Adding a Young Defenseman, Who and How?

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Over the last few weeks, there has been an increase in discussion about how the Oilers might go about adding the young top 4 defenseman that the team desperately needs in order to fix their blueline.

Things have picked up another notch online in recent days after the unexpected trading of Tom Gilbert, who had been the team's best blueliner this season. While people generally like the acquisition of Nick Schultz, it goes without saying that the loss of a player like Gilbert has not gone over well with many people.

With the loss of Gilbert and addition of Schultz, the Oilers' backend currently consists of Ryan Whitney, Schultz, Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Corey Potter, Andy Sutton and Cam Barker. Yes, this guy. As I mentioned in an earlier FanPost, the Oilers are in dire need of a player who can push all, or at least a good portion of the current defensive depth chart down one notch. The thought being that while Smid is perhaps competent as a top pairing Dman, he makes a very good second pairing player, and allowing him to slide into that role makes the team better, as it would also move everyone else down the depth chart by one spot, and (one can only hope) it would leave no reason for the team to consider re-signing Barker.

Jonathan Willis recently posted an article on how the Oilers might use some of their offensive depth to acquire a young blueliner, and makes some compelling points. After the jump I will look at Willis' suggestions, offer my own opinions, and muse about which young players the Oilers might target when considering this move.

In his article, Willis identifies a number of options available to the Oilers. He rightfully dismisses a number of actions, such as A) breaking with the philosophy of drafting the best player available, and picking a defenseman regardless of draft position or B) trading down in the first round to a slot where you expect to be able to get a Dman, and acquire additional assets (likely mid-round picks) in the process.

Neither of these options is an efficient use of assets, and should be discounted right away. Willis nicely explains why this would be unwise in his article:

The key problem is the development timeline for that young defenseman. It is a very rare thing for a defenseman to be ready for top-pairing work two years out; typically the development curve is much longer. The Chicago Blackhawks had the youngest defense of any Stanley Cup Finalist in the post-lockout period; two of their top-four were in their fifth professional season – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The latter was 25, the former was just about to turn 27 when the team won the Cup. Chicago’s really the exception to the rule; a top-two or top-four defenseman on a typical Cup finalist has eight years of experience. If the Oilers take a defenseman, the odds are that they’re looking at a minimum of five years before that defender is a true stalwart.

There is also the possibility of using the pick to draft the best player available, which, given the current standings and weighted lottery odds, would potentially be Mikhail Grigorenko. As Willis states, Grigorenko brings with him a level of size down the middle in the top six that the Oilers don't currently have, which would open up the possibility of trading Sam Gagner to get the blueline help the team is searching for.

I admit that the idea of a little more size is intriguing and given the scouting reports and expected draft position, I concede that it is likely that Grigorenko would have a higher offensive ceiling than Gagner. My reservations with this method though come from a couple of areas. First of all, part of the scouting reports on Grigorenko have included some questions as to his commitment to playing a 200 foot game. For an elite offensive player, that's not necessarily a game breaker, and it is entirely possible that some in the MSM paint all Russian prospects with the "soft" brush, but it is still somewhat unsettling, particularly for a centre.

In Gagner, you have a player who may not ever reach 80 points in a season, but I think most would stipulate that he is a legitimate offensive contributor. Also, while it may not tangibly translate into wins, Gagner has demonstrated a willingness to compete and play with a level of tenacity that is characteristic of playoff hockey. At 22, Gagner has already earned five seasons of NHL experience, he has grown into a role where he no longer needs to be protected from the opposing team's better players, and he has improved many aspects of his game such as face-offs (49.9% this season) which were once a major weak point. As Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is displaying this season, even though he has been protected with regard to zonestarts and quality of competition, his defensive capabilities are currently lacking and his face-off numbers are among the worst in the league.

By drafting Grigorenko, even allowing for a quick learning curve for the two young centres, the team would likely be in a position where for at least one more season, and likely two, they would not have a centre on their top two lines who could be trusted to A) win a face-off or B) play in key defensive situations. Gagner may not be up to par with the likes of Jonathan Toews or Pavel Datsyuk and probably never will be, but he has developed to a much complete player than either RNH or Grigorenko are likely to be in the next couple of seasons. Replacing Gagner with another top 2 centre younger than RNH would create some serious mismatches for the team over the next few years.

The other option to explore is that of trading the lottery pick itself in a deal to acquire the illusive blueline help. In his story, Jonathan Willis makes a valid point that it can be easier to deal the pick because, as fans, we do not yet have an attachment to the player, and while I agree with the sentiment, the inverse is also true in that the team would benefit for a team where they are able to acquire a significant piece on the back end without sacrificing one of its current offensive contributors.

The final point in considering which option might be better would be to question the relative value of Sam Gagner to the 2nd overall pick in the draft and which asset is more capable of helping you acquire the player you covet. Let's leave that until after we've examined our potential trade targets.

When considering the type of player the Oilers might target, I considered, among others, the following criteria.

1 - Age - I was open to looking at players age 26 and under. Basically, any player who was still too young to qualify for unrestricted free agency. 27 is right in your prime as a defenceman, and while a player that age still has many productive years ahead, the team can't ensure the player will remain in Edmonton long term and anything beyond 26 puts them a good few years ahead of the large skill cluster the Oilers have built.

