The End of Days feels imminent right now if you're an Edmonton Oilers fan. The team is off to an absolutely wretched start in terms of wins and losses, they've been receiving sub-standard ECHL goaltending (up until last night's loss to the Islanders), they have allowed a minimum of four goals against in each of their first seven games and have been scored on in 21 of the 24 regulation periods they have played this season. Their penalty kill is an absolute trainwreck (it has given up a goal in every game so far) and their highly-touted 19 year-old future superstar has been a healthy scratch twice in the last four games.
At 1-6-1 through 8 games and dead last in the West (they remain out of the NHL basement only because they Flyers and Sabres are perhaps even more screwed up than the Oilers), needless to say, things aren't exactly going well.
Given management's public assertion coming into the season that this would be the year the Oilers took a significant step forward towards respectability after nearly a decade of wollowing in the misery of player for lottery position, its understandable that they aren't willing to stand for the team's record and are considering a major shake-up of on-ice personnel.
A quick look at the roster would tell you that the team, while improved on paper from last season, still has obvious needs in a number of areas. An additional depth winger that can support the penalty kill, a true top pairing blueliner (likely on the left-side) and perhaps an upgrade in goal if you believe that Devan Dubnyk cannot fill the role long-term.
The problem the Oilers have at the moment, is that there is a wide disparity between the value of the players that make up the team's core, and the value of the support pieces around them. Also, with most of their highest-profile drafted players in the NHL, they don't longer have many high-value assets outside of the league to deal for immediate help either. Basically, if the team wants to improve in any tangible way, they're going to have to do it by trading one of their core assets.
Enter: "The Nail Yakupov Show".
In the last few days, both social and mainstream media have completely lost their minds around the NHL, throwing piles of garbage on the trade block and suggesting them as a potential trade package for YakCity. We recently looked at some of the absurdity that was being tossed around, so I won't rehash it here, but its reached a point where the people who tell "stats nerds" to "watch the games" are proposing such assinine ideas that you have to wonder if they've ever even seen a sheet of ice before.
Do The Oilers Need To Trade A Core Player?
I'm not sold on trading Yakupov. I think the team is going to have to seriously consider trading away one of these players someday, and its likely to be either Eberle or Yakupov given that RW is the position with the most NHL depth in the organization right now, but I don't know if its the right time to do so. Eberle is unquestionably the more complete player at this stage and he is more entrenched in the culture of Edmonton than Yak, but two years from now, I personally think Yakupov may be the more valuable asset.
Still, if the decision has been made that they need to deal a core piece now to immediately make this team better, and management has identified Yakupov as the player that they are willing to part with, I've reached a point where I can live it...BUT, only under the proper circumstances.
This Is How You Do It Wrong
The idea of quality for quantity is a losing gamble in the NHL. Its what the Oilers did when they were forced to trade Chris Pronger, and there are examples all over the league's history of teams trading a single high-value asset for a multi-part package. The team that receives multiple players almost unanimously loses these transactions. Yakupov is on his entry-level contract and the team is not concerned with an inability to re-sign him, so dumping him for spare parts is a terrible idea.
Are a new mediocre goaltender, a second or third pairing Dman and a prospect going to make this team better? The answer is no. This is a team that already has too many bottom-of-the-roster defencemen and any goaltender that is available on the market (and not on an expriing contract) is not going to be an upgrade over Dubnyk's historical performance. If Dubnyk's excellent showing against the Islanders is an indicator that he's getting things under control, then a deal such as this would be throwing away a potential franchise player for a bunch of things you already have. It won't help the team win now or in the future.
This Is How You Do It Right
There's only one scenario where this team should consider trading Nail Yakupov, or any of their core assets, and that is for a young, proven top-pairing NHL defenceman. The list of possibilities here isn't long, and that's the biggest problem, but if you're willing to pay the price, it's possible. A proven player who can control possession while playing difficult minutes and contribute to both the powerplay and penalty kill, while providing significant offence and puck-moving ability is a player that makes the Oilers better right now. It will make their 5v5 play better, give them another powerplay option in addition to Justin Schultz on the back-end, stabilize their penalty kill, and perhaps most-importantly, decrease the burden on the rest of the defencemen, which should hopefully improve their level of performance as well.
Assuming this player plays on the left side, it would give the team the ability to keep the likes of Smid and Ference away from the opposition's best players, which should help them manage their minutes on the ice a little easier. I could write another thousand words about the ways an acquisition like this would improve the blueline group, but let's just summarize and say it makes everyone better. It would also likely have a positive impact on the team's goaltending situation, and might resolve that issue altogether when combined with a return to form by Dubnyk.
The emergence of Marc Arcobello also softens this blow a bit. He's certainly no Nail Yakupov, but the team is currently without Sam Gagner, and if Gagner's return were to roughly coincide with a Yakupov deal, the team could simply slide Gagner back into his position at centre and move Arco to the right side, or given' Arcobello's success in the role and Gagner's struggles as a face-off man, perhaps Gagner shifts to the wing and fills the void left by Yakupov's departure. Either way, Arcobello showing that he can potentially be a part of the top 9 group going forward is a find that gives the team additional depth to withstand the loss of a young star up front.
