Position of Strength

Jonathan Willis
February 03 2014 10:29AM

The Edmonton Oilers need to make big changes in the summer, and with a weak free agent crop most of those changes are going to have to come via trade. Given that, it seems highly likely that the team will raid one of the few positions of strength available to it: a strong group of blue line prospects.

The List

The Oilers currently have an impressive list of talented but young and/or inexperienced defencemen in the organization. The chart above shows my thoughts on the system; I’ve seen lots of most of the guys on this list but I am significantly less familiar with the Nurse, Simpson, Gustafsson, Betker and Laleggia.

I’ve ranked the players in order of the value I’d place on them, with value being a combination of a player’s potential, his likelihood of attaining it and how quickly he can contribute in the NHL. There is a fudge factor in the NHL projections – to pick a guy like Nurse, he’s bound to get a cameo next season and may or may not stick; I’ve opted for the earlier date but he may not be NHL-ready until later.

It’s a group that splits nicely into three chunks:

The Top Prospects: The Oilers have six players in this group, and five of them predominately play on the left side (though Simpson told Copper & Blue that he prefers to play on the right). This is an exceptional group and makes up the heart of the Oilers’ prospect pipeline; five guys qualify for my Edmonton prospect list and they all slot into the top-seven.

Depth Guys Now: Fedun, Belov and Larsen are all capable of filling a spot on an NHL roster today, but all suffer from somewhat limited ceilings. Fedun’s the best player of the bunch in my books because he’s incredibly smart and does everything well (though his size may keep him off the Oilers), Belov’s foot speed hampers him but I do wonder if there’s a player there and Larsen’s the kind of guy available on the waiver wire every year.

The Rest: An assortment of players who are either some distance from the NHL or who need to play a specific role or who qualify under both categories.

What To Do, What To Do?

There are a lot of blue-chip players here, and Edmonton might add another one at the draft this year. If the Oilers could have the versions of these players from four years down the road, they would be a much, much better team. Unfortunately for Edmonton, they don’t, and the team only has room to develop a finite number of defencemen at a time.

The team is likely locked-in with Nurse and Schultz in its top-four long-term. There’s no way to fit Marincin, Klefbom, Gernat and Simpson on the blue line, even assuming that they all turn out, and that means one or more of those guys is likely to end up as trade bait for the team. Marincin seems to have passed Klefbom this year and brings more offence to the mix, so Klefbom may be vulnerable (particularly since he’s likely to have significant cachet in trade). Gernat and Simpson are both further away from NHL duty, though, and Simpson is unsigned so those guys might be trade bait, too. The Oilers need high-end help in the worst way, and at least one of these guys is likely to be sacrificed in a package that makes that happen.

Of the middle-tier guys, Larsen seems to be in good with the coaches but is a chaos defender who isn’t a good fit for team need; it’s hard to imagine Edmonton qualifies him though they may bring him back on a two-way deal. The team hasn’t really given Fedun an honest shot; he could be a great number six/seven next year and should be given an opportunity post-Olympics. He’s been fantastic in the AHL. As for Belov, he might be a fit in the six/seven slot next year, or he might be trade bait at the deadline. He’s had some struggles but there’s also a Hejda vibe to him given history and usage, and he’s the only one of these three that brings real size to the mix.

The other guys are all ‘wait-and-see’ types or sweeteners on a multi-player deal. Gustafsson in particular has some nice points and could surprise when he comes over to North America while Musil has pedigree and might be the tough third-pairing guy teams like. Hunt has a wicked shot and is one of those ‘glue guys’ people spend so much time talking about. Betker’s miles away from NHL duty and Laleggia looks like he’ll make it as a power play specialist or not at all.

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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#51 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 01:29PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

You can't control who the best player available is. If you take Erik Gudbranson over Hall because you need a D... yikes.

No, you take the best player and then trade for need.We are all still waiting for that "bold" move.

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#52 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 01:30PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

You can't control who the best player available is. If you take Erik Gudbranson over Hall because you need a D... yikes.

No, you take the best player available and then trade for need.We are all still waiting for that "bold" move.

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#54 S cottV
February 03 2014, 01:32PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Because he can play.

A smart defenceman with good size who can read the play in his own end and move the puck always has value.

Will be very interesting to see if Dillon has his skating at an NHL level.

If so - could definately see him in a future top 4 situation.

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#55 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 01:33PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Hey, I'm completely in favour of moving one of the wingers - it'll probably have to be Eberle or Yakupov - for defensive help.

