This past season I remember hearing Kevin Lowe quoted as saying that in hindsight the "re-build" should've commenced after the '06 Stanley Cup Final when ProngerBot wanted outski. Had Oilers management identified that this was the proper time to commence a "re-build", how might our roster look different today, to what extent would the Oilers be more competitive in 2011, and when would the "re-build" be over if not already?
Most will agree that four NHL teams were genuinely committed to a "re-build" immediately post-lockout. Those teams are The St. Louis Blues, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Washington Capitals. Case in point, those are the four teams who picked 1 through 4 in the 2006 entry draft. You'll notice that 3 of the 4 teams are considered top-tier in 2011 ... but how and when did their re-building process begin, and what were some of the defining moves that propelled or failed to propel them (STL) up the NHL standings?
The big event for the Oilers in spring / summer of 2006 was the Cinderella Stanley Cup run, and the aftermath of losing Game 7. At the time Oilers management felt they were a starting goalie and top-6 forward away from sustained competitiveness, despite their franchise player having already packed his bags. I can't blame them. People are quick to criticize Kevin Lowe for trading Pronger for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid, and two draft picks once of whom became Jordan Eberle. In all, it really wasn't a terrible or misguided move ... the Oil at least have Eberle. But had Lupul emerged into the 35-goal scorer that he might've, and had the core players followed optimally along the development curve and had we successfully pursued Tomas Vanek, and had Souray ... okay there are a lot of iffs but you need luck to build a winner. However, the puck might've rolled the other way.
So with the benefit of hindsight, what moves might the Oil have pursued differently if the magic 8-ball told KLowe "Not Bloody Likely" if he asked it whether the Oilers would come close to making the playoffs over the following 5 seasons?
First, they would've sought a return for Pronger that offered the most long-term value. I would argue that among the three options - 1) To ANA , 2) to FLA for Horton and JBouw, 3) to TOR for Alex Steen and Kaberle, that the ANA deal at least gave them the most return in terms of young players and prospects. Bouwmeester might've already left as a UFA or have an awful contract, Kaberle and Steen are not franchise players, and I won't buy argument that Horton is the second coming of Can Neely despite having a hell of a playoff. I therefore conclude that the Pronger trade WASN't the defining moment of the franchise-altering "re-build".
In any event, the following seasons would've demonstrated a commitment to player development, drafting high, and ultimately losing. The Oilers did their fair share of that in '06-'07, especially down the stretch after dealing Smytty, and earned them Sam Gagner #7 overall in the draft. And THIS is the CATALYST that should've altered the course toward full "re-build". People would've been fuming in the spring of '07, in the wake of trading Smyth, to know that it wasn't going anywhere, but you, me, and especially KLowe were in full denial. Culpable, all of us.
Instead, KLowe tried to patch up holes in the rickety boat, and this is why we're a solid 2-3 years behind the "re-build" schedule.
In comparison, the Blackhawks who drafted 3rd (Toews) in 2006 and 1st (Kane) in 2007 had begun their re-building processes well before then. Like the Oilers, the start of their re-build was quite accidental. The Hawks didn't draft higher than 14th in the '02 or '03 drafts, but managed to stockpile a stable of defensemen that included Keith, Seabrook, Anton Babchuk, James Wisniewski, and Dustin Byfuglien. In '04 when they committed to sucking they picked Cam Barker 3rd overall. Once the lockout was completed the Hawks attempted to abandon their re-build and signed Nik Khabibulin and Martin Lapointe to compliment their stable of young stars that included Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell and Kyle Calder. Yikes! It seems after they crapped the bed in '05-'06 that the Hawks realized that their crap stunk and committed to building around their awesome young defence and Mr. Toews, but the fact of the matter is that many of the core pieces had been in place before Dave Andreychuk hoisted Lord Stanley in 2004.
Everyone knows the Pittsburgh story. They were awful for an awful long time, drafting in the lottery 4 successive years. Pittsburgh was genuinely committed to losing. Even then they made some moves that diverted from a "tanking it" strategy, signing Ziggy Palffy and Sergei Gonchar only to finish 2nd to last in '05-'06. That "bad luck" earned them Jordan Staal, and the rest is history. Luck has truly shone on the Penguins.
