The Rebuild Conundrum, Part I

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.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Excellent article JW, that is exactly why I hope managment picks up 3/4 quality role players this summer.

    We had a perfect storm this year, fine, lets use it to get (hopefully) a franchise player… but theirs no reason to go through this for another 2-3 years.

  • @ Ogden Brother Jr.:

    I really don't think the all or nothing approach is what is happening as much as it was the thought of building from within.

    Or the belief that all those little pieces don't really matter, it's the big piece that does.

    As for building from within, the only guy who fit the role we're discussing is Kyle Brodziak, and he was moved.

  • Dan the Man

    I don't think there's ever been a team in NHL history that's been able to quantify how long a rebuild takes – certainly not before it's happened.

    I don't think it's possible to really guess how good/bad the Oilers are going to be in one, three or five years because, more often than not, these "rebuilds" either come together or not.

    Think about it: Back in the mid-1990s, when the Oilers were horrible, I don't ever remember Glen Sather talking about a one- or two-year rebuild. They just sort of drifted along for a couple of bad years, traded away Tikkanen and MacT for Weight and Marchant in separate deals, drafted Arnott, traded for Cujo and Greir and, just like that, they were rebuilt.

    I don't ever remember there being a "plan" or even a "declaration" that the "rebuild" was "over."

    Message: Rebuilds are an inexact science.

  • For be it for anyone to defend Mad Mike, but it's not unreasonable to assume that he was simply a conduit for the decisions of his owner, Charles Wang. Milbury is such a pro-owner guy that he would not have questioned any directive from Wang, regardless of how idiotic it might be. I think that Mad Mike's legacy isn't that he was responsible for tremendously bad trades, it's that he didn't stop Wang from making them because he was and is such a sycophant.

    • Tracie

      Actually, ownership was still heavily involved in the decision-making. How about 97-98 when ownership decided to gut the team so they didn't have to pay them? Just reinforces my point that Milbury's fault is that he sucks up to ownership regardless of what they do.

      • Dan the Man

        That doesn't really explain trading young cheap prospects for older more expensive veterans and even if ownership is forcing management to make a trade it doesn't mean you have to make really really bad ones.

  • The other point, one I suppose I should have made above, is that Kevin Lowe (and for that matter Glen Sather) were far better managers when they had to bring in cheap players and couldn't afford superstars. Not only that, but their teams were better teams.

    There's a lesson there, somewhere.

      • Chris.

        …Or how Lowe could forget the value of size and tougness when as part of the Dynasty Oilers he played for one of the biggest and toughest teams in the NHL.

        • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

          Ya, that as well. We've talked about it before and I think you were bang on. They bought in too heavy into the theory of "the new NHL" were small, skilled players were going to expose bigger players lack of speed.

  • Dan the Man

    Time will tell, but if Hall or Seguin look like they're ready, then I'd say bring them to the NHL right away. But, there's never, ever anything wrong with sending a kid back to junior for one more year and following that up with a year in the AHL. That's the old-school way of doing things and it works. But are we all gonna be patient enough for that to happen?

    I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that, no, we won't be patient enough to wait for that. We'll be demanding that Tambo get them in the NHL right away.

    • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

      It really hasn't hurt the last few first overall picks. Sure you could do it, and sure it wouln't hurt, but do you have to?

      The key to bringing them up next year is going to be to have a cast that will help them develop. You need some middling players that will allow you to start a Hall or a Seguin with sheltered minutes or we're going to end up with another prospect with high expectations and sh!tty results.

        • Tracie

          I might be in the minority but i don't actually mind the idea of bringing in Jagr to play here, depending on the contract of course…I think he would help Hemsky turn into a player instead of a player with loads of potential and he'd help our younger superstars as well…if we can sign him for Pisani money maybe, then I would really like the signing…it would all depend on the money though…

          I mean, Adam Oates didn't bring in a whole lot of scoring when he was here, but we were one of the top teams in faceoff percentages for a few years after he was gone (until we traded everyone away) I mean, having a veteran superstar in the lineup with a bunch of young superstars in the making can't be a bad thing! I'd rather the superstars in the making learn from a guy like Jagr then a guy like Moreau…if we have a team of grinders to protect these guys, who teaches them to be great scorers in the NHL?

          • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

            They don't even have to be grinders. I think we've seen that guys like Stone and Jacques – although they give the midgets a little more room to play – don't do the job.

            What I'm suggesting is that we need a few more AVERAGE NHL players. That is to say, fill a few holes in the lineup with guys that can hold their own if they're stuck on a line with a rookie who might screw up more than an experienced NHL player.

          • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

            A lot of this boils down to Willis' point about players that complement each other. With a turnover machine like Grebeshkov, even an average defensively responsible defenseman would be a better fit than an above-average offensive defenseman whose mind gravitates towards jumping up on the rush instead of quelling a potential odd-man rush against.

