Baptism By Fire and the Pittsburgh Penguins


The 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins were a miserable team – the worst in the NHL in fact. They went 23-47-8-4, and were led in scoring by defenseman Dick Tarnstrom (52 points) and had ten different players who recorded a -20 rating or worse. The team also featured 17 players aged 25 or younger, including many high draft picks.

Five years later, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup – showing that the baptism-by-fire method helped develop those young players into champions, right?  Wrong.

Let’s consider the list of players under the age of 25 who played 10+ games for the Penguins in 2003-04. Players in bold had a role on the 2008-09 championship team:

  • Ryan Malone (23): 81GP – 22G – 21A – 43PTS, -23 (Draft: 4th round, 1999)
  • Milan Kraft (23): 66GP – 19G – 21A – 40PTS, -22 (Draft: 1st round, 1998)
  • Rico Fata (23): 73GP – 16G – 18A – 34PTS, -46 (Draft: 1st round, 1998)
  • Konstantin Koltsov (22): 82GP – 9G – 20A – 29PTS, -30 (Draft: 1st round, 1999)
  • Ric Jackman (25): 25GP – 7G – 17A – 24PTS, -5 (Draft: 1st round, 1996)
  • Tomas Surovy (21): 47GP – 11G – 12A – 23PTS, -8 (Draft: 4th round, 2001)
  • Tom Kostopoulos (24): 60GP – 9G – 13A – 22PTS, -14 (Draft: 7th round, 1999)
  • Matt Bradley (25): 82GP – 7G – 9A – 16PTS, -27 (Draft: 4th round, 1996)
  • Brooks Orpik (22): 79GP – 1G – 9A – 10PTS, -36 (Draft: 1st round, 2000)
  • Josef Melichar (24): 82GP – 3G – 5A – 8PTS. -17 (Draft: 3rd round, 1997)
  • Ramzi Abid (23): 16GP – 3G – 2A – 5PTS, -5 (Draft: 3rd round, 2000)
  • Jon Sim (25): 15GP – 2G – 3A – 5PTS, -4 (Draft: 3rd round, 1996)
  • Dan Focht (25): 52GP – 2G – 3A – 5PTS, -23 (Draft: 1st round, 1996)
  • Rob Scuderi (24): 13GP – 1G – 2A – 3PTS, +2 (Draft: 5th round, 1998)
  • Matt Murley (23): 18GP – 1G – 1A – 2PTS, -6 (Draft: 2nd round, 1999)
  • Sebastien Caron (23): 40GP, 9-24-5, .883 SV%, 3.74 GAA (Draft: 3rd round, 1999)
  • Marc-Andre Fleury (18): 22GP, 4-14-2, 3.64 GAA, .896 SV% (Draft: 1st round, 2003)

Interesting list, that. Only three of those seventeen players would have any kind of role on the team that would win the Stanley Cup just five years later. Only two of seven first round picks would end up having a role.

The Penguins at that point were three years into a rebuild that had seen them record 69, 65, and 58 points between 2001-02 and 2003-04. So this wasn’t a freshly gutted group; the Penguins were already well into their reconstruction and at this point it was fair to say that this collection of young players represented much of the fruitage of their rebuilding work. They had some decent non-NHL prospects at that point: Ryan Whitney, Daniel Carcillo, Erik Christensen, Maxime Talbot and Noah Welch were all prospects at the time, although here to we note that only Talbot was on the Stanley Cup-winning team (although Whitney at least brought in winger Chris Kunitz in trade).

The players getting developed in the NHL during Pittsburgh’s three seasons in the gutter actually had rather little long-term benefit to the franchise. To be sure, the picks acquired during these years were golden – Fleury, Malkin, Crosby and Staal were eventually reaped down the line, and to the benefit of the team. All the team had to do to get those players was survive a relocation scare, burn four seasons (plus the lockout) worth of games, and see virtually every prospect the team had at the start of the rebuild either flameout in the NHL or hit unrestricted free agency before the team was ready to compete.

The point? The reason that teams who do the scorched-earth rebuild eventually succeed has precious little to do with their young prospects getting NHL jobs, and a lot more to do with the incredible draft picks that end up getting stockpiled while those players fail spectacularly in the big leagues.

  • lj

    @ Colin:

    Google it. The cabby had the dollar but couldn't offer the additional twenty cents change when paid $15.00 on a $13.80 cab fare. Kane and his cousin then allegedly beat the cabby and kept all the money. Kane is being charged with second degree robbery, theft of services, and crimminal mischief by the Buffalo police. What kind of douche would pull something like this?

