The Rebuild Conundrum, Part I

Jonathan Willis
March 09 2010 09:37AM

Fans of the Edmonton Oilers appear to be remarkably accepting of a rebuild. The examples of franchises it works for (Pittsburgh and Chicago, to name two) are compelling, and it’s easy to look at those teams, envy their success, and decide that following their route to the top is the way to go.

It’s easy to forget that it doesn’t always work out, because even the greatest superstars need a team around them.

(Side note: That’s one of the reasons I get so angry when I hear some generic hockey commentator go on and on about how Player X won a Stanley Cup but Player Y hasn’t and thus Player X is the better player. I know it’s all about winning, but I’ve had it beat into my head since I first put on a pair of skates that it’s a team sport, and that you win or lose as a team. Even the greatest player can’t win without a team around him – as the divorce between Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers should have proved; the team won post-Gretzky, but Gretzky never won post-Oilers.)

Example One: Atlanta

The Atlanta Thrashers entered the NHL as a fairly typical expansion team: formed of the castoffs from other clubs, and just really, really bad. Sadly, a decade into existence, things haven’t changed all that much.

Between 1999 and 2002, the Thrashers picked one of the top two players available at the draft each and every year – that’s four lottery pick players, picks which were immediately followed by two top-10 selections. In 1999, they had the bad luck of running into a weak draft, and took Patrik Stefan. Yes, that Patrik Stefan:

They lucked out in 2000, where in a fit of well, let’s call it “genius”, Mike Milbury decided he wanted Rick DiPietro first overall because he liked him better than Roberto Luongo. This left Dany Heatley to the Thrashers, who snapped him up with the second pick. They took Rocket Richard winner Ilya Kovalchuk first overall in 2001, and in 2002 pegged Kari Lehtonen as their goalie of the future and took him with the second overall pick.

Stefan turned into a depth player, although it’s hard to blame Atlanta for that (aside from the Sedin twins and Martin Havlat, who was picked 28th, the first round of the 1999 Draft bears a striking resemblance to the world inhabited by Charlton Heston in Omega Man: lots of bodies, not much life.

(And yes, that analogy was only an excuse to post the above video, and yes again, I Am Legend was a remake.)

Kari Lehtonen had no issues with talent, but unfortunately he is held together entirely with bailing twine and duct tape. Occasionally he manages to beat the odds and string together 50 games in a season (he’s done it twice!) but for the most part he plays well for half a season (give or take) and then spends the rest of the year on injured reserve. Between he and Stefan, fully 50% of Atlanta’s lottery picks failed to have any significant, lasting impact with the team that drafted them.

The other two selections, however, have been gold. Ilya Kovalchuk hit the 50-goal plateau twice in Atlanta and then the 40-goal mark on three other occasions, contributing well over 300 goals in less than 600 career games in Atlanta. Dany Heatley scored 40 goals just once before crashing his car (resulting in the death of teammate Dan Snyder), but the Thrashers were still able to turn him into Marian Hossa, who scored 92 and 100 points in his two full seasons with Atlanta.

Unfortunately, Don Waddell was never able to construct a team around them, and now both are gone; Hossa sent away for some magic beans (Oilers fans know all about magic beans) and Kovalchuk was dealt before the Olympic break for Johnny Oduya and a grab-bag of low-value assets.

The Thrashers are now more or less starless, and have made two picks in the top five over the past two seasons. The rebuilding effort, which never really stopped, begins anew.

Example Two: The Islanders

Project Hope Invitational

“Mad” Mike Milbury has a new career now, as a television analyst. But despite his remarkable work from the platforms provided by NBC and Hockey Night in Canada, from which he fights against the ‘pansification’ of the game and speaks out in favour of any number of idiotic things, he isn’t most famous for that. No, Milbury’s claim to fame stems from a decade at the helm of the New York Islanders, a franchise he helped enshrine as a laughingstock.

Everybody loved Mike; he gave the press some incredibly memorable quotes (on Zigmund Palffy’s agent, Paul Kraus: "It's too bad he lives in the city. He's depriving some small village of a pretty good idiot.") and he gave his fellow general managers some pretty good players. He also had some nice draft picks to work with.

