Steve Tambellini's name inspires a type of rage and disdain within the Edmonton Oilers fanbase that is typically reserved for people who have committed crimes against society. While he didn't break any laws, Tambellini's crime was his hesitancy to take any kind of meaningful action to improve his hockey club. It sounds trivial when you write it like that, but his indecisiveness cost the Oilers and their fans the ability to ice a competitive roster for the entirety of his tenure with the franchise.
With the dawn of a new era after the appointment of Craig MacTavish to the position of General Manager that was supposed to change, and while MacTavish has shown a willingness to act swiftly to address areas of need, he has yet to demonstate that he is capable of taking the "bold action" he discussed in his initial press conference upon taking over as GM of the Oilers.
Keeping the Core Together
The video below is the full Q&A that Craig MacTavish had with the media on Thursday afternoon. It runs almost 30 minutes so I won't ask anyone to re-listen to all of it, but there are three specific segments that are worth a listen. (On a quick side note, all three questions come from TSN's Ryan Rishaug. I've been critical of Rishaug the last year or so for being a bit obsessed with adding physical toughness to the roster, but he asked some good questions here)
The first question comes at 14:38 where MacT is asked about a hesitancy to move any of the seven or eight players he has identified as his long-term core. The second comes at 19:36 when the question turns to what the current cost on the market place is for a top-pairing Dman. The third response from MacT comes at 23:44 when Rishaug asks what other teams are asking for from the Oilers during the trade negotiations given their awareness of the teams struggles and their need for immediate improvement. Give those three responses a quick listen before we continue...go ahead, I'll wait.
Done already? Alright, let's move on...
Those three statements basically spell out everything that anyone following the Oilers should probably already know:
- The Oilers are in the market for a top pairing blueliner and want one desperately.
- The asking price for teams wanting to deal with the Oilers almost unanimously involves parting with a piece of the team's core group.
- The Oilers believe this core group will lead them to the promised land and are unwilling to part with any of them (barring an overwhelming offer)
This basically takes us right back to square one. There are very few top pairing players available. Christian Ehrhoff may be one, Brian Campbell another, and others could be pried free for the right price, but unless the Oilers are willing to part with one of their young, highly-skilled guys, they won't be acquiring that kind of player.
I see a big problem with the logic of refusing to make such a deal, but before I can point it out, let's quickly establish one thing together...
Who is "The Core"?
MacTavish's numbers bounced around from 7 to as much as 9 when talking about the number of core players, but if I had to guess, here's the list:
Without question, this group involves Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle. You can likely throw Justin Schultz into this mix as well and I believe it's reasonable to assume that David Perron and Sam Gagner are also in that group. That would be seven, and to me, that's it. Maybe Jeff Petry makes the list, but I don't see him being held in the same high regard. It's also possible MacTavish includes non-NHL guys like Oscar Klefbom and/or Darnell Nurse. We know they like both players, but he expressed a willingness to deal from organizational depth to address immediate needs, so I'll leave it at that group of seven for now.
Given that, and MacTavish's stated position that he doesn't believe that dealing anyone from that group will benefit the team over the long-term, I have the following concerns:
How do they plan to change the mix of players in the top 9?
For this, we need to go back to the video posted earlier in this article. Scroll back up and skip to 13:48 when MacTavish is asked about the team's lack of ability to generate offence from areas close to the net or to generate traffic in front of opposing goaltenders. Once again, I'll wait... (*Final Jeopardy Music*) Back again? Good...
So here's the money quote from that answer from MacTavish:
"Our default mentality is to kick-out rather than get to those tough areas where all the goals are scored and we're going to have to get some people that will get there and get our current group there more often."
While I understand and agree with the notion that the team will need to get their current group to a point where they are willing and able to battle for the puck in the areas closer to the goal on a more consistent basis, the fact of the matter is, the team needs some players that possess that skill as an area of strength in their game. I'm not demanding size here. Ryan Smyth was never the biggest player, nor were guys like Tomas Holmstrom, but they were effective in their roles by inhabiting the area around the net and doing two things. 1) Improving the odds of an initial shot going in by tipping the puck or obstructing the view of the goaltender, and 2) generating second chances by recovering possession in the seconds immediately following a shot on goal.
The Oilers need at least one, if not two players capable of playing such a role to balance out their attack in the offensive zone. If you consider the six core forwards identified above to be locks in the top nine, along with Boyd Gordon who is signed for two more years as your 3rd Centre, the Oilers are down to only two roster spots in the top nine for these players. Assuming these undetermined new arrivals will be integrated into the top two lines to balance out the offence, the team will quickly find themselves placing at least one or two of their high-priced stars on a line likely earning 3rd line minutes. I don't philosophically have an issue with that, but I question the notion of potentially having a 3rd line player on a long-term $5-6M contract. The team just spent years trying to escape such a situation with Shawn Horcoff.
If there is a desire to revise the mix of talent in the team's top nine forwards, it will likely require both addition and subtraction.