  • lj

    @ Willis:

    Great post. The Penguin team validates many of my theories about building a winner.
    1) Like Lowetide, it's my contention that the team with the most legit NHL'ers usually wins. A coach can't win games when he has to play more than two or three guys in very sheltered minutes.
    2) It takes only a few very special/ highly skilled players to put you over the top. (Remember point 1, though… everyone else must be steady and consistant)
    3) Your team must be able to execute a variety of game-plans. When the Penguins couldn't beat Detroit in a puck possession game, they were able to successfully change to a more dump and chase style. To be a team with dimension, however, the bulk of your players need dimension. This seems obvious… but it's a point Oilers management has forgotten.
    4) Prospects need to earn their time in the NHL by having consistant success at lower PROFESSIONAL levels.

    Point #4 doesn't relate to the Penguins so much as the Oilers. Guys like Schremp shouldn't be able to win a spot with the big club just by having a good camp; a solid AHL/SEL resume should be a prerequisite. I'm also sick of watching so many of our guys pretty much bypass the AHL altogether and go through the growing pains of becomming a professional at the NHL level. This is a man's game. If you have a particularly special prospect, it may be okay to bring him along early; but he better be dumped into a dressing room filled with men; and not into a house full of kids playing rockband and eating takeout pizza.

    As Oiler fans we have a soft spot in our hearts for the notion of assembling a pile of skilled young kids who can grow, learn, and eventually contend together. This is just a silly daydream. This side of the millenium, it's unrealistic to expect your scouts to fill the bulk of your roster in just a couple draft years. The Boys-On-The-Bus-Era was magic: a full on miracle. As the saying goes, lightining doesn't strike the same place twice. With complex systems play, parity, etc this is a man's league more than ever. Also remember, that under the current CBA guys like Gretz, Mess, Coffee, etc would all be on thier RFA contract before the first cup was won, and full UFA status before a dynasty was established. The 2006 Oiler roster is a more attainable model. If the same group of guys that skated out post trade deadline day had skated out on opening night: the Oilers may well have won the division. It was a group of MEN that almost won the cup.

  • lj

    Tanking to stock draft picks, Balsillie, Delbiaggio/Leopol,Burke from Anaheim to Toronto, gambling,draft lottery ending with Crosby going to Pitt when they were on the brink of collapse and #2 going to Burke in Anaheim fresh off of his job with the league.

    I'm really starting to wonder about the integrity of the NHL.

  • lj

    Why not just come out and say it? Tanking for 2 or 3 seasons is the most proven method for creating a contender in the cap world.

    Lemieux even edmitted that they had a 3 year plan in place that would see them stockpile draft picks.

    The Oilers have a decent group of prospects, but nothing that would make them contenders in the next three years. So why not tank 2 or 3 years?

  • lj

    Nice work, J-dub.

    I like Scott Howson's approach to building a winner. You do it slowly, making one small, smart move at a time. A team like Pittsburgh, Chicago or Anaheim when they won recently, have windows dependent on young contracts. But you also need all the parts in place with reasonable contracts, like Detroit, or Carolina.

    Just having a couple of superstars doesn't guarantee you anything. It takes several years of consistent good moves.

    And even then, each year is a roll of the dice when you get in the playoffs.

  • lj

    @ Skidplate:
    Why won't it fly? We can't seem to attract elite talent via trade, or free agency so we need to draft some. Until then we'll be a lock for 8th-10th place every year. Now that's progress.

  • lj

    This re-inforces how big a mistake it was to keep Gags an Cogs up their first year rather than letting them get one more season to dominate in the lower leagues – particularly since the D was left gutted after Pronger and Spacek left. The Oil missed the playoffs anyway, blew an opportunity to get a good pick and burned a contract year on 2 of their top young players. No wonder Lowe has lost all his hair

  • lj

    I saw that team when they came here that December…was sitting right behind Fleury and his bright yellow pads – he was spectacular. And I believe we barely beat them.

    It seems we're fairly well stocked with good prospects to develop – but I think what will actually hurt us is the cap and the number and type of contracts that currently have us handcuffed. Perhaps it will be the Eberle's and Rajala's that lead the significant climb back to competitiveness rather than the Cogliano's and Gagner's when we can't afford to re-sign them…

  • lj

    Skidplate wrote:

    The tough thing around these parts is the fan base would revolt if we were on the bottom of the standings for 3 years running. Of course, in hindsight it sounds great, we have Crosby, Malkin, Staal, but the torture we would have to go through to obtain these types of players I do not believe would fly in Oil Country.
    Oh ya, let’s not forget that high 1st round draft picks are not guaranteed.

    not guaranteed superstars…

  • lj

    The tough thing around these parts is the fan base would revolt if we were on the bottom of the standings for 3 years running. Of course, in hindsight it sounds great, we have Crosby, Malkin, Staal, but the torture we would have to go through to obtain these types of players I do not believe would fly in Oil Country.

    Oh ya, let’s not forget that high 1st round draft picks are not guaranteed.