Baptism By Fire and the Pittsburgh Penguins

Jonathan Willis
August 09 2009 05:00AM

kraft

The 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins were a miserable team – the worst in the NHL in fact. They went 23-47-8-4, and were led in scoring by defenseman Dick Tarnstrom (52 points) and had ten different players who recorded a -20 rating or worse. The team also featured 17 players aged 25 or younger, including many high draft picks.

Five years later, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup – showing that the baptism-by-fire method helped develop those young players into champions, right?  Wrong.

Let’s consider the list of players under the age of 25 who played 10+ games for the Penguins in 2003-04. Players in bold had a role on the 2008-09 championship team:

  • Ryan Malone (23): 81GP – 22G – 21A – 43PTS, -23 (Draft: 4th round, 1999)
  • Milan Kraft (23): 66GP – 19G – 21A – 40PTS, -22 (Draft: 1st round, 1998)
  • Rico Fata (23): 73GP – 16G – 18A – 34PTS, -46 (Draft: 1st round, 1998)
  • Konstantin Koltsov (22): 82GP – 9G – 20A – 29PTS, -30 (Draft: 1st round, 1999)
  • Ric Jackman (25): 25GP – 7G – 17A – 24PTS, -5 (Draft: 1st round, 1996)
  • Tomas Surovy (21): 47GP – 11G – 12A – 23PTS, -8 (Draft: 4th round, 2001)
  • Tom Kostopoulos (24): 60GP – 9G – 13A – 22PTS, -14 (Draft: 7th round, 1999)
  • Matt Bradley (25): 82GP – 7G – 9A – 16PTS, -27 (Draft: 4th round, 1996)
  • Brooks Orpik (22): 79GP – 1G – 9A – 10PTS, -36 (Draft: 1st round, 2000)
  • Josef Melichar (24): 82GP – 3G – 5A – 8PTS. -17 (Draft: 3rd round, 1997)
  • Ramzi Abid (23): 16GP – 3G – 2A – 5PTS, -5 (Draft: 3rd round, 2000)
  • Jon Sim (25): 15GP – 2G – 3A – 5PTS, -4 (Draft: 3rd round, 1996)
  • Dan Focht (25): 52GP – 2G – 3A – 5PTS, -23 (Draft: 1st round, 1996)
  • Rob Scuderi (24): 13GP – 1G – 2A – 3PTS, +2 (Draft: 5th round, 1998)
  • Matt Murley (23): 18GP – 1G – 1A – 2PTS, -6 (Draft: 2nd round, 1999) ---
  • Sebastien Caron (23): 40GP, 9-24-5, .883 SV%, 3.74 GAA (Draft: 3rd round, 1999)
  • Marc-Andre Fleury (18): 22GP, 4-14-2, 3.64 GAA, .896 SV% (Draft: 1st round, 2003)

Interesting list, that. Only three of those seventeen players would have any kind of role on the team that would win the Stanley Cup just five years later. Only two of seven first round picks would end up having a role.

The Penguins at that point were three years into a rebuild that had seen them record 69, 65, and 58 points between 2001-02 and 2003-04. So this wasn’t a freshly gutted group; the Penguins were already well into their reconstruction and at this point it was fair to say that this collection of young players represented much of the fruitage of their rebuilding work. They had some decent non-NHL prospects at that point: Ryan Whitney, Daniel Carcillo, Erik Christensen, Maxime Talbot and Noah Welch were all prospects at the time, although here to we note that only Talbot was on the Stanley Cup-winning team (although Whitney at least brought in winger Chris Kunitz in trade).

The players getting developed in the NHL during Pittsburgh’s three seasons in the gutter actually had rather little long-term benefit to the franchise. To be sure, the picks acquired during these years were golden – Fleury, Malkin, Crosby and Staal were eventually reaped down the line, and to the benefit of the team. All the team had to do to get those players was survive a relocation scare, burn four seasons (plus the lockout) worth of games, and see virtually every prospect the team had at the start of the rebuild either flameout in the NHL or hit unrestricted free agency before the team was ready to compete.

The point? The reason that teams who do the scorched-earth rebuild eventually succeed has precious little to do with their young prospects getting NHL jobs, and a lot more to do with the incredible draft picks that end up getting stockpiled while those players fail spectacularly in the big leagues.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Antony Ta
August 09 2009, 10:31PM
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@ SkinnyD:

Yeah man. The Oilers had a shot at drafting Crosby that year and it just never panned out. We had 3 balls in that lottery! 3!

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#52 Dallas
August 10 2009, 01:58AM
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Was just checking hockey buzz and there is news all over that site in edm in ott in Montreal that the oilers are working on trading smid for plecanec in montreal and they are still waiting to pounce on heatley when all other suiters fail this is getting weird

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#53 Dallas
August 10 2009, 02:06AM
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And I think skinny d would sooner have offered gagner over cogs for heatley Gagner had a bad year last year and I'm bettin my life he gets 50-60points this year and that's just the kids starting point he's gonna be a 80point guy watch him play the puck follows him that's what happens with great players cogliano will never be the player he will and I like cogs too

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#54 BUCK75
August 10 2009, 08:31AM
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I have mentioned numerous times trying to draft these top end junior players & have gotten roasted on numerous occassions. There is huge luck involved either way when you are drafting 18 year old guys, between ping pong balls & the talent considered. But it gets easier with the higher picks. Cogliano could have gone either way at 25, but when you have a top 5 pick the sucess rate seems to be much higher.

I think it is way too early to start hoping we finish good enough (bad enough) to get the opportunity to get a top 5 pick. We have too expensive of a payroll for the management to make that decision in September, but hopefully they have an easier time making the decision in March.

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#55 Jonathan Willis
August 10 2009, 11:22AM
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@ Dallas:

When you say "news" at Hockeybuzz, you don't really mean "news", do you? You mean random guessing.

