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 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.