KIDS AREN’T GOING TO SOLVE EDMONTON’S DEFENSIVE PROBLEMS

Jonathan Willis
January 23 2014 10:39AM

Going back at least as far as the day the Edmonton Oilers drafted Sam Gagner, fans of the team have been taught to place their reliance in young up-and-comers. 

It is an easy mindset to fall into on defence, where the problems are many and top prospect Aaron Ekblad may join an already strong prospect group at this summer's draft. As tempting as it sounds, general manager Craig MacTavish cannot afford to make the mistake of falling into the trap of thinking the solution is youth.

The primary problem has to do with timelines. 

Edmonton's NHL team has been in rebuild for a long time. Whether one subscribes to the party-approved line that the rebuild started with the drafting of Taylor Hall in 2010 or instead places the date at Chris Pronger's departure for Anaheim, futility has been the order of the day for far too long. The fans are unruly, and the only way to turn it around is with winning.

Another factor is what Lowetide likes to call the heart of the order - players like Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the like - who are now established as NHL players. Hall's being paid to produce like a first-liner, as is right wing Jordan Eberle. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will join them next season. These players are tremendously talented and entering the prime years of their careers but if they aren't supported - and soon - the Oilers run the risk of losing them. Edmonton has already lost the cheapest years for that trio, which poses its own problem (Chicago won the first Stanley Cup for the modern era Blackhawks while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were still on their entry-level deals).

So with the clock running on its young stars and the fanbase's mood already turned to ugly, the Oilers have to start making considerable progress right now. To do that, they need good defencemen. 

Time & Opportunity 

There may not be a steeper learning curve at any position in hockey than there is on defence and the examples of players really putting things together after two, three or even four seasons of NHL hockey abound. Additionally, an organization can only devote so much space to prospect defencemen if they want to win.

A good example is the Oklahoma City Barons. At the start of the year the team's defence was pegged as a great strength and why not - with some strong second-year pros (Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun, Brad Hunt and Brandon Davidson), a guy the Oilers felt might be NHL-ready (Oscar Klefbom), an actual NHL'er (Philip Larsen) and some extremely talented rookies (Martin Gernat and David Musil) pushing for time the Barons should have been set; they could ice two top pairings, and force the kids to fight with older guys like Hunt and Davidson for ice time

It hasn't worked out that way. Call-ups and injuries and regression (particularly on the part of Davidson) mean that for much of the year the Barons have relied on three rookies - one for each pairing. That's not a problem for the Oilers - these guys need at-bats and the AHL is a developmental league - but it's a big part of the reason who the Barons are four points out of a playoff spot.

The NHL is even more punishing. Oilers fans have seen first hand how a defenceman coming off college and an incredibly dominant AHL run struggled to adapt to second-pair and now first-pair minutes. They saw Ladislav Smid find his way in the majors after being pushed there well before he was ready.

Edmonton doesn't have a top-pairing defenceman right now. Even if Schultz is penciled in for a top-pair role next season on the assumption that he can handle it, the Oilers need a top-pair guy to complement him. Andrew Ference isn't that guy, and it's crazy to think Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin or Aaron Ekblad will be either. The first three (and the fourth, if drafted) may evolve into the role but the Oilers need is immediate. 

As it is, phasing in prospects like those listed above (to say nothing of Gernat or Musil or Dillon Simpson) is going to result in growing pains, which means the Oilers will need to lean on experienced guys who can play hard minutes to off-set the talented youth. Jeff Petry and Andrew Ference might be those guys on the lower pairs, but there has to be somebody topside who can cast a long shadow for the other pairs while they figure things out. The Oilers don't have anybody like that, and may not for years.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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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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#201 toprightcorner
January 23 2014, 05:08PM
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No way any team can be competitive with more than 3 defencemen with less than 2 years NHL experience. No competitive team adds more than 1 rookie dman per year.

If Marincin, Fedun and Klefbaum are all ready to go next year, then they should hold one back for a callup, trade 1 in package for #1 dman and bring only 1 up to the NHL. I think Klefbaum is the only one that could be added to a package including Gagner that would bring a #1 dman.

adding rookies would potentially look like this

2014 - Marincin or Fedun(likely only one will be NHL regular) 2015 - Nurse 2016 - Gernat or Musil or Davidson (likely only 1 will be NHL regular) 2017 - not yet with team

This makes the assumption that this years 1st is traded which it should be done.

MacT needs to add a #1 and another top 4. bring in older veteran that competes hard like Sarich, Hannah, Tallinder or Murray for 1 year as a 6/7

So far going with youth hasn't worked well up front so cant make the same mistake on the backend

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#202 Dave
January 23 2014, 05:55PM
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Mustangheart wrote:

Penner was the most useless Oilers in the franchise history especially when you have a guy with his size and weight. Can't skate, doesn't hit, doesn't stand in front of the goalie to screen. Absolutely useless.

