The course is set

Thirteen games in, the Edmonton Oilers season has not unfolded as brilliantly as those optimistic about the team would have hoped.

If the team is to improve, however, it will likely need to do so from within.

While the early season hasn’t been everything the Oilers might have hoped, things really haven’t gone as badly as they have in the (not very distant) past, either. With a 5-5-3 record and a minus-5 goal differential, the Oilers sit 11th in the West and are more or less in the range of reasonable expectation.

It would be nice if general manager Steve Tambellini could correct some of the weaknesses that have been revealed at this juncture, but expecting him to do so via trade would be a mistake.

Midseason Trades

Photo: Resolute/Wikimedia

The issue is that teams rarely make big moves until the trade deadline nears. A look at the trades in 2011-12 confirms that; over the season’s first four months there was generally one significant trade per month:

  • October: Florida trades David Booth, Steve Reinprecht and a 3rd-round pick to Vancouver for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm
  • November: St. Louis trades Nikita Nikitin to Columbus for Kris Russell December:
  • Phoenix trades Kyle Turris to Ottawa for David Runblad and a 2nd-round pick
  • January: Montreal trades Mike Cammalleri, Karri Ramo and a 5th-round pick to Calgary for Rene Bourque, Patrick Holland and a 2nd-round puck

Aside from the Kyle Turris trade (a unique situation), these are all like-for-like sort of moves. Florida sends a top-9 winger to Vancouver with a depth guy for a top-9 winger and a depth guy. St. Louis and Columbus swap young defencemen who need a change of scenery. Montreal trades a top-six winger, prospect and draft pick to Calgary for a top-six winger, prospect and draft pick.

Basically, last season, teams were stuck with the club they had built in the summer. Fringe guys cropped up on waivers, and sometimes teams bit, either to fill in for an injury or in the hopes of finding the next Rich Peverley (who scored 35 points in 39 games after being claimed off waivers by Atlanta in January 2009). Other than that, teams dealt guys who were struggling in a role for other guys struggling in the same role.

That changes at the trade deadline, where also-rans sell-off short-term help at inflated prices to teams hoping to win the Stanley Cup (or at least make it out of the first round). But at that point, much of the script has already been written.

The Summer

That’s why the most important period for building any hockey team is the time when hockey isn’t actually being played – around the draft and during free agency. That’s when each team can address its needs, when clubs actually make big trades, and when talent can be acquired without heavily mortgaging the future.

The Oilers took some calculated risks this summer. They gambled that their defensive group was strong enough for a run at the post-season, betting that a top-four comprised of some mix of Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Nick Schultz, Ryan Whitney and Justin Schultz would be good enough. They appear to have won heavily on the Justin Schultz gamble, and so far seem to be losing on the Whitney one. They also banked on their depth being good enough and made a trade – adding Mark Fistric for a draft pick – once Andy Sutton (who had been counted on) was no longer in the mix.

They also gambled on Devan Dubnyk stepping into the top job in net, and on their mix up front being good enough. Dubnyk’s been exceptional so far, and some of the choices made up front were just manifestations of the rebuild – there probably isn’t a Cup contender out there that would feel comfortable with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as its top centre or Nail Yakupov as a top-six winger in the here-and-now (St. Louis, for example, has deployed the older Vladimir Tarasenko largely in a third-line role at even-strength). Choices like Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov are understandable; they will grow into those roles eventually and rebuilds require patience.

The choices haven’t all been correct. To pick one obvious example, Darcy Hordichuk’s presence on the roster at the start of the season is hard to explain in light of Ralph Krueger’s unwillingness to use him. Whether Hordichuk’s role is important or not isn’t the key point here – the key point is that the coach obviously didn’t think so yet management had him on the roster anyway. It’s a small item but it is an example of a spot where some communication earlier in the year could have opened up a place on the roster for, say, a utility forward that Krueger would use.

The summer, though, was the time to address weaknesses. If the Oilers can make a trade to fill cracks in the here and now, power to them – but it’s a much more difficult thing to do now than it was in the off-season. The management group simply has to hope that they made enough right decisions at that time for the team to meet their internal expectations.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • Since they were in the Stanley Cup this team remains pretty much the same a young small talented team with potential.

