February 17, 2020. The Edmonton Oilers are 1st in the Pacific division and the NHL trade deadline is 1 week away. It's decision time for Ken Holland... will he hold onto his picks and prospects, or will he bolster this roster to improve its chances of a playoff appearance, and perhaps a playoff run?
Trust me, I know the reasons for holding on:
- You need a prospect pipeline in order to back-fill roster depth over the next 3-5 years. The hard salary cap means you will likely shed a depth player or two each year who will need to be replaced with an entry-level contract who can contribute.
- It's a deep draft. The Oilers could still miss the playoffs and snag this year's Matt Barzal with their 1st rounder.
- Adding one or two players, who may likely be just rentals, will not guarantee much of an improvement.
- The Oilers have the leading scorer in the NHL AND Connor McDavid. Leon Draisaitl has finally reached the point of being to McDavid what Malkin has been to Crosby. The Edmonton Oilers are using the Pittsburgh Penguins success model whether they like it or not. We'll come back to that.
- The Oilers have played very good the past week without McDavid, Neal and Kassian (basically their 1st line) for most of it. There is some depth here now, it has grown. It is not the same one-line team it was in November.
- The Oilers have good-ish goal tending. Both goalies are under 3.00 GAA, and above .900 save %. No one is winning a Vezina in Edmonton this year, but these guys are in around starters like Fleury, Andersen, Murray... and much better than Holtby. Team GAA is 17th overall, which is not amazing but it's better than Toronto, Calgary and Nashville and it's in range of Washington, Vancouver and Vegas. There's reason to believe team defense and goal tending is not a huge problem right now. Could it be better? Sure, but right now it's good enough to go with given the volatility of goalies these days.
- There is no guarantee the Oilers 1st rounder in 2020 ends up being a win. It's a deep draft so you probably hold onto this pick unless you are getting someone with term or have the ability to extend them before making the deal a la Mark Stone last year.
- Back to the Pittsburgh Penguins model. Not one draft pick the Penguins have made in the past 4 years has played an NHL game yet. They have only had one 1st rounder in the past 5 years... they traded their 1st rounder 4 years in a row. Before that their previous 1st rounder was Kasperi Kapanen, taken 22nd overall in 2014, who they used to get Phil Kessel and win two Cups. Kapanen became a useful NHLer by 2019... the Pens have since converted Kessel to Jason Zucker and continue to be a great, perennial contender. Their success has been drafting guys in rounds 2-5 who can become useful complimentary players to Crosby and Malkin, their bread and butter. They're able to make trades for Zucker because when you contend every year you're never in a desperate position and teams will make fair trades. Written off players like Justin Schultz become reclamation projects because winning cultures do that (just ask the New England Patriots). Bottom line, you don't need to retain your first rounder every year if you have Crosby and Malkin.... or McDavid and Draisaitl.
- Final reason, I truly believe the Oilers are playing great the past week, without McDavid, because they are hungry. They want playoffs, and they want Holland to believe in them and give them a boost at the deadline. Not investing in this team right now will be a confidence killer in a year where the margin between playoffs and the golf course is razor thin. This could end up being the 1st year of a run of 10-year consecutive playoff appearances, creating that winning culture that allows you to acquire depth easier, or it could be another depression-inducing "oh just wait for next year" excuse. No thanks to that.