For sure, but it has to be the right deal. The Oilers getting the best player coming back. Not trading one of the kids for a couple of pieces.

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#56 Zarny
February 03 2014, 01:36PM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

That is the problem. Which ones do you move?

Who is to say which (or any) of the Simpson, Gernat, Klefbom, Nurse, Gustafsson, Musil - hell even Marincin - group are going to be viable to very good NHL d-men?

Nurse is 18, has pedigree and physical tools. I think you have to keep him. That is easy. But no one can definitively say how good (or average) any of the other guys are going to be when they are 25.

No one wants to trade away the next Ryan McDonaugh. I totally understand what you are saying - especially if they draft Ekblad, but I would want to be very careful about packaging young defensemen. Nothing can bite you in the a$$ more.

It very well may happen, even should happen, but this organization does not instill confidence that they can identify talent in young D-men. For the love of "Gord", hire someone from Nashville.

The answer is you don't know. Not with 100% certainty. If you're looking for risk free running a pro sports franchise isn't for you. Neither is trading stocks. You can't let fear of making the wrong move paralyze you from doing anything.

What I do know is waiting for prospects like Nurse, Klefbom, Marinicin, Gernat, Simpson etc to all develop isn't an answer unless you want another 4-5 years of losing.

Nurse looks like a keeper which means Marinicin and Klefbom are battling for the same spot in the top 4. Keep one, trade the other. Which one depends on who you think has the higher ceiling and who potential trade partners want.

Pit has been in a similar spot with several good D prospects the last few years. Last year they parted with Joe Morrow. This year Maata has looked good so they are looking at moving Dupres.

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#57 Randaman
February 03 2014, 01:41PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

A lot could happen; I'd guess this:

Schultz and Marincin make the team.

Nurse gets a nine-game cameo and gets returned to junior. Klefbom starts the year in the AHL but comes up once Nurse is shipped back to the OHL.

Hunt stays on the farm, and one of Belov or Fedun is kept as the No. 7. Larsen either signs a two-way deal or is let go over the summer.

JW, Really? Nurse back to junior where I think he has topped out? Why not send him to OKC if eligible or keep him up and give him 5/6 minutes and let him dictate how fast he progresses. Just a thought...

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#58 Oasis
February 03 2014, 01:45PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

You can't control who the best player available is. If you take Erik Gudbranson over Hall because you need a D... yikes.

Agreed.

But we didn't have to keep taking small forwards. We didn't have to take Yakupov in 2012. I am sure Yak will turn out to be a good player but the point is there (were)are bigger weaknesses on this team. We could have drafted what we needed (Big Centre or Defensemen)or traded down. We didn't have to draft the same type of player that we already had.

It's almost like nobody in this organization is looking ahead. We all look at these franchise defenseman and drool over them wishing that we had one. At the same time, it's said time and time again that you just can't go out and trade for one of them, you have to draft them........and yet until Nurse we didn't.

Who is to blame for that?

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#59 pkam
February 03 2014, 02:01PM
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Randaman wrote:

JW, Really? Nurse back to junior where I think he has topped out? Why not send him to OKC if eligible or keep him up and give him 5/6 minutes and let him dictate how fast he progresses. Just a thought...

I don't think we can send Nurse to OKC until 2015-16. He either makes the NHL, or back to the juniors next season.

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#60 Wonger
February 03 2014, 02:22PM
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Mack Strong wrote:

Agreed John Scott is a menacing force!

We have Gadzic who is proving more than capable and up to the task.

Thoughts on Brian Boyle….Huge guy….can score (a bit).

Would be a nice centre for Joensuu (I think is worth a look again - plays tough and big) and Gadzic.

Massive 4th line.

6'7" BOYLE got beat up by 5'11" BIEKSA. Boyle is a big softie!!!! Bring up PINIZZOTO!!!!!

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#61 pkam
February 03 2014, 02:30PM
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Oasis wrote:

Agreed.

But we didn't have to keep taking small forwards. We didn't have to take Yakupov in 2012. I am sure Yak will turn out to be a good player but the point is there (were)are bigger weaknesses on this team. We could have drafted what we needed (Big Centre or Defensemen)or traded down. We didn't have to draft the same type of player that we already had.

It's almost like nobody in this organization is looking ahead. We all look at these franchise defenseman and drool over them wishing that we had one. At the same time, it's said time and time again that you just can't go out and trade for one of them, you have to draft them........and yet until Nurse we didn't.

