If the Oilers are going to pick anyone first overall this is the guy they need to select. (Photo by Resolute via Wikimedia Commons)
The Oilers defence is terrible. You know it. I know it. And, given the mountain of evidence facing them, presumably even Steve Tambellini and the rest of the Oilers management group know it by now. The defence is probably the single biggest reason that the Oilers were a lottery team last season and if the team is planning to be anything more than a lottery team again next season improving the defence is an absolute must. Tambellini's history with the blue line leaves me doubtful that much of anything (or at least anything good) will happen but something certainly should happen; and that something should not be selecting a defenceman first overall at the draft on Friday.
So will argue against drafting a defenceman with the first pick because they're harder to project and are, therefore, more likely to be a bust. That's not me, I'm not opposed to selecting a defenceman first overall pick, in fact I lobbied for the Oilers to just in last at the draft last season, but in this case using that pick to select a defenceman - be it Ryan Murray or Griffin Reinhart or anyone else - would be a mistake. I don't say that just because I think Nail Yakupov is the best player available or because I think I'm smarter than the Oilers scouting staff. I say that because this pick has the potential to significantly improve this team in the immediate term and drafting anyone other than Yakupov with the first overall doesn't maximize the value of the pick.
I won’t deny that both Murray and Reinhart are highly rated prospects and all signs indicate that each should be a very good defencemen in the NHL for a very long time. It's important to remember though that those days are, optimistically, at least two full seasons away and quite possibly longer. Unlike Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who went right from the draft to the NHL, neither Murray nor Reinhart can be reasonably expected to step into the Oilers lineup next season and be of any help in addressing the problems that exist on the Oilers blue line. Those problems will still need to be addressed through trade or free agency this summer while we wait for that pick to be ready for the NHL. Put simply, these players will do nothing to help the Oilers in the here and now.
Of course since Yakupov doesn’t play defence, he won’t do much on the ice to address the Oilers defensive short comings either. But what Yakupov does provide the Oilers with are options. With Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle the Oilers have compiled a tremendous amount of young skill up front, unfortunately the defence is lagging behind in terms of developing elite talent. If the Oilers choose to wait for a defensive prospect from within their system to develop into the defender they need, there is a very real chance that the salary cap will be a concern for them by the time that happens, if it happens at all.
Rather than taking a wait and see approach with the defence this pick gives the Oilers the opportunity to speed the process along through trade to acquire the defender they need. I’m very realistic about this option. I don’t think that finding a trade partner will be easy and I don’t expect the price to be cheap, in fact it will cost the Oilers one of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, or Eberle to get the right deal done, but it is exactly the kind of trade that needs to be made. As much as the rebuild has been about acquiring elite talent, it has been just as much about stockpiling assets and, like it or not, those three – Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle – are very valuable assets that could/should be used to address the most obvious hole in the Oilers roster.
To be clear, I don’t want to trade any of those players and I readily admit that it’s a gamble to move any of them but nobody gets rich by playing it safe all of the time; sooner or later a risk will need to be taken. With Yakupov waiting in the wings there is a player available to fill the skill void left behind and the defenceman acquired would be much more of a sure thing NHL star than any prospect in the Oilers farm system now or available at the draft this year. Even if it took a year to make the trade happen the Oilers would still be farther ahead than they would be by drafting a defenceman with the number one pick this year.
Where this all gets interesting is the situation where Oilers are considering selecting Murray or Reinhart first overall not because they feel that he’s just the best defenceman available, but because they feel that he’s the best player available period. If this is a best player available scenario that is somewhat reassuring for me in that it means that the Oilers aren’t considering using the first overall pick to address an organizational need which would be a very poor decision but it ignores the market that exists for these players and leaves the Oilers in a position of getting less value than they could with that pick.
Yakupov is the consensus number one pick; he’s the player that the majority of scouts and likely teams as well, have identified as the most valuable prospect available in the draft. The Oilers have to do the due diligence and figure out for themselves who the best player is but that doesn't mean you ignore the market. By taking a player other than Yakupov the Oilers allow him to slide down the board to the next team in the draft, in this case Columbus, giving that team something for nothing. It would be as if the Oilers didn’t win the draft lottery. The Oilers were handed a gift when they won the draft lottery, to toss that aside like this would make no sense.
Admittedly there are a lot of ways that the draft could unfold on Friday night. If the Oilers aren’t sure that they can trade down and still get "the guy" when their new pick comes up then they have the option to hedge their bet by taking Yakupov with the first selection and then waiting to see how things unfold (much like what the San Diego Charges did in 2004 when they drafted Eli Manning first overall and then traded him later in the draft). This is a relatively low risk option for the Oilers in that it gives them a shot at their target while still acquiring another player that could help out with the blue line next season. The worst case scenario here is that the Oilers get "stuck" with Yakupov in which case see above.
The Oilers have options for the first overall pick. They can choose to maximize the value and try and make this team better starting next season or they can continue to wait, build slowly through the draft, and hope that everything will work out. I would prefer the proactive approach.