Sunday, January 15, 2012

Toronto and Edmonton: A Tale of Two Rebuilds

stuart percy leafs brian burke
Burke explaining that the Leafs do, in fact, occasionally draft in the first round.
When Brian Burke traded two first- and one second-round pick for Phil Kessel, the prevailing thought was that Burke was foolish; you don't rebuild a team by trading away your high draft picks.

Burke boldly declared he was too impatient for a traditional rebuild and that under his watch the Leafs would undergo a radical on-the-fly rebuild. The Leafs weren't going to tank year in, year out, slowly building a team with the best young prospects available each June.

People were outwardly skeptical or the brash GM.

The Leafs began their rebuild shortly before Burke was named GM in 2008, as Cliff Fletcher took over for the deposed John Ferguson Jr. Fletcher acquired a few mid to late draft picks at the deadline and then traded up in the draft to take Luke Schenn, before fleecing the Canadiens for Mikhail Grabovski.

But aside from those two players, plus Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov, Burke was left with a roster deprived of nearly all talent, and saddled with seemingly unmovable contracts like Jason Blake's, which still had the next three seasons and $12 million on it.

At the same time, the Edmonton Oilers were about to embark on their own rebuild after finishing the 2008-09 season in 11th place in the Western Conference.

Over the next three years the two teams took different strategies to bring respectability back to their once proud franchises. The Oilers ended up adopting the more traditional tank hard and draft high method, while the Leafs managed to hold onto only one of their own first round picks.

Critics of Brian Burke and the Leafs pointed to Edmonton, proclaiming that the Oilers, on account of their proper rebuild, would become a better team sooner than the Leafs. Eventually, the armchair GMs said, the Leafs too would have to follow Edmonton as Burke's method was doomed to failure.

Well, three years have passed, and it is Toronto who has taken the first major step forward, sitting 7th in the Eastern Conference. In comparison, the Oilers once again sit in their customary lottery position, and can only console themselves by fact that drafting high will pay off eventually... or so they hope.

When everyone criticised Brian Burke for his unconventional rebuild, they pointed to Chicago and Pittsburgh as the reasons why patiently drafting would pay off. Both the Blackhawks and Penguins won Stanley Cups after rebuilding through the draft.

From 2002 to 2006, the Penguins had five straight seasons with a lottery pick, selecting Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal. Their first round picks in the two seasons before were Brooks Orpik and Colby Armstrong. That's a pretty enviable core.

But the Penguins also lucked out on two generational talents in back-to-back seasons. Sometimes the league goes a whole decade without a player like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins got two in successive years.

Pittsburgh's draft record looks great now, but apart from Crosby and Malkin, the rest of the Pittsburgh draft picks aren't too special. Fleury has been an average to slightly above average goalie in his career; Whitney was traded for Chris Kunitz, himself a second line player at best; Jordan Staal is one of the game's premier two-way centres, but isn't a game-breaking talent; and Brooks Orpik is a good shut-down defenceman, but no real threat offensively.

These players are all good, but look much better with Crosby and Malkin as the team's primary stars. And, again, these players aren't available in every draft. What if the Penguins had the second and third picks in both those seasons, taking Bobby Ryan and Cam Barker instead. All of a sudden the dynastic Penguins aren't as powerful as you would expect from so many seasons of lottery picks. Instead, some of those hits, like Staal or Whitney, turn out looking like disappointments.

The Blackhawks, in comparison, drafted six times in the top-10 from 2000 to 2007, yet only yielded two players from those spots that helped form the core of their Stanley Cup winning team - Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Brent Seabrook was drafted 14th overall and both Duncan Keith and Dave Bolland were second-round picks. Niklas Hjalmarsson was a fourth-round pick, Troy Brouwer was a 7th round pick, Dustin Byfuglien was an 8th, and Antti Niemi was an undrafted free agent.

The Blackhawks were a success because of their quality drafting, but not because of their high-picks. The Chicago scouts found great players deep in the draft, which made sure that whiffs in the top-10 like Cam Braker and Jack Skille didn't derail the team's progress. (Jonathan Willis wrote a post comparing the Oilers to the Blackhawks, which served as a bit of an inspiration for this article, check it out here).