Who is to blame for that?

Experience, or statistics, tell us that it is more risky to draft a defense than a forward with top 5 picks.

Bleacher Report rated Chara, Weber, and Keith top 3 defenseman. None of them is top 5 picks, not even 1st rounder. And in top 10, only Doughty is top 5 and Suter is top 10 picks. 3 of the them are mid to late 1st round, the other 5 are 2nd or late rounders. And Lidstrom was a 3rd rounder.

So we can't say the Oilers are not drafting franchise defenseman since we draft Marincin with our 46th overall, Klefbom with our 19th overall, Musil with our 31st overall, and now Nurse with our 7th overall.

In 2012, we could have picked Galchenyuk over Yak. But Galchenyuk was injured and played only 2 games in his draft year so it is a very big risk to gamble.

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#64 Lochenzo
February 03 2014, 02:57PM
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If Marincin plays well at the Olympics, there should be increased interest in him.

Klefbom is coming off missing significant time and had to adjust his game to the North American sheet. Very hard to read how good he will be.

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#65 Johnnydapunk
February 03 2014, 02:59PM
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I am still a fan of Belov, despite this season being a bit difficult for him. I think that a half to full season of the AHL would have done wonders. There is potential in him, and the other advantage that he brings is that he does sign one year deals only, he has stated the reasoning is that he feels that it motivates him to play for his next contract, so in a way I don't know how much money motivates him per se. He is at a good age for a defenceman also, so I think next season he will do a lot better.

What I do wonder though is if the system the Oil play is the same system used for both OKC and Bakersfield, as that would make the transition quite a bit easier since the speed and quality of the game is the biggest difference and ideally a player would develop by starting in the ECHL, then working up to the AHL, then the NHL. Though a system like that needs stability which I hope the Oil get.

In the end, a sacrifice needs to be made to improve the defence as without that, there isn't a goaltender that will improve the Oil's fortunes no matter who they sign.

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#66 Zarny
February 03 2014, 03:12PM
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Spydyr wrote:

In case you have not noticed. This rebuild is not like Pittsburgh or LA'S.

It is more like the Islanders.

The Oilers rebuild is certainly not like Pittsburgh. Although I think Pit is the best example of where the Oilers have erred.

To be fair, Pit was lucky to get Crosby and Malkin. Two generational talents and literally 2 of the best 4 players on the planet. Our kids aren't quite that good.

When Pit won the Cup in '09 only 7 players were younger than 25: Crosby (21), Malkin (22), Staal (20), Fleury (24), Letang (22), Goligoski (23) and Tyler Kennedy.

Half the roster was over 30. The defensive load was carried by Gonchar, Gill and Scuderi. They brought in vets like Guerin, Kunitz, Satan, Sykora, Fedotenko and Cooke. The young kids certainly contributed, but they weren't the be all and end all of the team's success.

In terms of LA's rebuild I would disagree with you.

Dustin Brown was drafted in 2003. They traded prospects & picks for Carter and Richards who were also drafted in 2003. Kopitar and Quick were drafted in 2005. Justin Williams was drafted in 2000.

LA didn't draft Doughty until 2008 and they didn't win the Cup until 2012. If you ignore Williams, they didn't win the Cup until 9 years after they started rebuilding.

Considering Edm started their rebuild 4 years ago I'd actually say there are very much going like LA.

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#67 Walter Sobchak
February 03 2014, 03:27PM
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Zarny wrote:

Irrelevant. Pit didn't develop their D first either.

What they did do was support Crosby, Malkin and Staal etc with solid, veteran D early on.

When Pit won the Cup their blueline consisted of Gonchar (35), Gill (34), Scuderi (30), Boucher (36), Eaton (32), Orpik (28), Letang (22) and Goligoski (23).

There isn't one way or one model to win the Cup. The only requirement is that all of the pieces need to be in place to actually contend.

No, but Chicago did.

Tell me, who has has the better defensive core between Chicago & Pittsburg?

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#68 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 03:40PM
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Zarny wrote:

The answer is you don't know. Not with 100% certainty. If you're looking for risk free running a pro sports franchise isn't for you. Neither is trading stocks. You can't let fear of making the wrong move paralyze you from doing anything.

What I do know is waiting for prospects like Nurse, Klefbom, Marinicin, Gernat, Simpson etc to all develop isn't an answer unless you want another 4-5 years of losing.

