 ALL have new career high point totals this season. Hamonic has never scored 7 goals in a season before now. Ryan is tied with his career high for points. Actually pretty much everyone not named Bennett, Backlund, Frolik, or Neal are having some sort of career year.

    • Gazoinks!

      the biggest mistake by that organization, is an owner who wants to play in the sandbox with his heroes, at the fan paying expense! (It’s quite revolting)

  • Albertabeef

    What can the Oilers learn from the Flames? How to be crushed at our hand. That’s all I want them to learn. I hope we beat them 6-0. No 50 for Saddle-sore.

  • Lazarus

    “One of the most frustrating things about watching the rebuild in Edmonton is..”
    Give. ME. A BREAK!
    Nothing has been frustrating about it
    I revel in it daily. I feel not a single grain of sympathy or sadness to those schmucks. What has this rivalry come too! How old are you Pike? Where is the hate?! And don’t give me no PC answer.
    Edmonton and their sports teams can rot forever as far as I am concerned.
    Edmonton has screwed Calgary over since before a capital city was named..provincial capital, provincial university..yeah it goes back that far to you who are new to this province, cities or too young to do research or care.
    Edmonton can suck it till the day I die

    • The Red Knight

      Lol well not sure about the city but I agree I don’t feel bad or frustrated by the oilers heading into another decade of darkness “a debacle of epic portions” as mctavish would have said . Flames flying high Soilers turned into a sucker fish 🐟, its great, heck I forgot Edmonton had a franchise this season,Mcdavid who? Definitely not frustrating, I relish every moment.

  • Albertabeef

    Seriously how messed up does your organization have to be for Ken Hitchcock to walk away from “the greatest hockey player ever to play”(bit of a stretch). Oilers fans would be better off finding VHS players to watch history of the glory days and have the whole franchise go defunct with a dispersal draft. Kill the whole franchise and keep the battle of Alberta in museum exhibits. lol

  • Brownblazer

    Don’t be afraid to trade 1st overall picks for stud defence man. I remember telling my friends who are oiler fans back when they (before the daft) used the 1st overall pick to take yakupov they should have traded it for a d man. And then every year after that – in all those years they only used their 1st Rd pick for a d man asset once (on 7th overall pick nurse). When BT came along he focused on building d depth – (like he did in az). Harmonic and Hamilton trades are examples. It was tough for the oil to use the sexy 1st overall picks they kept getting for d though. But they ended up with the same one dimensional offensive styled player every time. The 2016-17 was an anomaly for a team to make the playoffs without a strong d core (avs were too the year before). The hall trade was an attempt to do that, but Larson is a 2nd pairing d man – to b fair the d market was bare at the time as teams are realizing the value of d. Toronto s in the same boat imo to a degree, though they have one or two d that are serviceable.

    • Geeker 98

      What the Oilers have taught the NHL is defence is the start to a rebuild. Skilled forwards coming out of junior are not to worried about their own end. Having a undrafted Gio fall in our laps is what the Oilers needed. The scout that Spotted Gio deserves big props.