Position of Strength, Position of Weakness

Jonathan Willis
March 01 2012 11:01AM

The Oilers have a wealth of young offensive talent in the NHL. They have a shortage of young, NHL-ready defensive talent. At some point, is the logical decision to send away one or two of the former to add one or two of the latter?

There really is an impressive list of players either already in the NHL or just bubbling under the surface up front. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark are all good young players, and they’re in addition to a group that already includes Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth. Toss in Shawn Horcoff and this year’s first round draft pick, and there are 10 guys who could arguably be in the top-nine next season before we even get to Ben Eager, Eric Belanger and Ryan Jones.

Of course, there is that draft pick, a selection the Oilers could use on a defenseman. There are two main problems with that, however. The first is that the Oilers are likely right now to come away with the second overall pick in this year’s draft. That’s hardly assured – the standings could move around, the draft lottery could shift things – but if they end up with a top-two pick, the consensus top-two would appear to be Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, both forwards, followed by everybody else. If that consensus reflects the Oilers’ opinion, they would be obliged to either take less than the best player available or trade down.

That’s really not the key problem, though. The key problem is the development timeline for that young defenseman. It is a very rare thing for a defenseman to be ready for top-pairing work two years out; typically the development curve is much longer. The Chicago Blackhawks had the youngest defense of any Stanley Cup Finalist in the post-lockout period; two of their top-four were in their fifth professional season – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The latter was 25, the former was just about to turn 27 when the team won the Cup. Chicago’s really the exception to the rule; a top-two or top-four defenseman on a typical Cup finalist has eight years of experience. If the Oilers take a defenseman, the odds are that they’re looking at a minimum of five years before that defender is a true stalwart. There are exceptions, of course – Drew Doughty in Los Angeles comes to mind – but reading the scouting reports it doesn’t seem like the top of this year’s defenseman class is in the same category as Doughty was in his draft year.

There is another possibility: the Oilers could try and do what the Hurricanes did in 2006, namely rely on a veteran group of players with good talent but without a truly exceptional rearguard. Bret Hedican and Aaron Ward were the top pairing for that team; Mike Commodore and Frantisek Kaberle rounded out the top-four. It can be done. The Oilers can hope that Jeff Petry continues on an upward trajectory with no developmental bumps along the way, they can hope that Ryan Whitney returns to form, and they could just lean heavily on Ladislav Smid and Nick Schultz in the meantime.

That’s a hard sell for me. I’ve seen what a player like Chris Pronger does to a blueline. I’ve watched Zdeno Chara for the Bruins, Duncan Keith for the ‘Hawks, Nicklas Lidstrom for the Red Wings and all the rest. A team can win without a player like that, but it’s a lot harder – those players spend half the game on the ice, and cover for so many mistakes.

The trade deadline wasn’t the place for the Oilers to make that move. The summer – probably at the draft – seems the likeliest time to try and reel in a top-flight defenseman via trade. Free agency isn’t a great bet because of the money involved and the hesitation high-end players have to sign with teams that haven’t pulled themselves out of the basement yet. Trade is the logical route, and it’s going to cost the Oilers a dear asset.

It’s a necessary sacrifice, unfortunately. We’ve seen an example of it already this season from Mike Gillis, the man who beat out Tambellini for the top job in Vancouver. Gillis sent away Cody Hodgson, a phenomenal young talent in the middle of a great rookie season, to upgrade his defense and address deficiencies up front. With Sedin and Kesler inked long-term, and a weaker group of players on the wings, it was a trade that made sense from an organizational perspective, however much it must have been difficult to take the risk of sending away a talent like Hodgson.

Linus Omark isn’t enough to bring back a good young defenseman the other way; the Oilers will need to trade a player that has significant cachet around the league. I’m hesitant to believe that Magnus Paajarvi has that. The team certainly could send away their first round pick – the way many suggested they should send away their first round pick for a defenseman last season, but there’s a logical problem with that: the player selected in that spot is highly likely to be in the same range as the Oilers’ big three right now. It’s easier to send that pick away because we haven’t watched him play for the Oilers, but that doesn’t make it the right decision.

