Most of us Edmonton Oilers fans will remember this story from Sam Gagner's rookie season. A teenager, or in this case a couple of teenagers, have come into training camp and set the world on fire. "Wow, they look like they belong here!" say us armchair pundits who, slavering for any morsel of hope after a season that saw the team defecating on our dreams like drunken vagabonds, see some Swedish spaghetti strand score sixteen goals against a team of minor league lifers and promptly shave our heads and give over our possessions to the Church of Magnus. It's an exciting time. We've got the Canadian Captain Clutch, some sort of speed monster who was hatched with skates on his feet and a burning hatred of goaltenders, and a guy who was a first overall pick and therefore must be good (even if he's been the least impressive out of any of them). As if that weren't enough, there's the Swedish Rob Schremp kicking around, a bit older but turning the puck over willy-nilly on those occasions when he isn't dazzling with it.
Watching the Oilers rookies thrash the opposition by a combined score of several million to five has been intensely satisfying on every level. Oh, sure, pre-season victory doesn't predict regular season success, but it's a goddamned ball all the same. And some of these triumphs have been pretty impressive even in a pre-season context. Watching our rookies work the likes of Kevin Bieksa and his 281 career NHL games into corkscrews is more than enjoyable, it's promising. That was an actual NHL player! We might really have something here.
It's nice to be able to watch the Oilers and enjoy ourselves again, isn't it? But there are those who want the fun to end with the preseason. Over at mc79hockey.com, Tyler Dellow is urging the Oilers to send Taylor Hall and Magnus Pääjärvi back to the Ontario Hockey League and the Elitserien next season: not because they're necessarily bad players but to better utilize their entry-level contracts. The theory goes that Taylor Hall at age 22 is likely to be a better player than Taylor Hall at age 18 whatever happens: with the Oilers in no position to contend for the 2010-11 season it's better to have Hall's three-year entry-level contract paying for his better years than his worse ones. In a few years, the Oilers will be better placed to compete for a championship and they'll improve that position if they're paying Hall his first contract rather than his second.
It's an understandable if unorthodox conclusion. And I'm certainly not going to argue with Tyler in quantitative terms for the same reason I'm not going to challenge Mark Messier to an elbowing guys in the face contest. But even though, as Tyler puts it, "getting trashed all over the internet [. . .] makes me think it's more likely that it's right", I'm going to make him feel all the more correct and trash him a little more. And I'm going to do it the only way I know how: with emotional arguments, dollops of what I feel are common sense, and not so much as a scrap of data. People say the Oilogosphere is famous for reasoned, well-researched, mathematically comprehensive posts and arguments. I'll show them.
As a preliminary disclaimer, I should state that my arguments rely on two core assumptions. First, that the two teenagers in question are good enough to play every day in Edmonton on their merits. I believe they are, but if I thought they weren't able to crack the lineup I wouldn't hesitate to send them back from whence they came. Second, I'm assuming that we're not deliberately tanking for a lottery pick in the coming season as well, because tanking is despicable and the organization has shown no sign of deliberately going in that direction.
The primary reason I feel Hall and Pääjärvi should remain in the NHL for the coming season is that I believe it'll help them improve as hockey players. No matter how much we sometimes like to pretend otherwise, hockey players are humans, not mathematical equations. Like the rest of us a hockey player needs to be challenged or he stagnates. Last season in the Ontario Hockey League, Taylor Hall averaged just under two points per game; how much of a challenge will he face if he goes back? It's a number that compares favourably to other recent first overall picks from the OHL like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos and only a stride behind the best recent performer, Patrick Kane. Certainly none of these players have had cause to regret coming straight to the NHL.
The argument in favour of sending Kane back to the OHL is one of efficiency: Kane putting up 55 points in the NHL on his first year of a rookie contract is good value, but if he comes back at age twenty and puts up 85 points in the first year of that contract when the team is in a better position to win games that's far better. But if Hall would spend two extra years in the OHL stagnating, getting bored, and possibly developing bad habits, that would cast matters in a different light. Other famous successful junior players such as Tavares and Angelo Esposito actually saw their junior production decline season over season from their initial lofty highs, and the list of players who came into the junior ranks, played at a high level, and continued to improve is a short one (from his rookie OHL season to last year, Hall improved his points-per-game by a relatively modest 0.53). Playing junior hockey isn't a good arrangement for those already too good for junior, any more than a medical student is likely to improve himself flipping burgers at a fast food joint for two extra years.
