The Rebuild Needs Better Blueprints

When Garth Snow announced the rebuild before the 2008 season, somehow his terrible draft of 2007 was expunged from his resume, and he was FINALLY able to build a team with first round picks that would be a representation of his vision. Nitpickers like us will argue that Snow actually got a 2007 lottery pick, and if Thomas Hickey was the guy he would have taken in the first round of 2007, it would have actually been an even bigger bust of a draft. Sorry, Shane Sims.

Can you believe that after six drafts that this team is even further from playoff contention than before the rebuild? If you took John Tavares off of this roster, how is this team any different than an expansion team?

Where did I leave that waiver wire?

Look at the roster. Past their prime veterans, AHL retreads, young kids with no resume and no coaching trying to figure the league out, and the one free agent splash looking more and more like Roger Dorn from “Major League.” All they’d need would be two Japanese guys to drive the zamboni and we’d be set.

 

So the next question is “If drafting is the key to rebuild, then why has the Snow rebuild paled in comparison to other rebuilds?”

Because drafting alone does not make a team win. It’s a crapshoot. It’s why a Henrik Zetterberg can be drafted in a seventh round after 30 teams missed on him six times while a Phillipe Paradis can be the only player drafted in the first round of 2009 that has never played in the NHL…in other words, one game less than first round Islander pick Calvin de Haan.

Aside from drafting, two things are MUSTS. Trades and free agency.

Trades let you move what may be in the future for what you need now. Trades involving draft picks and prospects for players are basically moving potential for reality. An example of this is the Devils acquiring Andrei Loktinov from Los Angeles for a 5th round draft pick in 2013. The Devils obviously thought that Loktinov would be more useful for their team than whatever a 5th round pick would create, so they made a deal.

More complicated are trades moving players for players. Sometimes these are swaps of players with similar ability, while other times they are moves where a team moves an established productive player for a few less productive players that fill many holes in a lineup. An example of this is the Rick Nash “Get me the frak out of Columbus” trade involving the Rangers giving up Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixson, and a first round draft pick. This specific trade should infuriate Islander fans, as we are DYING to see Snow make a move to help out our hero, John Tavares. Yet Snow sits on his drafting record as if its accomplished. And it is. If you can’t produce a single second liner from 6 drafts, you’ve accomplished…nothing.

People like to point to the rebuilds in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Pittsburgh as the models that the Islanders should follow if they want to raise a cup banner to the rafters during JT91′s deserving career. This piece will explore the blueprints of these three rebuilders and the steps they took in getting there, and will culminate with what the Islanders should do if they are actually looking to replicate such success.

 

Introducing- the blueprint of the Los Angeles Kings

The Kings had some tough times in the last twenty years. They were losers of the 1992-1993 Stanley Cup to Montreal, then missed the playoffs in 5 of the next 6 seasons largely due to their owner being a real life criminal whose mismanagement forced a fire sale of good players from the team, Wayne Gretzky included. When they got back to playoff caliber, they were facing either the Red Wings or the Avalanche in those teams cup runs. The Kings entered another rebuild in 2002-2003. Their next playoff appearance was in 2009-2010. 7 years between playoffs, including a lockout. What were the Kings doing in those seven years?

They drafted Dustin Brown in 2003. 2005 saw the drafting of Anze Kopiatar and Jonathan Quick. 2006 brought the Kings Jonathan Bernier via the draft. 2008 saw Drew Doughty arrive to their shores as their #1 defenseman, and Slava Voynov to shore up the blueline. Los Angeles didn’t make a lot of big, flashy free agent signings in this process, as their biggest free agency acquisitions on their championship team were Rob Scuderi (2009) and Willie Mitchell (2010). Los Angeles used free agency to target players who filled roles that were not shored up or could be improved- Rob Scuderi is definitely a better player than Joe Corvo, and he doesn’t go around punching the ladies, either.

So L.A. drafted well, and cherry picked free agents. But what got them over the top to get that cup?

Trades!

In 2006, L.A. traded for Carolina’s Jack Johnson, eventually signing him to a 7 year deal. LA traded for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene in 2008 DURING their rebuild, as the drafting of Doughty allowed the Kings to give up their 2000 draft pick, Lubomir Visnovsky. After making the playoffs in 2010, L.A. was sniffing to go deeper and brought in Dustin Penner. They also traded for Mike Richards, giving up on a young player and a blue chip prospect in Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.  And 13 months after Jack Johnson signed his 7 year deal, he was traded to Columbus for Jeff Carter.

