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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#1 A Brief Summary
February 03 2014, 10:34AM
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TL;DR: There's lots in the cupboard, but nothing on the plate right now.

Fist!

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#2 pkam
February 03 2014, 10:49AM
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A Brief Summary wrote:

TL;DR: There's lots in the cupboard, but nothing on the plate right now.

Fist!

Well, 4 years ago, we had nothing on the plate and nothing in the cupboard.

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#3 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 10:49AM
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Too bad they would not have developed the defencmen before the wingers. DOH!

Bassackwards.

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#4 Zarny
February 03 2014, 10:49AM
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Of course the Oilers should be using their D prospects as trade bait.

Petry just cleared 200 games and Schultz hasn't even reached 100. The Oilers should plan for no more than 2 prospects to join them in the next 3 years.

Which means every other prospect should be packaged for top pairing D that are 25-28 y/o and to fill other holes in the roster.

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#5 etownman
February 03 2014, 10:52AM
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it's tough for people to hear but a little more patience is needed. The Oilers are starting to reap the benefits of good drafting & I for one would be disappointed if they traded this fine young talent away for immediate help! Build it to last & let these young d-men develop properly, in the mean time try to fill some holes with players like Fraser who I think will be very helpful to the Oilers once he gets his legs under him!

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#6 Lowe Expectations
February 03 2014, 11:02AM
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The problem is in order to make the type of trade that brings in a quality player the top prospects will have to a part of it. The Oilers will not improve drastically until they get that minute eating top level D-man. They could attempt to develop one(Nurse for instance) but your looking at least 4 years at by that time Hall, Eberle, RNH are at the end of there deals and will want out of here. And your back at square one.

For me, Hall & RNH are the only players you don't trade. Every other player is available.

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#7 max
February 03 2014, 11:03AM
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The GOOD news is that these players are being developed AWAY from the Oilers coaching staff - therefore they are LEARNING to be 2 way players, unlike the players on the Oilers now, who were thrown in at the deep end, coached by second rate assistant coaches and now everyone is scratching their heads and asking why this happened. Duby and his bad habits - as per Nashville HC, is a prime example of how assistant/specialty coaches in Edmonton are not top class and are letting the team and fans down enormously.

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#8 Zarny
February 03 2014, 11:04AM
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Spydyr wrote:

Too bad they would not have developed the defencmen before the wingers. DOH!

Bassackwards.

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.

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#9 fig pucker
February 03 2014, 11:07AM
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@jw, interesting article. assuming schultz, nurse and marincin won't be traded. what kind of return could we reasonably expect from klefbolm, simpson or any other of the defensive prospects? what package of these and other assets the oilers have could land the oilers a 1 or 2 dman?

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#10 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 11:12AM
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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.

"Irrelevant"

30-30-29-24 and 29 this year

Yeah, okay, Irrelevant.

Wow, just wow.

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#11 Zarny
February 03 2014, 11:13AM
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max wrote:

The GOOD news is that these players are being developed AWAY from the Oilers coaching staff - therefore they are LEARNING to be 2 way players, unlike the players on the Oilers now, who were thrown in at the deep end, coached by second rate assistant coaches and now everyone is scratching their heads and asking why this happened. Duby and his bad habits - as per Nashville HC, is a prime example of how assistant/specialty coaches in Edmonton are not top class and are letting the team and fans down enormously.

Good grief that is ridiculous logic.

The bad habits Dubnyk picked up in Edm probably weren't from the coaching staff.

More likely they were picked up from playing behind and reacting to the worst blueline in the league.

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#12 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 11:13AM
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Zarny wrote:

Of course the Oilers should be using their D prospects as trade bait.

Petry just cleared 200 games and Schultz hasn't even reached 100. The Oilers should plan for no more than 2 prospects to join them in the next 3 years.

Which means every other prospect should be packaged for top pairing D that are 25-28 y/o and to fill other holes in the roster.

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.

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#13 Zarny
February 03 2014, 11:16AM
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Spydyr wrote:

"Irrelevant"

30-30-29-24 and 29 this year

Yeah, okay, Irrelevant.

Wow, just wow.

Yes, irrelevant in that you don't have to develop D prospects before F prospects.

LA didn't draft Doughty until after Kopitar and Brown etc.