            Likewise, established, average 2-way players may be a better fit for the rookies coming up in the system that have the potential to be prolific scorers.

          • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

            Ya, I'm ok with bringing him in on a one year deal. I don't really know if I want him "teaching" any of the young guys, but he'd certainly take some of the pressure/spotlight off them, allowing them to play shelterd minutes.

          • Tracie

            I'm curious as to why you wouldn't want him teaching the young guys? The best way to develop a young potential scorer would be to let him room with one on the road, wouldn't it? I mean Lemieux kinda took Crosby under his wing…isn't one of the biggest transistions to going pro having to deal with media and fans and such? and I think having someone like Jagr who not only could teach them that but also maybe help them adjust to the NHL, why wouldn't that be a good idea? Like I said, just curious…

          • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

            It's obviously a grey area, but Jagr doesn't exactly have the best rep as a "team guy"/having a good attitude. Do you want someone that sulks and doesn't work hard in practice teaching guys?

            IMO I'd think guys would be better off learning how to be a pro from someone like Pisani then someone like Jagr.

          • I totally agree. I remember after Jagr won a cup his focus was on getting out of Pittsburgh so he could play somewhere warm. That didn't quite work out for him but doesn't everyone remember how mediocre he was with Washington? The only way he'll come back for a modest paycheque is if he has a chance to go to a winner. If he comes to Edmonton expect him to get paid a ton more than Pisani like money.

            I like the idea of having here to shelter some guys from tough minutes but he is a short term fix for a transition period at best IMO.

          • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

            I might be wrong, but I remember Jagr making a comment about not wanting all the pressure and expectations that comes with being a 'go-to' first-liner.

            Feel free to correct me – I don't have any direct quotes.

    • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

      I don't know, over the course of Sather's years here and then the start of Lowe's neither guy was able to spend any money. Once they were allowed they had no idea how to negotiate contracts with players making and type of money.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      I'd put the blame on Tambellini, but the big game hunting started before he arrived… I guess both are probably responsible for the direction/make-up of the team.

  • Tracie

    The hope that I have for this years free agency is that last year, Tambo said that he wanted to look for those role players within the organization…well he's done that and the experiemtn has failed miserably…we haven't found that faceoff guy, we haven't found a PK specialist and we haven't found any bottom six grinders that we need…so the only other option is to find them outside of the organization…so in short, my hope is that tambo realizes that he's out of excuses so far as for looking within the organization and starts to look for these guys on the market…right? I mean, he's evaluated enough, right?

    *crickets*

    • Potulny would be filling one of the bottom 6 spots. A person would have to think Jones would be getting a good look too – except he's hurt. Comrie could be a another bottom 6 guy at this point in his career as well. Pouliot has exceeded everyone's expectations so he would probably still be here. Add another 3 or 4 players maybe.

    • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

      Comrie, Jones, and Potulny would be an alright third line.

      I see Stortini as a great 4th line option. I think given what the Oil have to work with, it doesn't make a lot of sense to healthy scratch him.

    • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

      I think that is why we are where are with bottom 6 players, because while there is no problem with having those guys in your bottom 6, when you don't actually have one guy that excels as a bottom 6 player you are in trouble.

      If Comrie is on your fourth line you don't need him on your team.

      • Bucknuck

        I miss the Stortini, GlenX, Brodziak line.

        They were dynamite. I remember saying that they were more important to that crazy run in 2008 than the kid line. It seemed they would change the momentum of the game and then we would score shortly after.

    • OilFan

      Which one's ? Pisani is a great forechecker, the same can be said about Potulny and Stone. I can't say much about Jones. I don't see Comrie on teh 4th line or Stortini. Stortini is a great checker and is good in his own end. Fourth line players in my opinion are players like Jacques. Also all the greatest players in the NHL will the cup. Name a few that never.

  • Chris.

    Isn't the problem a complete absence of a 2nd line?

    Guys that probably would do ok in a 3rd/4th line role are being forced up. If you have a bottom 6 from Horcoff, Brule, Stortini, Pouliot, Stone, Comrie & Potulny – that seems like something to work with.

    Penner, Gagner & Hemsky as your top line.

    Scrap everyone else (Cogs, POS, Nilsson, Moreau, Jacques) and get a proper second line.

  • PuckheadsHockey

    The Oilers franchise has fallen into the same trap that Glen Sather fell into when he went to New York. Sather made shrewd moves in Edmonton to keep the franchise alive and competitive. Those early to late 90's Oiler teams were "teams" that were tough to play against. We didn't have a ton of talent, but we had heart and grit. However, once Sather went to New York and all of a sudden had tons of money to spend his hockey accumen went out the window. Sather's decisions were clouded by the money and the Rangers are still paying the price for his stupidity. The post-lockout Oilers feel that suddenly they have tons of money to burn, thus they now make the kind of idiotic decisions that Sather has made famous in New York. This is a huge reason why I hate the salary cap. The NHL should abolish the cap and go with a luxury tax/full revenue sharing system. The teams need to operate within the means that their markets allow. Maybe then Tambellini/Lowe/Katz and company will wisely start watching their nickels/dimes and loonies alot closer rather than throwing them around blindly.

