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Photo Credit: © Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

These Oilers, Those Penguins

After a decade of darkness, the Oilers had an excellent season, winning 47 games, beating the San Jose Sharks in the first round, and coming within one win of advancing to the Western Conference Final.

Back in September, if you had asked most people in Edmonton what they wanted out of this season, they would have been happy with the Oilers just playing competitive hockey after the trade deadline. Now? There aren’t any participation medals. It’s the dawn of a new era in Edmonton. With it comes new expectations.

The Oilers took a massive step forward this season, and in order to capitalize on their window of opportunity, they’ll have to take another big one next season. As a template, look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were in a virtually identical situation a decade ago, landing the golden ticket at the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes and having their franchise’s fortunes completely changed.

The Penguins are the gold standard for the Oilers. Through two years, it’s been very similar. Can they continue to follow suit?

How did they get there?

The Penguins weren’t quite as bad as Edmonton was during its infamous Oil Change, but between 2001 and 2005, nobody in the league was worse than Pittsburgh was. The Pens chose Ryan Whitney with the fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft, Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003, and Evgeni Malkin second overall in 2004 after three seasons of finishing with under 30 wins.

The 2004-05 season was lost due to the lockout, and after a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached, the league decided to have a lottery decide the order of the 2005 Entry Draft. The lottery was known as the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes because whoever won would have their fortunes turned around immediately by the prospect who had just scored 168 points in 62 games in the QMJHL. 

The Penguins, with their perfectly-timed years of epic futility, were in a luck. Teams were given lottery balls based on where they finished in the standings in the previous three seasons and whether or not they had chosen first overall in any of the previous four drafts. The Penguins had their ball drawn (unless you believe the conspiracy theories about Gary Bettman giving them the pick behind closed doors) and the rest is history. Sidney Crosby joined a Penguins franchise that already had a solid core of young players, like Malkin, Fleury, Whitney, Ryan Malone, Rob Scuderi, Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, and Brooks Orpik.

In 2015, the Oilers drew a magic ticket just like the Penguins did a decade earlier. When they added Connor McDavid, the Oil Change that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end got completely flipped on its head.

And then what happened?

Crosby came flying out of the gate, putting together a rookie season that nobody realistically could have expected. As an 18-year-old in the NHL, Crosby put up 39 goals and 63 assists, good for sixth in the league in points. Remember, this was the first year after the lockout, back when everything was a penalty and scoring skyrocketed.

Despite his effort, the Penguins were terrible. They finished 22-46-12, a points percentage just as bad as the one they put up in 2003-04. Honestly, it’s incredible Crosby produced at the level he did. The team was bad. The corpses of John LeClair and Mark Recchi were third and fourth in team scoring and their blue line featured names like Josef Melichar and Ric Jackman being fed consistent minutes. For their efforts, though, the Pens were able to draft Jordan Staal with the second overall pick in the 2006 draft.

The Penguins didn’t do too much over the 2006 offseason, but adding Staal and Malkin, who came over to North America after playing two post-draft seasons in Russia, really added depth to the team’s roster. Crosby had another spectacular season, scoring 36 goals and 84 assists, good for 120 points, which is still his career high, and the Art Ross, Hart, and Pearson trophies. Crosby’s effort, along with strong rookie seasons from Malkin and Staal, helped the Penguins finish with a 47-24-11 record, a massive 47 point improvement from where they finished the previous season. Thanks to the standings, the Pens had to play the Senators in the first round, and were knocked out in five games.

Again, the Penguins didn’t make any big free agent investments in the 2007 offseason. Their big signings were Petr Sykora, who inked a two-year deal after a strong season in Edmonton, and Daryl Sydor, who, on the final legs of his career, signed a two-year contract. In July, Crosby was inked to a five-year extension worth $8.7 million annually that would eat up the remainder of his control years. The big move came at the trade deadline when the Penguins shipped Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, two solid, young depth players the team had developed, along with 2007 first round pick Angelo Esposito to the Atlanta Thrashers for Marian Hossa.

The Penguins finished with a 47-27-8 record, impressive considering Crosby and Fleury were injured for a significant amount of time. They swept Ottawa in the first round, and plowed through New York and Philadelphia, only losing two games. They were eventually stopped by Detroit in the Cup Final in six games by a veteran Red Wings squad.

