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.