  • Brocktw

    I hate to break it to you JW. "Mad Mikes" real claim to fame is beating a fan over the head with his own shoe. YouTube it. Everything else hes ever done pails in comparison.

  • Bucknuck

    Didn't Gregor write this exact same article about a month ago? He broke down all the teams and their picks.

    Of course one player can't be saviour, but I'd rather have a top-end pick than another 12-14 pick.

    Anyone who thinks drafting Hall or Seguin isn't a good move for this organization hasn't been paying attention. Our drafting hasn't sucked since the lockout. Sure the team blew it in 2003, and 2004 wasn't great either, but the past few years have been pretty solid. Stu MacGregor seems to know what he is doing.

    • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

      Of course a higher pick is better than a lower pick. Nobody's arguing that.

      What Willis is getting at is the same thing Brownlee was getting at a couple months ago:

      A high draft pick should be a by-product of a proper rebuild, not the focus.

      It's part of the answer, but the article cautions that (with sufficiently inept management) even 10 years of elite talent coming up through the draft isn't enough to save some teams.

  • OilFan wrote:

    Which one's ? Pisani is a great forechecker, the same can be said about Potulny and Stone. I can't say much about Jones. I don't see Comrie on teh 4th line or Stortini. Stortini is a great checker and is good in his own end. Fourth line players in my opinion are players like Jacques.

    Pisani hasn't been the same player these last few years, and may never be. Once upon a time he was a very good third-line guy, but between performance issues and trouble staying in the lineup, I wouldn't peg him higher than the fourth.

    Ryan Stone has never scored an NHL goal.

    Ryan Potulny's a good player but I have issues with both his foot-speed and his defensive chops in a shutdown role. He really strikes me as a guy to play on the fourth line who can step up to the second if needed but who isn't a great fit in the shutdown role.

    Jones was a fourth liner in Nashville.

    Comrie has similar issues to Potulny; he's just not a natural fit for the shutdown role, although with the proper centre/other winger I could see it I suppose.

    Zack Stortini has played the fourth line role his entire time in Edmonton. He's good at it, but not spectacular; there's never any question about effort or willingness but I have real doubts that he could excel if moved from an energy role into a shutdown role.

  • Hallisimo

    Just Curious what ON thinks of this as a potential line up for next season.

    Forwards – Hall Hemsky Penner Jagr(1 or 2 years only) Horcoff Gagner Cogs Brule Eberle MPS lander Potulny
    extras include Pouliot Jones and Cervanek ( czech olympic player rumoured to be on our radar)

    Defense – Gilbert Whitney Smid Plante Petry, any two of Chorney Peckham Johnson

    Now I realize Ive made a few assumptions, moreau nilson osullivan pisani strudwick all gone for sure, and I think stone jaques comrie and stortini (not sure storts has a future with this club) arent back next year. Omark I hope we are looking at trading as he has some value but is very smurfy and hear rumours he has a bad attitude (much like schremp). Plus with guys like nash and rajala in the system no need for him anyways. Also if we make a couple of free agent signings (armstrong, hamhuis etc) this roster could easily change.But overall would this be an acceptable roster to start next season with? I think it would be a good start towards rebuilding.

  • VMR

    We have him signed already, why not keep Moreau on in the role he's always played a 3rd line forward? At least till the trade deadline. Besides that we need a guy who's good on faceoffs, pay Adam Oates to come in and train Pouliot if you cant find anyone else.

    We already have some of the parts that we've picked up over the past few years. Gagner, Smid, looks like they're sticking with Gilbert, Brule could be a 2nd/3rd liner, Hemsky and Penner for a couple years at least. Whitney doesnt look that bad.

    I dont think Grebeshkov was the answer short term or long term and am glad he's gone. I dont see how Souray fits on this team and hope he's moved. I think it's no suprise our defence is the weak point rather than worrying about our 3rd and 4th line forwards. Maybe Peckham can become a solid defensive guy but he'll only be in your bottom pairing at this point.

  • Tracie

    @Original Ogden Brother & rubber trout

    ok, I can see that…but then why would Hemskey even say he's a good fit? the last thing we need is a selfish, me-first guy on the team! Could it be he might've changed like Comrie did? And I was hoping that maybe having Hemmer here would make it so that he just wanted to play, not play for money…but I forgot what a selfish player he was when he was in the league. Thanks for reminding me!

        • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

          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.

          • 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.

  • Reijo Ruotsalainen's wicked slapper

    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.

  • OilFan

    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

    • 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.

      • OilFan

        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

        • GSC

          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!

      • OilFan

        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.

        • Eddie Shore

          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.