GDT: A Tale of Two (Rebuilding) Teams

"This is going to be harder than I thought. I'm sure people will understand, right? RIGHT?"

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

— Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

How aptly the great literary work of Dickens describes the experience of the rebuilding process. On one hand, there is hope for a brighter future; on the other, the reality of a present mired in frustration and despair. Such is the state of both the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, who will face off tonight in the Battle Of The Perpetual Rebuilding Effort.

We all know the Maple Leafs‘ story, how in two years’ time GM Brian Burke turned over the entire roster (save Kaberle) via free agency and trade, instilling new leadership on the blueline, trading futures for a budding star and assembling the league’s youngest team in the process.  Building from the net out, Burke has crafted a team with enough talent to stay in most games — but to date, lacking the scoring depth to put the opposition away at crucial moments.

The Oilers, on the other hand, have elected to rebuild primarily through the draft, nabbing the likes of Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and Taylor Hall in the first round in each of the past four years. Although the team’s depth chart boasts an impressive hoard of young talent, the Oilers remain four years removed from their Stanley Cup Finals appearance and have yet to return to the post-season.

Naturally, with both teams meeting tonight, the eternal debate over which is the best method to rebuild a team is once again at the forefront of discussion. While most would point to recent champions Chicago and Pittsburgh as the way it should be done (finishing low and drafting high), those are but two of the five Stanley Cup winners since the salary cap came into effect.

2009-10: Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks, who parlayed losing seasons into Jonathan Toews (3rd overall, 2006) and Patrick Kane (1st overall, 2007), developed a strong support group around their two budding stars primarily through the draft (Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, David Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglian). That group was supplemented by free agent signings (Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell, Antii Niemi, Cristobal Huet) and buy-low trades (Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp) which pushed the limits of the salary cap. Following the Cup victory, a large portion of the team was disbanded to ensure its young stars could be signed long-term.

2008-09: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins endured several basement-dwellings seasons in the early years of the decade, ultimately emerging with the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury (1st overall, 2003), Evgeni Malkin (1st overall, 2004) and Jordan Staal (2nd overall, 2006) … and were, of course, the beneficiaries of a post-lockout lottery draw in 2005 in which Sidney Crosby was the grand prize. Often cited as the primary example of the proper way to rebuild a team in a salary-capped league, the Penguins nevertheless had the good fortune that the years they finished last were years where premium talent was available in the draft. To their credit, despite a number of disastrous campaigns the Penguins resolutely adhered to their philosophy of allowing their young stars to grow together under the spotlight’s glare.

2007-08: Detroit Red Wings
If there is one team which disproves the notion that enduring multiple losing seasons is the only method to eventually winning it all, it is the Red Wings. Strong scouting – especially in the European leagues – has kept the league’s model franchise a perennial contender year after year, regardless of their draft position. When the Wings hoisted the Cup, Nik Kronwall and Dan Cleary – both support players – were the only first-rounds pick in the lineup. The stars of that team were players the Wings drafted low and with a focus toward development: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Val Fillipula and Johan Franzen… not to mention stalwarts Nik Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom … were all picked in the 3rd round or later.

2006-07: Anaheim Ducks
In 2005, Brian Burke took the managerial helm of a Ducks’ team which had two years’ prior drafted Ryan Getzlaf (19th overall, 2003) and Corey Perry (28th overall, 2003) in the later stages of the 1st round — a draft which followed a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, no less.  With an established goaltender (J-S Giguere) already in place, Burke set about re-vamping his squad by acquiring a trio of future Hall Of Famers via free agency (Scott Neidermayer, Teemu Selanne) and trade (Chris Pronger), as well as key role players Francois Beauchemin, Todd Marchant and Travis Moen. Buffered by the strong veteran support, Getzlaf and Perry — along with the previously-unheralded Chris Kunitz and Dustin Penner — led the Ducks to the first ever Stanley Cup championship in the state of California.

2005-06: Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes entered the first post-lockout season with a roster of established veterans: Rod Brind’Amour and Erik Cole had been there for some time, and new additions Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman were brought in to help the team return to the playoffs. As the team appeared poised to make a run, more veteran experience (Doug Weight, Mark Recchi) would be added to the fold.  The ‘Canes were by no means a young team; however, it was the youth who led the way as Eric Staal (2nd overall, 2003) enjoyed a breakout campaign while another youngster by the name of Cam Ward (25th overall, 2002) stole the show in the playoffs en route to the Cup championship.

Emerging from the past five Stanley Cup champions in the post-lockout NHL are two distinct models of building a winner. Chicago and Pittsburgh drafted high and gave their draftees prominent roles from the start, allowing them to grow together in a trial by fire, adding the missing pieces along the way. Detroit, Anaheim and Carolina chose to insulate their young stars (who, with the exception of Carolina’s Staal, were all drafted outside the top 15) with a host of veteran support from the get-go.

Tonight, we will see two teams on opposite sides of the rebuilding methodology spectrum.  Where the Oilers adhere to the draft high and play the kids philosophy that worked so well for Chicago and Pittsburgh, the Leafs have taken an approach more similar to that of Anaheim and Carolina: insulating youthful cornerstones with veteran presence.

Both methods have proven successful in the post-lockout era; however, patience — be it in terms of the process of player development and/or the process of player acquisition — is the key to the success of each. For as the past five years have indicated, it is not the plan itself which leads to success; rather, it is the willingness to adhere to the plan without deviation, to stay the course through the inevitable and growing pains.

Two cities, two teams, both enduring the worst of times in the hopes that better days lie not too far ahead.  But if history is to serve as any sort of indicator, those days are not nearly as far off as either hopeful fanbase may be tempted to believe during the oft-despairing moments of the process.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

[email protected]