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

  • ralph_u

    Well here’s what I would do;
    O’reilly for Petry and prospect(Musil Marancin?)
    Whitney for Streit
    If Nuge proves healthy flip Gagner for one of Columbus first rounders. If Nuge goes down wait till draft then trade Gagner.
    You lose a cheap quality D in Petry but you get that elusive 2nd line center and you trade for a guy the coach knows and is a quality top 4 D.

  • ralph_u

    Rationalizing Tambo doing nothing isn’t productive.
    The real stark , uneasy reality that is growing more evident every day is that the Oiler re-build is imploding.
    The “young talent” is a mirage.
    They may not be able to competer in the Western conference.
    Last night wasn’t a one off. It is the new norm.
    Why can’t Oiler rationalizers come to terms with this.
    14 games is enough to actually score a goal – RNH.

    • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

      Here’s another “sky is falling” fan. I always wonder what the lives of some of the posters here are like. They must have a negative outlook on life and they have no idea why their life sucks.

      The re-build is imploding?? Really?? The “young talent” is a mirage?? Do you watch any of the games at all?

      If the way they played last night is the new norm for the Oilers, I guarantee you they make playoffs this year. That was the best the team has played all season by a mile. If they’d been playing that way from the beginning, they’d be on top of the division. Stop looking at the stats and try watching some games.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I think a large part in management’s failure to address team weaknesses is it’s continued overvaluing of it’s veterans. Sure useful size doesn’t grow on trees, and defencemen are never cheap, however winning veterans are available. Gregor quoting Jagr in yesterday’s GDB, perfectly illustrates what this young team needs; respected talent that has won before. Even on the downside Adam Oates contributed the ability to take draws to an Oilers team in a brief appearance. While most people see Smyth as a saint, the fact is Oiler veterans have never learned to win. I’ve followed this team for all my life and outside of the late 90s to now, the team has been hopeful to down right awful, the Oiler veterans have only experienced losing. I fear that with every season that management “waits”, Hall and Ebs will learn the same…

  • Simpsonite

    No. We are not screwed. We just need to have patience. The team is super, super young. Last night was an outstanding game by the kids but they couldn’t finish. They will learn to finish. They are already much better this year than last year and I still think whitney will become better.

    And doobie Dube rules.

    Smyth though…well, he’s in tough…

  • Make no mistake. Yakupov, while showing flashes of brilliance and tons of try is the fly in the ointment for the second line. At the same time it’s obvious that if Yak/Gags/Hemsky had a season to work out the rookie tendencies and groove Hemsky (he’s still an awkward fit with those guys and doesn’t have near the needed consistency), they could be a deadly 1A line next year.

    Yak has some rough edges to polish for sure. But anybody suggesting he be replaced with Smyth is not quite getting why he got benched in the first place. He’s slow, borderline effective on a high octane line and prone to covering deficiencies with sloppy play that leads to penalties.

    • ~Actually David, it’s Gagner and Hemsky making the majority of the turnovers and defensive errors, not to say Yakupov hasn’t had his poinent moments out there, like missing about 20 seconds of his own shift while his line mates coughed the puck up ten times~

      Edit; I thought the same thing, The advanced stats guys layed into me with there protractors and special ratio graphs, I as all but screwed.

      • Time Travelling Sean

        Yak does some soft passes in the neutral zone to many times though, easy to pick off.

        Why do you even want Weber? Look at Lecavlier or Heatley. They get their big contract then sail off into the sunset.

        I love Fistric. IDC if he’s a -20 for the season, those hits are nice to watch, and if the criticism is we’re too easy to play against, well…

        • GVBlackhawk

          Actually, Yakupov is probably the hardest passer on the team. He does attempt a feather-saucer pass once in awhile but so does Hall, Eberle, RNH, and Hemsky. Is your bias rookie-based or Russian-based?

          Oh and you love a player who contributes nothing offensively, is mediocre defensively, but can throw a decent bodycheck. Are you Don Cherry?

    • Phixieus666

      I would consider moving Harti up to the second line and Yak down to the third. Yak is just wild right now, need to reel him in a bit. Also that splits up the only two *big guys* worth anything the oil have in the lineup being MPS and Harti.