There’s another consideration that should come into play here too: similarity up front. Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario where the Oilers (as seems likely) end up with the second overall pick and that they (as also seems likely) have Grigorenko second overall on their draft list. The Russian is as much a goal-scorer as he is a playmaker, and has plus size, standing at 6’2”. Is that combination more compatible with one of Sam Gagner/Ryan Nugent-Hopkins than the current duo are together? If the Oilers find themselves in that situation, does it make more sense to hang on to Gagner or Grigorenko?

It isn’t an easy decision to make. I’ve defended Sam Gagner for years, because I really believe that he’s a good player in the here-and-now, and that he has an even brighter future. He’s almost the same age as Eberle, something people forget because he’s picked up 347 NHL games to Eberle’s 128. He’s a good young player, the kind of player who it’s easy to visualize picking up points on a contending team.

To add value, value often has to go the other way. I firmly believe that a good, young defenseman would be a major asset for the Edmonton Oilers as they attempt to build themselves into a contender. I also believe that the cost for that sort of defenseman is likely to be very high. In Steve Tambellini’s shoes (and dependent on details) I’d be willing to take a chance and make that trade, because I also think that given the team’s current structure, a high-end defenseman is going to matter a lot more than another high-end forward.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Jimmer
March 01 2012, 04:10PM
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With our top line of RNH, Hall and Ebs soon to be about a 20 million dollar first line we need to keep our "spending" on defense in check.

Subban might be a better option...although not as good as Weber or Suter...maybe just good enough with the guys we have.

Don't forget two other things...Horcoff's salary and the fact that we still have nothing even close to proven in Goal...."sigh"

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#52 hunkybill
March 01 2012, 04:22PM
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Lets face it, an acquired first rate defenceman is going to cost big time for this franchise. A reliable goalie is more important in the immediate future. I say trade number two pick (if we get it) away to a team that has around a number seven pick and decent defenseman, then with said number seven we draft project defenseman ala dumba or reinhart. Goalie to be signed from surplus that will his the market this summer. Maybe resign Roloson, he would be cheap.

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#53 godot10
March 01 2012, 04:25PM
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It took Gagner 4 years to learn how to take a face-off in the NHL. It will probably take Nugent-Hopkins 4, and Grigorenko as many.

Pairing Nugent-Hopkins and Grigorenko as the top two centres for the next few years is a disaster. Opposing coaches will be salivating at line matching possibilities at centres with such scanty NHL defensive play experience at the centre ice position. A recipe for staying a lottery team.

Gagner is not the perfect complement to Nugent-Hopkins, but he is more or less a competent 2nd line centre now, and with good wingers can handle reasonably tough match ups.

It is unwise to fill a hole by creating a hole.

Doughty, Bogosian, Shattenkirk, Pieterangelo, Karlson, Cowan, Kulikov, Carlson Gairdner, Del Zotto, Myers, McDonagh are all playing significant roles early in their careers. A defenseman drafted in the top third is as likely to be able to play in the top 4 as a centre will be able to handle tough NHL line match ups.

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#54 Oilers4ever
March 01 2012, 04:27PM
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As far as I'm concerned its not the D we need to worry about... I get the timeline for young dmen... But at least we have an "air of confidence" around Klefbom, Musil, Gernat, and Marincin that they will likely all develop into talents that can fill the Oilers top 2 through 5. So yes, maybe we need that one stud like dman like a Suter or a Weber.

HOWEVER... I don't care how good your D is... if you have a goalie who can't stop simple shots like the ones Dubbie blew last night then you are not going anywhere. First goal my Andy McDonald - should have been stopped. The shot by the plugger Scott Nichol - should have been stopped. And I think he could have played Andy McDonald's second goal better. So 2 of 3 should have been stopped. This is starting to become consistent in Dubbie's play. Always letting an easy win in and then can be all-worldly like he was against the Flyers.

INCONSISTENT - and you will not win anything with goal-tending like that.

SO.... until they get a goalie who can play consistently night in and night out, I don't care who you have on the D or playing forward, this team WILL continue to lose. PERIOD. That game last night was so disgraceful I turned it off after 3-0. Clearly I didn't miss anything the rest of the way.....

