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Top Edmonton Oilers prospect stories of 2023 — No. 4: Trading prospects at the deadline

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Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
5 months ago
The work of Ken Holland at the 2023 trade deadline for me will go down as a qualified success. The addition of Mattias Ekholm and his impact on the Oilers and Evan Bouchard is one of the best trades of the last two decades by an Edmonton Oiler general manager.
The addition of Nick Bjugstad, however, was less successful. He was brought in to provide right-shot center depth with some penalty-kill ability. While Bjugstad had some moments of quality, he faded in the Vegas series, with Ryan McLeod taking the lion’s share of both his minutes and his duties.
What is more of interest to me is what capital Ken Holland used to make these deadline acquisitions. Not only what he used, but whether the usage was efficient in terms of maximizing benefit and minimizing the loss. Remember, the whole concept at this time, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their prime, is to use picks and prospects to maximize the chances of winning the Stanley Cup.  The two trades for Ekholm and Bjugstad ironically showed the good and the bad of prospect management by the Edmonton Oilers.

The Ekholm Trade

The trade for Mattias Ekholm was a master class in what an organization should do to support their superstar core in their quest for the Stanley Cup. The full trade was as follows:
Nashville Received:
Tyson Barrie
Reid Schaefer, Oiler 1st Round Pick in 2022
2023 1st Round Pick (Tanner Molendyk)
2024 4th Round Pick
Edmonton Received:
Mattias Ekholm
2024 6th Round Pick
In the deal, the Oilers absorbed $1.5M of cap dollars as Ekholm was at $6M and Barrie was at $4.5M. Ekholm had three more seasons at the time of the trade, and Barrie had more seasons at the end of last season before entering free agency.
This deal represents the very best of what you can do as a general manager. Trade three assets who are years away from contributions to the NHL in exchange for a well know player who filled an obvious for the team. The 1st round pick in 2023, Tanner Molendyk was an excellent pick. However, Molendyk is a left-shot defenseman with a strong offensive game. Now it is no given the Oilers would have picked Molendyk, but that player had a number of hurdles in front of him in the names of Nurse, Ekholm, Kulak and Broberg. In addition, in the draft there were only a few players that might have filled a need like Easton Cowan. However, that pick is a ways off from contributing.
The inclusion of Reid Schaefer gave Nashville the ability to claim they had traded Ekholm for two first-round picks, as Schaefer was the 32nd overall pick in the 2022 draft. He was a player that caught fire for half a season, scoring 32 goals in his draft-eligible season. Despite having very little history of scoring, the Oilers drafted the big body, power forward.  Since his draft Schaefer has struggled to continue to progress. His last season in junior was 28-33-61 in 55 games which ranked him 63 in scoring. He was 59th the prior year. He did have 19 points in 19 post-season games but struggled to maintain a contributing role to the Thunderbird top line, even being pulled on occasion.
In his first season in the AHL, Schaefer has struggled mightily. While not a direct comparison, I have been monitoring his plan against Jayden Grubbe. Grubbe was the 3rd round pick of the New York Rangers who was acquired by the Oilers last spring for a 5th round pick. Grubbe is eight months older than Schaefer, but both are AHL rookies.
While this is a small sample size, it does appear that Schaefer is developing a slower pace that is needed. For the Oilers, they need first-rounders to develop quickly, or they need assets more advanced in their career tenure. This doesn’t mean Schaefer won’t be an NHL player, but it certainly means he’s not on an accelerated path that could have helped the Oilers.
In the end, the Oilers traded three uncertain assets including a first-round pick on a slow trajectory for a player who fit a need for the team and has been an excellent fit in the dressing room

Nick Bjugstad

The trade for Bjugstad was to provide a right-shot center who could penalty kill for the Oilers. The player didn’t work out quite as expected, but it was a reasonable gamble overall. The trade itself is one that I believe was an overpay at the time it happened.
The full deal was as follows:
Coyotes Received:
Michael Kesselring, RHD, Bakersfield Condors
2023 3rd round pick
Oilers Received:
Nick Bjugstad
Cam Dineen, LHD, Tuscon Roadrunners
50 percent salary retention on Bjugstad in the amount of $450,000
We know about Bjugstad. Cam Dineen is an offensive defenceman who is undersized and challenged defensively. To be candid, I believe he was added to this deal to fulfill a roster spot in Bakersfield. The Oilers were quite thin at that time and Dineen helped fill a role.
On the Coyotes side, the 3rd round pick seemed like a reasonable return for a 30-year-old UFA with a non-playoff team playing out the string. The part that befuddles me is the addition of Michael Kesselring. Make no mistake, it had to be the ask from the Coyotes. There really is no other reason for Dineen in the deal other than the Coyotes wanting a specific player and not a pick. Why did the Oilers do it? I am not certain. The Oilers had Bouchard, Ceci and Desharnais. Remember, Tyson Barrie had been dealt two days prior. That left Kesselring and Phil Kemp as the two most senior right show defensemen left, with the caveat the Oilers clearly thought Philip Broberg could play the right side.
What makes the addition of Kesselring isn’t just the depth chart. This is a 6’5″ good skating defenceman who has some offensive skills. He also had taken a big leap in his play in Bakersfield. He went 13-9-22 in 49 games and registered a whopping 159 shots on net. He exceeded his points total from the prior season by 9 and his shot total by 72 in 6 fewer games. He was playing heavy minutes across all parts of the game. The player had clearly broken out.
Would I have traded the player? For sure. These players are meant to be dealt with. Do I think this is the deal it should have been done for? Nope. If Arizona asked for this player, it should have tipped the Oilers’ hand about the Coyotes’ interest. Remember this was a deal that was done 24 hours before the deadline. Is it possible the Oilers could have structured a different trade? Maybe one without Kesselring? Why not? The Oilers were far deeper on the left side of the defence. Why not Niemelainen, for example, instead? Or if it had to be Kesselring, I think the deal needed to be better for the Oilers.
Nevertheless, the deal was done and Kesselring went to Arizona. He missed time in training camp and played six games to open the season in the AHL. He was called up in mid-November and has played over 13 minutes a night in 17 games. He has 3-5-8 in those games all at 5v5. His points per 60 is second for NHL defensemen behind Cale Makar. His 8 points at 5v5  would rank third on the Edmonton Oilers having played half a season less.
Will he regress? For certain, there will be some, but he is just too new to his NHL career to know where he ends up. Remember, he is only 23 years old. There will be progress made in his game. Should it have been with Edmonton? I’m ambivalent about that given the depth chart in Edmonton. Should he have been traded in a better-structured deal for the Oilers? Yes, for certain.
The 2022/23 trade deadline for the Oilers was a success. Make no mistake. Mattias Ekholm was a tremendous example of a manager using less developed assets to acquire something that was certain and filled a role on this team for years to come. The Bjugstad trade took the tarnish off the success of the deadline.  In many ways, that trade was almost the opposite of the Ekholm deal. A known quantity close to the NHL for an unrestricted free-agent player. Maybe a deal doesn’t happen without Kesselring. If that’s the case, maybe it is a deal that should not have been done.

Top Edmonton Oilers prospect stories of 2023

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