If your D prospects are younger than your F then you had better make sure your blueline is experienced. That is where the Oilers have dropped the ball.

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#14 Spydyr
February 03 2014, 11:24AM
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Zarny wrote:

Yes, irrelevant in that you don't have to develop D prospects before F prospects.

LA didn't draft Doughty until after Kopitar and Brown etc.

If your D prospects are younger than your F then you had better make sure your blueline is experienced. That is where the Oilers have dropped the ball.

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

It is more like the Islanders.

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#15 Jerry
February 03 2014, 11:32AM
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Does not matter how many prospects, Oilers do not know how to develop players. It is someone's fault.

I don't understand why people get excited about the draft. Does not matter if they draft Ekblad. Oilers will stunt his growth.

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#16 Will
February 03 2014, 11:33AM
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Ah yes, it appears the Oilers did the rebuild backwards, getting the high end offensive talent before the much needed top flight D, and forward depth players.

Since Edmonton can't be a team with nothing but young D on their blue, it doesn't seem realistic to be keeping every single one of these guys for NHL employment. Even between J Schultz, Nurse, Klefbomb, and Marincin, I can't imagine all four end up on the Oilers, or at least I can't imagine the team would be very good if it did happen.

So the question then becomes what could we get back for some of these guys? At least one of these guys could net a top six vet with size and grit and some skill. For example, look at what Foresburgh netted the Capitals last year.

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#17 derrickhands
February 03 2014, 11:35AM
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How does Dillon Simpson become a top 4 D, when his skating is well below average, doesn't play a physical game, and doesn't have a good shot from the point. Why do the Oilers even sign him?

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#18 Randaman
February 03 2014, 11:40AM
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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.

Draft Ekblad? Why with all that is coming up through the system would they draft Ekblad. It is time to draft for need instead of BPA. Dal Cole or Draissait are the only two that I see as viable options. A big C with sick skill and a big C/LW with grit and sick skill. Just sayin...

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#19 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 11:42AM
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derrickhands wrote:

How does Dillon Simpson become a top 4 D, when his skating is well below average, doesn't play a physical game, and doesn't have a good shot from the point. Why do the Oilers even sign him?

I had the same opinion from watching him in the AJHL in Spruce Grove, but apparently his footspeed is much better. The kid is a Hobey Baker finalist at 20 years old. I think he may be the real deal.

Again a reason you don't want to write kids - especially D-men - off too early.

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#20 Puck_In_Throat
February 03 2014, 11:43AM
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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.

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#21 Tikkanese
February 03 2014, 11:46AM
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@JW

That's 8 Defensemen either ready now or next year, not even counting the possible Ekblad.

Although Belov is a UFA next year and unless he gets something similar to KHL money, I doubt he's back in the NHL next year. He hasn't played well enough to get the $3 million he was making in the KHL(I believe that is what he made there).

With only Ference signed for next year, with the more than likely resigned RFA's of Petry and J. Schultz joining him. That is 4 spots open on the Oilers blue line next year.

If the plan is to get McDavid, then I can see them filling those 4 spots with 4 of those rookies and near rookies. Let's hope that is not the plan.

How many of those 8 do you see making the Oilers next year JW?

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#22 derrickhands
February 03 2014, 11:51AM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

I had the same opinion from watching him in the AJHL in Spruce Grove, but apparently his footspeed is much better. The kid is a Hobey Baker finalist at 20 years old. I think he may be the real deal.

Again a reason you don't want to write kids - especially D-men - off too early.

What I understand as of last summer his skating hasn't improved and was considered a long shot. Do the Oilers need another non-physical D with a poor shot from the point? I would consider Davidson, and Musil better prospects.

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#23 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 11:51AM
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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.

Who are the "tough" D-men from the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Black Hawks blueline?

I don't disagree that the Oilers are very soft, but if you look at what is universally agreed to be a very good blueline you don't need a bunch of gorillas. Ability to defend positionally and move the puck is more important.

