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Ulmer: Just How Do You Retool?

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Let us assume that the Maple Leafs are in for a major retool.

How do they do it?

Well, let’s look around.

One thing is a constant. The draft is essential, but not the only essential. No team has been rebuilt exclusively through the draft since the Edmonton Oilers and the narrowing window that comes with free agency and the salary cap means nobody will.

We deconstructed how a handful of rebounding teams managed the task.

For the purposes of consistency, we went back two seasons for the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues and one for the Philadelphia Flyers, who made the transition from the outhouse to the penthouse overnight.

The Flyer Way

2006-2007 record: 22-48-12.

Present record: 28-16-5.

Main weapons: A good core of young players and trades.

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren started out with a quorum of good players, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and goalie Antero Niittymaki. Richards and Carter stumbled last year under the weight of a tired, misassembled team but they remained vital cogs.

That core was essential. Holmgrem traded a cooked Peter Forsberg to Nahsville for Scott Upshall and was creative in dealing a first-rounder to land first-signing rights for offensive defenceman Kimmo Timonen. He landed former Leaf Jason Smith and 16-goal scorer Joffrey Lupul in a one-sided trade with Edmonton and added current 20-goal scorer Daniel Briere through free agency.

The Penguins Shuffle

2005-2006 record: 22-46-14.

Present record: 28-18-4.

Main weapon: Lots and lots of losing and a longshot draft win for Sidney Crosby.

Let’s start with the obvious. The Penguins had a six per cent chance of winning the Sidney Crosby lottery. When the ping pong ball rolled the Penguins’ way (owner Mario Lemieux didn’t even bother watching, he was at the doctor with his daughter) everything changed in Pittsburgh.

Then Pens’ GM Craig Patrick assembled a rotisserie league free-agent team with John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Ziggy Palffy and Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar, an all-star this season is the only player who worked out.

Give the Penguins credit for not screwing up at the draft table. They chose Jordan Staal number two in 2006 and while Johnathan Toews (three), Nicklas Backstrom (four) and Phil Kessel (five) are attractive players, Staal looks like a future stud,

The Pens made the obvious call and chose Evgeni Malkin second after Alexander Ovechkin in 2004. History has looked favourably on that move as well.

Some of the later round choices have paid off. Defenceman Kristopher Letang, a third rounder in 2005 is on the club and contributing.

From 2002-2006, the Penguins drafted fifth, first, second, first and second. To their credit, they didn’t screw up those choices but their rebuilding job is not done and with Crosby and Malkin on the clock, they will need to trade to maximize their assets..

 The Capitals Crusade

2005-2006 record: 28-40-14

Present record: 23-23-5.

Main weapon: The world’s greatest fire sale.

General Manager George McPhee took plenty of criticism at the trade deadline in 2004 for disassembling his team. Having already peddled Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter (try not to giggle), he sent Robert Lang to Detroit, Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander to Boston and Peter Bondra to Ottawa.

Four years later, McPhee’s moves have paid off.

Obviously, the wonderful Alexander Ovechkin, has been responsile for lifting Washington to .500. Tomas Fleischman, a talented young winger came in the deal and the first rounder the Wings threw in was parlayed into Mike Green, regarded around Washington as a potential all-star. The Alberta-born defenceman has scored 14 goals this year.

Shaone Morrisonn, who came from Boston in the Bondra deal is playing on the Caps’ blue line and so is prospect Jeff Schultz.

Brooks Laich, who came to Washington in the Bondra deal, takes a regular turn at centre and has scored eight goals.

The Caps haven’t dipped too deeply into the free agent-market. Michael Nylander, Tom Poti and Vikor Kozlov have been added to no real effect but the combination of Ovechkin and McPhee’s great week’ work have lifted the Capitals.

 The Big Blue Machine

2005-2006 record:

Present record: 23-19-7.

Main weapon:
The draft, a great trade, and free agency.

First, a disclaimer. The Blues best player came through theft. Former Leaf Brad Boyes, plundered from the Boston Bruins, has scored 29 goals for St. Louis. Free agents Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, meanwhile, have combined for 25 goals.

Like most successful teams, the Blues hit a home run at the draft table. Lee Stempniak, drafted 148th in 2003 has 10 goals. David Backes, 62nd in the same draft, are both in the lineup. General Manager and president John Davidson was offered a lot for both players at last year’s deadline but stayed true to his painstaking course of rebuilding.

How draft savvy is Davidson? He had three choices in the first round last year and one, David Perron, is playing for the Blues now. Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in 2006 is also with the big club.

Davidson is a believer in pouring money into the blueline. About $20 million of his $40 million budget has been allotted to defencemen and his first move in St. Louis was to sign Buffalo rearguard Jay McKee.
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