But that’s not all. 2006 brought a new GM in, halfway through their rebuild. Dean Lombardi had an impressive resume in building a winner in San Jose, and continued to finally build a cup winner in L.A. Get that the guy he replaced got the boot after drafting players like Brown, Kopitar, and Quick.

The Kings replaced coaches- head and interim- six times between 2003-2011, and even fired their coach in season in the year that they won the cup. It seems that even when losing, the ownership demanded accountability.

Next blueprint- Chicago!

The Blackhawks are an interesting case, because they did SO MUCH LOSING for the decade before they won the cup. We’re going to look at the reasons why below, but take a look at this consistency: the Blackhawks made the playoffs in 1996-97, then missed for four years until their return in 01-02, and then missed the playoffs every year until 08-09, finally winning the cup in 09-10.

We’re going to look at the Blackhawks after the 01-02 return to the playoffs. Let’s look at how Chicago built their championship roster.

Tuomo Ruutu was drafted in 2001, and later traded for Andrew Ladd. Duncan Keith, Adam Burrish and James Wisniewski were all drafted in 2002. Wiz was later traded to Anaheim for depth players in 2009.

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Brent Seabrook and Dustin Byfuglien were drafted in 2003. Cam Barker and Dave Bolland were drafted in 2004. Niklas Hjamarlsson was their star from 2005 draft. Their “big two” happen in concurrent years: Jonathan Towes in 2006 and Patrick Kane in 2007.

And even though the Blackhawks did not make the playoffs in 05-06, they made a long term plan to continually add talent to improve their team. The Blackhawks made a trade with Philadelphia to grab

Patrick Sharp, and a trade with Ottawa to acquire Bryan “Smoke” Smolinski and Martin Havlat. After missing the playoffs again, they did the same thing the next year by trading for Kris Veersteg. And the year after acquiring Veersteg? Still no playoffs. It didn’t slow down their acquiring talent in order to win.

The Blackhawks, even under tight fisted Vic Wertz, were still players in the post lock out free agency market in the Dave Tallon era. Islander fans may remember Adrian Aucoin’s exodus to Chicago in 2005, but he came along with Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Lapointe. Islander fans may also recall that Chicago is where Brett Sopel ended up when he almost played himself out of the NHL in Uniondale. Brian Campbell took a discounted Chicago offer ($7.1 mil per) to join the team. By the way, when Islander fans talk about Snow’s alleged “bigger offers to free agents” baloney, understand that Snow has NEVER offered a player a $7.1 million contract to say no to. Offering 2% more than another team technically is a larger offer, but it’s not going to entice anyone to join the circus.

In net, Chicago signed Cristobal Huet to be their backstop for the 2008 season, and then added undrafted free agent Antii Neimi into the mix. There was one more free agent signing to bring Chicago to that cup- Marian Hossa, fresh off of Stanley Cup runs in Pittsburgh and Detroit came in as a free agent 2009. How did they pay for that? They let Martin Havlat walk in 2009 for NOTHING after a 77 point season in which he was named team MVP because he was too injury prone and wanted too much money. Havlat ended up signing in Minnesota for half of what Hossa got in Chicago. This would be akin to P.A. Parenteau signing for $4 million per in Colorado, so Snow goes out and adds a Zach Parise.

Yeah, right. Not in the Islander universe.

Now let us look at what happened behind the scenes to make this all happen.

Coaches were held accountable. When Tallon brought all of this talent together and they weren’t coming together, he fired coach Denis Savard. Four games into the season. Snow has had 2 coaches during his “rebuild.” The Blackhawks in that 1 for 11 run? 8 coaching changes, including their present coach who at the time of writing was had yet to lose a regulation game in 2013. Also, 6 general managers between 1990-2009.

That Tallon lost his gig is interesting. Tallon was demoted because he screwed up the qualifying offers of the team’s restricted free agents. The mistake added millions of dollars to the team’s salary cap hit, and eventually forced a fire sale of popular players after Chicago won a cup. The team ownership actually held Tallon accountable and demoted him, even after drafting Kane, Towes, etc. Imagine that- accountability!