By going the trade route to address the top of the defensive depth chart, they avoid having to do unadvisable things like signing aging veteran Dmen to long-term high value contracts they are unlikely to live up to. Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle, Andrei Markov and Rostislav Klesla all seem poised for pay days this summer that some team will live to regret. The Oilers are better off if they can avoid being one of those teams and based on the comments from MacTavish above, the only way that seems likely is if they agree to part with one of their young high-end talents.
An unwillingness to pay the price via trade will put the Oilers in a position where they may have few alternatives but to consider taking on some bad contracts through the UFA market in order to address their needs.
The only other option would likely involve internal development, which means putting Klefbom and Nurse into situations they aren't ready for, which likely just creates a repeat of the current cycle and could affect the long-term development of both players, which is something the team is banking on heavily.
Can they have their cake and eat it too?
For that to happen though, it would take a significant victory from Craig MacTavish via trade. The one ace in the hole he currently has is the team's first round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. As it stands, it seems very likely to be a top 5 pick, which carries a great deal of value. Still, for the player Craig MacTavish describes in his interview on OilersNow shortly after the press conference, which is a high-end defender either on or recently off his entry-level deal, he'll be hard pressed to acquire such a player without giving back significant NHL talent in the transaction.
For the sake of argument, let's compile a list. Right away, I'm eliminating any player who is playing a key role on a team with significant playoff aspirations this season. St. Louis is not trading Alex Pietrangelo for example. So, if we look at young NHL Dmen with high-end upside on other NHL teams, you might come up with a list that looks a little like the following: (Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments)
- Brendan Dillon (DAL)
- Justin Faulk (CAR)
- John Carlson (WAS)
- Travis Hamonic (NYI)
- Jonas Brodin (MIN)
- Dimitri Kulikov (FLA)
- Jacob Trouba (WPG)
- Ryan McDonagh (NYR)
- PK Subban (MTL)
Looking at the list above, any of those players would be absolute music to the ears of Oilers fans if news broke that they were coming to Edmonton. I think the team would and should also consider the likes of Christian Ehrhoff and/or Brian Campbell who are more veteran options that I mentioned previously as possibly being available. However, ask yourself for a moment if the GMs of any of those teams would trade their player for a non-roster asset of high-yet-uncertain value? For me, the answer is absolutely no from every team with the only possible exception of Kulikov in Florida, but I also believe that his upside is less than many of the other players on that list. So, if these are the players that fit MacT's criteria of a viable target, and they can't be had for your non-roster assets, we once again circle right back to having to consider the option parting with one of your core players in order to bring in an asset that can significantly change the fortunes of your franchise in both the present and future.
What could be < What is.
Nail Yakupov could be Ilya Kovalchuk in a few years. And he could be that in Edmonton. Of course, Kovalchuk played much of his NHL career on terrible teams because they lacked the proper mix of players throughout the line-up. He could also be Nikolai Zherdev. A skilled player who was never able to put it together in the NHL.
Jordan Eberle could put up 80 points for the next 10-12 seasons and be a future Oiler Captain. He could also be a player who had his best season at age 22 and levels off as a somewhat overpaid 55-60 point player for the next six seasons.
Either of these scenarios could be true for both players. I'd say Yakupov is more likely to end up closer to the Kovalchuk comparison and with the right linemates, Eberle could spend the entirety of his contract as a point-per-game player. As appealing as those scenarios sound, there are two things I know for sure. 1) They are uncertain to happen, and 2) even if they did happen while with another franchise, the Oilers could still be just fine.
Something else I know is that Ryan McDonagh is an excellent Defenceman. So are Justin Faulk, Travis Hamonic and PK Subban. And that is true in the here and now and will likely continue to be true for many years to come.
I also believe that the Oiler blueline is in such shambles that an established player like McDonagh for example would be a total gamechanger for this franchise and likely makes them a significantly better team almost overnight. Sure, if it cost them Yakupov or Eberle to get it done the team would need to find a way to fill that gap, but they would still be left with five incredibly talented top six forwards and would then have an opening for which to add a player with a different skill set.
Nobody is saying to give one of the team's core assets away for a marginal return here. It would have to be a home-run to make it worthwhile. But in that scenario, it WOULD be worthwhile. The Oilers are not going to become competitive until they have proven ability at the top of their defensive depth chart. It is a need they absolutely must address. Having six skill forward under the age of 27 who are all capable of at least 60-70 points a season? That's a luxury. And its an area of depth the team should be exploiting to complete the rebuild in areas the draft hasn't been able to address.
Sometimes, the idea of what could be is so appealing that its easy to lose sight of what is possible in the present.
The Oilers have spent the last few years completely paralyzed with the notion that with a little bit of time, their bevy of ultra-talented young stars will raise them from the depths of NHL irrelevancy, when with a willingness to take the risk that the reward for "bold" action could very possibly outweigh the opportunity cost, they could accomplish that goal simply by being willing to trade a player with unlimited individual potential for a greater chance at team success.