      I also think its hard for most young guys to play with someone like Hemsky, that guy is a ball of crazy randomness as well. Belanger, MPS and Yak could be good. Especially since I’d rather have Yak trying to finish a play than Belanger.

    • eastcoastoil

      Ryan Smyth is a saint.

      I just think yak might be better on the RW, who else could take his place that we currently have.

      I also thought this might spark some offence outside of RNH/EBS/Hall giving these guys a break from the hard match

  • eastcoastoil

    Good Article JW…enjoyed it…gives a good perspective on the realities of the trade system.

    Also like the stuff about Tarasenko playing on the third line and RNH and YAK not being First Line ready quite yet…it really puts things in perspective as to where this team is at.

    Given what you said about the Trade Deadline, the Draft, and the UFA’s in the offseason…which UFA looks the most intestesting to you (from an Oilers perspective) and which one or two Draft Eligible players look the most interesting…assuming a pick between 10th and 15th (or whatever range you think is most likely)?

    • Honestly, I’d have to look at the UFA’s. I looked ahead in the summer but it’s been a while so I’m not overly familiar with the market off the top of my head.

      As for the draft, who knows. Lots of season left to be played, and my rule of thumb is (except for high-end picks) that you’re looking at five years before you should be expecting those guys to contribute.

      • Ryane Clowe and Ryan Getzlaf are big UFA’s that the Oilers should be extremely interested in.

        Then trade for Weber.

        Edit; that last one is a special wish and should be on discount from the Predators come summer 😉

        As for draft picks my guess is the Oilers still pick in the top 8…….*cough Barkov cough*

  • John Chambers

    3 Trades to save the Oilers season:

    Whitney to LA straight up for Dustin Penner

    Hemsky + Musil to the Avs for Ryan O’Reilly

    Eberle to the Habs for PK Subban & a 2nd Rounder

    Sorry Wanye …

    YakCity Nuge Gagner

    Hall O’Reilly Paajarvi

    Penner Smyth Hartikainen

    Eager Belanger Petrell

    Subban Smid Schultz Schultz Petry Fistric

    Eager gets bumped when Jones comes back into the lineup.

    The biggest advantage of the deals is that Hemsky ($5.5), Eberle ($6), and Whitney’s ($4M) salaries are freed up in ’13-’14 to make way for Subban $2.75, O’Reilly ($5M), a wage increase for Gagner (who is now a winger – $4M), and Penner (re-signed 2 years $2M per).

    However, as Willis illustrates, one trade proposal let alone three are akin to gazing into one’s navel.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Getting to be that time. Early returns on Hall and Hopkins aren’t having the impact in games management hoped. It’s unfortunate the shelves/support are so bare here and they’re on their own so soon in their careers. Underachieving veterans is all they have at their disposal. Eberle is a keeper and Yakupov should be allowed a couple seasons. Hall would be the guy i’d make available first.

      It’s unfortunate management seems to be unaware of whats going on. A couple times this season already, the words leaderless,heartless and gutless can sum up their effort on those nights. With Lowe and Tambellini at the helm we’ll be no better off when the new building opens.

      We often see the phrase no excuses above dressing room doors around the league. Our Oilers seem to cater to the every excuse philosophy.The arrogance of management is catching up to them.

    • CaptainLander

      @ #14 John Chambers

      Although, as you say, they are all highly unlikely….I would consider them all…with the exception of moving YAK instead of Eberle.

  • Phixieus666

    Fistric/Petry not good. Petry was on fire. Yes, he was all over the place, offensively. Fistric was hitting anything that moved. I thought they were both great. Some people will find anything to gripe about. Great game from all last night, without bad luck we would have smoked those turkeys. Very encouraging signs last night.

    • Fistric/Petry also surrendered two different breakaways. Petry was on the ice for more than half of all even-strength scoring chances against. Fistric couldn’t control the guy in front of the net/coming out of the corner three different times for three different five-star scoring chances.

  • The Oilers are we thought they would be. a .500 team struggling to take the next step. We knew it would it would be the next step in the progression. So when I look at the standings I am pleased with the results so far. The lack of offence from the top 3 will resolve itself sooner rather than later. The Team will trade Ryan Whitney regardless of how many wags click their tongues and cry foul. He has an expiring contract and has done zip to earn a new one. The Oiles are looking for an asset in return. A pick or a prospect I would think.

