So how about those Tampa Bay Lightning? Despite being saddled with a bunch of pretty lousy contracts, Steve Yzerman cannily built a crew that managed to fight its way into the post-season. Coming in as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning got through the first round and then handed the Washington Capitals their ass, sweeping Alexander Ovechkin and company and moving on to the Eastern finals against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins weren't exactly a holy terror themselves before sneaking into the post-season, but the Montreal Canadiens got unlucky and the Philadelphia Flyers had no goaltending, so the Bruins are also in a prime position to go for the Stanley Cup in defiance of all pre-playoff predictions.
I don't just want to shine a light on the winners, either. Take the Chicago Blackhawks, eighth seeds in the west, who came within bad luck in overtime of knocking off the Presidents Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks (spits) after falling down 3-0 in their series. If the Blackhawks weren't the defending Stanley Cup champions, their fans might well consider that a series for the ages. As it was, an awful lot of games from that series are going to be on somebody's best-of Blu-Ray collection in ten years.
Do you see what I'm driving at? Of course you do; you can read a headline. The most important thing in the NHL regular season is not to finish first in the conference, or have seven forty-point scorers. It's to get in. Just get in. From there, who knows what'll happen: the top seed might go out, you might play a team with Brian Boucher in goal, Alexander Ovechkin might decide he really digs the World Championships. That's why they play the games.
It's time for the Edmonton Oilers to stop farting around with the draft lottery and trading assets for future assets. It's time to start looking at the great team we dream of in the future and start building a good team now. It's not just the best way to make for an entertaining hockey team, but it's the best path to a Stanley Cup.
I know it's attractive to think that you can draft a million great players by finishing in the basement for a decade, wind up with an excellent young core, and romp to a Stanley Cup that's as good as predetermined. Unfortunately, that's not how the playoffs work. No Stanley Cup finals has been between top two seeds in each conference since 2008, and two number one seeds haven't played for the Cup since 2001. If you're picking between the favourites and the field, always bet on the field. More importantly, if you can be part of the field five times or the favourite once, you damned well better be in that field.
Nor do teams just spring into playoff contention. Apart from last year's Blackhawks, Stanley Cup champions for the last twenty years have either been one-off flukes like the Carolina Hurricanes or teams that built gradually and lost a couple playoff series before they finally hit the big time. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins, who famously tanked their way to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury fit the pattern: after drafting Crosby, the Penguins tried to load up on veteran players and actually win games for once. It didn't work immediately, but it did lay the framework for a team that lost in the playoffs in 2006-07 and 2007-08 before winning the ultimate prize.
You see, even in the best case scenario where the Oilers draft a fistful of great players and they all become miraculously brilliant at around the same time even playing for a team that wins twenty games a year, it's probably going to take a few cracks for the Oilers to become real Stanley Cup contenders. Even the 1980s dynasty Oilers lost a few playoff series before they became the 1980s dynasty Oilers. And every year the Oilers spend rebuilding is a year towards Taylor Hall's unrestricted free agency. It's a year out of Ales Hemsky's prime. It's a year closer to Nikolai Khabibulin's contract expiring (I won't pretend it's all bad). When Jordan Eberle demands his payday, even as a restricted free agent, you'll have the choice between either having Eberle or having a quality third-line centre who can kill penalties and win faceoffs. When Linus Omark gets paid, that'll cost the Oilers not just cash but enough money for a veteran backup goaltender in case a defenseman piledrives an opposing player into our starter or something.
No team can succeed with an overly top-heavy lineup, as this year's Blackhawks discovered to their cost. Young players coming off entry-level contracts will demand big raises; you can either pay them and lose a bunch of depth players you otherwise could have afforded or trade them and lose the young star himself. Of course, many teams like the Detroit Red Wings succeed in spite of these limitations: they keep a few core players and damn the rest, surrounding them with some good role players who know their jobs and don't demand too much money as well as whatever reclamation projects or useful veterans will sign for pennies. That's why the Red Wings are constantly in contention. But, then the Red Wings haven't had a top-ten draft pick since 1991 and only one top-twenty pick in the last twenty years. Whatever model we're following, it ain't that one.
Bear in mind that all of these considerations are regardless of whether Steve Tambellini's wacky rebuild plan actually works. If, like me, you think that finishing last every year and doing nothing but occasionally signing the crappies of free agents is a good way to keep finishing last, you'll be even more skeptical. But I'm trying to give Tambicakes the benefit of the doubt, difficult though it is.
So what should the Edmonton Oilers do? Rather than rebuilding, let's just keep building. Go for a playoff run in 2011-12. Travel back in time and undo the Dustin Penner trade, swap some youths for some third-liners and guys who can provide depth. Sign journeyman free agents with history and ability at even strength, not tall guys with big fists and CANNONADING DRIVES. Send Nikolai Khabibulin to Oklahoma City then ban him from the arena. Go for that eighth spot in the west. There's always a chance you'll make some noise and even if you don't, that's a bit of experience and confidence which will help you add to the team and try again in 2012-13.
But whatever you do, don't sit back in the basement planting seeds and hoping one of them is a magic beanstalk. That's worked maybe twice in the last three decades. Do you really like those odds?