Trading Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for help on defence is an idea that has gained some currency among at least a portion of the Edmonton Oilers’ fanbase. It’s also an extremely risky proposition.
The argument in favour of a trade is straight-forward enough. In a recent piece for the Edmonton Journal, veteran reporter Jim Matheson argued that the Oilers should certainly proceed with caution, but that the team should still be willing to listen to offers on the centre. His full piece is here; I’ve selected quotations which convey the heart of the argument:
Nugent-Hopkins is the Oilers’ best trading chip to try to get the No. 1 defenceman the team sorely needs … Draisaitl can play wing but he is better at centre, and you really only need two pure offensive centres on a team.
Matheson’s column comes with some common sense caveats. He says that the Oilers shouldn’t make a deal now, and not even later in the season when Connor McDavid has recovered from a broken collarbone. And it’s hard to argue with his choice of target: either Shea Weber or Seth Jones would be a lovely addition to Edmonton’s defence.
But it’s also important to recognize how dangerous such a move would be.
The Case Against
Leon Draisaitl. There’s a lot of love for Draisaitl right now, and I get it. He’s been fantastic this season since being recalled from the AHL. But it’s also important not to gloss over things like a) his 27.6 shooting percentage or b) the two goals he scored in 37 games last year or c) the two points and minus-five rating he put up in six AHL games this year. This is a very talented young player, but he’s 20 years old and 50 games into his NHL career and his recent streak of sublime play is not the only thing he’s done as a pro.
I think Draisaitl’s probably good enough to be the No. 2 centre on the Oilers behind Connor McDavid in the long-term. I’m also cognizant that I don’t know that yet, and in Peter Chiarelli’s shoes I’d be terrified of running two guys with less than 200 games of combined experience as my No. 1 and No. 2 centres next year. It wasn’t all that long ago that Nugent-Hopkins and before him Sam Gagner had encouraging rookie and sophomore campaigns that convinced many they were for real. It wasn’t all that long ago either that Nugent-Hopkins was widely rated ahead of Taylor Hall in terms of importance to the Oilers franchise. Once bitten, twice shy.
Defensive prowess. Nugent-Hopkins has been labeled a pure offensive centre by some and a soft skills centre by others, but this is a guy who contributes more than what shows up in his point totals. This is the third consecutive season in which he’s played a regular role on the penalty kill. He’s been playing tough opponents at five-on-five for years and despite this the Oilers have been markedly better with him on the ice than off it in pretty much every category. This is a player who no less an authority than Ken Hitchcock compared to Pavel Datsyuk, a guy who then-Edmonton coach Tom Renney described this way in his rookie year:
He makes five guys on the ice, including himself, better and probably our goaltender too because the puck’s usually going the other way or it’s out of trouble in our end, and he’s right there from a points perspective.
Neither Draisaitl nor McDavid bring the defensive credentials in the here-and-now that Nugent-Hopkins does. Edmonton doesn’t have another centre as good defensively as Nugent-Hopkins who is capable of contributing in any significant way offensively.
It’s awfully nice to have three centres. Todd McLellan is pretty used to having three quality pivots at his disposal; in San Jose he ran Joe Thornton and Logan Couture one-two down the middle and alternated Joe Pavelski between centre and wing. It’s not hard to imagine him doing something similar with the three players he has now at some point down the road, particularly given Draisaitl’s ability to play all three positions. Peter Chiarelli won in 2011 with a Boston team that had three good pivots, too, with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci providing a one-two punch and Chris Kelly finishing fifth on the team in even-strength scoring with 13 points in 25 games.
If the Predators come calling with Seth Jones, perhaps none of that matters. Maybe it’s so important to shore up the right side of the blue line that trading a quality 22-year-old two-way centre makes sense if the possibility arises. I don’t believe in “untouchable” lists and there are certainly deals where it would make sense for the Oilers to part with their 2011 No. 1 pick.
But caution is vital here. Nugent-Hopkins is far from superfluous, and the best case scenario would be if the Oilers can solve their defensive shortcomings without giving up on the lovely one-two-three combo they have at centre. Edmonton fans have seen how a lack of depth down the middle can hurt a team; it’s a lot easier to find a Teddy Purcell-type player who can play on the wings with a good centre than it is a good centre to fill a void if one develops.
Trading Nugent-Hopkins may turn out to be the best possible decision at some point. But it should certainly be a last resort.