    You would think that where they drafted they would be a better team with more dept.

    Justin Shultz was a gift .

    How can a team finish last or second last in consecutive seasons.?

    Answer; Management

    Every team is trying to get bigger on their top 2 lines. Edmonton has gone the other way.

    Eventually you have to look at the results.

    Next year has been their battle cry.

  • RexLibris

    I had a long conversation with a friend at work who falls into the camp of “they have to finish no worse than 9th this year”. I’m in the other group that says “I don’t care about the finish this year, provided I see some development and better decision making amongst the young players”.

    I expect the team to finish between 12th and 10th in the West. Trading a pick, because we don’t have the surplus developing talent to part with, at this point would not help the team. It might get the Oilers from 10th to 8th, but it might not. And then the team is stuck with buyer’s remorse at having squandered future assets for a very short-term lift that, in the end, accomplishes nothing.

    This summer coming is when I expect to see some more minor changes, and, conversely to what the article argues, I would then expect to see at least one major change the following season (2013-2014) when this team must make the playoffs.

    I suspect that next October we will be discussing the Oilers defensive depth as having added “only Oscar Klefbom” to the roster and perhaps another depth forward to the bottom six.

    • Time Travelling Sean

      I know patience is a virtue…….but what make you think that Tamby has the ability to bring in what we really need to support our skill? Drafting your way to developing a total team… not possible IMHO.

      We need a wheeler dealer to finish the re-build, and the last time I checked we do not have one of those.

      • RexLibris

        I never said Tambellini was the one to do this, just that it would need to be done.

        Honestly, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a news conference before January of next season that removes Tambellini and installs a new GM (MacTavish?).

        Drafting a core is necessary, but eventually you swap two jacks for a king, or some such roster tomfoolery to flesh it out.

        The mistake is usually made in thinking that one can trade for that cornerstone franchise player, or purchase them through free-agency.

        What Tambellini has done well is assess (his favourite word) that which needs to be retained and that which could be jettisoned, and then sat very patiently through some bad hockey.

        But when it comes time to get off the proverbial pot, no doubt we will want somebody else calling the shots.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    As much as I like Hemsky, if you are trading a winger it has to be him. He will be in decline by the time the Oil get good.

    Pump his numbers and cash him for a high first rounder, and take advantage of a draft that has several options for two way centres and defenseman. Trade Horcoff to a team that needs to hit the cap floor (let him retire and bring him back as GM).

    Then Steve works his magic and signs or deals for a few competent but not exceptional (not expensive) NHL’ers who want to play on an exciting up and coming team to play some hard minutes.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    As far as this season goes, there isn’t likely to be a deal out there that will make us substantially better. Everybody can see that this team is flawed, however, we are just outside of a playoff spot. If somebody would have told me coming into the year that Dubnyk would play as well as he is playing and that we would be 12 in GA/G around the quarter mark of the season, I would have figured that we would have a better record than we do. We are 27th in goals per game and while we could get better at manufacturacting goals 5 on 5, we certainly have more offensive talent than we have shown to date this season.

    My point is that when RNH and Eberle stop shooting blanks, and we start to score more than 1 or 2 goals a game, we could still have a chance to do some damage. Our record is actually pretty good considering how woeful our offense has been so far.

  • G Money

    Oilers 2011-12 vs Oilers 2012-13 – Questions Asked, Questions Answered

    1. Can Dubynk be a #1 goalie? [Small sample so far, but given that his performance so far is perfectly in line with a multi-year trend and perfectly in keeping with his performance over the latter half of last year – a clear yes.]

    2. Can Whitney rebound to become a 2nd or 1st pairing defender again? [Sadly, it appears to be no. The baffling part is that the latter half of last year he was at least a serviceable third pairing guy, and he’s seen a significant decline this year. If he was at least a decent third pairing guy, we’d be a lot better off]

    3. Is Yakupov any good? [YAK CITY, B*TCH. Yeah, lots of growing pains for a rookie on a team with heightened expectations. But he’s already shown NHL-class speed, world class hand-eye coordination, and a cannon of a shot. A purpose-built lethal weapon. The kid will be GOOD.]