The Penguins lost Hossa in the 2008 offseason, but replaced him with two low-key signings, adding veterans Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko on one-year deals. They gave Evgeni Malkin a five-year extension identical to the one they gave Crosby the year before. During the season, they pulled the trigger on a major deal, sending Ryan Whitney, who had developed into a good, offence producing top-four defenceman, to the Anaheim Ducks for Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. They also acquired Bill Guerin at the trade deadline from the Islanders.

The biggest change the Pens made, though, was firing head coach Michel Therrien. The team had a 27-25-5 record in February, and replaced Therrien with Dan Bylsma, who led the team to a 18-3-4 finish to the season. They downed the Flyers, Capitals, and Hurricanes before going up against the Red Wings again in the Final, a series they would ultimately win in seven games.

The Penguins remained competitive the years after their Stanley Cup victory, suffering through some down seasons as Crosby battled concussion issues. But now, with Malkin and Crosby as grizzled veterans in the league, the Penguins are better than ever. They won their second Stanley Cup with this group last spring, and there’s a very good chance they’ll win again this year.

What does it all mean?

The similarities between these two teams are obvious. And so far through two years, this Edmonton team has looked a lot like that Pittsburgh team.

In McDavid’s first season, the Oilers struggled and finished 29th in the league, just like the Penguins did in Crosby’s rookie year. The following year, McDavid led the league in scoring with 100 points, and helped the Oilers to a 103-point season, good for eighth in the league. In his sophomore season, Crosby won the Art Ross and Hart trophies, and the Penguins finished tied for eighth in the league with 105 points. Also, like 2016-17 for Edmonton and 2006-17 for Pittsburgh, both teams saw the emergence of a second elite center in Leon Draisaitl and Evgeni Malkin.

Crazy, right?

I mean, the comparison isn’t perfect, in that these are different people in a different situation 10 years later, but you know what I mean. McDavid might be as good as Crosby, Draisaitl isn’t as good as Malkin, and while Pittsburgh had a solid group of young players out together before they got their lotto ticket, Edmonton’s years of futility resulted in them having a bigger load of young talent than Pittsburgh ever did.

The goal now, obviously, is to continue this pattern. Pittsburgh made a big step in Crosby’s third season, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, then they won it all the following year.

This summer, Peter Chiarelli will get McDavid and Draisaitl, the core of this team’s future, locked up long-term. Draisaitl’s entry-level deal is over, and he has five more years left of team control before he can hit free agency. McDavid has one more year left on his entry-level deal, and the extension he (likely) signs this summer will kick in in 2018-19. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that both players will be locked up at a combined cap hit of between $16-17 million, which is similar to the identical $8.7 million deals Crosby and Malkin were given.

Beyond that, though? That’s where things get difficult. When the Penguins got over the hump in 2009, they did so after making some hard decisions.

They dealt two important depth players they had developed for Marian Hossa, but realized keeping him around wasn’t going to work financially, and let him walk. That gave them the flexibility to add names like Guerin, Fedotenko, and Satan. They also made a difficult decision on Ryan Whitney, who appeared to be developing into a top defenceman, sending him to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz, who’s worked like magic with Crosby. Another difficult decision was firing Therrien, who wasn’t the right voice for the team, and replacing him with Dan Bylsma, a rookie coach. 

One thing the Penguins didn’t do was go hard in free agency. Like I said, they avoided that big Hossa contract in 2008, which may or may not have worked out for them. Instead, they picked up veterans on short-term contracts and plugged holes around their core with low-key additions. The big deals they handed out were to players they drafted and developed themselves, the ones they identified as core players who meshed with the group.

Chiarelli has already made some difficult decisions in his two years at the helm. He moved Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, a one-for-one swap that was maligned by just about everybody. This summer, he has more tough choices to make. Are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle long-term fits? Does this blue line need another piece? Which veterans can be plugged into the lineup? Where are they going to come from? Are there any worthwhile free agents even available?

There isn’t one specific way to do this, but the Penguins offer a nice blueprint for the Oilers to follow. The two teams have shown a lot of similarities so far through Connor McDavid’s first two seasons, and if Chiarelli plays his cards right, the next two years will be similar too. The bar has been set high, but it’s a realistic one. If two years from now the Oilers haven’t made it out of the Western Conference, something has gone wrong. 