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#24 Rotten Ron
February 03 2014, 11:56AM
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Jonathan I like your optomism but you're seriously overvaluing prospects. May or could should be replaced by "most likely" and depth chart position should be relevant to League standards, not Oilers currently. My take Musil, will never see an Nhl game without a huge increase in foot speed. Was pushed out of a whl teams top 4 as a 19 year old. Larsen, lack of depth is the only reason hes here, has he improved since hes got here? i dont think so, hard to tell with his "illness" Nurse, struggling this year, hope for the best, take a few years to see what he is. J Shultz, wont be a 1-2 anywhere other than a 29-30 team if he doesnt work on his defensive game. Marincin, looks like he could develop to be a 3-4, again on a team with any kind of depth. Klefbohm, overhyped, non-descript player, no part of his game over average. Cant see over a 6-7 guy here. Belov,Hunt, not nhl d-men Fedun, great story, could be a 6-7 Havent seen enough of the rest to give an opinion.

Outside help is going to be needed to fix things long term.

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#25 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 11:58AM
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derrickhands wrote:

What I understand as of last summer his skating hasn't improved and was considered a long shot. Do the Oilers need another non-physical D with a poor shot from the point? I would consider Davidson, and Musil better prospects.

Again, I had the same opinion that you did watching him in the AJHL and a bit in his first year in ND.

Lowetide's site this fall had a number of objective and current links that discussed the vast improvement in his skating. I think Willis may have linked a couple of those in the past few months.

In terms of a shot, I cannot comment as I have not watched him in ND much. I will say that Justin Schultz has almost no heat on his slapshot but has a decent wristshot and the ability to get it through. Smarts seems to go a long way in that regard and NO ONE has ever said that Dillon Simpson is lacking on intelligence - on or off the ice.

Musil is physically a beast, but is a below average skater, IMO. I would be anxious to hear what others think of Craig's boy that have seen him recently. His arrows seem to be moving in the up direction from everything I have read and heard.

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#26 derrickhands
February 03 2014, 12:07PM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

Again, I had the same opinion that you did watching him in the AJHL and a bit in his first year in ND.

Lowetide's site this fall had a number of objective and current links that discussed the vast improvement in his skating. I think Willis may have linked a couple of those in the past few months.

In terms of a shot, I cannot comment as I have not watched him in ND much. I will say that Justin Schultz has almost no heat on his slapshot but has a decent wristshot and the ability to get it through. Smarts seems to go a long way in that regard and NO ONE has ever said that Dillon Simpson is lacking on intelligence - on or off the ice.

Musil is physically a beast, but is a below average skater, IMO. I would be anxious to hear what others think of Craig's boy that have seen him recently. His arrows seem to be moving in the up direction from everything I have read and heard.

The same could be said about Musil's skating and it can be seen in his play. I do watch the Baron games and Musil would bring more by far than Simpson as would Davidson. I read LT's piece and lets say it wasn't the best.

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#27 Path
February 03 2014, 12:24PM
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derrickhands wrote:

How does Dillon Simpson become a top 4 D, when his skating is well below average, doesn't play a physical game, and doesn't have a good shot from the point. Why do the Oilers even sign him?

Are you kidding?! His dad is Craig Simpson. Yeah, the same Craig Simpson who played with Kevin Lowe. So he definitely knows something about winning.

It's kind of like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, except infinitely more depressing.

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#28 Rama Lama
February 03 2014, 12:26PM
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I'm still hoping that the Oilers make a trade for PK Subban.......perfect fit for our up and coming young d-men. He is young enough to fit in and has enough experience to be a top two d-man for the Oilers.

Send Yaks, ( either Marincin or Klefbom) and throw in third round draft choice........make it happen Mac T and you will be happy for many years!!

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#29 Ivan Drago
February 03 2014, 12:27PM
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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.

In case YOU haven't noticed, Zarny is simply saying there is more than one model to win a cup.

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#30 Wonger - IMAGINE!!!
February 03 2014, 12:31PM
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BIG JOHN SCOTT!!! Imagine him in an Oiler uniform! Imagine Westgarth, McGrattan, Sestito, Kassian, et al CRAPPING THEIR PANTS EVERY TIME they had to play the Oilers!IMAGINE!!!!!!!! BIG JOHN SCOTT!!!!!!!

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#31 madjam
February 03 2014, 12:35PM
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Thanks for the "sugar coating " on our prospects in the AHL in particular . Despite your optimism , the OKC record is worst in the AHL @ 159 goals against . Really do not see how that transmit into any of them doing an awful lot in NHL in the near future ? If they can't do it in the AHL very well , how are they ever going to do it in the NHL ? As for value in trade , quite questionable considering OKC results so far .

