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Hockey In a Vacuum

The story of how draft picks are viewed and why that's a mistake

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey is most definitely a team sport, but this fact seems to be pushed to the side when it comes time to talk about prospects. Prospects, it seems, play hockey in a vacuum. This effect is what makes a player like Connor McDavid or Taylor Hall capable of turning around an entire team. They are simply able to play every position perfectly, making the rest of the team irrelevant.

In fact, this is not actually what happens, but based on some of the more fervent proponents of any one of the prospects in the draft, you'd be forgiven for believing that it is.  The debate over whether the Oilers would be better served by drafting Pierre-Luc Dubois or Matthew Tkachuk with their fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft has become one where both sides are sure that the player they've chosen to support will serve the Oilers better in both the long- and short-terms. In fact, in many cases, they've built their chosen player up in such a way it seems possible that this time one player can turn it all around of the Oilers.

Let's start by acknowledging that both of these players are not, in fact, playing in a vacuum. They each have line mates, team mates, and other contributing factors that have helped them become successful players. The fact that Tkachuk has more points-per-game in the playoffs than Dubois is not a deciding factor for selecting him. Nor is there one deciding factor for selecting Dubois.

First off, the Oilers would be the ones making this draft pick, and they haven't seen the playoffs for ten long seasons. They have a great many concerns to address before they start looking like the type of solid team who could be a contender. Second, Dubois fans can just fire back with the fact that NHL Central Scouting has ranked Dubois as the top North American Skater in the draft and Tkachuk at second. They can further add a host of facts about flexibility in the position Dubois plays. Tkackuk proponents can reply with the fact Tkackuk was chosen to compete in the IIHF World Juniors tournament, where he contributed the USA's bronze medal. There is a completely dizzying array of stats and arguments that can be made for selecting one player over the other.

However, that's not the question Oilers fans actually need to be asking. Because picking either one of these incredibly talented players may still be picking the wrong player. The Oilers have a history of picking the consensus best player in the Draft at whatever position they are picking at. Last NHL Entry Draft, this strategy worked as it brought Connor McDavid to Edmonton. Most agree picking the consensus best-remaining player was less successful when the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov 1st overall in 2012.

Why then are the Oilers looking at possibly drafting another player which may not add a new dimension to their team? Why are the major contenders two players of which the Oilers may not have exact replicas but who are very similar to players already in their organization? Is more of what hasn't been working really the answer to the Oilers' problems? If that were the case, wouldn't the Oilers previous strategies at the NHL Entry Draft have been more successful?

The generally accepted answer to that question is that Oilers have drafted poorly and proven to be unable to properly manage and utilize the talent in their system. Justin Schultz is the most recent example of a player struggling in the Oilers line-up but finding a different role (and success) on a different team. If the Oilers haven't been drafting with an eye to development and filling the varied positions on their team with players who may become successful NHL players (for the Oilers), drafting another talented forward will probably not be the talisman needed to reverse the Oilers' fortunes. It hasn't worked the last few times with the first pick and seems like a less-reliable strategy with the fourth pick.

The Oilers need to study what they have just as intently as they study what's available. And if they decide to draft a player with the 4th pick, which is still another intense debate, they should do something new. They should pick the best player to fill the holes in the organization. The overtired idea that taking the "best-remaining player" is the best thing to do needs to be discarded. The Oilers need to take the best-remaining player who fits their needs. If they need a defenseman (and they do), draft the best possible defenseman with their pick. They cannot foolish continue to pick a forward when they need a defenseman because everyone agrees the forward is a better player. Talent and skill must be tempered by need and organizational fit. Otherwise, the organization has ridiculous depth at some positions, and absolutely nothing in others. And it still can't win.

Sort of like right now.

The only wrong choice for the Oilers is to let something other than what they need determine which prospects they select. The Oilers have allowed factors such as the number of contracts the organization holds at draft day, history of an individual or family with the organization, and the influence of various hockey "experts" to guide their draft day choices in the past. This has already made them the butt of more jokes than any Oilers fan really wants to count. (It gets a bit depressing.)

So if the Oilers make a choice that confounds the rest of the hockey world (and even Oilers fans) on Draft Day, it's impossible to pretend it's anything new. Everything the Oilers have done, excepting their first round picks, in the last few years at the Draft has angered or upset someone.

They drafted Mitch Moroz - whose performance might generously be called mediocre -- in the second round in 2012, Marco Roy in the second round -who they never signed -- in 2013, and John Marino in 2015. Marino seems the most likely of these choices to provide the Oilers some measure of success and some of that is influenced by the fact he was a later round pick. With Marino it's simply that between his committing to Yale, changing his commitment  to Harvard, and still not playing college hockey, there are some question marks around what is happening developmentally.

If the Oilers don't fear making odd or unpopular decisions in rounds two through seven of the NHL Entry Draft, they need to apply that same attitude the first round. The Oilers should be aggressive in going after the players they feel they need in this draft, and they should do their best to avoid drafting more players with the same skills and ceiling as the ones who already have a place in their system. And if that means the Oilers draft neither Dubois or Thakuck, so be it.