    Horcoff and Smyth will be important players as the season wears on and Smyth’s recent play will correct itself and a 5 day rest doesn’t hurt neither does a game off or 2 if the coach thinks you’ve gone a little temporarily brain dead.

    Nk needs another 4-5 starts before April 5th to ensure that some team offers us a pick for him. His first start in over a year went well. Hopefully he can follow that up. I would start him at least once this home stand.

    The Oilers need to find out if Chris Vandevelde can play. I’d ensure he gets a good look.
    Ben Eager. Send him to Washington for Mike Green. Both are in need of a new home.

  • eastcoastoil

    Is this line up good enough?

    RNH-hall-Ebs

    Gagner-Smyth-hemsky

    Horcoff-jones-Yak

    Belanger-MPS-Harti

    I think Smyth needs a push and Yak needs the right side. What do you do with Lander-Eager-Petrell?

    How soon is this line-up even possible?

    • mr_nihilism

      The Oilers will dominate someday but once again it won’t be this day.

      Off topic (or maybe not), but is it just me or does it seem like Oiler players fall down on the ice (trip) a whole lot more than the other team?

  • eastcoastoil

    Morning JW,

    There has been a lot of talk of trades. I believe that this team just needs to tweak the lines a bit.

    Putting Yak on the third line on the RW would be one but who do you move up?

    Whats the latest on Horcoff and do you have a opinion on benching Smyth?

    • The other issue with putting Yakupov on the third line is can you pair him with Belanger and still have Belanger fill the ‘every d-zone faceoff’ role he has been? Maybe you make a 4L dedicated to d-zone draws and bump VandeVelde up, but I’d rather not see Yakupov with VandeVelde.

      I haven’t seen anything new on Horcoff.

      As for Smyth, he played badly over the weekend; he’d earned the scratch. Maybe he draws in for Petrell next game (it’s hard to identify a guy who *deserves* to come out on the bottom six) but I don’t have an issue with him getting sat against Dallas.

  • Phixieus666

    I think Jones can make a difference once hes back in the line up. Whitney can play better because we all saw it at the end of last season. The team look pretty dominant last night and were actually throwing hits if any one could believe it. I say pull Potter next game and stick Whitney back in. Can’t get better if he isn’t playing.

    In a prefect world N.Schultz wouldn’t be in the top 4. If Whitney can regain his spot in the top 4 this team looks very different and actually would have an above average defense with pretty good depth. I can see why they didn’t make moves.

    • I know it won’t be a popular sentiment, but the Oilers worst D pairing last night was easily Petry/Fistric. Petry was all over the map and Fistric couldn’t control guys at the front of the net.

      Obviously, you aren’t going to scratch Petry, but Fistric did more to play his way out of the lineup than Potter did. Maybe you just scratch Potter because you don’t like the cut of his jib, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue with this coaching staff.

      • Phixieus666

        I’d cut Potter just because i believe, correct me if I’m wrong, hes played more games that Fistric so far. And Kruger is trying to keep all defenseman playing. I’ve felt that since the first few games Potter has played pretty solid. With Peckham returning I would bench Fistric as he needs to get into the mix. But the one thing that is very important to this team right now is that Whitney either improve or gets shipped out and he can’t get better from the press box. I like that he was benched but don’t want to see him sit for too long.

        To me the only defense man on this team that hasn’t had a horrible game or two is J Schultz which is amazing since hes a rookie.

  • Word to the Bird

    I am concerned with this managements apparent lack of vision and/or ability to make a complete package.

    The kids will grow into their roles and potential, yet I wonder if we don’t retard their potential with the roles we’ve been thrusting them into. It seems we’ve been relying on kids to lead the team for the last 5 years: cogliano/gagner/nilson anybody?

    The team lacks experienced players who lead and understand their role. Yesterdays comments about Jagr are a good example of this. I was surprised to see Robidas still playing for Dallas…
    I just don’t think Jagr wanted to be the only one on this team to drag the horse along (like Pronger did when he was here)

    Does anyone think Adam Oates had an impact on Horcoff/reasoner/stoll before we made our cup run?

    Would it be possible to back a dump truck full of cash at Gary Robert’s back door to get him to be our conditioning coach (or the hated Chelios even?) There is no salary cap on operations, and we certainly can’t convince actual players to sign here.