Welcome to part two of Comparing Rebuilds. This time we will look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and how their championship team was built.
The Pittsburgh Penguins made the playoffs in the 2000-01 season, and reached the Conference Final where they lost to the New Jersey Devils in five games. However, financial trouble saw the Penguins trade away much of their core and the team dropped in the standings like a stone. The team only spent 5 years out of the playoffs (if you include the lockout) between their Conference Final appearance and their return to the post season in 2006-07.
To put that in perspective, if the Oilers were to make the playoffs next year then the timeline of the two clubs would be about the same. Though there is a fear of creating a culture of losing in Edmonton, the Penguins weren't at the bottom for much less time than Edmonton will be. The turnaround took place because the time the Penguins spent outside the playoffs was not wasted in the middle of the NHL Draft. When the Penguins were down in the standings, they were way down.
Here is a comparison of Edmonton and Pittsburgh's draft positions, starting with the year after each last made the playoffs (first pick only):
Pittsburgh: 5th Overall (Ryan Whitney), 1st Overall (M-A Fleury), 2nd Overall (Evgeni Malkin), 1st Overall (Crosby), 2nd Overall (Jordan Staal)
Edmonton: 6th Overall (Sam Gagner), 22nd Overall (Jordan Eberle), 10th Overall (Magnus Paajarvi), 1st Overall (Taylor Hall), 1st Overall (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins)
The Penguins took three centers in those 5 drafts, and all of them were key to the Cup victory. However, Ryan Whitney was ultimately traded for help on the wing. That means that these drafts resulted in four forwards and a goalie for Pittsburgh.
The Oilers took two centers and three wingers. Both teams weighted the value heavily on forwards at the top of the draft. The Oilers are obviously without a Sidney Crosby, but that would be asking for a lot. Four of the players that Pittsburgh drafted in that span helped them to win their third Stanley Cup, and Whitney was traded at the deadline for Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi. Kunitz didn't exactly light up the playoffs that year, but he did contribute 14 points on the way to the Cup win.
Both teams had two first overall picks in a five year span, and in a re-draft one has to think that Jordan Eberle would have at least cracked the top ten in 2008. The caliber of talent that Edmonton has collected in their time out of the playoffs is perhaps less impressive than that of Pittsburgh, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a solid core of players.
Five of the players were free agent signings: Fedotenko, Satan, Cooke, Eaton and Gonchar. All of them were depth players except for Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar signed a deal with the Penguins in August of 2005 - after Crosby, Malkin and Fleury were all drafted. The Oilers' search for a number one defenseman might also be solved in this manner, now that the core forwards have been set into place.
4 of Pittsburgh's players were acquired via trade: Dupuis, Kunitz, Guerin and Gill.
The Oilers are still very much in an evaluation phase in their development, so it's very difficult to project which free agent and trade moves will work out and which ones will not. On the draft side, however, things are a little less hazy.
Sam Gagner has a better points per game average at this point than Jordan Staal, but Staal is a more complete player and is also playing behind two of the best centermen in the NHL. Still, Gagner's development is not complete. He could end up being better than Staal, but still nowhere near Crosby or Malkin.
If Ryan Nugent-Hopkins pans out as planned, he still won't be Sidney Crosby. For him to reach a similar level to Malkin is perhaps the best that the Oilers can hope for. 418 points in 352 games is nothing to sneeze at, after all. Even if RNH doesn't quite reach those heights, he will still be a very successful pick at a point per game clip.
The center position is key for this comparison because the Oilers will probably blow Pittsburgh's depth on the wing out of the water in a year or two. It's hard to argue with a model that has recently been used to win the Stanley Cup, but the Penguins have constantly been trying to add wingers that can play with their highly skilled centermen. To that end, they have traded away some of their depth on defense in Whitney and Goligoski.
While the Oilers don't boast the same formidable power at center, they have used their top picks in a more balanced manner. In fact, the team may have drafted an entire top line in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle; as well as an entire second line in Paajarvi, Gagner and Hemsky. This approach could pay dividends later on.
Some say that the Penguins were successful because they drafted centers, and while that is true, it's also true that they drafted the best player available. Before Crosby was drafted, the Penguins selected Fleury first overall in 2002, even though center Eric Staal was available and went second. The team felt that Fleury was their man, and they were rewarded. Malkin was the next-best option after Ovechkin went off the board, and he happened to be a center. Crosby was obviously the best player out there in 2005. In Staal's draft year, 4 of the 5 picks after number one were centers, and Pittsburgh simply picked the one they liked best. In each case an argument could have been made for drafting by position - especially once the Penguins had so much depth up the middle - but they continued to take the best player regardless of position or organizational need.
The Oilers also took the best player on the board in a given year. They took Magnus Paajarvi even though they had taken 3 forwards in the first round of the previous 2 drafts. And even with all those picks up front, they took Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to round out their forward ranks with the best options that could be had. It may end up that identifying and taking the best players is more sound than taking the best center.
The last thing to note is one that was touched on earlier: the culture of losing. Pittsburgh's kids weren't ruined by the supposed culture of losing in their stretch out of the playoffs. They finished 26th, 29th, 30th, 29th, with one season in between that wasn't played. That's no less dismal than what the Oilers have gone through and yet the Penguins are a force in the NHL. If anything, the adversity probably helped those players rally and develop into a team. Worrying about a culture of losing is folly, because the same thing is likely to happen to these Oilers players.
How far they take it remains to be seen.