Maybe the biggest change to the organization and its culture was the death of Stan Wirtz in 2007. Wirtzs’ son Rocky came in and instilled a new philosophy- you have to spend money to make money. In college, Wirtz was a communications major. Maybe Wang and Snow can use one of those instead of all of those pesky MBA’s?

Final blueprint- Pittsburgh

Much like the recent Edmonton drafts, the Penguins had the fortune of being misfortunate. The Penguins played in the conference finals in 2001, but had a lot going on behind the scenes. The team changed ownership in the late 90′s, and was facing bankruptcy in 2001. To fix this, the Penguins had a fire sale and began their rebuild by taking a goalie first overall in the 2003 entry draft, Marc-Andre Fleury. The 03-04 Penguins had the worst record in the league, earning them Evgeni Malkin. The lockout led to the Penguins winning the lockout lottery and using that first overall on Sidney Crosby. Despite Crosby’s excellent rookie year, the Penguins still stunk, and ended up with the #2 choice in the 2006 draft, taking Jordan Staal.

OK, those are the big names. What about the other guys? Colby Armstrong was a first round pick in 2001. Ryan Whitney was 2002′s first rounder. 2004 brought in Alex Goligoski and Tyler Kennedy. Kris Letang was the Pen’s third rounder in 2005.

Since the 2006-07 season, the Penguins have been in the playoffs, going to the cup finals in 07-08, and winning in 08-09.

For an Islander connection, the Pens drafted goalie Andy Chiodo in 2003, two years after the Islanders drafted him- another example of a player refusing to come play for this organization. They couldn’t lure in a 7th round goalie.

One notable Penguins draftee that didn’t even get a tryout with the parent club: Matt Moulson. And with their great centers, we’re sure they’d like a do over on Moulson.

What about trades?

Colby Armstrong was traded for Marian Hossa. Ryan Whitney was traded in 2009 for Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangredi. Gary Roberts made an appearance in 2007 in helping the Penguins to a 105 point season. As they were building towards or making playoffs, the Pens added Pascal DuPuis, Bill Guerin, Jocelyn Thibault, George Laraque, Hal Gill, and James Neal by trade. Granted some of those were after they were making the playoffs, but others were part of their rebuild.

Free agents?

Post lockout, John Leclair ended his career in Pittsburgh, as did Ziggy Palffy due to injury. Palffy was an elite free agent when he signed with the Penguins. So was Sergei Gonchar. We’re seeing that signing elite free agents helps a rebuild along greatly. Also, a Mark Recchi signing is always a good thing.

Coaching changes? The Penguins went through 4 head coaches in 8 years, even after Michel Therrien led them to a cup loss. That is a rebuild! Therrien was replaced by Dan Blysma. Man does that name sound familiar. Hmm….Islander assistant coaches under Steve Stirling in 05-06? Dan Blysma and Jack Capuano. Nice pick, Charles.

And after Craig Patrick did all of that wonderful drafting, Pittsburgh replaced their GM in 2006 with Ray Shero who promptly kept it up by drafting Jordan Staal and made trades to push his team over the hump.

So, what do these three blueprints have in common? And what should the Islanders learn from this?

Core players on all of these teams were acquired via draft. Staal, Crosby, Malkin, Towes, Kane, Seabrook, Kopitar, Doughty, Quick were all acquired via draft. It seems that teams need a trio of well above average players to make the next step in the rebuild. The Isles are sitting at JT91, arguably Moulson, and counting.

Aside from drafting, free agents are necessary. Pittsburgh got Gonchar in his prime. Brian Campbell was a beast for the Blackhawks cup run. Hossa was a machine. A lot of the L.A. Kings defense was imported via free agency. You need to use free agency to supplement a roster.

Most importantly, trades MUST be made. Los Angeles imported Stoll, Richards, and Carter. all these guys are proven 20+ goal scorers. Pittsburgh have brought in Kunitz, Hossa, and eventually Neal. All of those guys are proven NHL 20+ goal scorers. Chicago brought in Havlat, Sharp, and Smolinski, all with resumes of proven NHL scoring capability, and Veersteg who was fine in Bruins system.

