Things can go wrong... very wrong.
The Oilers are suffering through another poor season. The team has had some bad luck with percentages, many of the young players are doing well, and yet the team is still in the playoff hunt... that all sounds encouraging... but... some of the underlying numbers are as ugly as ever. The team's percentage of Fenwick events with the score tied during five-on-five play is just 43.5%, which is actually their worst performance in that category in the last five years (44.4%), and a huge step back from last year's 48.3%. They've been able to mask some of this poor play with excellent results on special teams (top 10 in goal differential per sixty minutes on both the PP and the PK), but this still isn't a good team five-on-five.
Because this isn't a good team, they're more likely to add another top-ten draft pick this summer than they are to make the playoffs. It will be their sixth in the last seven seasons, a total that includes three first overall picks but does not include either Justin Schultz or Jordan Eberle. Basically, the Oilers have a pretty ludicrous amount of young talent. That talent gives many of us a sense that an eventual rise to the top third of the standings is inevitable. I mean, just look at all of that skill!
The thing is -- and I'm reminding myself at least as much as I'm telling anyone else -- that rise isn't inevitable. A few days ago I made an off-hand comment about the Florida Panthers in the summer of 2003 when I was summarizing the recently-completed Top 25 Under 25. I suggested that you'd be hearing the same kind of "the future is bright" optimism from the fans and management in that situation as you're hearing in Edmonton now. Since that optimism is coming mostly from the guys we've got ranked in the top ten, I thought it might be worthwhile to look at what Florida's Top 10 players under 25 might have looked like at that time and try to suss out what went wrong. Looking over the talent pool in Florida, I'll be using July 1, 2003 as the "you must be under 25 on" date:
#1 Roberto Luongo (24) - Among goaltenders with at least 20 starts, Luongo had finished 4th, 7th and 12th in even strength save percentage during his first three seasons in Florida. The Panthers had every right to expect that he'd be a franchise goaltender.
#2 Nathan Horton (18) - Horton was selected third overall in the 2003 entry draft, and was considered a franchise talent. He played center for Oshawa, and the Panthers could bring him along slowly, playing behind Olli Jokinen and Stephen Weiss until he was ready to take over as the team's top pivot.
#3 Jay Bouwmeester (19) - He was rushed to the NHL after the Panthers selected him third overall in 2002, and his first season was a major struggle. Bouwmeester played over twenty minutes per game, but he didn't score much and had by far the worst +/- on the club (-29, next closest was -18). Still, Bouwmeester was very highly regarded and the Panthers had every right to expect that he'd be a franchise defenseman.
#4 Olli Jokinen (24) - The big center had a tough time adjusting to the NHL, but had a break-out season in 2002-03, scoring 36 goals and 65 points, demolishing his previous highs (11 and 29). He shot 15% that year, so you might have expected some regression, but it wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that Jokinen would be (at least) a top six talent and someone who could move to the wing (he was terrible at faceoffs) over the long term.
#5 Stephen Weiss (20) - The fourth overall selection from 2001 has just finished his first NHL season. He struggled as a rookie with just six goals in 77 games, but his junior career (87 points in 60 games in his draft year) certainly suggested a player whose offense would come. The Panthers likely had Weiss slotted as their second-line center, and as someone who could push Horton for ice time.
#6 Kristian Huselius (24) - 2002-03 was his second consecutive 20-goal, 40-point season. He was fourth among forwards in ice time, and played on the top PP unit. His PP was likely going to decrease in coming seasons, but with 17 EV goals in 2002-03, Huselius was an established top-six option.
#7 Anthony Stewart (18) - The Panthers' second pick in 2003 (still in the first round) was very highly regarded (Red Line Report had him seventh among forwards in a very deep draft). Stewart scored 70 points in 68 games for Kingston in 2002-03, and was already tipping the scales at 6'2'' and 235 lbs. The Panthers likely had Stewart tagged for top-nine duty by 2005-06, possibly envisioning him eventually playing alongside Horton and Jokinen, giving them one of the biggest top lines in hockey.
