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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

What can the Edmonton Oilers learn from their Griffin Reinhart mistake?

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.

  • thumbs

    Wondering what ON folks honest opinion of Chiarelli so far? Specifically these moves:
    – Reinhart move
    – Lucic contract
    – Eberle for Strome
    – Hall for Larson
    – Yak for a 3rd

    • OILFANMEXICO

      Opinion of Chiarelli? He walks the walk, and has refomatted our team in two years, one game away from Western conference Final.For that i love the guy. We can all play armchair G.M., but until your in the actual chair, your just talkin’ out your arse. No NHL G.M. is perfect or gets everything they want, 99% of trades are luck and negotiation IMO. One can never predict how a player will succeed on your team.

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        correct. he walks the walk and frankly i don’t give a spit what he has to do to make this team win as long as we do and now we are. don’t care about the Reinhart deal that everyone constantly hypes on because in the long run it simply won’t hurt us. the fact we are winning without Reinhart, Barzal and Carlo proves this. “the Lucic contract” is another rant. so? teams overpay for these type of players all the time and the Oilers were not the exception here for a player who filled a huge need very well. i get the concern about contract length and amount paid but he had a good year and fulfilled his obligation to his contract. i expect more of the same next year.
        and the Oilers clearly won the Hall for Larsson trade but some fans will never admit it or let it go because Chia didn’t get “full value” for Hall so therefore he “lost” the trade. Chia got what the market was willing to give him plain and simple ! same with Ebs for Strome. at least with Strome being 23 he has a chance to fulfill his enormous potential with us whereas Ebs is what you see is what you get….a soft, one dimensional player who’s a decent point producer but who sucked this year both during the season and in the playoffs. at least Strome has a history of being able to produce in the playoffs. c’mon guys!

    • Hemmercules

      I’m always skeptical because a GM can turn things sour pretty fast but I like Chia so far. He’s has the balls to make big moves and the team went from the bottom of the conference to contending in the playoffs in a couple seasons.

      -Not a huge fan of the Reinhart move from the beginning. Desperation move but got a needed Dman. He never could have known at the time of signing him he would lose him to Vegas so tough loss on that one. Bad move.
      -Lucic got a year too many and probably a mil too much per season but thats free agency in a nut shell. Needed a player like him though and I like him. Last two years could be detrimental to team. Good move.
      -Eberle fan, but time to move on. Not hard enough to play against in the west. Need cap space and Strome should be decent. Good move.
      -Hall for Larson. Got rid of a possible cancer (rumour), gained a beast off a Dman who is young and on a good contract. Good move.
      -Yak was a bust, they weren’t getting anything more for him than they did and now he’s off to free agency. I hear he’s looking at a pro tryout or a 1 year deal, heard Vancouver may be possible. Good move.

      Russel contract seemed high. Thats a growing concern with Chia for me. Overpay one guy and it trickles down, then you are capped out and moving players you want to keep.

      I give Chia a B+. Playoff team now but missing the final pieces still. Not sure what they will be able to add after McD and Drai cash in?

    • ed from edmonton

      Reinhart trade hasn’t worked out as he hasn’t contributed what the Oil had expected when they made the trde.

      Lucic year one has been as expected. We will see what the future holds. Can only evaluate this one in the fullness of time.

      Eberle for Strome. Not having to retain salary was unexpected bonus. Getting a roster player for what was essentially a salary dump has to be a good thing. Would the Oil even be able to contemplate the rumored 8 x13M contract for McDavid without this salary dump?

      Hall for Larssen, a stroke of genius.

      Yak for 3rd, anything return for a KHL player is great.

      • ed from edmonton

        Also consider acquiring Letestu, Sekera, Maroon, Kassian, Benning, Cagulia, Gryba for nothing, Talbot for 2nd and 3rd round picks. Can’t underestimate the impact of McD and LD, but he has essentially retooled the entire supporting cast on the fly.

