With all the chaos these past two weeks from the atrocious goaltending the Oilers have had this season, a new storyline has been emerging to the forefront. The benching of Nail Yakupov for two straight games has created a circus of rumours from all ends of the league that him being dealt is a serious possibility.
The needs of the Oilers have always been the same – top pairing defenseman, goalie. It used to be in that order, but with Devan Dubnyk shrivelling up into a raisin and Jason Labarbera making everyone wish that Yan Danis was still around (never thought I’d say that), the urgency for help at the position cannot be understated. Another lost season hangs in the balance, and for all those who think I’m overreacting only 6 games into the season, I‘m not. When players start coming to work and hope to win instead of expecting it, you’re in a bad place. For all the patience this team has had for the development of its players over the past few years, the time for wining is now.
I coached a group of junior hockey prospects on a team that mirrored the situation in Edmonton a few years ago. A lot of talent upfront, and some very raw and rough around the edges defensemen. The major question mark was in goal. We started out the season with some high scoring games, but our goalie just couldn’t make the clutch saves we needed to get the wins. It got so discouraging for our players to the point that they would hold their breath when the opposition entered our zone. You can see from the body language of the Oilers skaters that each soft goal that gets passed Dubnyk deflates them. A little piece of them dies inside. The feeling that no matter how well you play, you’re still going to lose is extremely difficult to shake, especially for a young impressionable team. Don’t even bother with the plus/minus stats. When your goaltending is this weak, it’s impossible to be a plus player.
How do you get a high calibre starting goalie in this league? You have to trade for one. Same for any other position. There weren’t any high end goalies available in free agency this year, and the one big signing the season before went up in flames in a hurry. No one is missing Ilya Bryzgalov in Philadelphia. Regardless, the Oilers brain trust knew going into this season that goaltending was an issue. Craig MacTavish made several overtures to Vancouver trying to get Cory Schneider in the fold. Attempts to pry Jonathan Bernier out of LA were fruitless. Don’t tell me that Bernier wouldn’t look great in Oiler silks right now.
Unfortunately right now, the Oilers have zero leverage when talking to other teams for a potential trade. Everyone knows that MacTavish is desperate, and doesn’t have the time to hold out for a better offer. Immediate help via trade route is going to be costly, and the only real bargaining chip the Oilers have is a surplus of young skilled forwards.
Enter Nail Yakupov. A first overall pick in 2012, Yaks has the skill, pedigree and flair to be a superstar in this league. I would even go as far as saying that he could be the best of the bunch when it comes to the Oilers, including Nuge, Hall & Eberle. Obviously there have been growing pains this season for him, but with his recent comments about being benched and the current sad state of the team, the rumour mill has been going into overdrive.
Quite honestly, there is not rational explanation for trading Yakupov. He is an elite talent and you just don’t trade guys like that after one season in the league. This is one that will come back to haunt you, and not years down the road. It will haunt you immediately. Yakupov has the skill to pop 40 goals a season regularly, and he doesn’t need to wait till he’s 26 to do it.
What’s available out there in a trade? The rumour du jour is Jake Gardiner and James Reimer out of Toronto. Please excuse me while I throw up my dinner. Leafs fans have a history of overvaluing their players, and this is just another in a long list of ridiculous scenarios to actually work. Logistically it sounds nice. Solve two problems with one stone. Get a top pairing defenseman and a proven starting goalie. Problem with that is, Jake Gardiner is not a top pairing defenseman and James Reimer is not a proven starting goalie. Gardiner may or may not turn out to be a legitimate D-man in this league. Right now he is the 7th defenseman on an above average team. To say he would be a top guy would only be true on this team, which isn’t saying much. Edmonton already has a defenseman with a similar skill set in Justin Schultz, only he is already better and has a higher ceiling. James Reimer on the other hand would be an upgrade over Dubnyk and Labarbera, but not by much. At no point last year did anyone in Toronto say that Reimer carried that team into the playoffs, but was stable enough that he didn’t cost the team any games. He didn’t inspire anyone enough to prevent the team from going out and getting Bernier during the summer. Six games in this season, and he’s already lost his starting job. So trade a sure fire stud for a backup goalie and 7th D-man? No thanks.
Who else then? Well that’s actually the only rumour out there and naturally it came from the centre of the universe in Toronto. The same place that every other superstar in the league has been rumoured to be traded to in the last 50 years. If Craig MacTavish is a smart man, and I truly hope he is, such a trade will never materialize. The only goalies out there who are worth pursuing aren’t going anywhere. The Oilers need a goalie who can steal games. Not be average. An average goalie will look worse on this team. A great goalie can be somewhat average on this team, and right now that would be great. Average goaltending would be a huge step in the right direction.
Anyone looking to read Yakupov’s benching as anything more than a benching probably thinks that donuts are a good source of fibre. Just take it for what it is. Benching a player to teach him a lesson is a common practice, and first overall picks aren’t exempt from this. Taking a look back at the last few #1 guys, being a healthy scratch isn’t all that uncommon. Steve Stamkos was a healthy scratch three times in his rookie season. Coach Barry Melrose didn’t even think the guy should have made the team out of training camp and felt his hand was forced by ownership. To be fair, Dallas Eakins is not Barry Melrose and ownership in Tampa at the time was about as qualified as Lindsay Lohan managing a mental health facility.
Looking for parallels to Eakins & Yakupov? Look no further than Nazem Kadri. Kadri spent parts of three seasons bouncing around the pressure cooker in Toronto and Eakins gave him the same tough love with the Marlies that Yakupov is getting now. It took awhile, but Kadri and the Leafs are better for it and this situation is no different. Eakins made a ballsy decision here and should be commended for it. If the warts on Yakupov’s game can be ironed out now, the sky’s the limit for how good he can be. This is the first time in a long time that players are being held accountable in Edmonton, and that’s a good thing.
Oh, and for those wanting to know what happened with my team, our goalie put in hours upon hours of extra work and we eventually went on to win the league championship. That goalie is now a starter for a prominent WHL team. There is hope.
So my twitter thing is starting to gain traction. I’ve been steadily increasing the amount of tweets sharing my wisdom with the commoners, and the followers have been coming. I have yet to start posting pictures of my side hobby, which is erotic yet classy positioning of my living room furniture.. The time will come, and when it does, don’t be the one left out. Follow me and my cat Mango on twitter now @Yaseen_AC.