No not at all. There were plenty worse Oilers than him. He was just more inconsistent then most.

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#203 Dave
January 23 2014, 06:00PM
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pkam wrote:

How much will Gagner get? Nobody really knows.

4 years ago, Garbagekov got us a 2nd rounder. An aged and slow overpaid Staios got us a 3rd rounder and Aaron Johnson. And Penner got us a 1st, a 2nd and a prospect.

2011, Cogliano got us a 2nd rounder.

Last season, we got Mike Brown for a 4th rounder.

Earlier this year, Mike Brown got us a 4th rounder.

At trade deadline last season, the Sharks got 2 2nd rounders for Doug Murray.

I don't how much the other teams are willing to pay, but I am not trading him away for just a 3rd rounder.

What if the Oilers wanted to create more room to sign a UFA this summer ?

I nominated Gagner as my goat this year but I would not be surprised to see him perform at a higher level when his new coaches demand more of him.

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#204 Striker
January 23 2014, 08:43PM
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@Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

You're very well spoken sir.

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#205 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 08:47PM
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@Mitch

No one bothers to call Eli Manning smart, because they know it’s not an anomaly that a white quarterback is intelligent. Yet some dreadlocked black cornerback has a slightly above-average intelligence, and every sportswriter bends over backwards to call him a genius and articulate .

To quote George W. Bush: this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

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#207 Striker
January 23 2014, 09:30PM
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@Jeffff

Ahhh, it was only a matter of time. I didn't think someone would actually go there but you did.

"not an anomaly that a white quarterback is intelligent"

And the cherry on top, you quote George W. Bush as wise sage that justifies your ridiculous stereotype.

Well played sir...well played.

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#208 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 09:34PM
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Striker wrote:

Ahhh, it was only a matter of time. I didn't think someone would actually go there but you did.

"not an anomaly that a white quarterback is intelligent"

And the cherry on top, you quote George W. Bush as wise sage that justifies your ridiculous stereotype.

Well played sir...well played.

I'm sorry you don't understand what i'm getting at. Don't grab the low hanging fruit , think a little.

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#209 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 09:38PM
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Jeffff wrote:

I'm sorry you don't understand what i'm getting at. Don't grab the low hanging fruit , think a little.

I'm in a generous mood. Why did so many sportswriters go on to say Sherman is a genius, articulate and went to Stanford? Why do you need to say that you wouldn't ,if this was a White player. It is because he is Black they are making excuses.

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#210 Striker
January 23 2014, 09:46PM
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@Jeffff

I think I grasped exactly what you're trying to say.

"No one bothers to call Eli Manning smart, because they know it’s not an anomaly that a white quarterback is intelligent. "

Ok so white athlete's are generally intelligent (i.e. not an anomoly)

"Yet some dreadlocked black cornerback"

Dreadlocked....ok

"has a slightly above-average intelligence, and every sportswriter bends over backwards to call him a genius and articulate ."

Ok so it's rare for black athlete's to have "above average intelligence" and because that is so rare, people go to pains to point that out.

"To quote George W. Bush: this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ej7ZEnjSeA

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#211 Striker
January 23 2014, 10:03PM
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@Jeffff

I'm not a fan of Obama or Bush so that really doesn't do much for me. I regret throwing that video clip at the end of my comment because it lets you off the hook since you don't have to address the racism inherent in your comments that perhaps you're likely not even aware of.

Did I interpret your comments correctly in my post or did you mean something else by them?

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#212 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 10:25PM
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Striker wrote:

I see you're not going to answer my question about whether I interpreted your comments correctly in post #217.

It's a good tactic to deflect the question and ask me to define racism or to quote the academic credentials of Bush.

That's fine, you don't have to answer obviously, it's the internet after all. I'll just let the conversation sit where it is and people can judge for themselves.

PS Sorry to everyone for going off on a sidebar that wasn't really about the article. Just though I had to address that comment. Some days I let comments like those pass by. Just didn't feel like letting it pass by today.

I'm done, this is a hockey blog, I do believe in facts even if they don't coincide with my beliefs.

I believe Affirmative Action is reverse racism.

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#213 Zarny
January 24 2014, 10:54AM
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Great article. JW is 100% right. Not only for the short term but for the long term.

In the short term, it will be an unmitigated disaster if rookies play significant minutes on D. This year will look like rainbows and puppy dogs by comparison.

More importantly, it will hurt the long term development of prospects like Nurse and Klefbom etc.