The Blackhawks and the Penguins eventually won Stanley Cups, rewarding their fans for all the years of patience. But not all rebuilds end up like Chicago and Pittsburgh. Many end up like the Blue Jackets, Panthers, Thrashers, and Islanders.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Willis for tweeting some of these facts about draft picks).

The Islanders have drafted in the top-10 five times in the past six seasons and in three of those seasons they owned a top-5 pick. They haven't made the playoffs in the last four seasons, don't look like they will make it this season, and once again look like a lock for a lottery pick. They haven't improved at all during the rebuild, not even marginally. They are accumulating talent, but at some point that talent has to translate into something other than promise for the future.

The Thrashers picked in the top-10 for their first six seasons in the league, and four of those picks were top-2 selections. They made the playoffs once, but didn't win a game. They quickly went back to their losing ways and embarked on a second round of rebuilding, although without help from a single first-round pick from the team's first seven years of drafting.

Another prime example of a rebuild gone wrong are the Florida Panthers who are surprisingly relevant again for the first time since 2000. Since their last taste of the post-season, the Panthers have gone through two separate rebuilds, one focused around drafting Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, and Jay Bouwmeester with lottery picks, and another more recent one which isn't the reason for their recent revival.

The Panthers have drafted in the top-10 eight times in the past 11 years, and failed pretty miserably. Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz were busts; they traded Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester, neither of whom lived up to their draft spot; and the Panthers only started getting a meaningful contribution from Stephen Weiss once they were on their second crack at a rebuild.

While it is too soon to say anything about the second-wave of the Panthers rebuild (Jonathan Huberdeau and Erik Gudbranson being the headline draft picks), the Panthers new relevance is based on free agent signings and trades. Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, and Jose Theodore, all outside help, have led the Cats to a lead in the Southeast Division.

But the Blue Jackets are the most striking example of the fact that the draft is a crapshoot, even at the very top, and that drafting high does not necessarily mean your team will become good. The Blue Jackets have picked in the top-10 in 10 out of their 12 seasons of existence. They owned another top-10 pick last season, but traded it to Philadelphia, along with another former top-10 pick, Jakub Voracek, for Jeff Carter.

Like the Thrashers, the Blue Jackets made the playoffs once, but didn't win a game. They have been utterly pathetic this season and look like they are no better than they ever have been.

The Blue Jackets are bad because they have drafted terribly. No team has whiffed more at the draft than the Blue Jackets. So far, their only first round pick that has actually worked is Rick Nash. Two of their lottery picks, Nikita Filatov and Nikolai Zherdev, aren't even playing in the NHL anymore.

Teams simply need more than just high draft picks to change their fortunes. Even at the top of the draft, nothing is certain. Sometimes you get Sidney Crosby, other times you get Patrik Stefan.

The Oilers have drafted in the top-10 four out of the past five seasons and in that other season they took Jordan Eberle 22nd overall. But despite drafting so high, the Oilers are no better off than the Maple Leafs.

The Leafs have drafted twice in the top-10 over that same time period. But despite the disparity in the high picks, the Leafs are further ahead of the Oilers in their rebuild, even though they started at the same time. Plus, the Leafs are younger, indicating that their progress isn't just based on bringing in short-term help in the form of expensive veterans.

The Leafs boast a quality stable of prospects as well, rated 11th in the league by Hockey Prospectus and 8th by Hockey's Future. The Oilers are ranked 16th and 4th, respectively.

One reason for the difference between the two teams is Toronto's ability to acquire talent outside of the draft, something the Oilers just haven't been able to accomplish in the least. The Leafs have used their resources to sign college and European free agents, including Jonas Gustavsson (who has somehow grabbed the number 1 job in Toronto) and Tyler Bozak. Even Toronto's free agent signings have worked out better than Edmonton's. Mike Komisarek is a lemon, but Clarke MacArthur was found money, and Francois Beauchemin yielded Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner.

And that is what has really separates the two teams: Burke has also shown an amazing ability to build his team through trades. Without relinquishing anyone with a long-term future in Toronto, Burke has brought in Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Jake Gardiner, Keith Aulie, and Cody Franson, all of whom should form a strong core going forward.

