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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Assembly Line

In a perfect world an NHL team’s amateur procurement and development system works like an assembly line. It’s something the Oilers have been hit-and-miss with up front, but pretty good at in recent years on their blue line.

At any given point in time, there should be prospects at various stages of development, which we can divide into three broad categories:

  • new faces still outside the pro system (junior, college or Europe) awaiting entry-level deals and spots on the 50-man list
  • inexperienced pros, taking up depth roles on the farm team
  • ready or nearly ready prospects, players just waiting for the opportunity to prove they can graduate to the NHL level

Draft picks are the obvious source of supply for such a system, but undrafted players can be important cogs in it, too. In many cases, smart signing can compensate for a system which isn’t producing enough NHL-ready talent.

The value of such an assembly line is that it produces cost-controlled NHL players. With the exception of non-star players taken early in the draft, these young players are generally bargains on their entry-level deals, and sometimes for much longer than that.

Oscar Klefbom is a good example. His entry-level contract had an average annual value just north of $1.2 million, and as with all ELCs had a relatively small AHL salary. He was cheap labour in the AHL, and an almost immediate bargain in the NHL. Then he signed a seven-year extension with the Oilers at a $4.167 million cap hit. Barring trade or serious injury, Edmonton is going to have him for a full decade for much cheaper than the equivalent player would have cost in free agency.

Klefbom’s a high-end outcome, but there’s value elsewhere, too. Tweeners like Anton Lander and Tyler Pitlick add depth to the organization. Young third-pair defenders and fourth-line forwards and backup goalies are as a rule cheaper than older ones.

Having a constant stream of these players working their way up gives an NHL team flexibility. Sometimes it’s the flexibility to walk away from an expensive veteran on a pricey deal. Sometimes it’s the flexibility to trade a still-young player to another team to address a roster need elsewhere.

I thought of the value of the assembly line when I read one of the notes in Al Mitchell’s game day post today:

The signing of William Lagesson this week further adds to the impressive group of young defensemen who will be bubbling under come the fall. Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear will turn pro with Lagesson this fall, and CHL free-agent signing Ryan Mantha will join too. Add in Ziyat Paigin (who has signed an ATO but not his entry-level deal) and we are talking five substantial prospects arriving at the same time. With Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning already in the NHL, the Oilers are going to be very strong at the position. That means great depth, and it also means possibly dealing from a position of strength in trade.

That adds five new players to the Oilers’ system. All of them are probably ticketed to the AHL to start.

Bear and Jones only turn 20 this summer, and it generally takes some time to learn to defend in the NHL, especially for defenders who don’t have size on their side. Mantha is bigger and older but was passed over in the 2016 Draft after the Rangers declined to sign him; he’s obviously had a breakthrough year but expectations should be kept in check. Nothing in Lagesson’s resume suggests he’s knocking on the door of NHL employment at this moment in time. Paigin is a bit of a wild card, but given his difficulty in hanging on to a spot with Ak Bars Kazan some AHL time looks like a good idea.

Yet there’s room for those five in the system because Bakersfield is going to graduate a bunch of players.

Griffin Reinhart, Jordan Oesterle and Dillon Simpson will all need to clear waivers in the fall; my guess is that only Simpson returns to Bakersfield. Mark Fayne is an obvious buyout candidate. Joey Laleggia is now a forward. David Musil is only technically in the organization; Mark Fraser is merely journeyman depth.

Keep Simpson and Ben Betker, add a veteran NHL/AHL ‘tweener for depth and stability, and that’s an eight-man AHL rotation already.

The graduation of Reinhart and Oesterle will force the Oilers to make some decisions at the NHL level. The trade of Brandon Davidson had been offset earlier on by the stunning rookie performance of Matt Benning, and the idea of running all of Benning, Reinhart, Oesterle and Darnell Nurse on a team which should (seriously) be a Cup contender doesn’t seem like a good one.

The expansion draft will figure in here, but it wouldn’t surprise me even a little if the Oilers used Reinhart as a replacement for Eric Gryba and dealt Oesterle to a team in need of defensive depth post-expansion.

