A post over at The Copper & Blue by Ryan Batty, How A Rebuild Defence Is Built And What This Means For the Oilers?, caught my eye and got me thinking about where the Islanders currently stand. He links to a couple of pieces by Jonathan Willis at Cult of Hockey that examine how some teams have rebuilt to varying degrees of success (e.g., our 1994-2002 Islanders are included for their abject failure).
Two things struck me from these articles. First, Willis’ analysis of the Kings points to the kind of approach the Islanders will probably need to take (or maybe should take) if they want to be successful, and there seem to be a lot of parallels that can be drawn. Second, Batty’s piece covers a lot of what the Islanders need to think about when it comes to building a competitive blue line. And the underlying principle from both articles is that patience is key. When you think you can’t wait anymore, be prepared to wait a lot longer.
We should probably peg the Islanders to a start date for the rebuild before we start this. I think a lot of fans would look to 2008, arguing that trading away first and second round picks in the 2007 draft marked an effort to make the playoffs at the expense of the future. While those moves do seem to belie a true rebuild, I’d argue they are a hiccup in a process that started with 14 picks in the 2006 draft. That draft churned out two key players, Kyle Okposo and Andrew MacDonald, in addition to several players still in the system somewhere (Jesse Joensuu, Rhett Rakhshani, Tomas Marcinko).
All of those picks play into just how important the draft is to a rebuild. Willis breaks down the Kings’ minutes through the first two rounds of the playoffs this year in a nice graph. 45% of those minutes were played by guys the Kings drafted; 39% were players acquired through trade and just 16% came via free agency. Considering you generally need to trade either picks or players you’ve drafted, you can really attribute almost 85% of the minutes to Kings assets. Free agency is playing a relatively small role. Given the difficulties the Islanders seem to have with the UFA market, this is somewhat encouraging to see.
Obviously the key here is asset management. We really don’t have a grasp on how Snow will manage his personnel as prospects become players and dearth becomes surplus, but this will be absolutely crucial if the Islanders are going to succeed down the road. Yes the Kings got lucky landing Quick and Doughty, but they also made timely moves to acquire Richards and Carter. We often fret that we didn’t get lucky like the Penguins or Oilers, drafting first or second overall multiple times, but the Kings never only drafted #2 once. Willis lists their first round picks from the rebuild years:
2003 – 13th overall – Dustin Brown
2004 – 11th overall – Lauri Tukonen
2005 – 11th overall – Anze Kopitar
2006 – 11th overall – Jonathan Bernier
2007 – 4th overall – Thomas Hickey
2008 – 2nd overall – Drew Doughty
2008 – 13th overall – Colten Teubert
2009 – 5th overall – Brayden Schenn
What’s nice here is we see not every pick needs to be a home run. There are some good and great players in there, but some busts as well. We’ve been fretting a lot about whether the Islanders have accomplished what they need to with their first round picks, but it doesn’t seem necessary (nor is it possible) to nail each and every one. We know we have a star in Tavares, and a contributing player in Okposo. Bailey seems ready to join Okposo. Whether Nino and Strome ever provide that remains to be seen...
The other takeaway here, is rebuilding is a long, long process. It’s taken the Kings 10 years to get here. At best it seems the Isles are halfway through the process (more on this below).
Building a Defense Brick by Drafted Brick
The failings of the Islanders' defensive corps this past season has been discussed time and again here. Generally their performance as a group ranged between barely serviceable and glaring eyesore, and improving it is at the top of just about everyone's todo list. Batty's piece at Copper and Blue discusses the similar situation the Oilers are in, and how they might make strides going forward.
Batty looks at the successful rebuilds of the Blackhawks, Penguins, and Kings. Specifically, he runs through the six defensemen that led the teams in minutes in the year they won the Cup (or the Kings this year). Of the 18 players, ten were acquired through the draft, six were signed as free agents, and two were acquired via trade. So the belief that we might solve our defense problems through a big signing or two is somewhat misguided. Yes, free agents can provide an important piece, but the bulk needs to come from within. This is again good news in some ways, as it should alleviate some of the angst surrounding the Islanders’ ability to draw in free agents. Additionally, he notes how many years it was before the team won that they acquired each defenseman. On average, a defenseman was drafted, traded for, or signed 4.8 years before the team reached its goal. This is fairly significant. As of right now, the Islanders have one defenseman in the organization who fits that criteria: Andrew MacDonald.
Here is the Islanders current organizational defense as chronologically acquired:
Andrew MacDonald 2006 draft
Mark Katic 2007 draft
Mark Streit 2008 FA signing
Calvin de Haan 2009 draft
Dylan Reese 2010 trade
Ty Wishart 2011 trade
Mark Cantin 2012 trade
Again, assessing where we might be as far as building a solid blueline, it seems to be about halfway. If they can keep Streit, MacDonald, and Hamonic together, they have a nice base to fill via prospects, trade, or maybe a signing. The good news is that we appear to be on the right track. Batty notes that each of the successful teams had at least three homegrown players of their six leading defensemen. The Isles already have two, so that is a strong positive. Additionally, he notes that the Kings were able to speed this process up, with their players in the organization for an average of less than four years. 2015 is probably when we could start expecting some returns on the 2011 crop, but it could be sooner.
Obviously there’s a lot more that goes into making it to the promised land when you’re going through a rebuild, but there does seem to at least be a road map for how to get there. While we can probably start expecting some incremental improvements in the years to come, it’s good to be reminded that three, four, five years from now is when we really can expect to reap the benefits. And that same period of time is probably what will define Snow as a success or failure based on how he improves, or fails to improve, the team by juggling our assets and putting the pieces together.