It's in the interest of the Oilers to make their team as strong as possible, not to try and see the future, predict cycles and injuries, and "time" their prospects to be as cheap at possible at a certain point. Divination has never been among this organization's strengths. Dellow invokes the example of the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Blackhawks brought both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane into the NHL as teenagers, won the Stanley Cup carrying an overpaid useless goaltender on the roster, and in spite of having to give their restricted free agents a big payday are still betting favourites to repeat as champions. While having good players on affordable contracts is important to contend, it's far more important to have good players and retarding a youngster's development in the name of good value in the future is a staggeringly dangerous game to play.
While I'm all for being intelligent and working the system to our advantage, sometimes I worry we Oilers fans start trying to get a bit too clever. Sending Hall back to junior if he doesn't deserve to go would risk alienating our alleged new star player, consume one of his formative years with a season that could at best be a very marginal improvement on what came before (oh, look, Taylor's wicked good against 16-year-olds, woooooooow), and worsen the team in the short term all for a very questionable medium-term reward. If everything broke right, the Oilers might improve medium-term by sending Hall back to junior, but things can go wrong more easily than they can go right.
If it wasn't already obvious, part of the reason I think the kids are all right is sheer cynicism. I certainly prefer to believe that Steve Tambellini has, in fact, got it all going on and that by the time the 2012-13 season rolls around this team will be ready to chase championships in accordance with some marvelously constructed scheme of his. But I don't have that much faith in Tambellini and I'd rather see a team that definitely has a bit of a chance than one that might possibly have a great chance provided our general manager stops assessing useless players and signing goons long enough to do something properly. A moderately good team gives us fantastic moments like 1997 against Dallas and 1998 against Colorado; an awful one gives us, well, the last few years. I would rather have a decent team in 2010-11 than a lousy team with the promise that 2012-13's team will be superb from a front office not known for honouring such promises. Remember, every team not currently in a position to chase the Cup is planning on getting there within five years: there's a reason GMs' "five-year plans" have become such a running joke, and it's not just a success rate that would even make the Soviets giggle. The Oilers do not have a unique, pre-ordained window on which they must stake everything. Their only opportunities will be the ones they take from the grasping fingers of their rivals, and that means building the strongest team possible rather than building the best-timed team.
So that's Taylor Hall, but what about Magnus Pääjärvi? His 29 points in 49 Swedish Elitserien games last year, while very good for a player his age, leaves room to improve. He, certainly, would have something to prove if the Oilers sent him back for another Scandinavian sortie. If Pääjärvi went back to Sweden, flirted with Timra IK's scoring lead, and returned next year ready to burst into the Oilers lineup and score from day one, that would be fine by everybody. On the other hand, he has looked absolutely brilliant in training camp and, from what we've seen of him as well as his professional record, is clearly the most NHL-ready prospect in the system. It's possible he could even beat Andrew Cogliano on our left wing depth chart, assuming a just universe in which Cogliano's sorry ass is kicked out of the faceoff circle once and for all.
There's a better case for sending Pääjärvi back to Sweden than for sending Hall to the OHL, but I think I would keep Pääjärvi on the team all the same. I subscribe to the school which says that, when possible, a prospect should play at the highest level he is capable of succeeding at, and for Pääjärvi that is clearly the NHL. Although Pääjärvi wouldn't be at risk of stagnating in the Elitserien, his ceiling in the NHL is obviously higher than it is in Sweden and, given his star turns at the World Junior and World Hockey Championships, he's proven that he rises to the occasion with superior teammates. Of course, my arguments against trying to time the Oilers' Stanley Cup run from Hall's situation still hold.
Ultimately, the primary reason I want Pääjärvi on the 2010-11 roster is that I think he'd make the Oilers better in the short term. I'd certainly rather see Pääjärvi flying up the wing on the power play than Cogliano, to say nothing of Omark or (oh god) Giroux. The Oilers would win more games with Pääjärvi on the team and that's its own reward: every goal is a goal closer to the miracle that would be making the playoffs. Even if you're in favour of tanking and would endure any suffering this season to get a few more points in the next, how well do hockey players lose on a miserable team mired in its second straight worst-ever season? I have to repeat this: hockey players aren't robots. There is no human who doesn't learn better and work harder when he's happy, and no athlete from the most lowly rec league to the highest professional ranks who isn't happier when he's winning and playing well. Tempting fate by deliberately icing a worse team than you have to is a bad idea.
If the Oilers are going to be competitive in four years' time, it won't be because Taylor Hall and Magnus Pääjärvi are cheap. It'll be because Taylor Hall and Magnus Pääjärvi are among the best players in the NHL at their positions, and the front office has assembled a supporting cast worthy of that skill. The first, overriding priority for the Oilers when dealing with these young prospects has to be to put them in the best possible position to succeed. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse. If Hall and Pääjärvi turn into marvelous players who command big contracts from the Oilers because of their prodigious talents... well, I can think of worse problems to have.