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#55 Rama Lama
March 01 2012, 04:44PM
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Everyone is projecting Ryan Murray to be that puck moving defenseman we so covet? Matt dumba has also been talked about as a solid two way defenseman with toughness.

The top forwards have scouts divided due to issues wtih attitude especially with Yakapov and Grigerenko. I say we take the best North Amreican player based on position required........and trade down if you have to.

Unless there is a cant miss forward with size , attitude, and toughness, I say pick what we need and forget selecting the "best player available"!

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#56 Elaine
March 01 2012, 04:47PM
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I agree, we need a top notch goalie who can play consistent and make the stops when needed most. I don't think Smyth is a second line player. We need a winger for Eberle and I am not convinced of Gagner, mainly I think we have too many small players. I we can count on two solid scoring lines with all three on each line capable of contributing and then have a 3rd line who can check but also knows how to put the puck in the net. A 4th line should have a bit more offensive talent than what the Oilers presently have. Defence, I agree with above comments, that we hopefully have four who can be counted on already and if we can fill the next two spots with solid NHL proven veterans, we should be able to weather the storm until our younger guys on the farm are ready to take over. I don't like to see us trade our first overall pick in this year's draft. If we secure a defenceman via a trade, hopefully he will have a significant amount of years left on his contract so we won't loose him soon.

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#57 mike engel
March 01 2012, 04:51PM
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Just a thought. Oklahoma Barons have no players that could conceivably make the Oilers....a 29th place team. The Barons are in first place in the AHL. Maybe the coaches from the Barons should be coaching the Oilers.

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#58 Lawndemon
March 01 2012, 05:05PM
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@Smokey

Jack, yes. Erik, maybe.

Honestly I have no idea if Erik can regain his 33pts in 69 games as a rookie; he has certainly gone downhill every year since then. I like his two way game and I think on a more offensive team he could really emerge. Playing for the Blues and then Avs doesn't do a lot to open up offensive creativity.

I've been racking my brain trying to think of early 20s Dmen that would be worth a top 2 pick. Obviously Karlsson pops into my head every time but I don't see Ottawa trading him.

I wonder if the kings would deal Doughty for 2nd overall + MPS... /dreaming

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#59 Time Travelling Sean
March 01 2012, 05:16PM
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Goal tending situation is simple. Sign an ok goalie who makes the save when he has to. Like what Florida did with Theodore or Phoenix did with Mike Smith, or STL did with Halak and Elliott. SJ with Niemi, Chicago with Crawford.

If these goalies played for Columbus, or the Flames they would be in the AHL or learning Swedish.

We just need a goalie that can stop a slapshot with no screen, and is being shot 35 feet away from a 4th line forward with 2 goals when we're down 1-0 to a staunch defensive orientated team like STL, how hard can it be?

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#60 FastOil
March 01 2012, 05:32PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

Be it known to all of man that on this First day in March, Two Thousand and Twelve in the year of our Lord, our friend Obbie has seen the light.

Welcome to the darkside Obbie.

PRV/Gagner,Plante and the Oilers first in 2013 for....don't want to say it while David has that gun in his hand.

Keep the 2013 and give 2012. MacKinnon and Monahan are in the 2013 draft and Mac is miles better than Grigorenko. Mac is basically keeping up to Grig and is nearly a year and a half younger. That is a big deal at that age. Plus there is no KHL leverage with them come deal time. If we don't tank bad enough Monahan is still in the draft and is at least as good as G.

Plus if we are going for a trade for a D, this is the D draft which might be appealing to a GM losing one.

As Muji said, why trade for a D when you can sign one? If Suter won't take the cash from ATMbellini (props Dellow) who is notorious for overpaying, look at a trade then or even better, wait for another UFA.

For the team to get better, they have to retain good players and find more. Can't just make swaps like they did with Gilbert - that is just spinning wheels at best.

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#61 DieHard
March 01 2012, 05:37PM
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Weber's got 1 more year with RFA status after this season. He will probably get another 1 year contract and be UFA after that. That is when we go after him for long term (front loaded 8-10 year). I think Katz has some kind of relationship (good friends) with his family. Maybe something is there?? We don't need to do anything until then but improve internally.