And when you acquire players, you look for players in their PRIMES. Think 27, not 37.

In every rebuild explored above, there were multiple changes in the coaching staff, changes of general managers in the middle of rebuilding, and fortuitous changes in ownership.

Lastly, no team had a playoff drought lasting longer than 6 years technically, although due to the lockout it’s actually 7. All three won a cup within three years after reentering the payoffs.

So, if we owned the Islanders and learned from the above information, what would we do?

Fire Garth Snow. Snow has drafted one elite player over seven years, and was lucky enough to get another one via waiver wire. He is afraid to trade what he’s drafted. He overvalues what he touches yet is fearful that his picks are in the NHL it will expose how bad he is at his job. Even a team as awful as Columbus got this and brought in a team president with hockey experience and a previously successful front office executive as GM. So at the end of 2013, you fire Garth Snow and hire an experienced NHL GM from a winning organization. Neil Smith is still kicking around. Brian Burke may be interested in another shot in the East, and this time he’d even have a first round lottery pick to use.

Fire Jack Capuano. It’s overdue. Replace him with a coach that has NHL experience. Not Doug Weight or any other AHL call up. Paul Maurice still unemployed?

Add a big name free agent from the market. Snow tried this once with Mark Streit. Not the biggest name out there at the time, but a guy would could step in and help. It’s time for another such signing- Corey Perry would fit in nicely. You absolutely overpay for a guy who scored 50 goals, and not a Garth Snow $10 overpay, but a real world 15% overpay on his best offer. Someone offers Perry $7m per? You offer him $9 million. Make him say no. The grab a goalie- Mike Smith?- to play goal two years, $2 million per.

This CAN NOT be your big free agent pick up

Make a trade. Often times a team that’s bad has a good player, and will trade that good player for a combination of picks and roster players. So it’s time to acquire Evander Kane from Winnipeg. Andrew MacDonald, Kyle Okposo and a 2014 first round pick should get the job done, as Kane is not equal to Nash. Inquire what it would take to get Ryan Whitney out of Edmonton- it won’t be much. Offer Carkner plus picks, as Edmonton wants to get rid of his salary.

Bring in the “impact” kids. Out of every player we identified as core players on other teams, none played more than at most a year in the minors. Adding Griffin Reinhart and Matt Donovan to our defense should help shore it up. Adding Ryan Strome and Nino Niederreiter should round out the offense.

Need we explore lines?

Moulson – Tavares – Kane

Perry – Strome – Niederreiter

Ullstrom – Neilsen – Grabner

McDonald – Cizikas – Martin

And on defense:

Reinhart – Hamonic

Donovan – Whitney

Strait – Streit

Goal: Smith and Poulin/Nilsson

That would be year one, with a roster cap hit of roughly $53 million- similar to now, except in actual dollars and not phantom cap hits. And that would absolutely get you into the playoffs. The next year? More trades, more free agents, and increased accountability for all. Make draft picks push guys out of jobs. And push guys out of jobs that aren’t working hard enough. Brock Nelson and Scott Mayfield would be a good incentive for Frans Neilsen and Travis Hamonic to keep working hard. Brock Nelson and Scott Mayfield are also excellent trade bait to help bring in a top defensive NHL player in the 25 year old range. Subban?

People will give Snow a pass and say that he is under constraints from Wang to spend as little money as possible, and Snow does that- he doesn’t even spend to the cap floor in actual dollars. Those people say “Wait until Brooklyn, that’s when Wang will spend.” We disagree. The only time Wang spent any money – and not enough, mind you- was when he thought he could become more than just a tenant in a building. When the Islanders move to Brooklyn, Wang will still be just a tenant. Will there be increased revenue streams? Yup. But Wang has supposedly lost hundreds of millions in his time. Do you think he may want to recoup his losses first before spending on a team?

I can’t even pay my rent, and you want players?

So think about how the three model rebuilds were done and look at their results. How are the Islanders doing at this point? Are they adding by trade like L.A. and Chicago did? Are they adding by free agency like Chicago and a nearly bankrupt Penguins team did? Assuming that the Islanders pull the usual sell off later this month, they will be out of the playoffs for their 6th consecutive season. Every rebuild that was out this long was hoisting a cup three years later. Do you think we’re three years out from giving JT91 what he deserves? Especially if we make the playoffs this year?

