A Tale of Three Rebuilds: Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa

Edmonton won the 2012 draft lottery yesterday, the same day Brian Burke used his exit press conference to exhibit his typical stubbornness and unwillingness to modify strategy. On the same day Edmonton earned the right to select first overall for an almost unprecedented third year in a row, Burke insisted that the draft was no way to rebuild. Responding to what the press referred to as the “Pittsburg model,” Burke shot back that Pittsburg won a lottery for one of the best players in the world—they had dumb luck and nothing more—and that that was the only factor in their sole Cup win.

It got me to thinking about the approach to rebuilding employed by these three Canadian teams – Toronto, Edmonton, and Ottawa – because they seem very different, and yet only in degrees relative to an underlying assumption about the effectiveness of the draft.

First, check out James Mirtle’s waaaaay old blog post about where picks in the draft end up. He has an even older post, which I can’t find, in which he breaks it down by picks inside the first round. I’m drawing from a shitty memory, but if I remember right there’s a disproportionately high number of top five picks who end up regular NHLers—not necessarily stars, just bona fide pros—after which the percentage drops precipitously.

Which informs my assumption about the “Pittsburg model”: it’s absolutely real, but needs to be employed fully to be effective. Meaning, you have to really, really suck for it to work. The draft can work if you’re Detroit and you exploit a system (Sweden) before anyone else in the league, or if you get lucky. Otherwise a rebuild through the draft is comprised of two parts: 1) tanking badly for a few years in order to obtain those few franchise pieces to build around, e.g. M-A Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal; and 2) making trades and key signings once that core is obtained to complement and enhance the team, e.g. Gary Roberts, Marian Hossa, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Paul Martin and Zybnek Michalek. While I’ll admit that no approach guarantees a team the Cup, this one seems the most reliable model for obtaining a core who will play with each other in their prime, and on affordable entry-level and/or RFA contracts, enabling other UFA signings. Three to five years of poor regular season performance, if your team can afford it, seems like a sure way to buy yourself double that time of playoff contention. Pittsburg have won their Cup, and their core will remain in their prime for another half-dozen years.

Edmonton seems the closest to replicating this model in textbook fashion. They haven’t escaped withering criticism from one of my favorite hockey bloggers, Tyler Dellow of MC79 Hockey, and he’s right to be concerned. They certainly give Dellow enough ammunition, what with their propensity for messing up minor elements of the CBA, mismanagement of key prospects, and their inability to negotiate a fair market contract for mediocre players. There’s also the small factor of totally imbalanced system development, with little to no defensive depth for a team top-heavy on offensive talent.

 It’s also difficult to ignore that Edmonton hasn’t just been bad, they’ve been far and away the worst team in the league since the lockout, and that not all of those years have been strictly rebuilding years—they were just years in which the team thought it should compete, and didn’t. Concern that their management team will not be able to make key acquisitions to complement their core when the time is right, or negotiate long term deals for their future stars, is valid. But the fact remains that the Oilers are so bad that they can’t help but fall ass backwards into a playoff team. Their multiple first overall selections are talented enough to escape even the Oilers’ inability to develop players optimally. They’ve consistently selected high enough to obtain those can’t miss building blocks. A few key defensive signings, a GM and coach who know what they’re doing, and even two or three of their later round picks panning out to provide depth to their raft of high-end franchise players, and the Oilers are set. They’re at the point where the team has to start showing improvement, but it could be a lot worse: they could be Calgary or Toronto, two markets who for years have been unable to admit their situation and are stuck in purgatory as a result.

Brian Burke on Pittsburg: “They got a lottery. They won a god damn lottery and they got the best player in the game. Is that available to me? Should we do that? Should we ask the League to have a lottery this year, and maybe we pick first?”

There are a few dozen levels on which this quote is confusing, and not only for its arrogance (truculence?) and stubbornness. First of all is the “Is that available to me?” question, which implies the draft lottery as a method of rebuilding a team isn’t available to Toronto when of course it is. Burke has repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to avail himself of provisions in the CBA that are commonly used, be it long-tail contracts, offer sheets, or the draft. More importantly, the implication is that unless the team gets the first overall pick and a generational player is available, that there is no value to the lottery. I have to admit, this isn’t totally unfair. While Pittsburg drafted Malkin and Staal second overall, there are as many cautionary tales (usually Columbus picks like Filatov and Zherdev) as there are success stories.

