a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Friday, 15 July 2011

07/16/11 53.0 Comparing Rebuilds: Chicago and Edmonton

Chicago wins it all

Welcome to the first installment in a new multi-part series called Comparing Rebuilds. In it, we'll delve into some of the franchises that have recently risen to prominence after being horrible for a long time. The belief is that because these teams were horrible they were able to build contenders through the draft, and the Edmonton Oilers are banking on that formula working out again. This series will examine just how true that idea is (or isn't), and measure similarities and differences between past teams and the future Oilers. First on the list is the Chicago Blackhawks.

Oilers fans think they've had it rough, but The Chicago Blackhawks only made the playoffs once in a ten season span from 1997-98 to 2007-08 (ten seasons because 2004-05 was cancelled due to lockout). They also won the Stanley Cup in 2009-10, but it was their first since 1961. That's a drought of 49 years - more than twice as long as Oilers fans have waited for Stanley to return. Because of the additions of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the belief is widely held that Chicago's championship team was built through the draft. While true, it wasn't necessarily built that way because of high draft picks.

Duncan Keith

Of the 20 players who appeared in at least ten playoff games during their Stanley Cup run in the spring of 2010, nine of them were drafted by Chicago. These included: Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Adam Burish.

The interesting thing about this group is that only three of them - Kane, Toews and Seabrook - were drafted in the first round. Furthermore, perhaps the most pivotal draft for the future Chicago championship team was the 2002 draft, which occurred in a year that the Blackhawks made the playoffs. That year the Hawks selected Keith in round two (54th overall), Matt Ellison in round four (whose importance will be explained), and Adam Burish in the ninth round (282 overall; third-last pick in the entire draft). Incidently, the Hawks also took James Wiesniewski in the fifth round in 2002, but he wasn't important to the championship team.

From 2003-2005 the Blackhawks drafted Byfuglien, Brouwer, Bolland and Hjalmarsson outside of the first round. In fact, none of them were taken earlier than Dave Bolland (32nd overall in 2004). A 29th finish that year gave the Hawks that pick, so it technically is a point for building through the draft. However, the others were taken in the 8th, 7th and 4th rounds respectively.

Brent Seabrook was the 14th overall pick by Chicago in a year that they finished 9th in the West (though the Oilers had a significant 13 point lead for 8th place). Only Toews and Kane were taken in the top five; when Chicago finished 28th in 2006 and 26th in 2007 (but won the draft lottery).

Two of Chicago's most important players were lottery picks, but only one other player drafted by the team was a first round pick. Cam Barker was a third overall pick, but he was traded before the Cup run.

Antti Niemi
 Seven of the key players on Chicago's roster in 2009-10 were acquired as free agents. These included some of the most important of all: Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell, John Madden, Tomas Kopecky, Brent Sopel, Jordan Hendry and goaltender Antti Niemi. That's one-third of the total roster of players that appeared in 10 or more playoff games, and only Hendry and Sopel signed before 2008. Big name players only signed after Kane and Toews were drafted and had shown that they could make an impact in the NHL.

Andrew Ladd

Four of Chicago's players were acquired via trade, including: Andrew Ladd (for Tuomo Ruutu who was Chicago's 9th overall pick in 2001), Kris Versteeg (for Brandon Bochenski who was acquired previously for Tyler Arnason, a Chicago pick in the 1998 draft), Patrick Sharp (for the aforementioned Matt Ellison, who was drafted the same year as Keith), and Ben Eager (for Jim Vandermeer, who was acquired for Alexei Zhamnov, who was acquired for Jeremy Roenick).

In a roundabout way, all of these players came through the draft. At some point down the line, a Chicago draft pick was traded for one of these four. One of the team's less impressive years in 2000-01 (22nd in the league) saw them acquire Ruutu in the draft, who turned into Ladd. Versteeg, Sharp and Eager, however, don't really fall into the rebuild mould. Each of them could have been acquired without having to be rebuilding.