#8 Lukas Krajicek (20) - Florida's second first-round pick in 2001 (they had a lot of first round picks, but they traded up at the draft to get this one) had just finished his junior career in 2002-03 with 53 points in 52 games for Peterborough of the OHL. That's not a stupendous total for a guy who was highly regarded only because of his offensive ability ("pretty with the puck, pretty worthless without it"), but Krajicek was still a highly regarded prospect at this time.
#9 Petr Taticek (19) - A top-ten pick from 2002, Taticek scored 1.05 points per game in his draft year, but only improved to 1.06 in 2002-03. Still, this was a player with size and grit who scored reasonably well and was drafted inside the top ten. Florida had every reason to believe he'd be playing in their top nine for years to come.
#10 Niklas Hagman (23) - Hagman was an established third line player by the summer of 2003 having completed two full seasons of NHL work. He was getting about 13 minutes per night, including a minute or so on the PK. He didn't score much (he had twenty-something points in both seasons), but he was likely going to be a useful piece when Florida was ready for prime time.
It's a lot of talent. The top five seen through the eyes of July 2003 is probably similar to Edmonton's top five now, at least in terms of overall talent. So what went wrong?
Development and injuries were factors. Stewart, Krajicek and Taticek all failed to develop into good NHL players, Nathan Horton didn't become one of the league's top centers, and Jay Bouwmeester hasn't ever been one of the league's top five defensemen. Anthony Stewart missed almost the entire 2005-06 season (his probable NHL ETA) because of wrist surgery, and never got back on track. These things were significant and are risks for Edmonton too. What else is there? Let's look at the team's recent history more closely.
The Panthers were quite obviously still in the "young and losing" phase for 2003-04, but that plan doesn't seem like it was acceptable to ownership as it cost Rick Dudley his job as the team's GM. Mike Keenan replaced him, but lost 2004-05 to the lockout. Still, Keenan knew that he needed a different mix to win, and went about signing veterans. During the summers of 2004 and 2005 they signed Chris Gratton (30), Jozef Stumpel (33), Jamie McLennan (33), Sean Hill (34), Martin Gelinas (35), Joe Nieuwendyk (38), and Gary Roberts (39). I don't know that Keenan picked all the right players, but this kind of influx does seem like the right idea, and the team improved! They went from 75 points in 2003-04 to 85 points in 2005-06 and from being outshot by 6.8 shots per game to being outshot by 1.6 shots per game. But they still missed the playoffs. And then something terrible happened.
Roberto Luongo was traded as an RFA (along with Lukas Krajicek) in one of the most lopsided deals I can remember in the summer of 2006. This was a colossal blunder. The Panthers had the fourth-best shot differential in the league for 2006-07 (+4.0 per game), but their goaltending was horrendous (their goaltenders combined for an .899 save percentage). This was a major setback for the organization. It didn't, however, cost Keenan his job since he had resigned before the start of that 2006-07 season.
Jacques Martin, the team's new GM, knew what the problem was and traded a basket of picks at the 2007 draft for Tomas Vokoun to repair it. Vokoun performed admirably during the 2007-08 season, but the team still didn't make it over the hump. The club's shot differential fell back to -2.5 per game and the young core that they had assembled continued their slow trickle out of Florida. Olli Jokinen couldn't come to terms on a contract before the 2008 trade deadline and was moved for younger talent. Jay Bouwmeester played the first six seasons of his career in Florida, but they couldn't convince him to re-sign and lost him for almost nothing in 2009. By the time Dale Tallon traded Nathan Horton for parts in 2010, the Panthers were re-rebuilding.
I'll need to take a closer look at what happened to the team in 2007-08 to see what cautionary tale might be found, but for now, I think it's enough to say that the Florida Panthers are a warning that, when you decide that it's time to win, flipping the switch isn't always easy. Things can still go wrong, and the less time you give yourself to sort things out, the easier it is to have core players waving goodbye out of a desire to go somewhere that they can win.