Position of Strength, Position of Weakness

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.

  • Bucknuck

    “…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.”

    Willis, you hit the nail on the head with that comment.

    I would be hesitant to trade away a known asset because a draft pick might fill the void. There are a lot of picks in the top five that don’t pan out, so I would hate to have to count on it.

  • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

    I don’t know how many truly top flight younger D there are in the league, but I think that is the only kind of deal that would be worth the risk for either Gagner or the first.

    It would be smarter if they draft Grigorenko to see him play in the bigs before dealing a centre that can. We’re in year two right, what’s the hurry?

    After liquidating Gilbert for a less capable player, if they make too many more deals like that the team is going to be back to having a couple of nice players and a bunch that really care, but just aren’t quite good enough to get past competing for eighth.

    It would have been a lot easier to make a deal for a Weber type player if they still had Gilbert as piece to deal. How many teams are deep enough to deal an elite D and not get a capable D back? Maybe Schultz has enough cache for that.

  • Dunnonuttin

    I guess the question for me is what is the trade value of Gagner relative to that of the #2 overall pick? More to the point – Is #2 overall+ or Gagner+ more valuable to a team with a legit 1-2 defenceman?

    I guess it depends on the position of the team in question right? Gagner may be more valuable to Nashville, LA, Washington, etc.; but the #2 overall may be more valuable to Montreal, TB, Ottawa, and so on.

    As a fan I’m open to either depending on the return, just as long as they actually do pursue an NHL-ready first pairing defenceman in the short term and don’t think that the Hurricanes model is the one to follow.

  • oilbaron

    I don’t think they trade for a big name D or trade for one until summer 2013, Shultz was brought here to mentor the young D when there chance to be with the big club arises. Trading Gags and then drafting Grigorenko when you don’t know till training camp if he’s NHL ready or if you can even sign him under the new CBA would be a huge risk. Also signing any UFA this summer long term could be very detrimental to long term success of retaining core player’s under the unknown mechanics of the salary cap after it’s implementation. Steady as She goes is the way.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    It would be interesting to see if the Thrashers and Islanders of the world where saying the same things 5 yrs into their rebuilds. Is this all just hope/wishful thinking on the part of Oilersnation, or are they really closer to where the Penguins and Blackhawks were in their journeys to date.

    The song remains the same to me as far as i’m concerned. Hemsky and Gagner may have to be sacrificed to address an area of weakness. If the Oilers continue like they have the last two drafts, take the best player available and the Oilers will be better off. The timing looks almost ideal for the Oilers to make a deal to bring in an already established #1 stud d.man in the next 16 months.

  • oilbaron

    there are a bunch of good, up and coming UFA defenceman that we could sign this off season. If we dont have to give up an asset like Gagner++ to land a defenceman than why do it. Players like Matt Carle, Dennis Wideman and Barret Jackman would look great in our top 4. Im also not very keen on drafting the russian centre. Something about him just doesnt say “oiler” to me. I say we draft the best possible defenceman (Murray/Dumba) and put a package together to land another 1st round pick to possably land Galchenyuk.

  • Al Davis

    Ok since Willis is too lazy I guess I will have to compile a list of potential top defenseman that could be available. Hmmm let’s see out of the possible top 60 scoring defenseman, and this is only points mind you. The available UFAs include Garrison, Wideman, Suter and Carle. Now realistically Suter is the only one out of those 3 who is considered a legitimate top 2 defenseman. Is anyone willing to throw big money at the other 3 and pay them like a top defenseman in order to get them here.

    Now there is Weber who is becoming an rfa and the oil cannot risk paying the preds 3 to 4 assets without him signing a long term deal.

    That leaves Subban and Carlson. They are very young but have huge potential. First of all are either Montreal or Washington stupid enough to give up on them? Also would those teams especially Washington explore the idea of a high draft pick to take another Russian at the draft?

    Overall it seems there are way too many wild cards to deal with, and the potential of the oilers actually acquiring a top 2 defensman through trade or free agency are legitimately slim.