We want to hear what you would do for a rebuild in the comments section.

This rebuild is not showing the fruits that a rebuild should be at this point. We see where this is going. Realize that as long as Garth Snow is the GM, whom Sports Illustrated just named as one of the top ten least powerful people in all of sports, all you are going to get is more of the same.

Special thanks to twitter handle @gogolism  for taking time out from her “document awareness” to share some hockey insight.

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Filed Under: Chicago BlackhawksEastern ConferenceLos Angeles KingsNew York IslandersNHLPittsburgh Penguins

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About the Author: We are two long time hockey fans who certainly have our own opinions and points of view. Feel free to share yours. Follow on twitter @joshbarely

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  1. LFBIV says:

    Throw Bogosian into that WPG deal and/or possibly explore Bieksa…give to get.

    • MattandDan says:

      Bogosian and Bieska would be nice pickups. Maybe Garth can trade an entire draft for either one. Wouldnt be the first time he made that offer

  2. jethro09 says:

    I agree that this rebuild stinks, but it primarily stinks because of ownership. The biggest problem with the Isles is Wang, not Snow, not Capuano. Wang allows an environment of no accountability to exist, where winning is secondary to everything else, most notably the priority of keeping the actual payroll as far below the salary floor as legally possible. Yes, Cappy should be fired. But the reason why AHL guys are recycled around here is because Wang won’t pay an NHL coach an NHL coaches salary and an NHL level coach doesn’t want a part of this aptmosphere.

    Yes, Snow’s drafts have not been great, but you discredit him a bit. Hamonic was a nice find. A top four, possibly a top pair d-man on a contender. Strome and/or Niño have top tier talent. They may pan out to be stars. Same for Reinhart. I wouldn’t have a problem with Snow being fired, but it’s not exactly fair to him that he has the budget of an ECHL team to work with. The trades and FA signings you talk about, he likely can’t make due to salary constructions placed upon him. No GM, Burke, Lombardi, Tallon, etc, cod build the rosters in Pitt, LA and Chi, with the financial constraints placed on Snow by Wang.

    Maybe things change in Bklyn, but until this owner either mandates that the team wins or sells to someone who demands winning, nothing will change, regardless of who the GM or coach are.

    • MattandDan says:

      We completely agree that this mess starts with Wang. However, what other organization that has chaanged GM’s in the last few years-and there have been many- called Wang and asked for permission to interview Snow? Zero. Said recently of Snow “he’s the master of the salary cap floor.” Although that was meant as a compliment, it isn’t. Its like a chick calling you the hottest ugly guy she knows. In the end, you still have no shot.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Matt says:

    This assessment is spot on, i just dont know how you change this debacle. In theory what you are saying is correct but i do not see anything changing.

    I used to discuss/argue/labor points of how things can get better. I am now like a battered husband trying to get out once a week for beer league hockey. (Sometimes its just not worth the hassle from the wife).

    • MattandDan says:

      And sometimes a wife isn’t worth the hassle!

      You assess it accurately- nothing is going to change. When Wang said on TV last season that “at least they’re not out there getting killed every night” it was such an insight to how he views winning and the team.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Scott says:

    –”Snow has drafted one elite player over seven years, and was lucky enough to get another one via waiver wire.”–

    Who is the waiver wire elite player? Tavares is the only elite player on this team. Moulson is a good offensive top liner but not elite (and he was a free agent). Grabner? Not even close.

    The core or potential core is the key. They NEED Strome and Nino to become part of that core within a year to save the “rebuild”. Right now it’s Tavares with Hamonic peeking in the window. I’m not holding my breath with Reinhart. Mayfield? People need to calm down big time with their expectations for him.

    • MattandDan says:

      Sorry about the mistake in how Moulson was acquired. I think I got him and Schremp mixed up.

      If you look at Moulson’s production, it puts him in the top 5 of scoring left wingers in the NHL. This year he is presently 22nd in the NHL in goals and assists, and 13th in points. 5th in power play goals, too. People always said that he got points from Tavares. He still does- they’re called assists, which he has improved on in each year. This season only 3 other left wings have more points- Kunitz, Neal, Vanek.

      The guy is a keeper. What they need now is a right wing.