  • Alberta Ice

    Cam, great parallels shown in this article with the Penguins! “The bar has been set high, but it’s a realistic one.” Could you do a related article on the Blackhawks history? That’s the team I’ve always viewed in a similar situation after they floundered a number of years and then drafted Toews and Kane. Whatever happens ahead for the Oilers , it seems like the salary cap issues will be the huge unknown X factor on the journey ahead.

    • Flint

      Hawks are even further ahead on the curve. Toews and Kane lifted the cup on their entry level deals. I commented on this saying the Oilers ‘golden window’ is rapidly closing.

      • Ryan68

        Yeah, and they also won twice after their rookie deals. I’ve seen your “Golden Window” comment before. So, are you saying that if the Oilers don’t win next year they should chuck it? Pittsburgh seems to have done just fine winning after Crosby and Malkin’s ELC we’re up. Chicago was an aberration, not a template. Keith and Seabrook were well beyond their ELC’S when the Hawks won. They also had high-priced free agent Hossa on that team. And he’s still on the team. They didn’t have to deal him after Kane and Toews got their RFA or UFA contracts. The lesson to be learned from these teams is to build a solid core of 5-6 players and then build the team around them. The template seems to be a certified no.1 centre; a solid second line centre; a scoring winger; a no.1 d-man that can quarter back the power play; and a top 10 goalie. Seems to me Edmonton has all but one those things. But they seem to have a couple of wingers that can put the puck in the net if Puljujarvi doesn’t develope as expected.

        • Flint

          Of course I’m not saying the Oilers just “chuck it”, I don’t even know what that means.

          I’m saying that there are normally two phase competitive windows and for a few fortunate teams three phase competitive windows, of which the Oilers are in the first phase of a three phase – the ‘Golden Window’.

          There are teams who are so vastly changed by recent drafting, due to the quality of the players available in the first 3 placings (Crosby and Malkin, Kane and Toews, McDavid and Draisaitl) that they get a ‘golden window’, where the top picks at such a young age are already not just difference makers, but elite – Art Ross trophy winning elite before their mid-20’s.

          In these unique cases, they have the foundation to win a cup on Entry level deals, when you’re getting the most elite talent at a massive discount. This allows you to build a heavier team in these first years to compete for a cup. You can load up with those extra dollars and dismantle the ‘rental’ pieces’ afterwards, somthing that is not an option once the stars are on their second deal.

          I estimate that the Oilers will have around 11million dollars less to play with when McDavid and Leon are signed. Then, they’ll be in phase 2 of their competitive window – the phase most teams start in.

          What suprises me, is that people here seem to not grasp the fact that McDavid at ~4mil is a blessing compared to what he’ll be at ~11 or 12 mil – because he’s elite now, he won’t start scoring 3x the points when he’s 3x the price.

          • Lamar's Javelin

            Flint – the exceptions of course are contracts that come off the books as things tighten and the need to pay marginal players too much to be here in the previous era disappears – the 11M less $ available becomes a wash between what I say here and what you said.

      • Alberta Ice

        Thanks. That’s a huge positive omen when you can write articles to compare this Oilers team to the Penguins and the Blackhawks teams of the recent past. 🙂

  • Flint

    I posted pretty much the same in the comments, and people didn’t like it much. However, your comparison is a little flawed. It’s easy to compare the years of Crosby and McDavid because they are the stars, but in terms of contracts it’s Crosby and Draisaitl, and McDavid and Malkin. This years Oilers should then be compared to the ’07/’08 Penguins – who went to the final in Crosby’s third year and Malkin’s second. If we continue that comparison that means the Oilers need win the Cup next year.

    Second, I cannot see McDavid being signed to the same value contract as Crosby signed years ago. If he isn’t signed to 12ish million cap hit, who should be? I predict 19 million for the two, less than 18million combined cap hit would be larceny, and I think 16million is wishful thinking.