Young players struggle at times. Mostly with consistency. On nights when they struggle you need to be able to pull them out of the deep end so they can catch their breath.

We've seen the opposite with Hall, Nuge, Eberle, Schultz etc. On nights where they struggle they get thrown back in the deep end to take on more water. The get overwhelmed, they get frustrated, they lose confidence and it snowballs.

It's not about win right now damn the cost. It's about setting up young players and the franchise to succeed for the next 10-15 years.

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#214 Zarny
January 24 2014, 11:09AM
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If you look at Keith, Weber, Pietrangelo and Letang you see commonalities.

All of them took 3-4 years to make the jump to the NHL. Many did play significant minutes in their first full year but all were supported by veteran D and they weren't tasked with the most difficult defensive assignments.

During Keith's first full year Chi had Spacek and Aucoin. Pietrangelo averaged 22 min/game his first full year but still trailed Brewer and Johnson.

Letang was drafted in 2005 but his first full year was 2008-2009 when Pit won the Cup. Letang was only 22. The rest of the D blueline were Gonchar (35), Boucher (36), Eaton (32), Gill (34), Scuderi (30), Orpik (28) and Goligoski (23).

You don't have to mortgage the future for stop-gaps. They might not be the sexiest names and they might not be the perfect fit.

They need to be able to take pressure off of the young kids, cover for their mistakes when needed, mentor the young kids and then likely traded away or allowed to leave just like Spacek, Aucoin, Brewer, Johnson, Gonchar, Boucher, Eaton, Gill, Scuderi and Goligoski.

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#215 Lil Breezy
January 24 2014, 11:20AM
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Put me down for not mortgaging the future as well.

I think bringing in mid-level stopgaps like Errhoff wont cost much, will fill a hole in the meantime, while we can develop our future dmen in Nurse, Klef, Ekblad.

Sign one UFA 4D, trade mild assets for Errhoff or Widemans bad contracts, and that will help without mortgaging the future.

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#216 Zarny
January 24 2014, 03:50PM
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pkam wrote:

I don't know what the team has to pay for any of the players you listed.

But somebody here suggested to trade Eberle in a package for players like Ehrhoff or Byfuglien to bridge the gap.

I'll rather overpay to sign UFA.

What do you think? How about if we can't UFA, it is worthy to trade Eberle and some prospect for Ehrhoff or Byfuglien?

It depends on the package. In general I'm aiming higher than Ehrhoff and Buf if I'm moving one of the kids. The only way I would consider including Eberle is if Ladd, Wheeler, Kane or Ott were involved.

Luckily I think there are deals for Ehrhoff or Byfuglien that don't require Eberle or Yak. Gagner apparently has fans in Buf. Gagner + Marincin + a pick might get it done.

The only pending UFA I really like is Girardi. If I was MacT he would be top of my list right now. I expect he gets traded and signs. I don't think he'll cost a 1st round pick or Eberle/Yak. He's more Seabrook than Keith but he's a legit #2 D. He's the left side top pair until Nurse or Klefbom take over.

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#217 oilerjed
January 23 2014, 11:30AM
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@ JW

There was an article about bringing Harti back the other day. I was wondering if Teemu has had anything to say about this year?

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#218 camdog
January 23 2014, 11:52AM
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@DisappointedFan

I can't recall any forwards being called up and having success on any line in this organization since before Lowe arrived. Horcoff and Pisiani maybe...

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#219 Spydyr
January 23 2014, 01:16PM
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Curcro wrote:

In the last 5 years, the Oilers sit 15th in the NHL (middle of the pack, so not good not bad in 2nd to 7th Rounds Picks playing games)

It is the 2007 and before drafts that they suck at.

Who is number one? I am glad you asked, Anaheim has gotten the most out of its 2nd to 7th Rounders since the 2008 draft.

Stick Tap to Hockeydb.com

Proven wrong... average isn't bad, just average.

So, what teams are those players playing for?

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#220 Ed in Edmotnon
January 23 2014, 01:56PM
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G-Unitmedia wrote:

In a rebuild it would seem important to maintain enough quality veterans to guide the young players around the league. Management has done nothing to address these problems in the past and it doesn't look to be getting better.

You need a veteran player taking the media questions after tough losses, showing the work and dedication required to win in short being Shawn Horcoff. I know that many Oiler fans, myself included, were tired of watching his overpaid butt on the ice, but it was almost always the overpaid part that bugs us. Instead we keep a habitually out of shape Ryan Smyth. He has never been in shape, takes the stupidest penalties, has an average peewee shot and hasn't won a battle outside of the crease area since '94. He has had heart and guts for years, but beyond that he doesn't bring anything to the table.

