A tale of two rebuilds: Analysis by comparison, Panthers & Oilers

Florida and Edmonton have been stuck together in the draft lottery for years, how have the Cats escaped and the Oil stayed put?

The 2015 NHL draft lottery ignited quite the brush fire in the hockey world. Articles, comments, blogs, and twitter all have been bustling with the same rhetoric, all of it regarding the deservedness, or lack thereof, of the Edmonton Oilers winning the 2015 NHL draft lottery. Did the Oilers deserve yet another first overall pick? Would they waste a generational talent with that pick? Have they ruined prior first round picks? All of these questions and more have run roughshod recently.

For me, this raised a different question, and that was- since Dale Tallon arrived in Florida, how is it that the Panthers have been moving in one direction, and the Oilers in another? The two teams have had recent lengthy periods of dismal performance; they have both had similar numbers of draft picks, first round draft picks, and appearances near the top of the draft lottery. Of course, the one glaring difference is that the Oilers will (after this year's draft) have a 4 to 1 ratio of top overall picks compared to the Panthers. In effect, Edmonton has been given the gift of top draft picks three more times than the Panthers, and yet they remain in the basement of the league. Is there something we can learn about our team from this "Tale of Two Cities?"

Let's start with a disclaimer that must be made: this is in no way a shot at Oilers fans. To their credit, they appear to continue attending games in large numbers and supporting their team, regardless of the fact that the squad has literally failed to show any improvement and are nothing short of a hot mess. That is to be commended. This is also not to say that the Panthers have put their troubles behind them, on the ice or in the stands, and have accomplished much of anything yet. This is simply a look at how things have been done and what that can tell us about the Cats by comparison. With that out of the way....

What this ultimately comes down to is this: three wins and an overtime loss. Seven points. That is the margin the Panthers missed the playoffs by in 2014-15. "O.k." you may say, "so what, they missed the playoffs." But go one season back, to 2013-14, and the Panthers finished that season with 66 points and a 21-51-10 record. For the mathematically challenged, that is a 25-point turnaround in the course of one season. Over the same time period, Edmonton went in the opposite direction, from 67 points in 2013-14 down to 62 points in 2014-15. How does a team do that when they draft in the first round over the last six drafts in the following positions:

2009- 10th (Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson)

2010- 1st (Taylor Hall)

2011- 1st and 19th (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom)

2012 - 1st (Nail Yakupov)

2013- 7th (Darnell Nurse)

2014-3rd (Leon Draisaitl)

That means that presumably, the Oilers got the best player in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and darn near the best player in 2014. They will add to this stockpile yet another draft's best player, one who is perhaps a generational talent in the form of Connor McDavid (hence the vitriol spread across the internet about their lottery victory). For comparison's sake, here is how the Panthers drafted during that same time period:

2009- 14th (Dmitry Kulikov)

2010- 3rd, 19th, 25th (Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden )

2011- 3rd (Jonathan Huberdeau)

2012- 23rd (Michael Matheson)

2013- 2nd (Aleksander Barkov)

2014- 1st (Aaron Ekblad)

Add to this list an 11th overall pick this June. The Panthers have had only one first overall pick in that time period, and three other top-5 picks. Edmonton has had the same number of top-5 picks (4) but 3 of those were supposed to be the best player in their draft year as number one overall picks. For those counting, the Oilers have had 7 first round picks in this time period, while the Panthers traded their way into an additional first rounder with 8.

Perhaps there is just not that much difference between the 1st overall pick, and the 2nd or 3rd pick? There is some truth to this, as this article and study point out. As that author, Jeff Little (no relation to Todd) points out,

"Historically, if you have the #1 or #2 overall pick, you are going to fare extremely well. Nine of the 12 first picks (75%) have PPI rankings of .750 or higher, and all but one have played at least half of the games. The number two picks have also fared well, with 58% at a PPI of .750 or more, and 83% playing at least half. Look what happens, however, when you get to the #5 selection – only 1 in 4 play 75 % of the games, and just over half exceed a PPI of .500. Not bad, but far short of a sure thing. By the time you reach the #15 pick, none have played 75% of games, only 8% have played half of the games, and a full 42% have not appeared on NHL ice. And that’s not even considering the lower half of the first round. Overall, just 52% of the top 15 selections have PPI values of .500 or greater."