Nurse looks like a keeper which means Marinicin and Klefbom are battling for the same spot in the top 4. Keep one, trade the other. Which one depends on who you think has the higher ceiling and who potential trade partners want.

Pit has been in a similar spot with several good D prospects the last few years. Last year they parted with Joe Morrow. This year Maata has looked good so they are looking at moving Dupres.

Thanks for making my point with Despres. He is going to be 23 years old this year. A full 2 - 4 years older than the guys the Oilers are talking about. I am much more comfortable making a decision on a 23 year-old Despres than a 21 year-old Klefbom.

The longer you can put off moving these young D-men, the better. Make the mistake with young forwards. They are significantly easier to replace. Plus, by the time they are 21 or 22 you have a good idea about what they are all about. Defensemen not so much. The learning curve difference between forwards and defense is significant.

I get that you may have to package one or two of them up to get a solid current NHL-ready defenseman. All I am saying is: choose wisely!

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#69 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 03:43PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

That's one of the things I find frustrating about a lot of fan board trade proposals. If it's not 'Yak for Weber!' it's 'let's move Eberle for this third line wing and No. 4 defencemen because they're both big!'

It would have to be a one-for-one type move.

I would love to see the 3-1 deal and for once the 1 coming this way.

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#70 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 03:45PM
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Zarny wrote:

The Oilers rebuild is certainly not like Pittsburgh. Although I think Pit is the best example of where the Oilers have erred.

To be fair, Pit was lucky to get Crosby and Malkin. Two generational talents and literally 2 of the best 4 players on the planet. Our kids aren't quite that good.

When Pit won the Cup in '09 only 7 players were younger than 25: Crosby (21), Malkin (22), Staal (20), Fleury (24), Letang (22), Goligoski (23) and Tyler Kennedy.

Half the roster was over 30. The defensive load was carried by Gonchar, Gill and Scuderi. They brought in vets like Guerin, Kunitz, Satan, Sykora, Fedotenko and Cooke. The young kids certainly contributed, but they weren't the be all and end all of the team's success.

In terms of LA's rebuild I would disagree with you.

Dustin Brown was drafted in 2003. They traded prospects & picks for Carter and Richards who were also drafted in 2003. Kopitar and Quick were drafted in 2005. Justin Williams was drafted in 2000.

LA didn't draft Doughty until 2008 and they didn't win the Cup until 2012. If you ignore Williams, they didn't win the Cup until 9 years after they started rebuilding.

Considering Edm started their rebuild 4 years ago I'd actually say there are very much going like LA.

Man, I hope your right about the LA pattern.Mac-T has started to add some character and size but the Oilers are still a long way from a LA type team.

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#71 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 04:03PM
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Spydyr wrote:

Man, I hope your right about the LA pattern.Mac-T has started to add some character and size but the Oilers are still a long way from a LA type team.

Careful what you wish for. Overall LA is a very boring team to watch. I totally get that they won the cup in 2012 and will be a playoff team again this year, but they are soooo boring. The 2012 finals was like watching a bad soccer game.

I want to see winning hockey as much as anyone - BUT I would much rather use Chicago as a template. Small sample size, but the Kings have scored like 3 goals in their last 6 games have scored. They are a terrible team to watch play hockey! I have seen them in Edmonton and in Los Angeles and (not counting the ice cleaning girls at Staples), trust me when I say "move along, nothing to see here".

I realize no playoff appearances in eight years does not allow us fans to be too picky ...... just sayin'.

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#72 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 04:30PM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

Careful what you wish for. Overall LA is a very boring team to watch. I totally get that they won the cup in 2012 and will be a playoff team again this year, but they are soooo boring. The 2012 finals was like watching a bad soccer game.

I want to see winning hockey as much as anyone - BUT I would much rather use Chicago as a template. Small sample size, but the Kings have scored like 3 goals in their last 6 games have scored. They are a terrible team to watch play hockey! I have seen them in Edmonton and in Los Angeles and (not counting the ice cleaning girls at Staples), trust me when I say "move along, nothing to see here".

I realize no playoff appearances in eight years does not allow us fans to be too picky ...... just sayin'.

The first year the Oilers won the Cup game one of the final 1-0 Oilers Kevin McClelland scoring.One of the best hockey games I ever watched.

Your opinion of boring hockey may differ from mine.

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#73 mr.patient
February 03 2014, 04:31PM
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Puck_In_Throat wrote:

JW, usually I agree with you but on this one I have to say that you have horribly over-valued some of the prospects.

