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:
- Don’t be afraid to move picks to add to the core.
- 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.
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.