The Washington Capitals' story is probably the one that most resembles the Oilers'. In January of 2004, The Caps dealt the face of their awful franchise, Jaromir Jagr, to the Rangers for Anson Carter. Good lord. To make matters worse, the Caps agreed to pay half of Jagr's remaining salary over the next 4 seasons. This makes the Pronger deal look like a fleecing of Mike Milbury proportions. Sure the Caps already boasted Alex Semin in their prospect pool, but the '04 draft brought them Ovechkin and Mike Green. Bonanza! The Caps got married to the idea of sucking, and picked up Nick Backstrom (4th overall), Simyon Varlamov, and Mike Neuvirth in '06 while stinking the joint out. They were almost as awful the following year and drafted Karl Alzner 5th overall in '07, while adding Braden Holtby later in the draft. For some reason good drafting became endemic in Washington even after they began to make the playoffs and they picked John Carlson 27th overall in '08.
Last we come to St. Louis. The Blues made a big fuss out of their plans to "re-build" after the lockout. They traded Pronger and Pavol Demitra in the summer of '05 when everyone's trade value was at rock bottom - and got back Patrick O'Sullivan and Eric Brewer as their return. Ouch. Luckily they flipped a soon-to-be UFA in Doug Weight to the Hurricanes at the deadline for Jesse Bowl o' Rice and a draft pick that turned into Patrik Berglund to go along with their selection of Erik Johnson in the '06 draft. You want to begin a re-build the right way? Re-build around defencemen. Check. Although selecting Toews would've been the book move as we have all learned.
This is where St. Louis went insane. They re-signed Doug Weight. Nice. They went out and signed Bill Guerin. After turning their backs on veterans the previous summer, one year of tanking was apparently enough for St. Loo as they must've felt that the cupboard was fully re-stocked. Not so much. The Blues traded Guerin, Tkachuk, and Dennis Wideman away before the deadline, getting back Brad Boyes and a pick that turned into David Perron in exchange. Now you might say that this was a decent return for a group of players that were already under contract or recently signed. But you would be wrong, dear reader.
They didn't make the playoffs rhat year, and the veteran presence obviously helpd to propel them upstream from the NHL's bottom. They picked Lars Eller 13th overall in '07. Then, having not learned their lesson from the previous summer, the Blues signed Paul Kariya to an $18M 3-year deal, and brough Tkachuk back to mentor the group of kids? Lucky for STL they were awful again in '07-'08 ... not awful enough to finish 29th or 30th and draft Doughty or Stamkos, but awful enough to land Alex Pietrangelo.
St. Louis goes into the '11-'12 season with a number of good NHL players in their stable, but with few if any All-star calibre players in the ranks. They may experience a full decade between playoff series wins once and if they eventually ascend to the top 25th percentile of the conference. The biggest problem with St. Louis' rebuild is their commitment to it. They kept fetching a return of players who could help them immediately or soon - Brewer, Boyes, Andy McDonald, Alex Steen. These trades kept them out of the cellar and offered them a sense of optimism that crested in their 6th place finish in the conference in '08, but has provided that false sense of hope that befell KLowe and Oiler fans in '06 through '09.
Lowe made bad decisions. No question. Horcoff's contract, Sheldon Souray, and the Lupul fiasco that all manifests today as Jim Vandermeer as a UFA were bad moves. The worst thing the Oilers did since '06 was sign Penner to an offer sheet. Had the Oilers not done that and had they acknowledged that the departure of Smytty signalled a true "re-build", we might've drafted high and drafted often in the juicy '08 draft.
But rejoice. I may be one of the few, but I have faith that Tambellini gets it. He has sold Katz on the correct idea that you need to commit to being bad in order to be really good, and that Kyle Calder, Tyler Arnason and Mark Bell, or whoever their equivalents are in Oiler silks (maybe Gagner, Omark, Penner - we'll see) are false prophets on the road to a championship. Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi, and maybe Nugent won't reach their vintage until '14-'15, and any premature organization building will only set us back from the big prize. Until then we'll ride out Horc and Khabbi's contract, find a way to build a tough and mobile defense like Vancouver's, decide on a dependable goalie, and figure out the bottom 6. The good news is we're already more than halfway through it ... but when it started is your own interperetation.