With the NHL’s most recent changes to the format of the draft lottery - the top three picks in the draft will now be determined by a lottery - being put into action this year, there is an amount of uncertainty in regards to where the Oilers will pick that didn’t exist in previous season. Having finished in 29th place the Oilers can pick anywhere from first to fifth. By comparison, last season the Oilers finished 28th overall but with just a single lottery only three draft positions were available: first, third, and fourth.
With the team about to start year seven of their great rebuild (I consider the selection of Taylor Hall to be day one of the Oilers rebuild), this draft pick, and the possibility of trading it to try and fill a hole in the current lineup, has generated a lot of discussion. Although it hasn’t been written about on this site, that discussion has nonetheless found its way into the comments. But since there are so many moving pieces with this pick, I thought it might be worth taking a closer look at.
The simplest way to do this is obviously be draft position, so starting at the top …
You know it, I know it, and deep down the rest of the league knows it, the Oilers will be picking first overall after their fifth draft lottery win in seven seasons.
Jokes aside, and there are plenty to be made, the Oilers have a 13.5% chance at the first overall pick, and if they were to beat the odds yet again that would give them the opportunity to add Auston Matthews to their organization. It’s worth noting that McKeen’s Hockey just ranked Finnish forward Patrick Laine first overall so perhaps it’s not a forgone conclusions that Matthews goes first overall, but for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that the consensus number one is in fact the first overall pick. The other option for the Oilers would be to trade the pick; either moving down a couple of spots and still picking high in the draft or trying to use the asset to land one of the defencemen that the team so badly needs.
The rumours are certainly fun but it seems unlikely that trading the first overall pick would land the Oilers an Oliver Ekman-Larsson or comparable, and if you’re not getting a player like that in return, you’re likely not trading the first overall pick. Even moving down seems unlikely to me because I doubt that the Oilers would want to move outside of the top three. Everything I’ve read puts those three players - Matthews, Laine, and Jesse Puljujarvi - a step above everyone else, so a team looking to move up a spot or two would have to value Matthews more than Laine/Puljujarvi plus whatever other asset they would trading to the Oilers. Is it possible, absolutely; is it likely, I wouldn’t think so. My take: If the Oilers win the lottery they will use the pick.
I’ve grouped these two picks because in the event that the Oilers win either the second or third lottery the exact same thing will happen, they will use the pick to draft one of the two available Finnish forwards. I don’t know which of Laine or Puljujarvi they prefer, but both are big, strong wingers and appear to be quite capable of filling a big hole in this organization; maybe not next year but soon. So where I can see a scenario that involves the Oilers trading the first overall pick, I’m not sure that there is a scenario where they would be willing to move their first round pick if it ends up being either the second or third overall selection. I’m always hesitant to say that something will never happen because NHL GMs do some strange things, but I think the Oilers trading the second or third overall pick is very, very unlikely.
Again, I’ve grouped these picks because I expect that the same thing will happen regardless of which the Oilers end up with. And once again, even if the pick ends up being outside of the top three, dropping instead into that supposed second tier of prospects, I expect that the Oilers will use their pick. Like the first overall pick it’s conceivable that this pick could be moved, especially if the Oilers aren’t exactly enamoured with the players at the top of the second tier, but looking at this pick being used as a primary piece in a trade to help shore up the defence is something that I have a very tough time visualizing.
For the sake of argument then, let’s assume that they use the pick. At this point in the draft there isn’t much a consensus as to who the next pick should be. In the coming weeks we’ll have draft profiles on most of the top ten and those will hopefully help narrow down the options, and the draft lottery itself will be held on April 30th which will tell us if this is even worth worrying about, so for now, instead of focusing time and energy on who the Oilers might take, let’s focus instead on whether or not the Oilers should consider trying to address an organizational need with this pick.
Disclaimer time: When it comes to the draft I’m a big believer in taking the best player available in the first couple rounds. After that I wouldn’t worry too much about players who project as bottom six or bottom pair players, instead rolling the dice on the players who are maybe more high risk/high reward. And I would never draft a goalie before the fifth round, if ever. Obviously there are exceptions, but generally this is how I would approach the draft. And so when I look at what I think the Oilers should do with this pick, whether it is fourth or fifth overall, there is a potential for some bias.