Nonetheless, Burke’s comments are weirdly nonsensical. “Should we ask the League to have a lottery this year, and maybe we pick first?” is a good one, as he doesn’t need to ask the League to have a lottery: they had one, and Toronto had the chance to win it and pick first. Burke almost seems pissed to not have the choice to opt out of the opportunity.

I’ve already written about how Toronto is having trouble conceptualizing a rebuild without adhering, at least a little bit, to building through the draft. If you don’t draft, and the UFA market is thin (which every GM worth a dollar saw coming as a result of the salary cap and teams locking up their young talent to long term contracts), all you’re left with is trades. True to form, Burke announced that trades would be his primary route this offseason. He will once again swap out components of a bottom-ten team for similar components, and will probably finish in the bottom ten next year as a result. I’m left to conclude that Burke’s strength—his principled approach and unbending willpower—are in this case the franchise’s greatest weakness. Toronto will never rebuild properly until they have a GM who doesn’t get up in front of the media and say things like, “I’m not a patient person. I was born impatient, I’m going to die impatient.”

Which brings us to Ottawa.

If the comments on this and other Senators blogs are any indication, we Sens fans are feeling pretty damn good about our pipeline. We have pedigree in Zibanejad, Filatov, Turris, and Cowen, and we have surprising, even dominant performances from Stone, Silfverberg, Lehner, Bishop and Noesen. There are also plenty of X factors in the system, promising players who might put it together. These are combined with a young franchise player in Erik Karlsson hitting his prime and realistically able to play for the Senators for the next decade-plus. In this way, Ottawa’s drafting and development is probably closer to, say, Los Angeles’, a team with a strong system despite rarely tanking all the way, than it is to Edmonton’s or the New York Islanders’, two teams who always seem to be in the bottom five and have been unable, as yet, to show improvement in the standings.

I’m optimistic, too, about how well Ottawa has seemed to do with only one draft off of which to launch a rebuild. The logic goes that if this team can make the playoffs as currently constructed, and has at least a couple quality NHLers on the way, that it will only improve, even with the impending retirement of the team’s heart and soul player, Daniel Alfredsson.

Except that I still think the goal of any rebuild has to be to win the Cup, not simply improve. How close is Ottawa compared to their fellow rebuilders? How close will they be after the 2012 draft? How about five years from now?

Like Los Angeles, Ottawa is on track to develop into a bubble team. Hopefully this means more years in the playoffs than out, but it also doesn’t quite mean an extended period of genuine Cup contention. The assumption is that this year’s unexpected playoff appearance is indicative of a franchise further ahead in its process, which I think is simply untrue. A team that chose not to sell off many of its key veterans—Chris Phillips, Daniel Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba, primarily—combined with a Norris-worthy season from Karlsson and some late-game heroics in the early going, results in a team that can eke into the eighth seed for the right to play a team who finished 17 points better than them in the standings. Subtract a few of those veterans as they get older or retire; have Karlsson play at a human level; and have the incoming rookies play like rookies. What you have is a team that traded in a valuable year of drafting and development for what will most likely be a brief, if awesome, appearance in the playoffs.

There are a lot of angles at which to look at the problem: is Melnyk right when he says things like this team needs to get to the second round to break even, and so they can’t survive a few years without playoffs? Does it make sense to re-sign Bryan Murray when he’s clearly in his final contract and will most likely not want to spend it managing a basement team? Are Senators prospects like Matt Puempel 2011’s Angelo Esposito? (Remember that highly regarded prospect?)

Most of all: what does the fan base want? Three to five years of terrible hockey in exchange for a decade of contention, or one year of terrible hockey in exchange for five years of exciting if totally unpredictable bubble team games. Both are completely reasonable choices. I actually agree with the statement that “anything can happen in the playoffs.” I just want to make sure we’re in them more years than not.

I hate to say it, but as much as Edmonton or the Islanders look like a joke now—as much like a joke as Pittsburg back in the day—they are both much closer to winning a Cup than Ottawa is, despite Ottawa being in the playoffs in 2011.