On a side note, Little's "PPI" is this calculation:

"To measure the rate of success, I used what I will call the Player Participation Index, or PPI. While it sounds technical, it is really a simple comparison of the number of NHL regular season games played by each prospect, as a percentage of the total possible regular season games available since the time that player was drafted."

It is safe to conclude that both organizations could expect top players in their four draft years spent in the top-3, with the Oilers expected to come out slightly ahead because of the first overall status of their picks. Yahoo Sports is likely correct here when they state that the Oilers took good players with their picks, and that the players chosen, Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Taylor Hall are starting to show they can play at a level commensurate with their draft position.

One more thing to consider in regards to drafting- from the 2010 to 2014 drafts, the Oilers selected 43 total players, the Panthers 42. It must also be noted that because of their surprise playoff appearance in 2011-12, the Cats did not have a pick in the first round until #23 in the 2012 draft- far below where Edmonton has drafted every year since 2010 (the year we really start counting for this exercise, since we are examining Tallon's impact).

The Oilers appear to have drafted well in the first round since 2010 (2009 1st rounder, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson is a disaster for a #10 overall pick). Draisaitl and Nurse appear to have great potential, although how good they are at the NHL level is still a question mark. Nail Yakupov still has question marks surrounding him as well, but he appeared to turn the corner this season and has shown he could still be an outstanding wing. The team also has very high hopes for Oscar Klefbom, a 6'3, 213 lb. defenseman who played 60 games for the Oilers this season, contributing 2 goals and 18 assists while going minus-21. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins speak for themselves- they are both outstanding. Yet, after these players, not much stands out from Oilers drafts. This has led www.hockeysfuture.com to rank the Oilers prospect pool 25th in the NHL--in the bottom 5 of the league, stating the following:

"Weaknesses: The Oilers have not had a lot of recent success developing picks from the middle and late rounds of the NHL Draft. Edmonton has good depth in net, with Laurent Brossoit, Tyler Bunz, and Frans Tuohimaa all playing at the minor league level, but all are long shots to develop into quality NHL starters"

What we are seeing here is that Edmonton's management teams, whether led by Steve Tambellini, Kevin Lowe, or Craig MacTavish, have done well with the easy picks--it is hard (after all) to fail with a top-3 pick. But they have done poorly at drafting after those easy picks. This brings us to our first comparison of how the Tallon-led team has done during this time period.

The same Hockeysfuture rankings place the Panthers prospect pool at 6th best in the league, down from 1st or 2nd best in the last several years. But this drop is due in large part to players "graduating" from prospects into professionals. Here is the write up regarding the Panthers:

"Strengths: The Florida Panthers are extremely strong on defense, having recently added 2014 first overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad to an already deep group that includes Mike Matheson, Ian McCoshen, Alex Petrovic, and Jonathan Racine. Although Aleksander Barkov has recently graduated, the system is still well stocked with NHL-caliber forwards such as Vince Trocheck, Rocco Grimaldi, and Brandon Pirri. There are also several forwards further down the pipeline, such as recent second round pick Jayce Hawryluk, who possess intriguing potential.

Weaknesses: The Panthers have graduated many of their top forward prospects over the years, so while the system has a fair amount of depth, there are no elite forwards waiting in the wings. Goaltending is a weakness for the organization, as none of their current prospects in net project to be more than backups in the NHL."

Comparison conclusion? Panthers scouts and Dale Tallon have done a better job at using more of their draft picks to build a very healthy prospect pool. Edmonton management has done a poor job of drafting outside of their first round picks- the vast majority of which are near "can't miss" early picks. This factor is amplified over this period of years- as it takes time to develop these players and allow them to mature. As Panther fans know better than anyone- yesteryear's mistakes are felt for quite some time. As the Panthers wealth of picks from 2010 and 2011 mature and develop, we begin to reap the rewards with Nick Bjugstad, Alex Petrovic, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, and Erik Gudbranson at the NHL level, and with Connor Brickley, Sam Brittain, Rocco Grimaldi, and Kyle Rau at, or soon to be at, the AHL level. There is good reason that the San Antonio Rampage had their best regular season ever. The Oilers have lost critical years of development due to poor middle round drafting and must play catch up.