In recent weeks, including in the comments on this site, I’ve seen the argument made that the Oilers should use the pick to select a defenceman and help address the black hole that is the team’s defence. The logic usually being that a big part of why the Oilers are where they are, still at the bottom of the NHL standings, is because they have failed to address the defence in the early rounds of the draft. This is very much true. Since the rebuild began in 2010 the Oilers have drafted just four defencemen in the first three rounds of the draft - Martin Marincin, Oscar Klefbom, David Musil, and Darnell Nurse. In those same drafts they’ve selected 15 players and one goalie in the first three rounds.
Had the Oilers put more of a focus on the blue line perhaps the team would be in a better situation today, it’s hard to believe that they could be worse. But even if that is true, obviously making the defence more of a priority now does nothing to change the past. So worrying about the mistakes does little to help answer the question of what the Oilers should do with this particular pick. To answer that question I think that first we need to establish timeline for this player to reach the NHL.
Three years removed from his draft year, Nurse arrived in Edmonton this season; arrived shouldn’t be confused with belonged though. Having watched Nurse for 69 games this season I’m far from convinced that another season in the AHL wouldn’t have been better for him. Even ignoring Nurse’s development as a player though, there is no doubt in my mind that on a team with six actual NHL defencemen that he’d have played a lot fewer games in the NHL games this season. For fun let’s say that the correct timeline for his making the NHL would have been four seasons post draft, coincidentally the same number of years that it took Klefbom to establish himself as a full time NHL player.
So if we’re being realistic, this is the timeline that should be considered for a defenceman drafted fourth or fifth overall this year. 2018/19 if all goes as well as can be expected, but more likely he becomes a full time Oilers in 2019/20. That’s not to say that drafting and developing a defenceman isn’t worthwhile, obviously it is, this just establishes the timeline that we should be looking at when determining if there is an organizational need to draft a defenceman with the top pick in this year’s draft.
As bad as the Oilers’ defence is right now they actually do have a decent group of young defenceman. Joining Klefbom and Nurse on the NHL team is Brandon Davidson, there is Griffin Reinhart, who bounced between the NHL and AHL this season and will likely do the same next season. Jordan Oesterle looks to be close as well, and then there are two picks from last year’s draft - Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear - who are progressing quite nicely. Even if only two of the final four that I mentioned turn out to be NHL players, the Oilers still look to be in a decent position in terms of defence prospects for the next couple of seasons.
Up front, things look great for the Oilers at the NHL level, which given how they’ve performed on the ice should come as a shock to nobody. Drafting at, or very near, the top of the draft for more than half a decade has allowed the Oilers to acquire some impressive top end talent: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl, and Connor McDavid. Jordan Eberle was actually drafted before the rebuild began but he belongs in that group as well. Eberle will also be the oldest of this group at 26 years old when next season begins.
But outside of what’s already in the NHL there is a whole lot of nothing coming down the pipe. Between 2010 and 2014 the Oilers drafted 22 forward in rounds two to seven; that’s second to only the Sabres who selected 25 forwards. But so far those 22 players have combined to play in just 207 NHL games, and Tobias Rieder’s 154 games played accounts for nearly three quarters of that total. As discussed earlier, maybe the Oilers didn’t make drafting defence enough of a priority early in the rebuild but looking at their success with the forwards they drafted I’m not sure it would have mattered even if they had.
Looking at the prospect pool, Anton Slepyshev, Jujhar Khaira, and Bogdan Yakimov are all decent prospects but none are exactly knocking on the door right now, and once you get past them things get real thin, real fast. Ideally the Oilers would have a player potentially capable of filling the void left behind when one them team’s top forwards is traded this summer for some help on the blue line but that’s not the case meaning that that void (or voids) will have to be filled by another acquisition, and don’t even think about what happens if the team suffers a few injuries.
None of these are problems that will be solved by the team selecting a forward instead of a defenceman, should the team end up with the fourth or fifth overall selection, but think it illustrates that the Oilers’ biggest organizational need isn’t defence right now, it’s hockey players. So if the Oilers end up losing all three lotteries I would hope that they focus on finding a hockey player with that pick, and maybe a few years from now, after two or three more quality drafts, we can worry about organizational needs.