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#62 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 01 2012, 06:07PM
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@FastOil

I think the Oilers need a kid who'll step into the lineup next year and help right away. If they do finish strong and fall out of the top 4 in June then they're probably end up with a Cam Fowler type of D'man who'll bring modest success, but it won't be enough to make the Oilers a playoff team next spring. Grabbing Grig would give the Oilers two fairly reliable scoring lines. There's always the possibility there's no hockey next season as well, a poor finish this year could pay off bigtime in 2013.

It may appear greedy but i'd be taking the BPA and don't be concerned with needs. Draft the BPA and trade to address areas of weakness. Hope for a first round playoff exit in Nashville and watch things fall apart there over the next yr or so. I don't think they did near enough before the deadline to make those guys want to hang around.

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#63 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
March 01 2012, 06:32PM
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FastOil wrote:

Keep the 2013 and give 2012. MacKinnon and Monahan are in the 2013 draft and Mac is miles better than Grigorenko. Mac is basically keeping up to Grig and is nearly a year and a half younger. That is a big deal at that age. Plus there is no KHL leverage with them come deal time. If we don't tank bad enough Monahan is still in the draft and is at least as good as G.

Plus if we are going for a trade for a D, this is the D draft which might be appealing to a GM losing one.

As Muji said, why trade for a D when you can sign one? If Suter won't take the cash from ATMbellini (props Dellow) who is notorious for overpaying, look at a trade then or even better, wait for another UFA.

For the team to get better, they have to retain good players and find more. Can't just make swaps like they did with Gilbert - that is just spinning wheels at best.

It's pretty sad that we are already talking about next years top 1-2 draft picks.

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#64 SteadyEd
March 01 2012, 06:32PM
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I'm thinking that the Oilers are banking on not having a shot at either of the two Russians. It would back them into a BPA corner- and there is too much uncertainty with these two. They'll take Reinhart at #4 by trading down, or abandon this years pick altogether to pick-up a D and/or a goalie. Reinhart is the only option.

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#65 Time Travelling Sean
March 01 2012, 08:17PM
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SteadyEd wrote:

I'm thinking that the Oilers are banking on not having a shot at either of the two Russians. It would back them into a BPA corner- and there is too much uncertainty with these two. They'll take Reinhart at #4 by trading down, or abandon this years pick altogether to pick-up a D and/or a goalie. Reinhart is the only option.

Dumba,Murray,Rielly? They're just dead to you? Oh and why is there uncertainty with Grig or Nail? They're not playing in the KHL or Russian juniors or w/e when they could, they're playing in N.America because they want a shot to play in the NHL? So why is it an issue with those two?

Ovie and Malkin are still here aren't they?

Oh and Quicksilver is right, easier and faster to develop forwards and trade them than it is to wait and see if defencemen develop, and Jack Johnson/Cam Barker are recent examples of #3 overall picks not doing so well.

You can throw in Erik Johnson and Bogosian, though it's early for Bogo.

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#66 Walter Sobchak
March 01 2012, 10:02PM
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@Next up, is Connor McJesus.

It's not greedy quick! It's just sound logical thinking! You always draft BPA! Never draft from a weakness that you can address from a trade or UFA pick up. Those who say not to draft Grigorenko I just don't understand where your going to find a 6'4 210 pound gifted natural center?

Defense is by far easier to obtain via UFA-trade.

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#67 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
March 01 2012, 10:58PM
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Walter Sobchak wrote:

It's not greedy quick! It's just sound logical thinking! You always draft BPA! Never draft from a weakness that you can address from a trade or UFA pick up. Those who say not to draft Grigorenko I just don't understand where your going to find a 6'4 210 pound gifted natural center?

Defense is by far easier to obtain via UFA-trade.

It may look like Grigorenko now but whomever the scouts give their blessing to at years end should be the way to go. Not the Oilers scouts, but the concensus No.1 pick from the other numerous agencies out there. Outside of Eberle i don't see many the Oilers have gotten right yet, not counting Hall and Hopkins of course. I don't think we're out of the woods yet with the Oilers scouting staff.