So, Who Can They Get?
The final point of contention is which players out there fit the profile of the kind of defenceman to target and which teams would be willing to part with such a player? I grant you that the list is not long. Players like Alex Pietrangelo and Drew Doughty are core pieces of Stanley Cup contenders and those teams would not want to disrupt the balance of their line-up by dealing their top defenceman. A player like Viktor Hedman doesn't provide the offensive prowess of those first two, but he, along with players like Cam Fowler of the Ducks and John Carlson of the Capitals all suffer from the same issue in that their teams are already deep up front and lack depth on the blueline, which would make it unlikely a GM in those cities would be willing to part with them.
Justin Faulk in Carolina is a player beginning to emerge as a star, but he is not proven yet, and again, plays for a team that is already thin on the back-end. Tyler Myers from Buffalo is a far worse hockey player than many people realize given his early success and draft pedigree. It's highly unlikely Montreal would part with PK Subban under any circumstances (barring another contract dispute) now that he is a Norris trophy winner, and he plays the right side, but of course that's hardly a dealbreaker were they ever to be foolish enough to consider it.
Dimity Kulikov of the Florida Panthers is a solid young player, but he lacks the track-record or experience of many of the other names mentioned. He has played well throughout his career in mildly protected situations, and in the one season he faced tougher opposition, he wasn't overwhelmed. Still, he doesn't possess the ability to slot right in to the top of the depth chart that the Oilers so desperately need. As a result, I don't think he alone is worth the cost of Yakupov. Other names that you can debate the validity of could include Jonas Brodin in Minnesota, Travis Hamonic in Long Island, Zach Bogosian in Winnipeg, and Brendan Dillon in Dallas. Most of whom are certainly less proven than many of the names listed above
Please feel free to suggest other options in the comments below, but in my estimation, there are only two names that make any sense, and only one that I think I could make a compelling case for on both sides.
The "Kind of Possible, But I Really, Really Doubt It" Guy
The first, and least likely, is Shea Weber. Weber signed a massive new contract in Nashville when the Preds matched his offer sheet from the Flyers, and they are a fit in that they are currently a team low in the standings and looking to work their way back up, plus they have been in the market for a star forward for a number of years. Still, they just drafted Seth Jones and are using Weber as his mentor and I don't know that they would be willing to part with their franchise Dman at the moment.
The "This Makes Way Too Much Sense It Will Never Happen But Please Oh Please Oh Please" Guy
Second on my list and the name that Derek Zona and I have touted for close to two years already (long before he emerged as the dominant player he is becoming) is Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Phoenix Coyotes. Ekman-Larsson is young (22), left-handed, he plays top opposition and wins the possession battle, he plays both special teams, his offensive production has increased every year (up to a 40+ pt. pace over 82 games during last season) and he hasn't missed a game to injury over the last two seasons. He is also signed to a long-term deal for the next six seasons at a manageable cap hit ($5.5M) for a player of his skill level. If you were to genetically engineer the exact player the Oilers need, you'd get OEL.
So, why would PHX part with him? Well, they might not. I certainly wouldn't blame them if they refused to entertain the possibility altogether. However, there's a number of things that make a deal based around the framework of Yakupov for OEL appealing for Phoenix.
(Quick Note: Notice I say "framework" there. Trades of this magnitude are never as simple as Player A for Player B, but if you identified that these players are the core of the deal, the rest could be worked out). This applies to all of the other names too. I do not, repeat DO NOT believe that any of these players are available in a straight one-for-one player swap.
For starters, Phoenix is stacked on the back-end. They have OEL and Keith Yandle as their highest profile players, but also have Zbynek Michalek as well as Rostislav Klesla and Derek Morris, though those last two are on the final year of their contracts. Beyond that group of five, they have young Dmen like David Schlemko, David Rundblad and Michael Stone already playing at the NHL level in some capacity and former first rounder Brandon Gormley gaining pro experience in the AHL.
Certainly the loss of Ekman-Larsson would hurt their depth, but the Coyotes have also been in search of an offensive star for a long time. A young player that can become the face of their franchise and draw fans to the game. Shane Doan has been there forever, and almost all of the teams offensive players are over 30, with none of them possessing the scoring ability of a player like Yakupov. Washington is proof that a Russian player, who some may foolishly say cannot be the face of a North American hockey franchise, can electrify a market and bring attention to a team in need of creating a buzz and for all the talk of Yakupov's struggles away from the puck, there is nobody who can say he is not an electrifying player.
I won't get into the specific parameters of a deal here, as that would be nothing more than speculation, but I will point out that for a deal to work, the Oilers would need to send some salary back with Yak, and with Darnell Nurse expected to challenge for a roster spot as soon as next season, along with the AHL depth the Oilers have, it would not be difficult for them to include a player like Ladislav Smid in such a package, which would also help fill the void on the Coyotes' blueline. With Andrew Ference locked up to play essentially the same role, Smid would be expendable in this situation anyway.