Even when a trade has been panned, as was the Phil Kessel deal, Burke has still managed to improve the team.

Without getting into too much detail on the Kessel trade - because I've seen dead horses that haven't been beaten as badly - the Leafs still got a tremendously talented player out of the deal, which people overlook when they project Hall of Fame careers for Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. Kessel is battling for the scoring title this season, so while Seguin and Hamilton may go on to long, successful careers, the Leafs still got a franchise player in return. The big question will be whether they dealt one franchise player to get him, or two.

As the Leafs rebuild on the fly finally takes shape in Toronto, the Edmonton Oilers and their fans are left wondering when their own rebuild will follow suit. Building through the draft can produce wonderfully exciting and talented players, but as time starts ticking away potential isn't enough to satisfy fans. Eventually, potential needs to turn into wins, otherwise a rebuild becomes perpetual, and at that point you aren't rebuilding, you're stagnating.


Susan said...

So.... what you are saying is that 30+ years of trying to win by trading away prospects and draft picks has worked well for TO in their bid for a Cup? Good luck with that. Leafs need to draft a lot better and develop a lot better, after all they've been as good as Columbus until this year (starting from 2009).

Anonymous said...

its jack skille not jake u plug

alex c said...

i think your article really puts things into perspective for folks claiming all the leafs need to do is get some lottery picks in the draft. you didn't really touch on the islanders, but to me, john tavares was supposed to be the second coming of jesus, but i don't think he's filled those bladed-sandals!

Matt Horner said...

Susan, I'm arguing that tanking for high draft picks isn't a cure all. Obviously, teams need to draft well to be successful, but as some of the teams I've cited show, simply having a ton of top picks doesn't guarantee you anything.

Anonymous, I've corrected that oversight. Jack Skille is such a forgettable draft pick I called him Jake.

Alex, I had a good laugh at your bladed sandals line! I think teams get into trouble if they are perpetually rebuilding and then the picks that did work eventually tire and want out (i.e. Bouwmeester and Luongo in Florida - although Lou wasn't a draft pick). Same thing might happen to Tavares.

Jake Mednick said...

Kessel is not yet a franchise player. A franchise player indicates long term elite status and the ability to vault your team into the next level.

Phil has been overly criticized and now is being overhyped. He still carries with a number of detrimental attributes alongside an apparent lack of leadership.

Until he performs like this for 3+ seasons and helps the Leafs to some meaningful success, he is not a franchise player.

Secondly, the Leafs lack a number 1 centre, LW, D and G. I hope lupul and phaneuf have not fooled you. We are a long way from being truly competitive. Just because we have managed to become part of the 7th-10th place logjam more quickly than the oilers does not necessarily indicate we will sooner be seeing ourselves atop our division.

Still a great read though.

As an aside, Brian Burke seems to have no value for hockey sense.

Matt Horner said...

Jake, I admit I'm doing a bit of projecting with Kessel, as with Seguin, but this season he has certainly taken a leap forward and showing he could be a franchise player.

I'm a little floored that you don't see Dion as a #1 defenceman. He might not be top-10 in the league, but he's easily top-30, meaning he could be a #1 or top-pairing on any team. He faces some of the hardest competition in the league, has pretty good possession numbers, although they've taken a hit after he's played with Aulie who is out of his element. He's on pace for 50+ points, throws huge hits, and has rid a lot of the deficiencies that plagued his game in Calgary. Not sure what more you want? I feel like you might be too hard on him because he almost hit you with that door.

Lupul is playing over his head. He's not an 80-90 point guy, but he's quite strong with Kessel and I don't see why he can't be a 60-70 point threat heading forward.

I agree Leafs are a long way from being truly competitive, but they've made major strides and are on the right track.

Raymond8505 said...

@Susan, you know Burke has not been GM the whole time since 67, right?

Anonymous said...

This article popped up when I googled something about Ferguson Jr. and Fletcher.

Wow...does this stand out as the shockingly best example of another Toronto Leafs fan jumping the 'ol gun based on the first half of a season?

Have you conducted a re-visit to this topic, now, 6 or 7 months later? The current Leafs team vs. the current Oilers team, and their outlook for the future after being in rebuild mode for the past ~4+ years?

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