2 - Player type - With Ladislav Smid and Nick Schultz now in the fold, along with defensive minded veteran Andy Sutton and the loss of Tom Gilbert, the Oilers need to add a blueliner with some offensive punch. This removes players like Karl Alzner who are young and skilled, but whose value is primarily in a defensive role. Ironically, the Oilers are looking for a "Tom Gilbert type", as in a player who plays significant minutes in all zones. In my search, I included only players averaging more than 15 min/60 at even strength and more than one minute each on both special teams.

3 - Value of Player to Trading Partner's Team - What I was looking for here was the player's role on their team. For example, if the team is a playoff contender, like St. Louis, they would be highly unlikely to part with someone like Alex Pietrangelo, as he is a significant part of a team that is having a lot of success. It would make little sense for them to part with him for a draft pick as it does not fit with the team's timeline for competing.

4 - Needs of Trading Partner's Team - Pretty simplistic criteria here, if there is a team with a similar depth chart to the Oilers (lots of forward skill, but thin on the blueline), they would not make a good trade partner as they are trying to address the same needs as Edmonton.

5 - Potential/Upside - For older players among this group (23-36) I considered that they were closer to their probable ceiling, whereas players who are significant contributors at 20-22 are more likely to have a higher level of performance they can still attain. I also considered the player's scouting report, draft pedigree (Primarily for the youngest players like Adam Larssen) and year-to-year career progression to date.

Among the players who made the list as being potential targets that make sense were: Cam Fowler (20, ANA), John Carlson (22, WAS), Nick Leddy (20, CHI), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (20, PHX), Shea Weber (26, NAS), Tyler Myers (22, BUF) and Zach Bogosian (21, WPG). Among this list, Weber is likely the name that jumps off the page, but for me, the player that is the most intriguing is Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

Based on the little research I've had the chance to do, everything about OEL seems to highlight an ideal fit for the Oilers, and potential fit for a deal with the Coyotes.

At only 20 years old, Ekman-Larsson is already a significant part of the blueline for the Coyotes. He plays the second most minutes at EV (17.65 min./60) on the team, including some significant time against tough competition. OEL ranks 3rd on the team in quality of competition, and after Rostislav Klesla, who is in a league of his own, OEL and David Schlemko are well clear of the rest of the team in the level of competition they face. It is also worth noting, that of the three players who play the toughest minutes in PHX, OEL's CorsieREL is significantly better (+8.5) than the other two (-7 for Schlemko/-11.3 for Klesla). Ekman-Larsson also plays significant minutes on the powerplay (1.82 min./60, as he is part of a trio with Keith Yandle and David Rundblad who essentially play the majority of the blueline minutes with the man advantage. He is also playing 1.06 min./60 on the penalty kill, which is a number I think sounds about right for a 20 year old blueliner who is averaging nearly 21 min. a night already.

I think OEL is exactly what the Oilers should be looking for, as I think he has a lot of room to improve, and is already an impressive player. Perhaps more promising is how well the two teams match up in terms of their ability to meet one another's needs. In PHX four of the team's top five prospects not currently in the NHL full-time are defensemen, and include two AHL players who are currently the team's #1 and #2 call-up options. with David Schlemko and David Rundblad, the team already has a pair of young blueliners playing significant roles in addition to Ekman-Larsson, so they have depth to spare on the back end and that is in addition to Yandle, who is only 24. What the Coyotes are in need of is young offense. Preferably a potential star. The team's two most prolific forwards are also their oldest in Shane Doan and Ray Whitney. They have no high end skill up front and their top two forward prospects are players who were drafted in 2006 and 2007 respectively and have yet to make the NHL full-time. Their top forward prospect Andy Miele, is talented, but at 5'8", he faces some serious challenges to have an NHL career. An opportunity to bring in some young offensive talent would have to be enticing for the Coyotes.

So, the final question then would be, is Sam Gagner the player to offer? Would Phoenix trade Ekman-Larsson for Gagner? I'm not certain they would, but I believe you could get OEL and more in exchange for the #2 pick, and as of now, that is direction I would recommend. Creating fantasy trades is not really what this exercise is about, but in the interest of playing armchair GM, I had an exchange on twitter (@alanhull, thanks for the follow!) where the package of the #2 pick, Linus Omark and a defensive prospect, possibly Colten Teubert was brought up in exchange for Ekman-Larsson and Brandon Gormley. I think the parameters of that deal as a starting point make some sense. Gormley is well known to Canadian hockey fans, but is still in junior and a long way away from contributing at the NHL level. Teubert's role has been made redundant in the short term by the addition of Schultz and re-signing of Sutton, while Omark doesn't appear to have a path that leads to a top-six role in Edmonton and could likely go back to Europe after the season if he is not dealt.

Jonathan Willis raises an interesting choice in keeping this year's lottery pick or trading some current NHL depth, but I believe the potential return could be greater by dealing that pick, and getting the best possible player to add to the Oiler blueline has to be the top priority.

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.

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