This is exactly how it should work. New prospects should constantly be entering the system, flushing away the failures and replacing the graduating success stories. Graduating prospects in turn should be giving the parent team hard choices—and the flexibility that comes with hard choices—at the NHL level.

The Oilers aren’t quite there yet when it comes to forwards, but they’ve been producing defencemen with regularity. Reinhart and Oesterle are following on the heels of Benning, Davidson, Nurse, Klefbom and Martin Marincin since the 2010 Draft. That’s a pretty nice group of homegrown NHL defencemen in a seven-year span.

      • ConnorJG

        I don’t think the sweetener has to be that big… Fayne is a veteran, right hand shot defenceman. Although he isn’t cracking the Oilers lineup, by all accounts it seems like he can still play.

        I would think that if the Oilers offered their two 3rd, Vegas would take him and likely trade him at the deadline with half salary retained if he plays decent enough… which you would think he would since it’s a UFA year and if he wants another contract he is going to have to show he can play. Vegas would be essentially be getting two 3rds and whatever they can get for him at the trade deadline, maybe a 5th? Two 3rds and a 5th have to be at least worth a 2nd rounder.

        • Furgantilese_Gus

          I haven’t looked at any of the theoretical lists of players potentially available to LV but keep in mind they also need to be salary cap compliant. I’m not so sure it’ll be as easy as we all think to make it to the cap floor so a guy like Fayne who has a bit of $$ attached might be just what the doctor ordered. I doubt it but you never know. Like you say, veteran, RHD on the final year of his deal and can guide what I’m sure will be a relatively young group wouldn’t be so bad I don’t think.

  • Dan 1919

    Willis, curious to know if your view of advanced stats has diminished a bit because of the Oilers success this year. IE. Russell not having good analytical stats and playing top 4, not picking up a Vrbata/Versteeg. I doubt anyone predicted the Oilers to be this strong, but has their improvement made you less confident in basing a teams success off of advanced stats, and lean more to the side of NHL teams just need the proper makeup and coaching and the stats will take care of themselves from a W or L perspective?

  • Bills Bills

    It wasn’t very long ago that we had a bunch of forward depth prospects and zero on defence. Now it has flipped. In one sense it is great as championships need good defence. But we haven’t seen a balanced prospect pool since the begining of the dod. Which ironically was including a time when we had no AHL team. Coincidence? I doubt it. The Oilers need to get better at drafting and developing. Aside from a bunch of top end picks, the roster does not have any home grown talent to speak of. Time for PC to look at the big picture and get better pro and amateur scouts.

    • Dan 1919

      Yeah Chiarelli needs to get serious, winning cups and building cup contending NHL teams seemingly over a summer is just an average GM skill set. Even though he did bring in his own additional scouting staff to Edmonton already, he should spend more time reading the comment section of Oilersnation so he can see the big picture… He’s only been here two years, how he’s supposed to be judged on drafting and development that takes 4-6 years to actually start evaluating is yet to be determined too.
      But you’re right, the guys he’s evaluated and brought in so far a just plugs that drag down the team: Benning, Kassian, Gryba, Maroon, Talbot.
      Get it together PC.

      • Bills Bills

        Wow, okay. So from my comment you took it that I think PC has done a crappy job? Everyone knows that long term contenders are built through a good internal development program. Anyone with half a brain knows that the Oilers have had a horrible scouting and development program, even nonexistent for a while. Don’t you think that and the dod were directly related? If you don’t see that, then you’re just not that smart. We still have pretty bare cupboards and to PCs credit he has done a good job of filling them with college defenceman. But the big pictures says our drafting needs to get better.

  • FISTO Siltanen

    Not sure the reason to get rid of Fayne. He has one year left. He’s making an impact on the young kids. He can play at the NHL level as a 6th or 7th defenseman if needed.

    With all the young kids moving up to the next level there are worse things than having NHL vets to school them. I don’t know, a lingering buyout penalty hanging around on your team’s cap for 2 years is one thing worse that comes to mind.