The Oilers have a wealth of young offensive talent in the NHL. They have a shortage of young, NHL-ready defensive talent. At some point, is the logical decision to send away one or two of the former to add one or two of the latter?
There really is an impressive list of players either already in the NHL or just bubbling under the surface up front. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark are all good young players, and they’re in addition to a group that already includes Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth. Toss in Shawn Horcoff and this year’s first round draft pick, and there are 10 guys who could arguably be in the top-nine next season before we even get to Ben Eager, Eric Belanger and Ryan Jones.
Of course, there is that draft pick, a selection the Oilers could use on a defenseman. There are two main problems with that, however. The first is that the Oilers are likely right now to come away with the second overall pick in this year’s draft. That’s hardly assured – the standings could move around, the draft lottery could shift things – but if they end up with a top-two pick, the consensus top-two would appear to be Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, both forwards, followed by everybody else. If that consensus reflects the Oilers’ opinion, they would be obliged to either take less than the best player available or trade down.
That’s really not the key problem, though. The key problem is the development timeline for that young defenseman. It is a very rare thing for a defenseman to be ready for top-pairing work two years out; typically the development curve is much longer. The Chicago Blackhawks had the youngest defense of any Stanley Cup Finalist in the post-lockout period; two of their top-four were in their fifth professional season – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The latter was 25, the former was just about to turn 27 when the team won the Cup. Chicago’s really the exception to the rule; a top-two or top-four defenseman on a typical Cup finalist has eight years of experience. If the Oilers take a defenseman, the odds are that they’re looking at a minimum of five years before that defender is a true stalwart. There are exceptions, of course – Drew Doughty in Los Angeles comes to mind – but reading the scouting reports it doesn’t seem like the top of this year’s defenseman class is in the same category as Doughty was in his draft year.
There is another possibility: the Oilers could try and do what the Hurricanes did in 2006, namely rely on a veteran group of players with good talent but without a truly exceptional rearguard. Bret Hedican and Aaron Ward were the top pairing for that team; Mike Commodore and Frantisek Kaberle rounded out the top-four. It can be done. The Oilers can hope that Jeff Petry continues on an upward trajectory with no developmental bumps along the way, they can hope that Ryan Whitney returns to form, and they could just lean heavily on Ladislav Smid and Nick Schultz in the meantime.
That’s a hard sell for me. I’ve seen what a player like Chris Pronger does to a blueline. I’ve watched Zdeno Chara for the Bruins, Duncan Keith for the ‘Hawks, Nicklas Lidstrom for the Red Wings and all the rest. A team can win without a player like that, but it’s a lot harder – those players spend half the game on the ice, and cover for so many mistakes.
The trade deadline wasn’t the place for the Oilers to make that move. The summer – probably at the draft – seems the likeliest time to try and reel in a top-flight defenseman via trade. Free agency isn’t a great bet because of the money involved and the hesitation high-end players have to sign with teams that haven’t pulled themselves out of the basement yet. Trade is the logical route, and it’s going to cost the Oilers a dear asset.
It’s a necessary sacrifice, unfortunately. We’ve seen an example of it already this season from Mike Gillis, the man who beat out Tambellini for the top job in Vancouver. Gillis sent away Cody Hodgson, a phenomenal young talent in the middle of a great rookie season, to upgrade his defense and address deficiencies up front. With Sedin and Kesler inked long-term, and a weaker group of players on the wings, it was a trade that made sense from an organizational perspective, however much it must have been difficult to take the risk of sending away a talent like Hodgson.
Linus Omark isn’t enough to bring back a good young defenseman the other way; the Oilers will need to trade a player that has significant cachet around the league. I’m hesitant to believe that Magnus Paajarvi has that. The team certainly could send away their first round pick – the way many suggested they should send away their first round pick for a defenseman last season, but there’s a logical problem with that: the player selected in that spot is highly likely to be in the same range as the Oilers’ big three right now. It’s easier to send that pick away because we haven’t watched him play for the Oilers, but that doesn’t make it the right decision.
There’s another consideration that should come into play here too: similarity up front. Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario where the Oilers (as seems likely) end up with the second overall pick and that they (as also seems likely) have Grigorenko second overall on their draft list. The Russian is as much a goal-scorer as he is a playmaker, and has plus size, standing at 6’2”. Is that combination more compatible with one of Sam Gagner/Ryan Nugent-Hopkins than the current duo are together? If the Oilers find themselves in that situation, does it make more sense to hang on to Gagner or Grigorenko?
It isn’t an easy decision to make. I’ve defended Sam Gagner for years, because I really believe that he’s a good player in the here-and-now, and that he has an even brighter future. He’s almost the same age as Eberle, something people forget because he’s picked up 347 NHL games to Eberle’s 128. He’s a good young player, the kind of player who it’s easy to visualize picking up points on a contending team.
To add value, value often has to go the other way. I firmly believe that a good, young defenseman would be a major asset for the Edmonton Oilers as they attempt to build themselves into a contender. I also believe that the cost for that sort of defenseman is likely to be very high. In Steve Tambellini’s shoes (and dependent on details) I’d be willing to take a chance and make that trade, because I also think that given the team’s current structure, a high-end defenseman is going to matter a lot more than another high-end forward.