Between 1995 and 2001, the Islanders had a lottery selection eight times in seven drafts, and had three other top-10 picks as well. Wade Redden was flipped for Bryan Berard, who was subsequently sent to Toronto in exchange for Felix Potvin. Potvin won seven games before getting moved to Vancouver. J-P Dumont went third overall, but never played in the NHL for the Islanders; he was sent to Chicago with a fifth round draft pick for Dmitri Nabokov, who played 30 NHL games before returning to Russia, where he’s been a bit player.

There’s a theme here, as Milbury simply refused to hang on to his picks. Roberto Luongo was shipped away (along with Olli Jokinen, another top-five pick acquired by the Islanders) in one of the worst trades in NHL history. Eric Brewer was sent away for Roman Hamrlik. Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt were packaged together for Mike Peca. Raffi Torres was sent away in exchange for Janne Niinimaa. Meanwhile, Jason Spezza didn’t even get a chance to be selected by the Islanders; Milbury sent him away (and tossed in Zdeno Chara for good measure) to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. All told, nine top-10 picks (five of them lottery selections) were moved by Milbury for an assortment of veterans who either disappointed or were unable to stem the franchise’s bleeding.

As for the other two picks, only one remains an Islander: injury-prone goalie Rick DiPietro, who is signed until judgment day. The other player (Michael Rupp) was taken far too high based on his draft year performance and was never signed. He re-entered the draft and went to New Jersey in the third round, two years later.

And That’s Not All…

There are plenty of other examples too, though I probably don’t need to go into detail. The Coles notes edition:

Columbus - There’s a reason Doug MacLean has three different Twitter parody accounts (my favourite is this one) and it isn’t solely on account of his unique personality. With MacLean in charge, the Blue Jackets picked in the top-10 for nine consecutive seasons, making three lottery picks over that span. Aside from Rick Nash, they have one top-four defenceman (Rostislav Klesla) and a trio of prospects left to show for it. After making one playoff appearance under new G.M. Scott Howson, they’re bound for another high pick this summer.

Florida - With three lottery selections and one top-10 pick between 2001 and 2004, the Panthers have still been unable to rise to the top of the risible Southeast Division. Their best pick (Jay Bouwmeester) was sent away for very little in the way of return, and while Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton are good players the team has never had enough of a supporting cast to put in a post-season appearance.

The point to all of this is that just getting high-end draft picks isn’t enough. Darren Dreger goes on about how the Oilers have decided they can’t win without acquiring a superstar, and while it isn’t Dreger’s fault those sorts of statements make my blood boil. I recognize that it’s important to have impact players, but it’s never been that simple. The pre-lockout Oilers were a team worth watching, a strong collection of two-way players augmented by cheap young stars (until those stars got expensive and had to be dealt away for Anson Carter or Jochen Hecht, and the cycle could begin once more). Had those teams been able to hang on to stars, they could have competed because they were deep and multi-dimensional.

The draft picks are a good start, but whoever the Oilers end up picking is going to need a supporting cast as well.

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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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#101 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
March 09 2010, 02:56PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

~Yeah, I hate players that want to play with other good players! Why should he be unhappy playing with Horcoff every year? I hope we trade him for a 2nd rounder and the rights to Tony Amonte.~

It seems he wants to play with his country men more then guy with talent. Unless I'm missing something he's never said anything about wanting any other star on his line.

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#102 Archaeologuy
March 09 2010, 02:58PM
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@OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

Is it at all surprising that a young Czech kid would want to play with arguably the greatest Czech player in history? Is that selfish?

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#103 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
March 09 2010, 03:13PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

Is it at all surprising that a young Czech kid would want to play with arguably the greatest Czech player in history? Is that selfish?

Hey, again it's a grey area. But it looks to me like he wants to play with Jagr for himself, not for the betterment of the team.

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#104 Archaeologuy
March 09 2010, 03:24PM
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@OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

If it was inconceivable that Jagr could be a top 6 forward on this club then I might agree with you. However, Jagr would most likely be an upgrade over almost anyone filling the 2nd line duties.

My conclusion then is that, from Hemsky's perspective (and maybe Tambi's), playing with Jagr serves to both satisfy Hemsky's desire to play with his famed countryman and better the team.