      • Flint

        Yes, of course the cap is higher now, but the author of the article is predicting combined deal for McD and Leon for 16 million….some 5 million less than Kane (10.5) and Toews (10.5) currently have. I don’t see that. Would you rather have Kane and Toews or McDavid and Leon… McDavid will be the highest paid player in the league when he re-signs, because he should be, and the Oilers aren’t gonna get Draisaitl for peanuts either.

  • I am Ted

    Coilers have been a hot mess for the better part of the last 20 years. Not sure why it’s only a decade of darkness. I guess there is some light ahead in ye olde Coilers tunnel….hopefully it isn’t an oncoming train.

    • Ryan68

      I don’t know where you’re getting this 20 year thing. The Oilers consistently made the playoffs between 1997-2006. Almost always exceeding expectations in the playoffs. Knocking off a great Dallas team, twice. Beating the Sakic led Avalanche and coming within one game of winning the cup in ’06. You sound like a disgruntled Flamer.

      • Lamar's Javelin

        Ryan – you said it in your post – exceeding expectations and upsetting the Avs and beating Dallas once. The point is that they were almost always in the bottom seeding of the playoff matchups since 1992. Don’t wear too heavily rose-tinted glasses, they’ve been awful since ’92 with a Cinderella story and a couple of Saturday morning cartoons tossed in for entertainment.

        • I am Ted

          This. The Coilers have a ton of banners up but if you take a close look, most of them are from the 80’s. That’d be great if it was 1990 again. But, hey, Edmonton fans may be shocked to learn it is 2017. The Coilers have been a joke for a long time (not nearly as bad as the Leafs but still). So, let’s see how this team does. I am used to the Coilers being a joke. Hell, they were so bad that the NHL changed the draft system thanks to them. I can’t think of a franchise that’s had so many high picks for so many years and screwed up most of them. Just sad.

  • Leaking5w-30

    I’d be interested in an article about the types of vets that might be available on short term deals this summer. Iginla? One of the sharks centers? Seems like we might have a few million to blow on one year deals as we await conners cap number jumping.

  • Ty Guy

    I Just hope Dadbot sticks around…..unlike Chicago’s revolving goaltender door.

    And didn’t Mario play a year with Sid? Conner getting a year with Wayne would have been unreal.

  • Wally Jones

    Eberle was kind of a disappointment this season. He often looked tentative and out of place. He looked like someone trying too hard, squeezing the stick. He looked afraid to go into the corners or in front of the net, and most times he would coast around just outside the dirty areas waiting for a puck to pop loose. Which can be effective sometimes, but not when it is your complete m.o. Ebs needs to work with Gary Roberts this offseason and he needs to ask himself how badly he wants to be the guy, because I believe that if Ebs learned to be a bit more aggressive, and a lot more assertive, his game would hit another level and be more consistent. Which is why I believe that trading him right now while his value is low would be a mistake. I don’t think that giving up on him right now would be wise, maybe give him one more season to try figure it out and who knows, maybe he will learn to take a few more bumps which would translate into a few more goals and assists. Man, if he wasn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas he might have been the difference and we would still be watching Oilers hockey, but imo, I think he should get another year to show us how he’s going to respond because he knows himself that sometthing needs to change.

  • Connor Mike-David

    If I read this right, the Penguins slow-played Malkin such that he was drafted the year before Crosby but he wasn’t in need of a big contract until the year after Crosby. I’m guessing that the timing of the lock-out, combined with options for Malkin to still play good development hockey in Russia, would have made this a no-brainer. …but then they kept him in the motherland another year after the lock-out as well. Those same lock-out conditions didn’t exist for Draisatl AND we all know that the Oil rushed Drai into the NHL based on team need at the time (severe lack of centres). Anyway, now we have our Pseudo-Malkin in this comparison (Draisatl) needing his first big contract 2 years earlier than the Pens comparison. It will be interesting to see how much this subtle difference in asset management plays into the results over the next few seasons, amongst all the other differences, and I can imagine that it would potentially have the effect of tightening the Oilers’ “golden window” that has been mentioned by other posters, as compared to the Pens.

    I don’t know the details of Malkin’s development and I wonder if management intentionally kept Malkin in Russia an extra year knowing that Crosby would be entering the NHL immediately and wanting to string out the cap implications and their “golden window”? Perhaps that’s just post-rationalizing and it may have just been luck based on Malkin’s readiness and other factors.