History Repeating: This Ain’t the River Rats’ First Rebuild Rodeo

In Special Features, WVR on October 7, 2016 at 7:58 pm

When the West Virginia River Rats shipped out stars Sidney Crosby, Brent Burns, and Henrik Lundqvist (along with core players like Eric Staal, Dan Hamhuis, and Jason Chimera) in September it shook the very foundations of the league. But it wasn’t the first time GM Jim Connell decided to blow the whole thing up.

A little bit of backstory. In late 2003, the Bristol River Rats were a competitive team, but a heartbreaking loss to South Carolina in the Gump Cup Final put the franchise in a bind. With an aging core, the team was in no man’s land; not quite strong enough to win it all, yet too talented to replenish with top-flight draft picks.

So, before the 2003-04 season even started, the team acted, shipping out scorers Peter Bondra and Alex Mogilny. At the mid-season trade deadline, the ax fell on Mark Recchi and Nicklas Lidstrom. Despite all this, the Rats finished atop the Sawchuk East with a 43-26-16 record — only to be swept by Ice Harbor in the first round of the playoffs.

Any lingering doubts were erased. The GM acted. Along with a massive trade that sent superstar defender Scott Niedermayer to the rival Storm, the Rats dealt away all their top scorers: Jaromir Jagr (coming off a 40-goal year), Alexei Yashin, Ray Whitney, Tony Amonte… even Bobby Holik. Between September 14 and October 19, 2014, the the team made 14 trades and jettisoned basically every veteran on the squad.

When the dust settled, the River Rats had amassed six first round picks and four second rounders: 10 picks in the top 30. With them, they drafted:

5th – Eric Staal
10th – Kari Lehtonen
11th – Joni Pitkanen
13th – Alex Semin
15th – Dan Hamhuis
16th – Antoine Vermette
21st – Anton Babchuk
24th – Fedor Tyutin
29th – Brent Burns
30th – Derek Roy

The list is a thing of beauty. The worst of the Rats’ 2014 draftees (Babchuk, Roy) had serviceable-to-good careers. But the best? They were stars. As successful drafts by a single team go, this might be the gold standard.

Until being flipped to Baltimore this year, Burns had 329 points in 613 games for the Rats. Staal, now a member of the Delta Sturgeon, was one of West Virginia’s best scorers for a decade. Semin’s Gump career is winding down now, but he too will finish with over 600 games in a River Rats sweater — including 40-, 56-, and 60-goal campaigns. Staal, Semin, Vermette, Hamhuis, and Burns are all in the top 10 in franchise scoring.

There was no draft in 2005, and by Draft Day 2006, it would become clear that the Rats started their rebuild at the perfect time. They’d predictably limped to a 20-53-9 record, good for second worst in the league and the second overall pick.

The El Dorado Lynx chose Alex Ovechkin first, leaving the Rats with the consolation prize of Sidney Crosby at #2.

And they still had two more picks in that round, which they used to pick Steve Bernier at 9 and Corey Perry at 19. Bernier was no world-beater (though he’d later be a centrepiece in West Virginia reacquiring Niedermayer) but Perry would ride shotgun with Crosby his entire career.

And, just like that, by 2008 the Rats were back in the playoffs. Most of their previous generation of veterans — the ones they’d shed in the great purge of ’04 — had retired. Except Jagr, of course.

The team grew together. Hey, when you draft your entire team in a couple of seasons, it makes sense. And in 2011, led by Crosby, Staal, et al., West Virginia gutted out two hard-fought playoff series against Saint Louis and Farmington, then faced Salem in the finals — and dominated.

Scoring the cup-winning, sweep-completing overtime goal? Alex Semin… with an assist from Crosby.


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