Catch up is normally played via the free agent and trade markets. Teams add important parts to their draft picks by trading players or signing free agents. In this respect, Tallon has far outperformed Edmonton's various general managers. This can be said with the utmost confidence, because--while the Panthers played in an easier division at the time (the Southeast), they did win that division and make a playoff appearance in 2011-12. That was done almost entirely through free agent signings, what we may refer to as "the class of 2011." Much of that class is now gone, but their accomplishments are anything but forgotten for this franchise. The Oilers have not come close to putting together anything like that in free agency, despite being a more profitable team. But the free agent signings continued to contribute to the team in a different way as well: as trade fodder. Let's review some of the bigger ones.

Teams are built down the middle in the modern NHL, with big centermen, defensemen, and goalies. While the Cats got a nice performance out of free agent signee Jose Theodore in 2011-12, it is really a trade Tallon pulled off in 2014 that led to what many consider to be the biggest change from 2013-14 to 2014-15. On March 4, 2014, Tallon acquired one of the league's premier goalies in Roberto Luongo, in exchange for Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom. Just like that the Cats were solid in net. Edmonton is still looking for their stable starting goaltender. They traded a 2014 third round draft pick for Ben Scrivens, but Scrivens has struggled. The Oil traded a 2015 third round pick and 2014 fifth round pick for Viktor Fasth. They are still looking for a capable NHL number one goalie.

Moving out from goalie to the defense, one of Florida's first moves after Tallon arrived was to acquire Brian Campbell from Chicago. Whatever your feelings are about Campbell, he has been an absolute first pair rock for the team since arriving. The worst that can be said about him now is that he is aging and has become less consistent, but that is to take nothing away from another season's worth of good work. To settle his young drafted defensemen like Ekblad, Gudbranson, Petrovic, and Kulikov down, and provide them a mentor, Tallon signed Willie Mitchell away from the L.A. Kings. Mitchell is a very solid, stable, and capable defensive defenseman, and a player many pundits noted that the Kings missed very badly in 2014-15. Mitchell was not just capable defensively, he has also been an incredible captain who has demanded dedication and professionalism from the young players on the team. Tallon also acquired Steven Kampfer in a trade with the Rangers, sending Joey Crabb to the Blueshirts in exchange for Kampfer and Andrew Yogan. Kampfer proved a very useful defenseman who earned an additional two-year deal. The Panthers defense is big, young, and improving rapidly.

Give Edmonton credit for this- their management has attempted to do the same by acquiring free agent defensemen and making trades for others. Only Oscar Klefbom was drafted by the team. Keith Aulie, Mark Fayne, Andrew Ference, Nikita Nikitin, and Justin Schultz were all brought in via trade or free agency. Ference was named team captain, but he and other team members have said the players need to be more accountable. Ference also commented on his team's lack of urgency back in December of 2014. The captain's comments show that the Oilers are lacking in leadership and chemistry, both things that Tallon has built into the Panthers in spades, especially with his constant refrain of "if you don't want to be here, we don't want you here." Plus-minus is a deeply flawed statistic, but it is certainly a "wow" factor when one looks at Edmonton's defense from last season:

Aulie -3

Fayne -21

Ferrence -17

Klefbom -21

Nikitin -12

Schultz (Justin) -17

Tallon has built a far better defensive corps than the Oilers in his time here, and their experience is continuing to make them even better. The addition of depth defensemen like Kampfer and Shane O'Brien kept the team afloat through injuries to Mitchell and Gudbranson.

Continuing the build up the middle, the Oilers centers last season worked out as follows:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 6'0 180 lbs

Derek Roy 5'9 184 lbs.

Boyd Gordon 6'0 202 lbs.

Anton Lander 6'0 186 lbs.

Matt Hendricks 6'0 211 lbs.

Nugent-Hopkins, when healthy, is a supreme talent that needs no introduction. But after the star pivot, the rest of Edmonton's centers accounted for 32 total goals last season. The majority of those remaining goals were scored by Derek Roy (12), while Lander scored 6 (in 38 games), Hendricks 8, and Gordon 6. Once again, poor drafting hurt Edmonton down the middle, but the Roy trade at least gave them a second line center with 32 points last season. By contrast, Tallon and company have three draft picks lining up down the middle:

Aleksander Barkov 6'2 205 lbs.