As always, it could be worse: we could be Toronto. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

17 thoughts on “A Tale of Three Rebuilds: Toronto, Edmonton, Ottawa

  1. A couple buddies and myself were talking about Edmonton and the Yakupov situation and one thing that constantly came up was the idea of Edmonton trading Montreal their first round pick for Subban. I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that, seeing that Subban is the future of MTL’s D-Line. What do you think?

    • If Montreal is serious about rebuilding, that would be a helluva way to launch it: first and third overall picks. Not only that, but there are some quality defenseman in the top five, so Montreal could use one of those picks to take a franchise defenseman to build around.

      In the end it’s all about timelines. Subban is an amazing player, and worthy of building around, but he’s due a big raise. If Montreal is committed to a five year rebuild, it’s probably better to reset the clock at zero, trade Subban, and have all of your blue chippers developing on the same arc. It will depend on what ownership wants, and which GM they bring in.

      I think in a market like Montreal, they probably want to return to the post-season as soon as possible and they’ll choose a GM who will tweak rather than blow it up. I don’t think that’s how you build a Cup winner, but it’s what I predict.

    • Whenever I think of Montreal’s blueline I also think about how they threw in Ryan McDonagh in that Gomez trade. Amazing. Gainey should still be lambasted for that.

    • Is PK worth the 1st overall pick? I think he’s great and could be a cornerstone of any defense, but do you think he would be the player to put the Oilers over the top?

      • Arguably PK doesn’t have as high a ceiling as Yakupov, but I guess it’s about need and about timing. The Oilers not only need defense, they need to NOT be one of the worst teams in hockey one of these years. They could jump start their team’s development by trading for a player who’s in his prime right now, combine that with some free agent signings to shore up their defense.

        Having said all that, when you look at the Oilers’ D, they already have six (mediocre) D men signed through next season, and three more RFAs. Their top six looks like Whitney – Schultz – Smid – Sutton – Theubert – Potter, and they have Petry, Peckham and Barker as RFAs. Not sure where PK could fit. (Why on earth they extended Sutton I have no idea.)

  2. It’s an interesting thought, but I’m not sure that I agree with the assumption that a team must be comprised of elite talent to win the Cup–For all its talent, the so-called “Pittsburgh Model” has only yielded one Cup so far. In the past decade, there have been plenty of winners (New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Anaheim, and yes, even Boston) that I wouldn’t describe as “star-laden.”

    In the end, I think the draft is probably a team’s best chance for building a core. I would agree that Ottawa is probably not more than a bubble team with the current roster and prospects, but that doesn’t somehow preclude them from filling in the holes via either trade or free agency. I believe the team has a good core in Spezza, Karlsson, Michalek, Turris, Cowen, and Lehner (maybe even Bishop). Adding some more firepower to that group from outside the organization would be a pretty signficant game-changer, don’t you think?

    • Well, I don’t disagree with your premise, I’m just skeptical about how much you can add to the current group outside of the draft. With trades you have to give up equal value (or more, ahem, Turris), and with free agency I don’t think Melnyk wants to be a cap team and most players would prefer to live in New York or Philadelphia, and play for a contender, than live in Ottawa and play for a rebuilder.

      The examples of you give of teams that aren’t star laden is well taken. I concede that if you get the opportunity to put Pronger and Neidermeyer on a team together, or sign a Chara or have Brodeur in his prime, you’re pretty well off. But planning a traditional rebuild doesn’t preclude you from exploiting opportunities, while relying on those opportunities precludes you from exploiting a traditional rebuild. Why not avail yourself of both? Also, some of those teams had a combination of stars taken very high in the draft – Lecavalier, Eric Staal – complemented with key signings and deadline acquisitions.

      • No doubt that you’re generally giving up equal or more value (Heatley notwithstanding) in a trade, but if some of our prospects are more Esposito than Cowen, as you point out, overpaying in a trade while their value is still high probably isn’t the end of the world.