The fact that Eakins has him on the penalty kill is an insult to every other player in that dressing room.

So you are saying that they should be insulted that an aging 38 year old has been is still better at PK than most others on the team?

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#221 Ed in Edmoton
January 23 2014, 02:04PM
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A-Mc wrote:

Yet how many times has Del Zotto been mentioned as being a good person to look into acquiring for the Oilers?

He has perceived value for THIS team, yet in your example he's part of "trading a problem" ?

Del Zotto was a problem for the Rangers, that's the point.

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#222 Johnnydapunk
January 23 2014, 02:17PM
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Does anyone know when do players technically become free agents? I'm asking as the rule for trying to sign RFAs is that teams recieve picks as compensation and I can't find out what year those picks would be for.

If it is for the 2014 draft, the Oil have traded all of their picks away (except the 1st) that could be used as compensation so they wouldn't be able to go after any RFAs. But if compensation is for the 2015 draft, the Oil have a chance I guess at sending some offer sheets out.

Any ideas?

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#223 bored
January 23 2014, 02:49PM
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Walter Sobchak wrote:

would you rather have a Draisaitl at 2C or Gagner?

The way Gagner has played this year is nothing short of unremarkable.

Having said that Gagner is a PRO and Draisaitl is a amateur, huge difference.

There's a bid to huge learning curve.

Do I think Draisaitl is going to be better then Gagner two years from now?

Yes.

The years of wanting multiple first round picks are over. We need players that are capable of playing in the NHL today and if we have to give up some future prospects to get them, than we do so. Drooling over junior hockey players is a step backwards.

We should try to trade the pick for proven talent, but if nothing fair or useful comes to fruition, than draft the best player who fulfill the biggest need.

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#224 Gored 1970
January 23 2014, 02:53PM
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I thought that since defensemen take longer to develop (if you're doing development the right way and not rushing things) the rule of thumb was to draft forwards and trade for defence.

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#225 A-Mc
January 23 2014, 02:56PM
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Gored 1970 wrote:

I thought that since defensemen take longer to develop (if you're doing development the right way and not rushing things) the rule of thumb was to draft forwards and trade for defence.

A while back i posted all the top 2 D (in TOI) for each team and how they were acquired by their respective teams (Trade, UFA, Drafted).

The glaring truth of the matter was that top defensemen most often were drafted by the team they are playing for.

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#226 reaperfunkss (2nd tier fan)
January 23 2014, 04:52PM
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The Hockey world feels our pain

http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nhl-puck-daddy/puck-daddy-presents-kiss-lowe-frustrated-oilers-fans-201608374--nhl.html

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#227 justthestatsman
January 23 2014, 05:19PM
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Mustangheart wrote:

Penner was the most useless Oilers in the franchise history especially when you have a guy with his size and weight. Can't skate, doesn't hit, doesn't stand in front of the goalie to screen. Absolutely useless.

I know Penner was frustrating to watch but my recollection is that in 2009-10 anyway he was one of the only Oilers that would stand in front of the net. There were lots of times he didn't get any points, but he was directly responsible for goals by "blocking out the sun" as LT would say. On the rare occasions he did get riled up he could ragdoll just about anyone. Unfortunately he often didn't seem interested.

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#228 justthestatsman
January 23 2014, 05:28PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

That's the same Brian Campbell who helped bridge a gap in Chicago, right?

The same Dustin Byfuglien who stands 6'5", weighs 265 pounds and plays tough minutes every night?

The same Christian Ehrhoff who played big minutes on five multi-series playoff runs?

Maybe you're right, and the Oilers blue line would only be improved if they can somehow add a 6'3", 230 pound guy (or bigger) who can play 25 minutes a night. That's not the Oilers' blue I've seen, and I haven't seen the player you want popping up in trade rumours.

Improvement is needed. Stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I agree. I'm not sure it's possible for the Oilers to hit the home run the stud #1 LD/RD in a trade. We may need to trade our way up with singles and doubles. There's no quantity of 5/6/7 Defense we have that can be turned into a #1 without selling the farm with the kids.

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#229 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 09:56PM
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Striker wrote:

I think I grasped exactly what you're trying to say.

"No one bothers to call Eli Manning smart, because they know it’s not an anomaly that a white quarterback is intelligent. "

Ok so white athlete's are generally intelligent (i.e. not an anomoly)

"Yet some dreadlocked black cornerback"

Dreadlocked....ok

"has a slightly above-average intelligence, and every sportswriter bends over backwards to call him a genius and articulate ."

Ok so it's rare for black athlete's to have "above average intelligence" and because that is so rare, people go to pains to point that out.

