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, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 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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#52 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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#53 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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#54 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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#55 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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#56 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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#57 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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#61 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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#62 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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#67 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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#68 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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#69 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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#72 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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#73 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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#74 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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#75 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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#76 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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#77 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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#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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