As I write this I’m preparing myself to be told in no uncertain terms that I:
a) Don’t know anything about hockey
b) Am an idiot, and
c) Should go watch some other sport...let’s say...mixed doubles badminton?
...while I understand and appreciate the (less than) kind words I anticipate this article receiving, I’m writing it anyway, because I was asked to share an unpopular opinion that I think may actually hold some merit.
One last thing before I dive in...I want to make it clear that:
a) I do not want the Edmonton Oilers to get rid of Leon Draisaitl
b) I do not think he is a bad player, and
c) I think the chances of him being traded are somewhere between 0 and 1%.
All of that said, on the weekend Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos raised the notion of Edmonton considering trading Draisaitl, and it’s something I’ve mentioned a number of times before dating back to when he was an RFA last summer.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Draisaitl is the Oilers’ second-best player behind Connor McDavid and teams usually don’t improve by trading away any of their top players (see: Hall, Taylor). Still, Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli has dug a hole for this franchise, and I think a lot of people fail to realize just how deep it is.
Rather than re-hash the full list, I’ll instead point you to some people whose work you should already be reading, who have already done a decent summary of the cap situation that faces Edmonton this summer. Jonathan Willis wrote a piece in The Athletic here, and everyone’s favourite Oilers writer, Lowetide, looked at the situation earlier this morning at his site as well.Basically, depending on your opinion regarding which Oilers will return and how much their pending RFAs are likely to be signed for, the Oilers will likely have to spend around $77-78 million just to ice a team similar to this one next season but without Mark Letestu and Patrick Maroon. With the salary cap headed towards a projected $80 million or so, it would leave the team with no flexibility to add scoring on the wings or an offensive Dman on the right side.
The dilemma above is the catalyst for the discussion about trading Draisaitl. Edmonton has $21 million locked up in two players long-term, and more damagingly, ~$56M tied up in only nine players for each of the next three seasons (assuming Darnell Nurse gets signed for somewhere in the $4.5-5 millon/yr range.) That list is McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic, Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera, and Kris Russell.
If you don’t believe that group of players forms the core of a winner over the next three seasons, then changes need to come from within that group because collectively, their cost is prohibiting the Oilers from making improvements elsewhere around the line-up.
McDavid is not going anywhere. Sekera, Russell and Lucic have no-movement clauses. It seems unlikely Edmonton has interest in trading Nurse who has been one of the brighter spots in a bad season this year and trading Larsson would make a still-weak right side even weaker and be a damning admission of failure regarding the Hall trade. That means the list is down to Klefbom, RNH and Draisaitl. To reiterate an earlier point, I think it’s much more likely one or both of RNH and Klefbom are dealt than #29, but I think it’s a reasonably fair assessment that neither would fetch the return Leon would or provide as much cap relief. So maybe it’s at least worth exploring if a move involving Draisaitl can be made that is to the long-term benefit of the team (if not the short term).
I personally think that a trade for a cheaper scoring winger or 2nd line centre is a losing bet for Edmonton. It’s basically just a higher-profile repeat of the Eberle trade where you save money and downgrade skill. No thanks. No, if you’re trading Draisaitl, it’s because you’ve accepted that the core group of nine isn’t going to get you there, and you’re re-setting the timeline for a couple of seasons down the road when additional flexibility and cap growth (hopefully!) make building a Cup winning roster more feasible. (If you don’t like the notion of pushing the goal posts down the line a couple of years...get mad at Chiarelli, not me).
So, how do you get a mini roster reset done? From where I sit the most effective way is to look around the league for teams that meet the following criteria:
a) have two or more high-end prospects that you are damn close to being sure are can’t miss players.
b) have the cap space to take on Draisaitl’s full contract with virtually no NHL money coming back in return.
You might have other ideas, and that’s fine, I’d be interested to hear them, but the team that leaps off the screen at me in this scenario are the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas has loads of cap space and four non-NHL prospects that look pretty darn good: Cody Glass, Nick Suzuki, Erik Brannstrom, and Nicholas Hague.
I don’t want to get hung up on individual players here, but for the sake of argument, let’s say the deal was Draisaitl for Glass, Hague and a 2nd round pick in 2019 (VGK has 3 of them).
Is that something that makes sense? Well, Vegas has a young team with a lot of balance throughout their line-up but lacks a star (despite my love of watching Jonathan Marchessault). Draisaitl would provide that, is locked up long-term and fits their growth curve as a franchise.
While devastating to Edmonton in the short-term, the short-term wasn’t exactly looking great anyway. Moving forward they would have around $10M in space to either sign a UFA like James Neal or Mikael Backlund or trade another asset for scoring help like a Mike Hoffman as Travis Yost alluded to recently. They likely have the flexibility to do two of those things and would be blessed with a crop of young players that would include Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, Glass and Hague (or whoever it ended up being), plus whichever player Edmonton gets with their likely top 10 pick this June. A step down from that you’d have Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Tyler Benson and now you’re looking at a team that has a real glut of young skill coming up.
The team would still have the vast majority of it’s current core in-place plus whatever they can add with the new financial freedom they have and while losing Draisaitl would assuredly hurt them, they’d have at least one blue-chip centre who may be ready to play at the NHL level by as early as next season and would be well positioned for the next 3-5 years including a potential expansion draft and/or lockout, both of which loom off in the distance.
Look, this is mostly far-fetched because I don’t think the Oilers have any intention of trading Leon Draisaitl. I certainly would not trust the current management group to do it. Even if they were so inclined, the one example I provided here is far from the only plausible solution and has a one in a billion chance of happening, so let’s not get too hung up on it. My point was simply to illustrate that it’s possible that trading Draisaitl could make sense as a solution to the current trajectory that likely sees the Oilers trading assets for cheaper, less skilled ones on almost an annual basis for the next few years while they are locked into a group of 9 players that just aren’t likely to lead them where they want to go.
The grass may not always be perfectly green on the other side of the fence, but when you’re standing on crabgrass, you’ve got to take a look.