With the release of Bob McKenzie's most recent draft rankings, and with less than three weeks remaining ahead of the trade deadline, it is time for the Oilers to start asking some big picture questions about how they intend to take the next step in their rebuilding process.
There is already a great deal of talk that the Oilers, likely to be a lottery team again, obviously need to upgrade their defence. This is not new information. What looking ahead to the draft will do is inevitably lead to people ask questions such as, "Who should the Oilers draft?" Or, if they end up picking in the top two as they currently sit, "Should they trade down to take a defenseman?". Host James Duthie asked as much of TSN Scout Craig Button last night, to which Button replied that he would consider trading down to take Matt Dumba if the Oilers find themselves with an opportunity to draft Nail Yakupov (or, presumably, also Mikhail Grigorenko).
Right now, and over the next 20 days, I think the Oilers need to start making some tough decisions on exactly how they plan to address the notion of upgrading their blueline, and doing so in a manner that fits into the timeline of the rest of their rebuild. Whether or not Steve Tambellini is the right man for this job (he's not) is a discussion for another column.The issue that the Oilers are faced with for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft is that defensemen tend to develop at a slower rate than forwards, especially elite-level forward prospects like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Sure, every now and then there is a Drew Doughty, but he is the exception, not the rule. Recent examples like Victor Hedman, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn are more demonstrative of a reasonable development curve for even the most elite defensive prospects. While they may be able to contribute at the NHL level at an early age, it is likely to be years before they realize their potential to become impact players. And that's assuming you don't end up with the next Cam Barker. What this creates is a gap in the development curve where your core forwards are good enough to compete for the playoffs, but the back-end is lagging behind.
This issue is something the Oilers are already dealing with when it comes to their current crop of prospects, which includes a number of well-regarded defensemen. Oscar Klefbom, David Musil, Martin Marincin and others all display significant long-term potential, but for the Oilers and their fans, who have already shown incredible patience, their arrival as significant NHL players remains likely too far away and well behind the development curve of Hall, RNH, Eberle and the other Oiler forwards who appear on the verge of being able to compete with some of the better teams in the league.
This leads us to the decisions to be made in the next 20 days. The Oilers have a significant number of assets that are attractive to teams looking to improve right now. The most commonly discussed pieces include Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner as well as Andy Sutton, Ryan Smyth and even Nikolai Khabibulin. Should the Oilers unload non-core pieces to acquire more draft picks and prospects, should they consider trading down at the draft or do they take a more bold approach and hope the risk/reward turns out in their favour?
Let's look at some of the options...
Stand firm and draft another elite asset with a 2012 lottery pick - In theory, you can't argue with this logic. Acquiring elite talent is never a bad thing. Still, adding a Yakupov or a Grigorenko doesn't address your blueline concerns and a player like Ryan Murray or Dumba will simply join the current group of prospects who need to develop their skills and their physical frame before they can become high end NHL players.
Should the opportunity present itself, trade down at the draft to take a defenseman and acquire extra assets - Again, not a terrible theory, but let's take a look at what the expected return might be. In the last 5 NHL Entry drafts, there have only been three occasions where teams dealt a pick inside the top 10 on the draft floor in order to trade down and select a few picks later. Here are the deals:
1. 2008 - Toronto receives the 5th overall pick (Luke Schenn) from the NY Islanders for the 7th pick, 68th pick and a 2009 2nd round pick.
2. 2008 - Nashville receives the 7th overall pick (Colin Wilson) from the NY Islanders for the 9th pick and 40th pick.
As you can see, when a team does trade down at the draft, the return is typically something in the range of an additional pick or two in lower rounds of that draft or a future draft. Again, nothing that will be an immediate solution to the Oilers sub-par blueline. While the Oilers pick may end up being higher than any of the three examples, it is still unlikely to provide a significantly greater return. Of course, there are other ways to trade draft picks, where teams don't trade down but simply trade away the asset for an immediate return and accept not drafting in the first round, or acquiring a later pick in the round in a separate transaction. Let's consider that option...
Trade the pick outright for more NHL-ready assets - This would certainly be a bold option, but it comes with an immense risk. There aren't many credible examples where this has happened before. Everyone remembers the infamous Phil Kessel trade that cost the Maple Leafs the chance to draft Tyler Seguin, but the Leafs made that deal before knowing where they would be drafting. There isn't a lot of precedent for a team simply trading away a lottery pick. The only case I can find in the last 15 years is Brian Burke trading Bryan McCabe and a 2000 1st round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for their 4th overall selection in 1999 as part of his legendary sequence of trades to acquire the Sedin brothers. An interesting scenario to be sure, but I imagine there is a good reason that this doesn't happen very often. Certainly worth considering depending on the return, but this decision can wait until the summer and does not impact the Oilers' ability to take steps to improve beginning with the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
Another potential solution, which may be equally as bold, but could provide a greater and more immediate return, would be to pull the trigger on dealing some of your current assets to acquire the talent that can help you today and in the future. For example, if dealing Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner could each give you a young NHL defenseman with upside, say, Jonathan Blum from Nashville and Nick Leddy from Chicago for the sake of argument, that would instantly improve the line-up now and for the future. The Oilers would have two young, high-end potential NHL defensemen to add to their blueline, both of whom could step in and play with this team for the remainder of the season and beyond.
These players are just examples based on names that have been floated as possible trade destinations for Hemsky and Gagner. Still, regardless of the individual player, a top six that included Gilbert, Smid, Whitney (when healthy), the two young players acquired for Gagner and Hemsky, plus Jeff Petry would be a significant step up from the current group. Best of all, assuming that the players acquired fall into the same age group as Blum and Leddy, their development curve would much more closely resemble that of the Oilers' forwards and would put them in a position to be ready to compete as a group at a much earlier date.
Of course, trading Hemsky and Gagner would create new holes in the forward group, but the solutions there appear easier to fill internally. For starters, you may be able to replace Gagner as soon as the June Entry Draft, where the Oilers are currently in position to have a shot at Mikhail Grigorenko. At 6'3", Grigorenko would address some of the Oilers' size issues up front and replace Gagner as the team's long-term #2 centre behind Nugent-Hopkins. As for Hemsky, the prospects in the Oilers system who are most ready to make the jump to the NHL level are all wingers. Magnus Paajarvi was just recalled from OKC, but Teemu Hartikainen and Linus Omark are both still available and possess some NHL experience. Additionally, there is the possibility of acquiring a veteran presence in the top six through free agency if necessary in the off-season.
There are numerous options facing the management team of the Edmonton Oilers over the next few weeks, and while Steve Tambellini wouldn't be my personal choice to be the man to make these decisions, he will be the one tasked to do just that. With an asset (Gagner) whose value will never be higher, and another (Hemsky) whose value drops with each passing day as his contract nears expiration, Tambellini will either make decisive moves with some of his moveable pieces to acquire others that fit better into the team he is trying to build, or he will continue staring at the square peg in his hand, waiting for the day it magically fits into a round hole. Whatever the team decides, their course of action will become clear in the next few weeks.
Man, do I hate being an Oiler fan...
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this FanPost are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the staff.