Conventional wisdom seems to be that the Edmonton Oilers need to trade a star forward for a good defencemen. Nobody seems to expect the team to get back “fair” value, but it’s a price that needs to be paid because the club needs help on the blue line immediately.
Personally, I wonder how New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow would counsel his Oilers counterpart Peter Chiarelli. Because Snow was in a pretty similar position not all that long ago and he didn’t do the things that conventional wisdom would dictate the Oilers do.
Stepping Back to 2013-14
The 2013-14 season was a disastrous one for the Islanders, a step back that saw them fall to 26th in the league and post a minus-42 goal differential. New York had an impressive collection of young forwards who weren’t winning, a problematic defence and a black hole in net.
The list of forwards aged 25 or younger at the start of the campaign included John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Casey Cizikas. The No. 1 defenceman was Andrew MacDonald, advanced stats nightmare, pending free agent and now a top rearguard with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL. It was an unbalanced group.
The Isles had lots of depth at centre. Aside from No. 1 pick Tavares and No. 5 pick Strome, Lee, Nelson and Bailey could all play centre. Frans Nielsen was and is a top two-way pivot on a very reasonable deal, so Snow had a ton of depth the middle. The obvious play—the play that sounds a lot like what Chiarelli has been loudly advised by plenty of commentators to do—was to trade one of those centres for a quality defenceman. After all, the reasoning goes, it’s necessary to trade quality to get quality and nobody really needs three high-end pivots (let alone six quality ones).
Snow didn’t do that. He bumped a bunch of his centres to the wings. He actually went out and brought in Mikhail Grabovski, another centre, on a pricey free agent contract, doubling down on a position of strength. Those decisions, incidentally, have left the Islanders both deep and versatile up front.
He made use of another asset he had, an asset a lot of people still forget is a real asset: cap space. He waited until the dawn of the 2014-15 campaign, holding out while teams right up against the cap got increasingly desperate. Then he extracted not one but two quality defenders, both from good general managers, at a cost of nothing but futures. The trades looked like this:
- The Islanders sent prospects Ville Pokka and Anders Nilsson as well as minor-league defenceman T.J. Brennan to Chicago. They also took on the contract of disappointing goalie Kent Simpson. In exchange, they got defenceman Nick Leddy.
- The Islanders sent two second round picks and a third round selection to Boston. In exchange they got defencemen Johnny Boychuk, entering the last year of his deal.
Those two pieces joined two young players already in the system—Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan—and formed a new top-four for the Isles. Suddenly defence wasn’t a weakness, but a strength. Those moves, combined with the free agent addition of goaltender Jaroslav Halak (the Isles dealt a fourth-round pick to get his negotiating rights prior to July 1) turned the back end from a weakness to a major strength.
Snow did it without sacrificing even one of his good young forwards.
Peter Chiarelli isn’t in a totally dissimilar situation to the one Snow was in at the start of 2014. His blue line is probably better than the one Snow started with, given that Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse are probably relatively fair points of comparison for Hamonic and de Haan at the time and he already has a competent top-four veteran in Andrej Sekera. I suspect the Oilers’ young duo might actually be better.
The forward corps is young and talented; less rich in centres than Snow’s group but (at least by draft pedigree) richer in talent.
Even the cap space exists. The Oilers are potentially looking at something like $15 million to do all the things they want to do next season even if the cap stays more-or-less where it is. That cap space could be leveraged for a free agent like Dustin Byfuglien, but it could also be used the way Snow used his in New York: to ease the burden felt by a good team with cap trouble.
It’s not like the Islanders are totally unique here, either. Tampa Bay went to the Stanley Cup Final last year, and while they were blessed with Victor Hedman via the draft the other four defencemen in their top-five came through judicious use of cap space. Anton Stralman and Matt Carle were free agent signings. Jason Garrison was dumped by a Canucks team that needed to clear space; Braydon Coburn was dumped by a Philly team with some similar motivations. Garrison was acquired in the summer for virtually nothing (a second round pick) while Coburn was bought in-season for a stunning collection of futures. There’s a lesson there, too.
I’m guessing if he had nothing to gain that Snow would say that’s the way forward. Unless, of course, it was sometime after the playoffs ended and he was still trying to resolve the Hamonic situation. Then I’m guessing that he’d say the Oilers should definitely dump Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
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