    • Spaceman Spiff

      Wondering what ON folks honest opinion of Chiarelli so far? Specifically these moves:
      – Reinhart move. Mistake, but we move on. Chiarelli made up for it by signing Benning and Caggiula.
      – Lucic contract. I’m OK with it. He brings so much physical intimidation to the team and there’s value in that. Plus, I’m thinking his offence rebounds.
      – Eberle for Strome. The old Sam Pollock Rule applies here. The team that gets the best player, wins the trade and the Isles got the best player. But this wasn’t really a “hockey trade,” it was a cap trade. If there wasn’t a salary cap, the Oilers wouldn’t have made this deal. So … I’m OK with it.
      – Hall for Larsson. This looks a lot better a year in, mainly due to the fact that few of us out west had any idea of who or what an Adam Larsson was. Of course, Hall got hurt last season, so the jury’s still out. But this trade was the cod-liver oil that the franchise needed and the benefits to the blueline were evident all year. Chia not only addressed the lack of a RHD, he basically solified a top pairing (Larsson and Klefbom) for a long time.
      – Yak for a 3rd. At this point, I’m thinking we should be thankful we got anything at all. He’s a good-old-fashioned No. 1 bust and that was bound to happen if you pick first overall four times in five years or whatever it was. Nice salvage operation.

    • ed from edmonton

      Getting the 8 year commitment is great, I can hear the crying from TO already. I was hoping for 12 rather than 13 though. Now for the other shoe to drop, i.e. LD contract. LD maybe in the 8-9 range so the Oil will have about 30% of their cap in these guys. Good-by Nuge by this time next year.

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        Lol Oiler fans always say that….”i like the deal but it’s a year too long and a million per year too much . And I certainly hope the Leaves fans are crying in their beer because they were so cocky about him leaving as soon as his ELC was up for Toronto the good because he “wanted ” to play at home that now this proves that Toronto really isn’t the center of the universe! Up yours Leaves fans!!

    • Druds

      I go on the flames site and its empty because there is nothing to discuss about their crap team and then I come on here and here are all the lame fans! …welcome to heaven basement dwellers!

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Jonathan – I like the idea of a “red team” challenging scouts or GM decisions or, at the very least, someone to act as an independent sounding-board for the GM on certain personnel decisions – especially ones involving prospects the GM may not be overly familiar with.

    I think that’s the biggest lesson to be learned: Don’t trust anyone the incumbent scouting staff if you’re the new GM. More specifically, the pro scouting staff.

    I think the pro scouts are the ones who need to bear the most blame because they would or should have had the most recent information on what Reinhart was and wasn’t doing in the AHL in 2015. The problem was, or appears to have been (I obviously wasn’t in the room), that Chiarelli was relying on the advice of people like Bob Green who I’m sure raved about what Reinhart was like with the Oil Kings. We all remember what Reinhart was like in the WHL – a big dominant guy. Somewhat slow afoot (by NHL standards) and maybe not as physical as he should have been, but in 2012, he was a sure-fire top 10 first-round pick.
    But that certainly wasn’t the case by 2015 when second- and third-hand reports from bloggers and AHL media were noting that Reinhart was lagging a bit. At that point, the Oilers’ pro scouts should have been raising red flags.

    All of that said … maybe they were crossing their fingers and hoping he’d find his game. That’s not unreasonable for defencemen. It’s a tricky position and some require a lot of games and at-bats in the minors to figure things out. Two or three AHL seasons might have done it.

    Reinhart was a “project” defenceman and the project didn’t work, short-, medium- or long-term. In the end, his biggest use was expansion-draft-bait. I’d rather have lost him than Khaira or some of the others.

    And, as for being “THE costliest mistake the Oilers have made” under Chiarelli, the jury’s still out on that. We still don’t know what either of those prospects the Isles picked will become. Barzel’s a centre who had 79 points in his fourth year of junior (with 10 measly goals). I’m not sure those numbers impress me … nor am I entirely sure they weren’t the product of being on the same ice surface as Oilers’ prospect Ethan Bear.

    As for whether or not the acquisition of Reinhart resulted in the need to trade Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, well Jonathan … you lost me there. I can’t claim to remember what side of the ice Reinhart plays on, but he’s a left-shooter, so my guess is port side. Plus, the right side of the blueline was a raging tire fire a year ago – and Reinhart wasn’t the right bucket of water for that. Even if he had turned a (good) corner developmentally last year, chances were he was never going to address that specific need by fall 2016. The Oilers needed a proven, plug-and-play right-handed defenceman 12 months ago and they found Larsson. The price was Taylor Hall – no more, no less. I’ve come to terms with that, but I have a feeling we’ll debate it until the ice caps melt.

  • NealH

    You recall those cheap horror films where the monster/bad guy was finally defeated and dead, then inexplicably rose up to attack one last time? I liken this to MacT and Lowe giving their last bit of advice to the new GM. “Trust us on this Peter, we’re good hockey people. we got a lot of organizational intelligence on this kid”. Afterwards Chiarelli, upon seeing the result, was probably saying WTF!
    Anyway Willis has made a good academic argument with learnings for the future. Next…