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#105 Reijo Ruotsalainen's wicked slapper
March 09 2010, 03:48PM
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You have to think all the casinos in town are licking their lips at the idea of Jagr signing here.....

Having a guy with World class talent is never a bad idea, but we can't afford to overpay for anyone over 27.

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#106 OilFan
March 09 2010, 04:34PM
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Why would Jagr sign here ? How would signing a 38 year old guy be rebuilding ? just asking

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#107 OilFan
March 09 2010, 04:51PM
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I'm sure there is a lot of Czech players that would like to play with Jagr. Just because Hemsky wants to means nothing. If Jagr was to come back to the Nhl why would he play for less money if he feels he still as it ? I don't know why people keep talking about this. Eklund ? LOL

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#108 Archaeologuy
March 09 2010, 04:59PM
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@OilFan

People talk about it because Jagr said he would like to play here. That was said before the wheels REALLY fell off the bus though. I wouldnt hold him to his word either.

The team is rebuilding, but I dont think the argument that it is good to have an older offensive player around to teach the young guys is without some merit.

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#109 OilFan
March 09 2010, 05:16PM
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@Archaeologuy

Oh I never seen anything about that. Yes I think a good offensive player around would be good. But I don't think Hemsky is a team player and giving him what he wants won't be good for the rest of the young guys. 50/50

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#110 Westcoastoil
March 09 2010, 05:17PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

People talk about it because Jagr said he would like to play here. That was said before the wheels REALLY fell off the bus though. I wouldnt hold him to his word either.

The team is rebuilding, but I dont think the argument that it is good to have an older offensive player around to teach the young guys is without some merit.

The big question is: what's his motivation to come back to the NHL? Is it money? You'd like to hope not, but if it is I don't think you want him. Is it to win a cup? This quickly rules out Edmonton. If it's to join an up and coming young team believing you can have some fun and be a contributor to success, this is the wrong time & place for that. To play in Canada? Really? Why pick the team with the worst travel?

Unless it's to get the most $ he can, the ONLY possible option for him to come here is if it's for the love of the game and a chance to play with his buddy and a coach he knows and likes. Good for him if that's it, because wowwee that would make him a special player.

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#111 OilFan
March 09 2010, 05:20PM
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@Westcoastoil

Props

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#112 Eddie Shore
March 09 2010, 07:26PM
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Westcoastoil wrote:

The big question is: what's his motivation to come back to the NHL? Is it money? You'd like to hope not, but if it is I don't think you want him. Is it to win a cup? This quickly rules out Edmonton. If it's to join an up and coming young team believing you can have some fun and be a contributor to success, this is the wrong time & place for that. To play in Canada? Really? Why pick the team with the worst travel?

Unless it's to get the most $ he can, the ONLY possible option for him to come here is if it's for the love of the game and a chance to play with his buddy and a coach he knows and likes. Good for him if that's it, because wowwee that would make him a special player.

Depending on what kind of coin he is looking for, I don't think it's that bad of an idea to bring him in. He would take the spotlight from Hall/Seguin/Eberle if either of them are here to start the year. Plus, he would instantly become one of our better players because lets face it, he is a legitimate one shot scorer and that is something this team desperately needs. I don't think it's a huge risk signing him for a year at a decent price, if possible.

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#113 GSC
March 10 2010, 11:00AM
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Bucknuck wrote:

"It just doesn't happen."

Can somebody please tell that to Phoenix.

What has Phoenix won?

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#114 Pajamah
March 10 2010, 11:39AM
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GSC wrote:

What has Phoenix won?

....Games...

This season, no less

29 Stanley Cup losers every season, and almost half the league doesn't even make the playoffs, meaning at the start of the year, everything equal, you have a coin flip to make it

Phoenix will make the playoffs this year, because they've built properly, in 1 season

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#115 G. Afaganis
March 13 2010, 06:32PM
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@OilFan

How long do the fans have to watch the Quinn display his gum and saliva? It is so discusting. The man is a slob and it shows in his coaching. When is Kevin Low going to disappear. Hasn't he done enough damage? Get rid of management. Hire new staff, fresh, clean and experienced. Then we will see some changes. Thank you!

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