        I’d also agree that most players would rather go to a contender than a rebuilder, though Murrat

        • This comments system seems to be a little wacky. Sorry about that. Anyway, Murray has shown at least some ability to attract top free agents to the team. Lastly, I’d agree that availing yourself of both avenues is definitely the best approach–and then point out that Spezza was taken 2nd overall, and Turris 3rd overall. (And Philips 1st overall, but… whatever, Phillips… whatever.)

          • Ha! Yeah. I’m going to make a t-shirt that says “Whatever, Phillips” and then a picture of his droopy “we just gotz scored on” face.

  3. I’m going to blow the doors off here. It will make some upset but let’s see where we can take it:

    Ottawa trades: Erik Karlsson, Matt Puempel, 2nd overall 2013 to Edmonton for 1st overall, Jeff Petry and either MSP or RNH.
    So….once the riots clear, he is why Murray does this:

    The 1st overall can get us Yakupov, Dumba, Murray, ANYTHING. That way, if Spezza gets tired of not being appreciated/waiting for the captaincy and bolts, we have a franchise center behind him, maybe two. Why the hell do you trade Karlsson? Good question. Maybe you think there’s a regression to the mean here…maybe you see a PPG pace as unsustainable. Maybe you know that once your contract is done (Murray), another GM comes in that hires another coach that might not be so kind to Erik…there might be tons of reasons.

    Now, the trade IS NOT happening…so no worries homies.

    As to the Pittsburgh thing, I’m kinda inclined to agree with Burke. I mean, sucking hasn’t really helped Columbus, ISlanders, Oilers, Hurricanes, Wild…I agree you DO need some elite talent though and who knows when we’ll next get one. I know Jason York and Steve Lloyd (both company guys) were splooging over their mics over Szilfverberg but let’s see how he does in an 82-game season + 3 months of playoffs before we anoint him the next Alfredsson hmmmmm?

    Also, anyone notice Fly65 with a nice barb to GQ-Boy (Lundqvist) that he hopes he goes home soon? I dunno, I’m kinda in blasé existentialist film noir mode about this series. I might get tickets to game 4 if the Senators come home with a 2-0 lead or a 1-1 tie…just because I am sooooooooo Nouveah-Ottawahhhhhhhhhhn and only support the team when it’s winning, and my Cubicle-Metric says I MUST SLEEP AT 23:00 to WAKE AT 06:30!!!! MUST!!!! NEED MUFFINS AND OJ FROM TREATS ON SLATER!!!

    Also…wouldn’t it be precious if Neil ended Gaborik’s series with a clean hit?
    It would be Jubilee Fine Jewelers precious…

    • Whoa whoa! Okay, I gotta unpack this. Consider my doors blown off.

      First thing’s first: you “might” get tickets if they come home with a 2-0 lead? Dude, go to the playoffs! They’re fucking great! We didn’t get them last year. We might not get them next year. Gotta appreciate it while it’s here. I’m going to drink until I’m almost dead on Monday, and I gotta work early too. We can Twitter each other about it.

      I dunno about your examples of teams that weren’t helped by sucking. Carolina won the cup with 2nd overall pick Staal, the Wild haven’t had a high pick in forever, I think Oilers and Islanders are one year away each, and Columbus…well, Columbus is just fucking cursed. Can’t explain them at all. They should probably try another sport.

      As for the trade proposal, I’m actually kind of digging the ballsiness of suggesting that Karlsson might regress, as I don’t think you have the kind of season he’s having every year. What’s the “second overall 2013″ you refer to though? Is that where you think Ottawa will finish next year? Or do you mean second rounder, because I think we’re all out of those.

  4. I totally agree with Burke when it comes to the Penguins. The lottery he’s referring to is the one that came out of the lockout, where everyone had a shot at drafting #1 and getting Crosby. The Pens stunk the year before and had the second best chance of winning the lottery and they did.

    Another team that doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the “Pittsburgh model” rebuild is the Blackhawks. They’re a team built around a 2 top 5 picks, Toews and Kane. They won a Cup with those 2 premium picks leading the way.

    I think the difference between Edmonton, Toronto and the way the Sens have rebuilt is that Ottawa has a winning tradition. In the same way that Detroit expects to make the playoffs, Ottawa has a core of veterans that don’t expect or accept not making the playoffs. We didn’t make the playoffs 2 out of 3 years and that was simply unacceptable. Management pushed the button and partially blew up a veteran team to kickstart a rebuild.

