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.
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.
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.