Last week, the Edmonton Oilers lost defenceman Griffin Reinhart to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Reaction on this site and elsewhere was largely muted, both because the selection was expected and because Reinhart wasn’t terribly important to the Oilers anyway.
Nevertheless, it’s really worth taking a moment to look at the costliest mistake the Oilers have made under GM Peter Chiarelli.
The Oilers added Reinhart at the 2015 Draft via trade with the New York Islanders, sending out the 16th and 33rd overall selections for the young defenceman. It’s interesting to go back now and look at what Chiarelli said at the time of the deal:
We’ve been hunting for defencemen, and there’s a lot of intelligence on Griffin internally. I’ve always liked him as a player. He’s been behind a lot of good defencemen in Long Island. I had discussions with Garth on and off over the last month or so and we just kind of ramped up those discussions. I saw him in pro a couple of times last year; I saw him in London for the Memorial Cup and he was just a horse. Happy to get him. We had some guys at 16 that we liked, but this was something we decided to act on and he’s ready to play and he’s going to be a very good part of our D.
The first thing that jumps out is the comment about there being a lot of organizational intelligence on Reinhart, who in junior was a key member of an ultra-successful Oil Kings team. In response to a follow-up question, Chiarelli added that “he played in our back yard” and stressed the importance of “get[ting] players that you know.”
Owning the Oil Kings has given the Oilers more intelligence on the WHL as a whole and a lot more intelligence on the specific players skating in Edmonton. The problem is that having that team in the back yard can be a bit like practicing astronomy within the confines of a city: the stars are a lot brighter than the streetlights, but the streetlights are so much closer that it can be impossible to pick them out.
There’s a danger in being overly familiar with just one segment of the overall junior population. Travis Ewanyk is probably a better example of this danger. Edmonton blew a third-round pick on him in 2011 after watching him be a tough-as-nails third-line guy for the Oil Kings. The Oilers felt he might eventually be able to do that as a pro. The truth though is that NHL third-liners were mostly stars in junior; junior third-liners tend to end up in the ECHL.
The second point that pops is the matter of Reinhart being buried behind a bunch of good defenceman in New York. This was true. In 2014-15, the Isles ran (in order of average TOI) Travis Hamonic, Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Lubomir Visnovsky, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey in their top-six, with journeyman Brian Strait the No. 7 guy. Assuming that New York wouldn’t put a prospect in the No. 7 slot, that’s a pretty hard group to crack.
Yet at the same time it’s worth noting that three years after being drafted, Reinhart wasn’t forcing the issue. His AHL numbers were unremarkable, and when I went back and watched all of his NHL shifts he did a lot well but also lacked the speed to recover from mistakes or consistent puckmoving ability. The Islanders had the option to move out one of their existing guys (Hickey being the obvious one, given that he was about to be paid) but instead decided to trade their supposedly blue-chip prospect. Now, NHL teams do make mistakes, so that’s not necessarily damning, but it is telling.
Although the calls for patience on this player never really stopped – I expect we’ll even see one or two comments suggesting that if it weren’t for the surprise expansion draft, this still might have worked out! – the truth is that it was quickly apparent that Reinhart was not the player that Chiarelli had expected.
In an interview with TSN that fall, Chiarelli commented that Reinhart “ha[d] to make” the team. He mentioned him twice in the context of playing top-four minutes, both times indicating that he needed some time “to get up and running” but that he “expect[ed] him to be in the top-four at some point.”
That didn’t happen. Although Reinhart started the year in Edmonton, he played his last game on November 25 before being assigned to the AHL. He stayed in the minors until trades and injuries necessitated a call-up for both him and Jordan Oesterle. Rather than working his way into the top-four, he worked his way to Bakersfield.
The bottom line is that the Oilers paid for a player who didn’t exist save in their own projection, and there were consequences.
The most obvious one might be the trade of Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson the following season. If Reinhart were performing well inside Edmonton’s top-four, there would have been less incentive to steal from left wing to fill a need on defence. Alternately, had the Oilers used their two draft picks, the team might have had the necessary ammunition to pull off a swap for a defenceman without using Hall in the process. In that vein, it’s hard not to note that last week’s Travis Hamonic trade carried almost the same price in draft picks as the Reinhart deal did; that’s twice now (Dougie Hamilton) that the Oilers’ provincial rivals have managed to add a good, young, right-shooting defenceman for draft choices.
But even if we assume the Hall-for-Larsson swap would have happened no matter what, the Oilers certainly could have used two good prospects. Players from the back end of 2015’s first-round are slowly starting to trickle into the NHL right now, and with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl looking at new contracts in 2018-19 and 2017-18, respectively, having some cost-controlled young talent to plug in at this point would be great for Edmonton. To some extent, college players – Matt Benning, Drake Caggiula – can fill that gap but more options would help.
The trade was a costly mistake, but without knowing what the decision-making process looked like behind closed doors, it’s impossible to know exactly where the Oilers went wrong on this.
The one thing I wonder about from the outside is whether there were dissenting voices. Reinhart has been a popular name in Edmonton forever (remember when the idea of trading Reinhart for the Leon Draisaitl pick was in vogue?) and with so much of the team brass having seen that player perform so well firsthand, one wonders whether anyone spoke up to make the case against Reinhart prior to the trade being made.
In healthy organizations, disagreement has value. There’s a reason military and intelligence organizations create so-called “red teams” – independent groups tasked with challenging conventional wisdom. Everyone may ultimately have to get on-board once a decision is made, but having those decisions challenged during the planning stage can lead to better choices.
That takes us back to Chiarelli’s comment that “there’s a lot of intelligence on Griffin internally.” The GM acknowledged on the day of the trade that he always liked Reinhart as a player. When he asked his top advisors for their thoughts, it seems unlikely that he got much dissent on that point of view, which is perhaps why the Oilers were willing to pay such a high price for a player whose development had already stalled prior to his arrival in Edmonton.