Nick Bjugstad 6'5 190 lbs.

Vincent Trocheck 5'10 182 lbs.

Add to these three centers a pair of free agents in Derek MacKenzie and Dave Bolland, to play 3rd or 4th line roles, although Bolland continues to be a signing that is roundly criticized throughout the Panthers fan base.

Move to the wings. Dale and his crew brought in Brad Boyes for the 2013-14 season. On November 15, 2013, Kris Versteeg (one of the original trade acquisitions Tallon made as a new GM for the Panthers) was traded to Chicago for Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen. On March 2, 2014, Brandon Pirri was acquired from Chicago in exchange for a 2016 5th round pick and a 2014 3rd rounder. Jussi Jokinen was signed as a free agent. Finally, Tallon traded for Jaromir Jagr at the deadline, sending a 2nd round pick this year and a 3rd round pick in 2016 to the Devils. In a more debatable move, Shawn Thornton was signed during the summer of 2014. Whatever your feelings on Thornton, he does bring a treasure trove of experience and stability with him, as well as guaranteeing the young stars a level of protection on the ice.

It is no great secret that Edmonton is lacking in several key areas: defense, goaltending, and large centers to play in the big, bad Western Conference. It is an NHL draft mantra that you take the best player in the draft, regardless of team needs at certain positions. That is, of course, true, up to a point. It has become incredibly hard in the modern NHL to find high-caliber top-3 defensemen. It is virtually impossible to trade for one, and Edmonton, like Florida, is often on a list of destinations that free agents stay away from. The answer is clear- great defensemen must be drafted. Darnell Nurse may be one, hard to tell until he hits the NHL and begins that learning curve hockey fans watch young d-men struggle through every season.

During the past two seasons, the Oilers finally started doing more of what they should have been doing for a long time- and that was to trade players for draft picks. Get as many picks as possible and fill the farm system. The David Perron trade in exchange for Pittsburgh's first round pick, Jeff Petry for Montreal's 2nd round pick, Ales Hemsky for the Senators' third round pick, these are all excellent acquisitions. The problem is that they waited so long to begin that process, as it will take time to draft and develop players from those picks to start filling the needs the team has. While Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are signed for the time being, their windows of top-level play will at some point begin to close. Success in the NHL is very much determined on timing everything well. Edmonton is being forced to play catch up later in their developmental game, and the danger is that defensemen and goalies often take the longest time period to develop. Further, they need to show they can draft good players after the first round.

The difference between the Oilers and Panthers, despite their similarities, is that Florida's management team came in the door blazing away. It could be that this is a luxury that can be had in a non-Canadian market where Tallon was able to literally gut the team and start over. Dale and his team came in and traded everything away for picks and salary space. They drafted large forwards and defensemen and immediately began building down the middle. Several years later the centers are all big and just about ready, the goaltending is solid with Lou, and the defense is stacked up and in holding patterns in San Antonio. Whether this will equate to a playoff run next season remains to be seen, but the Panthers days in the top 3 or 4 of the draft lottery have ended. McDavid will make the Oilers a better team, but he will not solve the issues on defense or in net, and thus, Edmonton looks to be a team that will once again have great talent in several young players, but lack in critical areas needed for success.

What can analysis by comparison tell us about the Panthers? That we have a good management team that has now been joined with good ownership, and they have done a rebuild the right way. Let's put it this way: Panthers fans are all holding our breath for this year's draft as it is just as likely that Tallon pulls off some big trade as it is that he takes the player he wants with the pick. Our GM is known for that, and it has made this a better team. Nobody is wondering about Craig McTavish, and in fairness, why in the world would you trade away a McDavid pick? Nonetheless, MacT and prior Oilers GMs have never made the dramatic moves to make their team better. Instead they have relied almost solely on the first round of the draft and have been nothing short of overly cautious. The Panthers have drafted well even after the first round, have traded well, and have, for the most part, signed good free agents. Edmonton has not drafted well after the first round, have not done as well with trades and free agent signings and now face a dispiriting lag in development timelines at critical positions. What this tells us is that we are quite fortunate, as the Panthers are in good hands.