There is a feeling in some circles that hockey fans in Canada are unwilling to accept a complete slash and burn rebuild of our NHL franchises the way our neighbours to the south have. The reason is that we’re just too passionate about out national pastime to accept multiple losing seasons; even if the end result of all that losing is a team that is truly a contender for the Stanley Cup. We dearly want for a Canadian team to once again hoist Lord Stanley’s mug but we just can’t endure the pain necessary to see that dream realized.
However, less than a year into the Edmonton Oilers official rebuild (I could argue that we were unknowingly rebuilding before last season but that is a different matter altogether) fans in Edmonton are not only accepting of the rebuild but are so in love with it that some don’t ever want it to end. At least I assume that’s the case because why else would anyone really want to see Ales Hemsky and/or Dustin Penner traded.
The return on a trade for Hemsky or Penner will almost certainly be draft picks, prospects, or a combination of the two. Based on what’s being handed out for the likes of Mike Fisher, Kris Versteeg, and Chris Kelly those picks could be pretty valuable but they are still just draft picks. If a team is looking to make a deadline deal for players in the Penner/Hemsky class moving draft picks makes the most sense (short term sense) because creating new holes in their roster by moving roster players out as part of a trade would be counterproductive.
At best the Oilers would be able to acquire a prospect playing in the AHL who could be able to play NHL minutes next season. The step down – or up depending on how you look at the entry level contract situation – would be a prospect still playing in the CHL or NCAA but a player at this level is likely both further from the NHL and is a bigger gamble to be a future NHL player. And then there are picks; the biggest gamble of all and the furthest from playing in the NHL. Sure the Oilers may be able to get a quality return for Hemsky or Penner but any holes in the Oilers line up that could be filled by the trade wouldn’t be valuable enough to balance out the hole left behind in the short term. Moving either player will immediately make the Oilers a worse team. Even if Taylor Hall could replace Hemsky right now, who would replace Hall? And therein lies the problem.
Projecting forward I think the Oilers could (hope) compete for a playoff spot next season. Making the playoff would be quite a jump but the team should be competitive enough to not be eliminated outright by the All-Star break. This prediction of course assumes management actually tries to address issues like faceoffs and the penalty kill this offseason rather than just hoping that the problems will solve themselves.
From competitive, I see the team continuing to rise, making the playoffs the following season. And then finally in the 2013/14 season the Oilers establish themselves as a contender. This resembles the path the Chicago Blackhawks took as they posted consecutive season of 71, 88, 104, and 112 points en route to the Stanley Cup last season. This is an optimist projection in that our projected 60 points this season already has us a little off the Blackhawks pace.
For the Oilers to accomplish what the Blackhawks did though, a few key things need to happen. First, all of the youngsters – Hall, Linus Omark, Magnus Paajarvi, and Jordan Eberle – need to keep improving. Looking at them through rose coloured glasses we all just assume that this will be the case but it’s very possible that one or more of them don’t turn out to be the player that the club and the fans project them to be. Management also has to find serviceable veterans on reasonable contracts to address the obvious holes in the Oilers roster.
And lastly, the Oilers need to start winning games at some point soon. This may seem obvious and a little too simplistic but it’s far too often overlooked. Winning games in the NHL isn’t as easy as putting the most talented team on the ice. The Capitals would be far more successful if it was. Nashville would probably be a little worse off. In the case of a rebuild, the team needs to learn what it takes to win in the NHL; the sacrifices, how to play from behind, how to win close games, how to play with a lead. All of those are important in the rebuilding process. Teams don’t go from 60 point seasons to 100 point seasons overnight.
With the clock already started on the entry level contracts for Eberle, Hall, and Paajarvi choosing to push the rebuild back by trading Hemsky or Penner for more prospects will only lead to a situation very similar to this one in two years’ time. Not to mention more pain and more losing in the immediate term. If one or both of Hemsky and Penner are unwilling to resign then so be it, a trade has to be made. But any trade, even a great one, will set back the rebuild and that should be seen as a failing of management, the same management that we’re expecting to deliver us the Stanley Cup that we want so badly.