  • bazmagoo

    I think the Oilers should stay as is for 2012, and wait for Weber to become a UFA in the summer of 2013.

    At that stage Hall and Eberle need there RFA deals and will probably get somewhere around $5 million per each.

    But during that offseason Whitney becomes UFA ($4 million) & Khabibulin will come off the books ($3.75 million).

    Also the possibility of buying out Horcoff opens up during the summer of 2013. At that stage his buyout would only be 2/3 of his remaining salary (not cap hit) which would be $4.66 million spread against the cap over two years. That would open up cap room of a little over $3 million each year.

    Use that scratch to sign Weber at $8 million per year for a long term.

    We’d still need a goalie but the team would be looking pretty sweet at that stage.

  • Al Davis

    I am in no way a fan of trading Magnus, but it seems that this organization handling of him is nonsensical anymore. The guy starts to get it, and shows signs of life and he gets sent to OKC. I get the Nuge was back, and instead of putting him in either the Horcoff or Belanger triangle they decided its better for him to get top 6 mins in OKC.

    If this organization is going to bung up talents like MPS, then I hope they trade him to a team this off season and can get a top ten pick.

    Would MPS and an Omark get you top 7-8 pick. I don`t know if MPS can get that alone with how he was developed, and he should have. That way you would hope the Oilers could draft the big G, maybe Reinhardt or Dumba, and fill in two holes moving forward.

  • Craig1981

    I’m glad you remembered so many posters on here wanting to trade away the RNH pick down for a dman. You name me one case where it was a benift to drop from the top 3 and I will give you 5 it wasn’t.

  • Craig1981

    Good stuff. I would hope that some combination of Omark + an OKC prospect and a draft pick would be enough to pry away a top-4 D.

    You’ve articulated my biggest fear (trading Gagner). I’ve been a fan of his for a while, and I’d really hate to see him go. The top-6 forwards the Oilers have in place (Hall-RNH-Eberle Hamsky-Gagner-Smyth in some combination) are going to be fantastic to watch in the coming years. I’d hate to see one of those guys moved.

  • Al Davis

    I totally agree with you Willis. Gagner sure seems like he is going to be the odd one out if the Oilers do end up with the 2nd overall pick.

    With that being said, I am not sold on having to deal him this summer. We have no way of knowing if Grigorenko will be able to simply fit into the 2nd line Center position right off the bat. Why not sign Gagner this summer to a 2-3 year deal and then see how Grigorenko handles things in the NHL?

    I don’t believe this team will be a contender next year anyways. If Gagner puts up numbers playing with the other kids his value can only go higher. Then perhaps you can ship him off at the trade deadline next year or the draft next summer.

  • Zed

    I think the best way forward is to use the 2012 pick in the line up as well as keeping the bright young players.

    I’m alright with the Oilers winning games 10 to 9.

  • Assuming we have second overall pick (Grigorenko), getting Weber would probably take something along the lines of Gagner + Whitney or Smid + a pick or prospect of Nashville’s choice…and I’d do that trade in a heartbeat.

    • Dunnonuttin

      If getting Nash takes 4 bodies, you would think it would take Gagner/MPS, Smid, A type prospect (Klefbaum, Musil, Marincin), a later first (we don`t have, and our first is not an option)

      Can`t say I am a fan of that. I would rather the organization works its tail of to get a another top 10 pick, and fill the second line center and top two defencemen hole going forward.

      • The kinds of players that have gone the other way for big name guys who get moved arent even of the calibre that you listed.

        Seriously. Look at the Richards from TBay, Pronger from StL, Thornton from Bos, or Heatley from Ott moves.

        Maybe 1 good player and a bunch of scrubs. The guy who probably got the most out of those types of deals was Lowe for getting Smid, Lupul, and the pick that became Eberle.

        I would put money down on the package for Nash/Suter/Weber not amounting up to the equivalent of Gagner + Smid + Blue Chip + 1st.

        I bet Poile and Howson will be forced to settle for much less. Especially in a Cap World where even on Deadline day there were only 15 moves. Teams cant afford the players, nevermind the asking prices.

