The Edmonton Oilers, after years of languishing on the playoff bubble, have finally decided to embrace a full blown rebuild of this team. Over the lean years of the 90's, it was easy to see why management was under pressure to ice a competitive product. The team was near bankruptcy and only intervention by the Edmonton Investors Group saved the team and kept it in the province's capital. In that climate, it would have been almost impossible to conceive of going down the path that the Oilers are currently treading. However, it also ensured that the Oilers never really had a superstar on the team like they had during the glory days of the 80's when fans were spoiled rotten with talent, and it meant that they made very little noise in the west. It seems certain that Taylor Hall will be that superstar, and there is plenty of potential blossoming in the other rookies as well, from Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle to Jeff Petry, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk.
However, there are many hockey pundits out there who are quick to point out that rebuilding through the draft is no guarantee of success, or of a Stanley Cup. They point to several teams who have tried and failed to rebuild in this fashion, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Islanders, and Florida Panthers. On the surface of it, it would seem that these teams have tried the Oilers' style rebuild and all have nothing to show for it except losing records and no playoff hockey. That's the sort of news that makes Oiler fans nervous. What if the fans and the team go through all this painful losing just to end up as a perennial bottom-feeder?
I would argue that there were other factors that resulted in the failure of these rebuilds, and that the actual concept of rebuilding through the draft is not only sound, it's the only way to do it in the current NHL. There are no guarantees of anything no matter how you build your team. The trick is to find the way with the greatest probability of success. There are just as many examples of successful rebuilds as there are of failed ones. I would categorize a success as a team that is a perennial contender, regardless of whether or not they have won yet. Such teams include the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, and Los Angeles Kings.
Here is a list of the teams whose rebuilds have failed and why:
Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus, as with Atlanta, is a team that was not technically rebuilding, in the sense that it was a team that didn't exist until 2000. As such, the team didn't have any assets to sell off in order to gain draft picks or prospects, as a rebuilding team might. Starting from scratch is extremely difficult, and was certainly a factor in the development of the team. Yes, there was the expansion draft, where Columbus was allowed to select players not protected by other teams, but that's no way to build a competitive hockey club.
In the team's first ten years of drafting, they had exactly three picks inside the top five, and only one, Rick Nash (first overall), inside the top three. Their picks in the top five ended up being Rostislav Klesla, Nash, and Nikolai Zherdev, all of whom are NHL players with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, in Klesla's draft year, Columbus missed out on selecting Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik at 2 and 3 overall. In 2001 Columbus "improved" and finished 8th last, which meant that they were too late in the draft to select one of Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Stephen Weiss or Mikko Koivu. In 2002, Columbus got the right idea and finished last, which ended up netting them Rick Nash. Then the trend starts going the other way, with Columbus improving slightly, missing the playoffs and also missing out on some future superstars at the draft.
Why did this happen? This was a new team. Just like the Oilers of the 90's, there was pressure on management to make this team competitive so as to build interest among the fans. If the rebuild could have been done slowly, with a lot of sucking over the first five years or so, the team would have ended up with some superstars in the top 3 picks instead of some mediocre NHLers in the top ten.
The Atlanta Thrashers were in a similar situation, being new to the league in 1999. They were struck with some extreme misfortune however, which is uncommon, but sometimes unavoidable. They picked first overall in a weak 1999 draft, taking the disappointing Patrik Stefan. They followed that pick up with Dany Heatley in 2000 and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001, who would be a good core to any contending team. Then came the infamous Heatley car crash that seriously injured him and killed his teammate Dan Snyder. After the season, Heatley requested a trade that brought Marian Hossa to Atlanta. The Thrashers added some players in the hopes of making the playoffs, including Mike Dunham, Peter Bondra, Bobby Holik and Scott Mellanby, but failed to do so until 2006-07, when they won the division. All of these players helped in the short term, but were near the end of their careers. As such, the Thrashers didn't have a draft choice in the top five from 2003 to 2007, and very little to show from those years. When their free agents left or retired, there was no one to fill the void. It wasn't until they started to really build through the draft again in 2008 that they started to see some real stable fruits, including Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane, who will be key cogs for the new and improved Thrashers.
Florida Panthers: After going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Panthers began a slow and steady decline. From 1995-2000 they didn't have a first round pick inside the top five, and only one in the top ten. They used 4th, 3rd and 3rd overall picks from 2001-2003 to select Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton, who are all solid NHLers. However, if they had been a worse team they would have had a shot at Kovalchuk, Spezza, Nash, M-A Fleury and Eric Staal. What ifs are not the strongest part of my case, but the point is that being absolutely terrible and losing a lot can end up paying off. The Panthers didn't pick in the top five after that until 2010, when they selected Erik Gudbranson. However, Keaton Ellerby (10th in 2007), Jacob Markstrom (31st in 2008) and Dmitri Kulikov (14th in 2009) are all solid prospects that can still help this team going forward. To say that the Panthers' rebuild is a failure is fallacious thus far, since many of their drafted prospects have yet to make their mark on the NHL.
New York Islanders: The epitome of spinning one's wheels, right? But why? It's all because of one man: Mad Mike Milbury, aka The Worst GM in History. Milbury traded Zigmud Palffy because upper management didn't want to pay his contract. From 1993 to 2000, the Islanders drafted Tood Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, J.P. Dumont, Olli Jokinen, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer, Tim Connolly, and Raffi Torres, all of whom were later traded by Milbury for very little gain. Those are golden draft prospects as it is, and the makings of a championship team. To make matters worse, Milbury traded Luongo and Jokinen to Florida for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha, then selected Dipietro first overall in 2000 instead of Marian Gaborik or Dany Heatley. Then, with Ottawa eager to unload Alexei Yashin, Milbury traded Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and the second overall pick to acquire him. The pick turned into Jason Spezza. Yashin was later bought out of his contract. Clearly, if even a semi-competent general manager had been at the helm, this rebuild would have been enormously successful and a beacon for rebuilding teams. Instead, the Islanders are starting all over again because of the worst GM ever.
As I said before, rebuilds are not a sure thing but there are plenty of modern examples of ones that do work, and the examples of rebuilds that don't are either mismanaged or not done properly, in the sense that the team is trying to rebuild quickly, as in the case of Columbus, Florida and Atlanta. The Ottawa Senators are actually a fine example of a rebuild that never really panned out, but they still got a team that was fantastic for many years, which is a healthy way for a franchise to be. The Edmonton Oilers are on the right track, and they are going to be just fine.