    4. Is Justin Schultz any good? [Holy sh*t, are you kidding me?]

    5. Can the Kidz handle being the first line? [The scoring results aren’t there yet, but boy, some nights they’ve run rings around the opposition. Hall tilts the ice like crazy. Considering both Ebs and the Nuge appear to be in a bit of a slump right now, I have *no worries* that these guys will drive the Oilers first line offense for years to come.]

    6. Can Gagner be a consistent second line centre? [Yup. So far so good. HOBBITSES!]

    7. Can Hemsky be the Hemsky of old? [Still working on consistency, but when he’s good, man is he good.]

    8. Is Smyth too old? [Sadly, yes.]

    9. Is The Dirty Russian(tm) too old? [Nope, still an important part of the team. Too important. This is a problem.]

    10. Is the real Corey Potter the early-2011-12 Potter who looked really good, or the late-2011-12 Potter who looked really bad? [Really bad.]

    11. Belanger – Bon-langer or Bad-langer? [C’est bon!]

    12. Nordic grab bag – Harti, MPS, Lander, Petrell? [Yes, finally maybe yes, maybe next year, only on the PK]

    Not all is sunshine and light. A few answered questions have turned back into unanswered questions. Petry. Smid.

    Based on the answers to these questions, a few conclusions:

    a. Relax. We’re on track. Struggles today, arrows up. Expect a roller coaster, enjoy the ride.

    b. Off-season shopping list: two veteran defensemen, one to move the puck, one big one to stop it. One veteran fourth line centre. Yep, that’s all I’d do. One trade of drafts and/or prospects, and two UFA signings should do it. The rest is waiting for the youngsters to grow up. I do like the look of the latest version of the Nordic line as a third line.

  • Fully expect the Oilers to be active at the trade deadline in off loading veterans where the Oilers system has found its replacement.

    Pajaarvi and Haartikanen need permanent spots -congrats to the organization on the development of Haartikanen and the “re-molding” of Pajaarvi – it was a struggle for Pajaarvi to accept a new role in the big leagues but it very much looks like this year he gets it.

    This makes Ryan Jones expendable at the trade deadline – and props again for turning a waiver pickup into something that will generate value at the deadline – and it cost the Oilers nothing.

    Ryan Whitney is no fool – he knows he is gone by the deadline and will work hard to ensure someone will take him on a playoff ride. – it will be the Pittsburgh Penguins or I hope for Whit’s sake his beloved Boston. This will also give Theo Peckham a final audition before the Oilers decide what to do with him this summer.

    Nik Khabibulin – teams always want insurance for playoff runs – Tommy Salo was traded to Colorado for Tom Gilbert. If Tambo pulls of something like that in a prospect that pans out, he may well get his sought after mulligan for the Khabi signing.

    Those three decisions are set in stone.

    Others to consider

    Belanger – either he has changed his tune with the new staff or realized if he wants out of Edmonton he has to play well to spark interest. Doesn’t matter which. The Oilers will very likely deal Belanger and forget it ever happened.

    Eager – very much a question mark – he should get a longer look as injuries are not his fault, especially the first concussion as an Oiler during the Joey Moss cup – ruined his first year and for what, if I’m Eager I would be bitter about that for the rest of my career.
    Come deadline the Oilers could consider dealing him.

    And that’s all folks if teams want anything else they bitter pitch a knock your socks off trade. Everything else just matures and gets better.

    you can’t get rid of every veteran – and if the former first line of horcoff-smyth-hemsky gets to stick around and enjoy the ride to the top a while longer so be it ..they freaking deserve it for all those years of true blue dedication.

  • Word to the Bird

    I know this will make me sound like a bandwagon fan, and I can assure you I’m not one, but Tambellini has to go. It’s one thing to be reluctant about trading and free agent signing. It’s another to turn a complete blind eye to our problems. We have had the same problem with defense since this f*****g rebuild started and Tambellini has done nothing to fix it. It’s getting frustrating to see the same issues year in year out and drafting high every year.

