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, 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 camdog
January 23 2014, 11:36AM
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oilerjed wrote:

The problem with the statement is, who is going to teach these young players that we are developing? Coaching is fine, but the real learning comes on the ice with an experienced mentor. Which means trade or free agency.

That's pretty much what Steve Staois said when the organization said they were going to get rid of all the veterans. I remember when people would get mad at guys like Moreau when they gave their exit interviews, seems like many of these players were right about management was doing and the vision of the organization was faulty.

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#203 Tikkanese
January 23 2014, 11:47AM
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gm_armchair wrote:

I heard Jason Strudwick mention on his show last night that Dan Girardi might become expendable by the Rangers now that they traded for Klein who plays a similar role. Girardi while not a true top pairing guy, would still fit in very nicely and bring some much needed veteran leadership in the Oilers top four. I wonder what it would take to trade for that guy..

So Girardi who either leads the league or is in the top 5 in TOI nearly every year is not a top pairing defenseman?

He's also a UFA at the end of the year. Unless he comes very cheap, or in one of those sign and trade deals, there is no use trading for him in this wasted season.

That all said, I hope we do get him here and signed.

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#204 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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#205 Dog Train
January 23 2014, 11:58AM
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Playing in the top pairing is not the place for a young Dman to learn the ropes in the NHL. I think Mactavish is smart enough to realize this. After all, if Tambellini was allowed to put together this year's team, one of Klefbom or Nurse would have likely been rushed to the NHL. Now guys like Belov, Larsen and Grebeshkov haven't exactly worked out but at least we didn't risk stunting the development of some of our top D prospects. Ideally, I would like to see us add two left side D and move Ference to play with Fedun on the third pairing. Maybe give Nurse his 9 games, let Marincin and Klefbom battle for their callups and if Ekblad is drafted, send him back to junior.

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#206 pkam
January 23 2014, 12:01PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

The team needs to find a stop-gap, a guy like Ehrhoff or Campbell or Byfuglien who won't fill the job permanently but can stop the bleeding for a while and buy time for the guys who eventually replace him.

So this temporary band-aid player probably will help us get out of the basement and become a playoff bubble team, like the Jets?

So if we have to develop our own top pairing D, does it mean we won't be able to become a cup contender until Nurse, J. Schultz, Klefbom, Marincin, Ekblad if we draft him mature into our top 4, which is at least 4-5 years away, right?

In other word, it won't change the timetable, just reduce the pain in the next 4-5 years?

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#207 A-Mc
January 23 2014, 03:10PM
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DisappointedFan wrote:

I'll agree to disagree on Sammy Snowpants.

Regardless coming up with a catchy phrase for doing bad and McDavid....it's a tough one, if you can think of one I'd like to hear it.

Best I have is "lurid for McDavid", doesn't roll off the tongue though.

McDavid is a centerman I'd be happy to draft as "Normal Sized". He's no monster but his skill level is worth it, or appears to be thus far!

Lets be honest, we'll likely be in the dumpster next year also so McDavid is a real possibility!

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#208 primeau
January 23 2014, 04:21PM
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Then should a complete rebuild start at drafting the blueline? Would'nt that be considered a plan. Does anyone know what the plan is or was exactly in edmonton? And I mean details, milestones and contingents. Did they think 20 year old kids were going to put this team on their backs and succeed with out proven top minute defense or a goalie. I find it hard to believe no one in the organization seen this coming

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#209 Lofty
January 23 2014, 04:31PM
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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.

Patrick O'Sullivan....

Drops mic

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#210 primeau
January 23 2014, 04:34PM
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Then should a complete rebuild start at drafting the blueline? Would'nt that be considered a plan. Does anyone know what the plan is or was exactly in edmonton? And I mean details, milestones and contingents. Did they think 20 year old kids were going to put this team on their backs and succeed with out proven top minute defense or a goalie. I find it hard to believe no one in the organization seen this coming

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#211 DisappointedFan
January 23 2014, 04:38PM
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@Lofty

Only Patrick O'Sullivan could miss a wide open net from a foot away...and Craig Smith.

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#212 Lofty
January 23 2014, 04:42PM
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DisappointedFan wrote:

Only Patrick O'Sullivan could miss a wide open net from a foot away...and Craig Smith.

I don't remember POS ever getting that close to the net but you're right.

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#214 loweblows
January 23 2014, 04:46PM
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I blame Eakins. If he hadn't taken away donuts maybe the team would be heavier. Bring back donuts.

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#215 DisappointedFan
January 23 2014, 04:48PM
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@Jonathan Willis

JW you need to lay off that sarcasm, I can taste it from here.

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#217 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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#218 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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#219 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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#220 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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#221 Todd
January 23 2014, 05:32PM
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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.

The Penner haters are unbelievable.....

Exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_3ZVo7tNCs Exhibit B: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoWdvZdxgiE Exhibit C: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Q87_VKEWwE Exhibit D: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGj4WNXncoI

Ya, no heart. When was the last time you saw anyone do Exhibit B on this Oilers team?!?

Its half a season through and nobody has touched Kassian. Penner b lined straight for Exelby when he hit Hemsky and laid a beating on him. Doughty destroys Hall and Penner insta fights him. Each clip is him instantly responding with his fists to a team mate getting hit.

I'd take Penner back in a heartbeat. This team could use a 240lb skill player willing to throw his weight, with 2 stanley cups and who has led the NHL most of the season in +/-. Is he perfect, obviously not or a guy of his size and skill would be making $8 mil.

But its clowns like you who boo at games and run our players out of town making sure we just get kids who have no choice to come here and washed up overpaid UFAs.

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#222 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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#223 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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#224 TayLordBalls
January 23 2014, 06:15PM
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"KIDS AREN’T GOING TO SOLVE EDMONTON’S DEFENSIVE PROBLEMS"

Yes they are!

It may take a few more years, but it will get done and when this team has matured - its going to be spectacular!

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#225 Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)
January 23 2014, 07:07PM
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There are NO easy outs here. We've dug ourselves into a 30th place hole. There is a price to pay for that. If we have patience and develop from within the pain comes in the form of time...several more years as a non-contender. If we want build a contender now, before moving into the new barn, the pain comes in the form of trading assets for something slightly less than fair market value. It means giving up players that we've already bonded with, losing a couple of prospects, a couple of stars ( like Ebbs and Yak) and a couple of picks including top 5 in 2014.

I think that perhaps there are three types of people in this conversation. Those who preach patience, those who preach gitter done now, and those like me who see the pain coming either way and just can't decide which pill to swallow.

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#226 Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)
January 23 2014, 07:20PM
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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.

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.

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#227 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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#228 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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#229 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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#230 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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#231 Zarny
January 24 2014, 10:48AM
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pkam wrote:

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.

Absolutely some veteran D will speed up the rebuild.

And I'm not talking about mortgaging the future.

There is no future where Nurse, Klefbom, Marincin, Ekblad and all the young prospects are the Oilers blueline.

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#232 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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#233 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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#234 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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#235 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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#236 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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#237 Seth
January 25 2014, 02:29PM
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Start the rebuild by trading for Sean Couturier.

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