"To quote George W. Bush: this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ej7ZEnjSeA

That is it. How about this

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHIUdMVN_V0

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#230 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 10:07PM
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Striker wrote:

I'm not a fan of Obama or Bush so that really doesn't do much for me. I regret throwing that video clip at the end of my comment because it lets you off the hook since you don't have to address the racism inherent in your comments that perhaps you're likely not even aware of.

Did I interpret your comments correctly in my post or did you mean something else by them?

Please define racism?

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#231 Striker
January 23 2014, 10:09PM
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@Jeffff

Did I interpret your comments correctly in my post?

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#232 Jeffff
January 23 2014, 10:12PM
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Jeffff wrote:

That is it. How about this

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHIUdMVN_V0

Bush does have a MBA from Harvard and graduated from Yale. How about you?

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#233 pkam
January 24 2014, 08:52AM
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Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty) wrote:

I don't think there's any way that the Oilers are trading Gagner for picks. I can see them trading Hemsky for picks maybe (only because they seem eager to move him)....but Gagner has got to return established talent or they keep him for another year....that's my sense of the situation. Seems likely that it would be Gagner plus a good prospect for one player coming back.

I am not suggesting the Oilers are going to trade Gagner for picks. I am just responding to those fans saying Gagner doesn't even worth a 3rd rounder.

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#234 pkam
January 24 2014, 08:57AM
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Lofty wrote:

Getting rid of Sam's contract is a win. Use that money somewhere else.

When you consider the Oil's games in hand they're tied for DFL. I have no idea who they can replace Gags with that will be available as a UFA but even if it's Arco, losing Sam without bringing back a sizable contract won't hurt much. His contract will really hurt in a couple years. Especially with a no trade.

It would be real easy to get rid of Sam's contract, just put him on waiver.

If he is not claimed, like Souray, then we know it is a bad contract like you suggest.

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#235 pkam
January 24 2014, 09:21AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I'm a guy who believes winning begets lots of good things, including accelerated development and more winning.

Look at a guy like Nail Yakupov, who everybody loved a year ago. On a team like this, once something goes bad it goes *really bad*. You can say the same things about Sam Gagner and Jeff Petry and practically half the roster.

If the team's more successful, the individual criticism on those guys is less. If the team's better, guys can be developed more frequently in roles they're ready for, facing less of a baptism by fire. If the team wins a few games it lessens the risk of a young guy tuning out or losing hope. That's to say nothing of the development value of having another good, veteran D.

It is imperative that the Oilers show progress, and bringing in a guy who can play big minutes, offer a little shelter to the youth and spark an improvement is an important step, even if that guy ends up getting traded elsewhere before the team really has success.

At least, that's how I see it.

I am not against getting some veteran D help, I just want to confirm that you are not suggesting that it will speed up the rebuild.

In fact, I support the idea. I am so tired of reading the negative comments and hearing the calls for the head of Lowe, MacT, Eakins, and some players here. I am sure this will help the situation.

Just don't mortgage our future for short term #2/3. I absolutely don't want to go back to pre-2010 era.

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#236 pkam
January 24 2014, 11:35AM
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Zarny wrote:

If you look at Keith, Weber, Pietrangelo and Letang you see commonalities.

All of them took 3-4 years to make the jump to the NHL. Many did play significant minutes in their first full year but all were supported by veteran D and they weren't tasked with the most difficult defensive assignments.

During Keith's first full year Chi had Spacek and Aucoin. Pietrangelo averaged 22 min/game his first full year but still trailed Brewer and Johnson.

Letang was drafted in 2005 but his first full year was 2008-2009 when Pit won the Cup. Letang was only 22. The rest of the D blueline were Gonchar (35), Boucher (36), Eaton (32), Gill (34), Scuderi (30), Orpik (28) and Goligoski (23).

You don't have to mortgage the future for stop-gaps. They might not be the sexiest names and they might not be the perfect fit.

They need to be able to take pressure off of the young kids, cover for their mistakes when needed, mentor the young kids and then likely traded away or allowed to leave just like Spacek, Aucoin, Brewer, Johnson, Gonchar, Boucher, Eaton, Gill, Scuderi and Goligoski.

I don't know what the team has to pay for any of the players you listed.

But somebody here suggested to trade Eberle in a package for players like Ehrhoff or Byfuglien to bridge the gap.

I'll rather overpay to sign UFA.

What do you think? How about if we can't UFA, it is worthy to trade Eberle and some prospect for Ehrhoff or Byfuglien?

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#237 Seth
January 25 2014, 02:29PM
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Start the rebuild by trading for Sean Couturier.

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