 The Chicaco Blackhawks drafted an elite center and an elite winger in Kane and Toews with top-three picks at the draft. The Oilers look like they may have done the same with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall. Unfortunately for Oilers fans, the pair were drafted in reverse order to Kane and Toews. Toews had the opportunity to spend one more year in college, develop his skills and star in the World Junior Championships for Canada. Nugent-Hopkins may need the same treatment, but because he was drafted after Hall, the timeline is set slightly back.

Interestingly, Jeff Petry was a 45th overall pick by Edmonton in 2006 - the same year that they went to the Stanley Cup Final. Like Duncan Keith, Petry is a defenseman taken in the second round the year his NHL team made the playoffs. Like Keith, Petry went through the Michigan State University program. Keith debuted for Chicago four years after being drafted and for Petry it was five. However, Keith had played four full NHL seasons before the 2009-10 campaign in which the Blackhawks won the Cup. Petry has a mere 35 NHL games under his belt.

Brent Seabrook played 314 games in the NHL before the 2009-10 season, and he was a veteran of 392 games before the playoffs rolled around that year. Perhaps just as important was Chicago's playoff run the previous season, in which Keith and Seabrook both got 17 games of playoff experience. Since defensemen take the longest to develop, Chicago was fortunate. Not only did they draft two stars in Keith and Seabrook, but both also had plenty of time to become stars before Kane and Toews came in.

There is no current Oiler close to Seabrook or Keith after that number of games, and any candidates are far from that total experience.

Anton Lander
 Edmonton will need to make good on some of their later picks if they want to emulate what the Blackhawks did. It's much too early to tell at this point, but so far many of the Oilers' recent picks beyond the first round seem to be tracking quite well. Anton Lander is just one of a number of players that could eventually be part of a core group that challenges for the Stanley Cup. If not, these players should have value enough around the league to be tradeable for some established pieces. It will take quality pro scouting to make these deals work out in Edmonton's favor.

Chicago was as much of a black hole for free agents at one time as Edmonton has been the past few years. This off season we are starting to see the first signs that free agents are seriously considering the Oilers again. The free agency front isn't really a concern any longer, given that after next season Edmonton will be an attractive destination again; especially if Nugent-Hopkins makes the team. The timing is perfect, because the Oilers will be looking to build their blueline through free agency and find established players that way. Plenty of solid defensemen are coming into the open market next year.

It will also take good pro scouting to find some undrafted free agents that can play parts in the organization. The Oilers have made great strides in that area at the college level with House, Fedun, Arcobello and Tremblay coming into the fold as free agent signings that no one took a chance on in the draft.


Edmonton has some similarities to Chicago. Most notably, their number one centers and wingers were lottery picks (at least that's what the Oilers hope for from RNH).

The differences are in how the defense will be built. The Oilers probably don't have a Keith or Seabrook in the system and even if one exists they will still be a few years away. Therefore, if Edmonton wants to compete sooner rather than later, it will take building a defense through free agency or trade. By contrast, Chicago's blueline was built through free agency and the draft. Neither approach is wrong, but building a defense through the draft takes a long, long time.

Most fans see that big names like Kane and Toews were drafted, the Stanley Cup is won, and then assume that it all happened in a relatively timely fashion. In reality, the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup victory started at the 2001 draft with Ruutu (who became Ladd) and also the draft in 2002 where they got Keith, Ellison (who became Sharp), and Burish.

Time will tell how good Edmonton's pro scouts are, but Chicago got full value out of theirs. Niemi, Sharp, Versteeg, Ladd, Eager and Hendry were all added to the Blackhawks before other teams were aware of what they truly had and/or were passing up.

The key to a Stanley Cup Championship seems to be that the organization is strong at every level. The draft, the pro scouts, the management to acquire and develop players must all be top notch to have success. The Oilers are moving in the right direction. Here's hoping that they take the next step.

Next up: The Pittsburgh Penguins

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