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#32 D
February 03 2014, 12:37PM
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Dear Hockey Gods,

After all these years of Oiler incompetence, please don't let the people who got the team into this mess also work their "magic" on the prospects.

Also, if the Edmonton Oilers ever win the Stanley Cup again, I will never, ever take it for granted (like most of us did the last time).

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#33 Sevenseven
February 03 2014, 12:43PM
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Path wrote:

Are you kidding?! His dad is Craig Simpson. Yeah, the same Craig Simpson who played with Kevin Lowe. So he definitely knows something about winning.

It's kind of like six degrees of Kevin Bacon, except infinitely more depressing.

Agree totally. Except now we also get to look forward to not only friends of Kevin being brought in, but also a gm who goes out of his way to bring ex-marlies in. Scrivens might be an answer, but another 7,8 fringe defenseman in Fraser isn't. Its almost a good thing that the ufa list is so shallow. I wont be upset we didnt get a top player because they dont want to play for Lowe.

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#34 Mack Strong
February 03 2014, 12:55PM
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Wonger - IMAGINE!!! wrote:

BIG JOHN SCOTT!!! Imagine him in an Oiler uniform! Imagine Westgarth, McGrattan, Sestito, Kassian, et al CRAPPING THEIR PANTS EVERY TIME they had to play the Oilers!IMAGINE!!!!!!!! BIG JOHN SCOTT!!!!!!!

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.

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#35 RexHolez
February 03 2014, 12:55PM
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@JonathanWillis

You project Nurse to be ready next season? Why are you all of a sudden hitting the panic button on him? Less than a month ago, all you guys were saying was that, while yes hes good, the best thing for him will be seasoning for a few years until he plays in the NHL.

To say he should be on the team next year is a joke because it wont help the team and it will only hurt his development.

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#36 S cottV
February 03 2014, 12:59PM
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The problem with whatever model was intended, is that it's not coming together in any kind of unified fashion.

Only way to bail it out is thru major trades or ufa signings and getting the right players to truly round things out, will be very difficult.

A big weakness is the failure to acquire a d prospect or two, that turned out to be much better than anticipated. Scouting and development needs to hit a home run with d men, every now and again.

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#37 bwar
February 03 2014, 01:00PM
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Larsen is a chaos defender? Sounds like he should excel at the swarm defense.

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#39 nunyour
February 03 2014, 01:04PM
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Rama Lama wrote:

I'm still hoping that the Oilers make a trade for PK Subban.......perfect fit for our up and coming young d-men. He is young enough to fit in and has enough experience to be a top two d-man for the Oilers.

Send Yaks, ( either Marincin or Klefbom) and throw in third round draft choice........make it happen Mac T and you will be happy for many years!!

I agree that a trade is needed ,and Yak seems to be the odd man out to me too.

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#42 Harlie
February 03 2014, 01:08PM
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1 thing I learned while watching the SuperBowl.

Orange and Blue jerseys are for teams that lose.

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#45 The Soup Fascist
February 03 2014, 01:13PM
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madjam wrote:

Thanks for the "sugar coating " on our prospects in the AHL in particular . Despite your optimism , the OKC record is worst in the AHL @ 159 goals against . Really do not see how that transmit into any of them doing an awful lot in NHL in the near future ? If they can't do it in the AHL very well , how are they ever going to do it in the NHL ? As for value in trade , quite questionable considering OKC results so far .

Playing kids typically means a poorer record than playing AHL veterans. You can load up (as much as is allowed) on Alexandre Giroux types and win the AHL championship. Big deal. Playing and developing kids may suck in OKC but hopefully pays dividends here in good ol' Our Town - eventually.

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#47 S cottV
February 03 2014, 01:24PM
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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 issue with the Hall selection.

But after taking Gagner, Eberle, Paajarvi, Hall and RNH, as top picks the past 5 years - go with Yak?

6 straight years of less than warrior high skill mid to smaller size forwards because Yak is supposed to be the best player available?

I think you go against the grain on that one, given the state of the back end and the knowledge that Gagner is not working out as a 2C.

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