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.

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    Also this article was very good too. Hopefully our rebuild does work out or we become the Toronto Maple Leafs of the West!! The Horror! The Horror! KHANNNN!!

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    Which players do you guys and gals believe will be gone most likely by the start of the next season. Hey also who is the projected number 1 player for next years draft? I am hearing this Larsson guy. Anyways hope you all have a great day.

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    Ottawa is also a good example of good scouting, they built for most of the 90's and they were a pretty good team, a lot of todays franchise players came from that team.

  • Tha Legion

    good read Jon, I vaguely remember those Oiler teams that fought Dallas and Colorado in the playoffs year after year, I blame management for getting rid of Mike Grier. Yes Mike Grier, great defensive grinder who is going to win a cup with the Buffalo's.

  • Harlie

    There's always risk when you build through the draft. We're talking about 17 year olds after all. And especially so if you don't have patience, and you don't put your prospects in a position to succeed.

    It's definitely something to think about when we have Eberle, MPS, and Hall (or Seguin) all trying to make the team this fall. What would a successful franchise do with the player? What about the Islanders?