Justin Shultz is a #3 at best. Look at the way that St.Louis uses Shattenkirk; they are similar players. Shattenkirk plays with Barett Jackman on St.Louis' second pairing. Shattenkirk is the points/puck mover, Jackman is the muscle (but also quite adept at moving the puck).

Justin Shultz will always need that type of partner; in fact, the lack of a Barett Jackman type is a major problem for the Oil.

Nurse IMO is our best shot at a true top pairing D man; he can skate, hit and is mean. But if he doesn't turn out that well, he could be a 2nd pairing guy like Jackman.

The rest of our prospects are not tough or mean, both of which preclude them from being GREAT bottom pairing guys, therefore we will have more of the same "puck mover" d men...which just means that they do what all other defencemen are supposed to do, but are soft.

There is a huge difference, I think, between comparing Shultz and Shattenkirk, and indeed any Oilers D-man to St. Louis' D. For one, St. Louis has arguably the best 1-2 D pairing in the league in Pteterangelo and Bowmeister. VERY few d-men in the league could crack that pairing. Also, Kevin Shattenkirk is 25 and has played in 250 games, compared to JShultz at 23 with just under 100 games. Basically you are suggesting we can derive that JShultz's ceiling (which we don't know yet, unlike Shattenkirk) is going to be a number 3-4 dman, because another player with similar skill set is failing to crack the best d pairing in the league.

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#74 Oasis
February 03 2014, 04:38PM
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@pkam

A lot of people say you build a team up the middle. We could have used a centre like Galchenyuk but I agree it would have been a gamble. Can we stick with Sam Gagner at Centre? I personally don't think you can have a 1-2 punch of RNH and Gagner. You need "some" size in your top 2 lines. Gagner is terrible in his own end and he is just not a true #2 centre. Just my opinion.

And in 2012 8 out of the top 10 were defensemen. Obviously those other teams were willing to gamble on a Dman.

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#75 Jerry
February 03 2014, 05:05PM
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@Jonathan Willis

He has only started with the Oilers. Just wait Oilers will ruin him.

I'm not talking about Oklahoma .

Look at Hall he should be a more complete player. Players like Perron and Gordon know how to play hockey. Oilers don't develop players.

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#76 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 05:22PM
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Spydyr wrote:

The first year the Oilers won the Cup game one of the final 1-0 Oilers Kevin McClelland scoring.One of the best hockey games I ever watched.

Your opinion of boring hockey may differ from mine.

Yes there are many who enjoy the "subtle elegance" of a nil / nil soccer match too. I just don't happen to be on that list.

I am not saying that the LA Kings are not a good effective hockey team, I just would not want to watch their particular brand night in and night out.

I saw the 1 - 0 1984 Game #1 too. Meh, it was alright. EVERY ONE of the games between the Oilers and Flamers in the 7 Game 1984 Divisional series featured much more exciting play, IMO.

To each his own.

But to be sure, the entertainment value of watching the 2014 LA Kings is NOT CLOSE to resembling the excitement of the mid-80s Oilers. To try and equate the two is lunacy.

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#77 Time Travelling Sean
February 04 2014, 12:33AM
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Everyone talks so glowingly about the Kings because they won the Cup. They had the easiest road to the cup that I can recall.

They also might not make the playoffs this year, so yeah, I think they're overrated because they beat PHX and NJ in the playoffs, and both of those teams didn't make it in the year after.

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#78 Spydyr
February 04 2014, 09:42AM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

Yes there are many who enjoy the "subtle elegance" of a nil / nil soccer match too. I just don't happen to be on that list.

I am not saying that the LA Kings are not a good effective hockey team, I just would not want to watch their particular brand night in and night out.

I saw the 1 - 0 1984 Game #1 too. Meh, it was alright. EVERY ONE of the games between the Oilers and Flamers in the 7 Game 1984 Divisional series featured much more exciting play, IMO.

To each his own.

But to be sure, the entertainment value of watching the 2014 LA Kings is NOT CLOSE to resembling the excitement of the mid-80s Oilers. To try and equate the two is lunacy.

"Meh, it was alright."

It was one the biggest wins in Oilers history. It proved to the world the Oilers could beat the Islanders in a low scoring game. To this day I say that McClelland goal was the biggest goal in Oiler history.

"To try and equate the two is lunacy."

I'm pretty sure a 1-0 game is a 1-0 game in any era between any teams.

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