          • I dont think Fair has anything to do with it. Moving a Star player isnt a Hockey move. It’s a move done for Financial or Personal reasons, otherwise why would anybody move one?

            Howson is under the gun with Nash, Poile is playing Chicken with Suter and Weber. These guys are not in good bargaining positions.

            If they want more than 3 assets in return, 2 will be B Grade. IMO

          • Souby

            “Howson is under the gun with Nash, Poile is playing Chicken with Suter and Weber. These guys are not in good bargaining positions.”

            I agree with you about both GM’s but especially on Poile. Can he sign both Weber and Suter and still have cap space next season? Sure. Will it leave enough cap space for their owners to be comfortable? Doubtful.

            The last 3 years, the Preds have had 12.8M (11-12), 8.5M (10-11) and 12.6M (09-10)in cap space. If Poile signs both Weber & Suter, and then takes care of the rest of his pending UFA/RFA’s, what will he be left with? $4M-$5M? I don’t see how Poile can afford to keep both of his prized D-men.

            My gut tells me that Suter gets a new deal but that Weber will be in a new uniform next season…..hopefully an Oilers one!

  • aeiouY

    JW – I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the opportunity cost of trading young F talent for mature D talent. I’d like to get your take on this.

    Due to the apparent fact that Dmen generally take longer to develop, if you’re looking at the present and future cap implication, is it not worthwhile to hold onto your young forwards (who are playing on contract #1 or 2 at lower dollars) and either trade them for D when they are approaching UFA years or else pay for older defencemen in free agency.

    Along these lines, I don’t like the idea of trading a Sam Gagner who is still relatively cheap and might still have more upside for a mature Dman who is being paid full value.

  • John Chambers

    I think Oilers management are lining themselves up for a big deal to bolster the defense.

    Reading the tea leaves, we’ve now gone off the course of perpetually getting younger (re-signing Hemsky and trading Gilbert for an NHL proven talent). As a result I think that management is planning to do exactly as Jonathan suggests, and that’s deal a forward for a defender.

    If we draft #2 overall, I could easily see us exchanging Gagner for someone legit like Subban or better. If Grigorenko falls out of reach, I could see us dealing Paajarvi, the draft pick, or preferably the 2013 1st round pick to try and improve the D in advance of the ’12-’13 season.

    Now, about the goaltending …

  • Muji 狗

    What if we throw a bunch of money/term at Ryan Suter? I’m normally against big FA signings, but:

    • we wouldn’t have to give up any assets (other than Katz’ $).
    • we could still draft a defenceman with our 1st and be a bit more patient with his development.
    • FAs *might* actually be willing to sign in Edmonton now without a enormous overpay.

    Of course, this is assuming he doesn’t re-sign in Nashville.

    The Preds are doing a good job of giving it their all this year and showing Weber/Suter that they’re committed to winning… but you never know.

    • John Chambers

      It almost appears to me that Nashville is going for it this playoff, having just dealth their top round picks. Perhaps they feel that Suter and soon after Weber are out of town so they might as well try to make a run at it this year.

      If that’s the case I could see them dealing Weber at the draft, and if so I’d be hard pressed to see a team offer greater value that the Oilers’ top pick + Paajarvi or Omark.

      Assuming you paid Weber something like $50M over a 7-year term, he might convince his buddy Suter to sign with us given where the team is headed.

      But … How do you feel about committing $13M to your top pair, or approx $21M to your top-4? Something would have to give elsewhere.

  • Tracie

    I agree with you, Jon. Gagner seems the best bet to be sent away for the coveted dman… He’s a great player, but we need to get bigger up front and our draft pick helps us with that. and he’s proven he can be great for stretches of games, and that number of games increases as he gets more experience.

    the question I have is who would you go after? Who could, say Gags and Omark get you? Shea Weber? If he’s signed? Suter? Or are we looking at a guy in his prime, 27-32 years? What kind of player should we expect coming back if we are giving up a guy like Gagner?