    As someone mentioned above, a lot of stuff went right for us this season to get to where we are, in the same way that a lot of things went wrong for the Sens in 2011. I think for Ottawa to succeed long term they need one of the goalie prospects to pan out. Sure I’d love to see Andy go all Tim Thomas on us and just get better as he ages, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. Ottawa needs one of Lehner or Bishop to step up to the level of Lundqvist, Thomas or Luongo. That is really the only sure way to assure the teams future Cup contention. Being able to rely on a goaltender is not something Ottawa has been able to do for awhile, so if Andy/Lehner/Bishop can do that this team will have the time to grow and mature.

  5. When looking at rebuilds, I think the cap plays a huge factor in the success or lack of success. In the Pit rebuild model, the Pens now have 40% of their cap dedicated to their four high picks (Sid, Geno, Staal and Fleury) and this effects the quality of linemates they can sign.

    When looking at Edmonton, with their three high picks (Hall, RNH, and Ebs) and potentially adding Nails to the line-up, the Oilers will have no choice but to continue to build through the draft and hopefully find a star d-man and starting goalie because if they jump into the free agent market, they will mess up their cap structure and potentially affect their ability to resign their stars.

  6. “Like Los Angeles, Ottawa is on track to develop into a bubble team. Hopefully this means more years in the playoffs than out, but it also doesn’t quite mean an extended period of genuine Cup contention.”

    Therein lies the most critical flaw in your argument here: The assumption or supposition that Ottawa will remain a bubble team for the foreseeable future, and, if that happens, it will be because they didn’t go all-in on a rebuild. You’re right in pointing out the fact that Ottawa has a number of veterans who have greatly improved the team’s play this season, and that the team won’t be able to rely on those veterans a couple of years down the road. But that ignores the fact that players on the current team may, at that point, have become veterans, and it also ignores the very real possibility of acquiring other veterans through trades or free agency.

    Look at Ottawa’s core when they were contenders: There were Jason Spezza, Wade Redden, and Chris Phillips in the ‘high draft pick’ category, alongside mid- to late first-rounders like Havlat, Hossa, and Volchenkov plus some late-round gems like Alfredsson and Chara. There’s no reason to assume this model–the Ottawa model, so to speak–is less effective than the Pittsburgh model at building a true Cup contender. And this is what Murray is trying to replicate, whether consciously or subconsciously, but prioritizing scouting, drafting, and development.

    Also, the idea that a 3-5 year rebuild all but guarantees ten years of contention is a pretty specious one. We’ll see what the Islanders and Oilers are able to do with their talent, but both of those have been pretty ugly rebuilds. Also, when you’re talking about drafting key core players, you’re going to have to pay them market value whether they’re internal or external signings; given the younger age at which players become UFAs now, teams which assemble cores through the draft will inevitably lose a good portion of those cores before your supposed 10-year window is up.

    The Pittsburgh Model is impossible to replicate, even though Pittsburgh was somehow able to do it twice (Lemieux [1984] and Jagr [1990] plus Malkin [2004] and Crosby [2003]) because those types of players aren’t usually available in consecutive years. On any other team, Fleury would be a pretty good goalie, and Staal would play as a (usually outmatched) first-line centre. Burke hasn’t been a great general manager in Toronto, but his point about Pittsburgh is a good one; namely, it’s not a model that you can reasonably expect to replicate.

    • Who on this team is going to evolve into a veteran of the quality of Jason Spezza? Nick Foligno?

      Pittsburg got lucky with their Crosby-Malkin combo, but I’m still incredibly skeptical that Ottawa’s 15th pick or whatever from this year is as likely to contribute to the team being a genuine Cup contender as a top five pick. Anything can happen, I admit, I just think you have to play the odds.

      Not sure how Oilers and Islanders are uglier rebuilds than others – all rebuilds are ugly until they’re not anymore. At one point Pittsburg was a laughing stock, as was St. Louis, Washington, and others. Nothing’s guaranteed (Washington) but it’s a likelihood thing. I just don’t think Ottawa is setting themselves up to have the best chance.

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