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#68 SteadyEd
March 01 2012, 11:08PM
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@Time Travelling Sean

I'm not a scout but from what I've read I get the impression Dumba is undersized and reckless, Murray is undersized and over-rated, and Rielly is a poor-mans version of Reinhart. I would consider Nail but I've got a funny feeling that the pick would be worth more on the market than he would be as an asset for the Oilers. Grig is going to be a head-case IMO- stay away.

Ovie has all the skill in the world. Too bad he's wasting it. I used to like him but now I think he's a clown (fat and happy). Same goes for Kovalchuck- he single handedly has destroyed NJ.

Malkin is fantastic. Him and Zubov are the only two elite professionals I can think of to come out of Russia in a long time- good teammates. (Fedarov and Kovalev were as good as they get but only in it for themselves.)

My original opinion was predicated on my belief that If we continue to play well and stay healthy Columbus, Montreal and NYI will finish behind us. We're not a 30th or 29th place team this year. I think the organization would be disappointed to be picking 1 or 2.

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#69 Reg Dunlop
March 01 2012, 11:32PM
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@Walter Sobchak

Where can you find a 6'4" centre, gifted and natural? Jason Bonsignore isn't busy. Drafting a player of questionable character, and Russian to boot, this early in round 1 smells like disaster to me. Plus, if obtaining good 1 or 2 dmen was just as easy as trading our non-untouchables or signing free agents-Heatly anyone- the oil wouldn't suck and swallow now. We must not blow this years 1st round pick. How about trading it to Columbus for their 1st next year? I like Mackinnon alot more than comrades Yakupov or Grigorenko.

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#70 Walter Sobchak
March 02 2012, 03:05AM
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@Reg Dunlop

How the hell would you know about his character? You realize this player is being coached by Patrick Roy? You do realize he played the WJC on a broken foot too right!! If thats not tough, guttsy, and shows character, then I dont know what is! He came over from Russia at 15 so he could learn the language and the North Americain game! And he's just going to mail it in? Quit? Go back to Russia? So what if he's Russian? What the hell does that have to do with anything? You sound like Don Chery! You have a number of the top scouts saying that this kid could be the next Malkin, and you don't want him because he's Russian?? This isn't the old days dude! Bonsignore! That's your comparison?

You don't want to blow the pick, but you want to trade that pick in exchange for the BJ's 1st next year? Do you honestly think that is a trade they make?

I would take this kid over Yakupov! He's got more to his game. Check out MacKenzie mid year draft rankings then tell me if this kid has questionable character. We have assets to obtain a quality top 1-2 D-man.

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#71 gcw_rocks
March 02 2012, 09:18AM
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JW: I completely agree with you! I have been making the same case on this blog and others when people line up saying you can't trade Hemsky because he is great and you can't trade Gagner because he will be great. Sooner or later if you want to fix that defence, you gotta give up a quality asset to get a quality asset back.

It would send a bad message to the market to trade Hemsky now, right after signing an extension. The Oilers have a bad reputation for how they deal with veteran players and the Hemsky signing shows the NHL players and agents that may be changing.

So, that leaves trading Hall, RNH, Eberle, Gagner or this year's 1st round pick. Unless we are getting Doughty, Keith, Weber, or a re-signed Suter back, I am not sure I would trade Hall, RNH, or Eberle.

So, come draft time I would be pitching the 1st and Gagner and see what the returns could be for either. Grigorenko seems like a special talent, so I would lean to trading Gagner.

Of course, if the Oilers won the lottery and got Yakupov, I would sit tight for a year and trade Hemsky next summer instead. For 2012/2013 I would use the Carolina method to bridge the gap.

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#72 hamzinoilcntry
March 02 2012, 09:19AM
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And why are we so worried about russians? Pretty sure I would have taken Fedorov, Constantinov (sp) and every other Russian that detroit had in the 90's. Hell if he would help out the team I'd let Tretiak don the pads. You take the best player available to you when your name is called to the podium. If that means Grig or Yak, if the oil are in that spot you grab them.

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