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#56 Cam
August 10 2009, 11:40AM
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I think that tanking on purpose to get better draft picks is an insult to fans paying for tickets. If I got the sense that management was trying to do that I wouldn't go to any more games.

Detroit hasn't had a top pick in decades and they are doing just fine. Anaheim had success without a top pick, so have the Oilers in 2006 by the way. If they happen to go in the tank and get a high pick (Gagner) then I am OK with that, but the notion of trying to suck is dumb.

Remember for every Pittsburg Penguins and Washington Capitals, there is a Columbus/Atlanta/Florida/Phoenix/LA Kings who have had great draft picks for years and still manage to suck. Columbus made the playoffs for the first time ever last year and the difference was a good coach and Scott H filling in the holes.

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#57 scorecoff hemmercules
August 10 2009, 11:51AM
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Slow day on the nation.

Jonathan Willis wrote:

@ Dallas: When you say “news” at Hockeybuzz, you don’t really mean “news”, do you? You mean random guessing.

So right. Hockeybuzz is good for a laugh but thats about it

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#58 Death Metal Nightmare
August 10 2009, 11:51AM
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will the league please rig the draft lottery so they can have the next Sidney Crosby too? Kevin Lowe needs a favor like Mario did and we all know how much K-Lowe meant to the league.

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#59 Death Metal Nightmare
August 10 2009, 11:53AM
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Dallas wrote:

Was just checking hockey buzz and there is news all over that site in edm in ott in Montreal that the oilers are working on trading smid for plecanec in montreal and they are still waiting to pounce on heatley when all other suiters fail this is getting weird

your first mistake was looking at hockey buzz at all. second mistake was that you actually believed it. i just built a new church, will you come donate?

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#60 Hemmertime
August 10 2009, 12:35PM
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OIl fan wrote wrote:

patty o - horcoff - hemsky Pisani - gagne - nillson/schremp cogs - penner - moreau stortini - brule - strudwick/reddox Souray - Gilbert Vish - Grebs Smid - staios/peckham how does that line up look?

Like you dont know the oilers

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#61 cableguy
August 10 2009, 12:37PM
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Dallas wrote:

Was just checking hockey buzz and there is a pile of grade A bullsh1t all over that site in edm in ott in Montreal that the oilers are working on trading smid for plecanec in montreal and they are still waiting to pounce on heatley when all other suiters fail this is getting weird

quote modified to reflect facts

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#62 Chris.
August 10 2009, 12:46PM
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Dallas wrote:

they are still waiting to pounce on heatley when all other suiters fail this is getting weird

This is just common sense. Despite what Tambellini has said; until the Oilers make another signifigant roster move; it's hard to imagine that the Heatley deal is completely off the table. If Heatley were to suddenly roll out of bed and tell his agent he'd like to go to Edmonton... does anyone actually believe that Tambellini wouldn't still do that deal? IMO, the matter won't be completely resolved until either a) Heatley is traded somewhere else. b) Tambellini pulls the trigger on a different deal for someone else. (Bonus certainty if Smid, Cogs, Or Pens is moved.)

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#63 Nick Dynasty
August 10 2009, 01:05PM
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Off topic:

The Hockey News revealed their prediciton for 11th in the West today and unfortunately they have stuck the OIL in that spot, ahead of only PHX, COL, MIN, LAK

Here is their reasoning:

" Why: One old goalie has been swapped for another, but it’s the same cast of skaters who’ve missed the playoffs for the past three seasons after the ’06 Cup run. The new two-headed coaching monster in Pat Quinn and Tom Renney could provide gains, but the Oilers are still far off the West’s A-list. "

Harsh...

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#64 Ogden Brother
August 10 2009, 01:11PM
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Nick Dynasty wrote:

Off topic: The Hockey News revealed their prediciton for 11th in the West today and unfortunately they have stuck the OIL in that spot, ahead of only PHX, COL, MIN, LAK Here is their reasoning: ” Why: One old goalie has been swapped for another, but it’s the same cast of skaters who’ve missed the playoffs for the past three seasons after the ’06 Cup run. The new two-headed coaching monster in Pat Quinn and Tom Renney could provide gains, but the Oilers are still far off the West’s A-list. ” Harsh…

Didn't THN have the team in 3rd last year?

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#65 Nick Dynasty
August 10 2009, 01:26PM
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Ogden Brother wrote:

Didn’t THN have the team in 3rd last year?

I believe that was MacT. According to Google THN had us finishing 6th last year. Let's hope they are completely wrong again this year.

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#66 Nick Dynasty
August 10 2009, 01:32PM
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Nick Dynasty wrote:

Let’s hope they are completely wrong again this year.

The upside is THN had Boston to finish 10th in the East last season so what do they know?

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#67 Cam
August 10 2009, 01:34PM
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@ Nick Dynasty:

The great patr about having a young team is that if you wait a year they will be a bit better. How much better is yet to be seen, but on the whole the team icing this year will have learned a thing or two from last season and be a better bunch.

an older team would just be more decrepit.

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#68 Ogden Brother
August 10 2009, 01:41PM
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Nick Dynasty wrote:

Ogden Brother wrote: Didn’t THN have the team in 3rd last year? I believe that was MacT. According to Google THN had us finishing 6th last year. Let’s hope they are completely wrong again this year.

I believe that was a good chunk of the fan base ;)

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#69 Ogden Brother
August 10 2009, 01:42PM
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Nick Dynasty wrote:

Nick Dynasty wrote: Let’s hope they are completely wrong again this year. The upside is THN had Boston to finish 10th in the East last season so what do they know?

Bingo, big personal changes aren't always need to make big moves in the standings. Ask Van/Montreal/Bos

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