  • RexLibris

    Once Jones is back he takes MPS spot on the roster. MPS has all the tools to be good (minus the hands) but he isnt realible for anything other than a forcheck without the check. Im not crapping on the guy but I think once Jones is back, MPS should get traded for a player that is in the same situation.

    I remember a trade awhile back that involved Tuomo Ruutu for Andrew Ladd. Chicago traded a first round pick that wasnt turning out for their organization for a Carolina first round pick that was in the same situation. It has worked out for both teams. Chicago won the stanley cup and Ladd was a big part of that team and Ruutu has been good in Carolina.

    Now in saying this who is a target in a simulair situation as MPS?

  • bwar

    So we are pretty much locked in with our current roster until at least closer to the trade deadline (when is that anyways?). So what can be done right now that doesn’t involve a trade. Well since we suck 5v5 and since RNH and ebs are slumping why not switch the lines up? Some people are saying RNH and Yak probably aren’t “first line ready” so maybe we should try and relieve some of the pressure on them. With this said I would break the top six down into three pairings: Hemsky-Gagner, Hall-Eberle, RNH-Yakupov. This breaks up the two slumping forwards, pulls Yakupov off the Gagsky line (hasn’t really seemed like he has gelled with them 5v5) and distributes the offense across three lines. Now the next question is how do we fill out these three lines? Well we still want the Hall-Eberle combo to be a possession line so it would be nice to put Harti/PRV here but since we need a center for the line we will be forced place a center here so Belanger gets a big promotion. First line set Hall-Belanger-Eberle. Second line Hemsky-Gagner is going to want a third player who has or can develop good puck moving chemistry, PRV and Gagner hooked up for a nice Short handed goal a few games ago so lets place him here. Third we the RNH-Yakupov pairing, gonna want to have some muscle with these two, give these two a bit of protection and someone to forecheck hard and get the puck to Nuge so he can set up Yak for some sweet one-timer magic. I think Hartikainen, Jones and Eager could all fill this role, lets give Harti the nod here at least until Jones comes back. So now here are my new lines:


    Smyth, Horcoff, Petrell, Eager, Lander, Vandevelde, Jones

    PP/PK units would largely stay the same. Would hopefully create more 5v5 production and could easily be tweaked further based on how each line performs and works together. Biggest deficiency with my proposal is probably Belanger. Since we are so terrible in the circle you would probably want to have the flexibility to use him for more important draws. If that’s the case you would probably not send Belanger out for every “on the fly” change so that he is available for faceoff duty. If this was the wanted course of action you could actually rotate Belanger, Paajarvi, Hartikainen, Eager, Smyth through each of the three pairings essentially cutting your bench down to three lines while still using all of your players a certain amount. Basically you would aim to have RNH, Eberle, Hall, Yakupov, Hemsky, Gagner all playing around 20:00 a night while the remaining six players would be closer to 10:00 a piece.

    Just trying to work out some sort of solution to at least one of our deficiencies without any sort of trade. I suspect that some of our third/fourth line players will probably be dealt before the end of the season alleviating part of the log jam at the bottom of the roster.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    The rebuilt is still progressing, more positive than negative.

    Top 7 (Harti in and Hemsky in until the trade deadline) is on track to win a cup some day

    Bottom 7 is half way there …give the following lots of NHL role playing …
    MSP, Lander, Petrell, Eager, Jones, Peckman (move to wing) and bring Pitlick up great speed and add size. Need some things to work to win a cup some day

    Top 4 defensemen …maybe 3 (Petry, Smid, Schultz) … On track to win a cup some day

    Bottom 3 defensemen …Schultz and a prospect in Klefblom …Need some things to work to win a cup aome day

    Top Goalie …Dubbie looks good …on track to win a cup some day

    Management needs ro be good this year and get value/pieces for
    Hemsky, Belenger, Whitney, Plante, Horcoff ….overpay to get the right player?