The Edmonton Oilers are blessed with some high-end young players. Most people consider a list of four as the core group of the rebuild: centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as wingers Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov.
Is there any situation where it might make sense to trade one of that group, or are they all untouchable?
It’s an interesting situation in that the Oilers have three high-end guys on the wing, one at centre, and none on defence (to be fair, both Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid are fine young NHL players – with Petry in particular still having upside – but neither are seen as being on the same level as the group of four mentioned above).
Now, the team could have avoided this by picking defenceman Ryan Murray first overall this past summer, but with Yakupov the clear consensus at number one that likely would have been a mistake. Teams don’t get to control which player is the best in any given year, but drafting for need is a bad road to go down (as the Oilers showed when they passed on Zach Parise because they ‘already had a bunch of small centers’).
The job of the scouting staff is to provide management with the best available players. It’s the job of the general manager to trade those players as needed to create a winning team.
A Franchise Defender?
High-end defencemen don’t come available all that often, and when they do the price is typically high. Still, it’s possible to envision a scenario where one might be on the market. Take Shea Weber in Nashville, for example. The Predators opted to match Philadelphia’s offer sheet, choosing to pay the franchise defenceman $14 million in salary per season for the next four years rather than taking four first-round picks in trade. Could it be that a year from now they’d be willing to send him away to ease financial pressures if they got an enticing enough offer?
What would a player like Weber be worth to Edmonton? The 6’4”, 232lb 26-year old is a complete defenseman who provides both a team with both offensive punch and a number one shutdown option. Would that be worth trading one of the Oilers’ three wingers? Would any of the three be untouchable if Nashville was willing to think about a one-for-one trade a year from now?
Obviously, it’s a hypothetical situation, but it’s still one worth considering: is there a point where trading away part of the young core makes sense if it makes the roster more balanced?
The Other Route
There is another option, of course: the Oilers could opt to hang on to all of their key young pieces and hope to address the need for high-end help on the blue line through free agency (or alternately, simply hope that one of their younger defenders – Petry, Justin Schultz, Oscar Klefbom, etc. – develop into a high-end guy).
There are virtues to that approach. The primary virtue is that there’s no need to part with one of the high-value forwards currently on the team. There are also negatives: for starters, not a lot of high-end defenders hit the UFA market and those that do tend to be paid accordingly. If all goes well, in a few years the Oilers will need to start exercising care when managing the salary cap and adding a big-money defender without subtracting big dollars somewhere else might prove problematic.
The biggest problem is scarcity, though. Alex Edler could be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2013; aside from him, there aren’t a lot of high-end possibilities and even he isn’t in the ‘franchise defenceman’ category. Kris Letang is probably the most interesting name in the summer of 2014 group; Dion Phaneuf and Jay Bouwmeester are other lower-quality possibilities assuming they aren’t locked up before then. Lots of names could be available in 2015 but that’s three years away, meaning both that their current teams have time to extend them and that there would be no help on the way for the next three seasons.
Maybe something else will happen. As we’ve considered, one of the current group of young defenders could emerge. The Oilers could always just roll with a by-committee approach and hope that they could win without a stud #1 defender – after all, Carolina managed the feat back in 2006.
Top defensemen are a rare commodity, and as guys who can play 30 minutes a night they’re exceedingly valuable to any team. They aren’t available very often.
Top wingers are also very valuable. Five years ago, any one of Hall, Eberle or Yakupov would have been untouchable. If the Oilers had just one winger of that caliber, that guy would be untouchable now. But, as it stands, they have three superb young wingers and that means that if the opportunity to land a franchise defenseman becomes available, it’s one the team should move on if they can negotiate a deal that makes sense.
It’s not about wanting to trade any of those guys. It’s about looking at the needs of the team and deciding that it makes sense to subtract from a position of strength and address a position of weakness if the opportunity arises. If two star wingers and a star defenceman give the Oilers a better shot at the Stanley Cup than three star wingers and no star defencemen do, a deal that should be made.