Despite the current breathtaking winning streak of 2 games, the vultures have been circling around the carcass of the 2013/14 version of the Edmonton Oilers for a long time now. This season has been an unmitigated disaster, more so than previous years that resulted in last place finishes. This was supposed to be the year we made the jump from cellar dweller to competing for a playoff spot. Never in the past 8 years has any Oilers team ever entered the season with the amount of optimism and expectation as this year’s team did. And the Oilers failed to deliver on all counts. They have failed spectacularly. The stories of what’s wrong with this team have been done to death, so let’s look at what lies ahead for these lovable losers.
This past summer was one of the weakest classes of free agents in memory. When the ultimate prize is some guy named David Clarkson, you know the pickings are slim. Clarkson, despite all the intangibles he brings, is simply not worth $5.75M a season for 7 years. Despite missing the first 10 games due to suspension, he just scored his first goal on Tuesday. Luckily for him, Toronto has been playing well this season and the strong play of his teammates has overshadowed his poor performance. But looking at this signing in a season or two, you can bet that he will be a potential buy-out candidate. He’s a good player for sure, but not a great player. And the fact is that he got a ‘great’ player contract. When good players get great contracts, you have immediate buyer’s remorse. Taking a look back at previous mistakes that seemed like a good idea at the time, the names Chris Drury, Bobby Holik, and Scott Gomez come to mind. No coincidence that they were all signed by the New York Rangers. All of those players had some skill with a ton of intangibles, but we all know how they worked out. The dollar figure compared to their contribution did not match and each one was eventually bought out after years of unmet and unrealistic expectations.
Ken Holland is widely accepted as one of the best GM’s in the business. He once said “you don’t pay for character. You pay for points.” Guys who don’t put up points don’t make as significant an impact in the outcome of a game as much as the guys who do. Simply said, goals win games. Not battles in the corners. Now common sense dictates that without winning the battles in the corners, you won’t score goals. That is 100% true, but the glory and the money goes to the guys that finish. David Clarkson, as good a player he is, is just a complimentary player. He is not the guy you can pin the hopes of a franchise on. And luckily for fans in Edmonton, his albatross contract will not hamper this team in the future when it becomes painfully obvious that this team needs more than one player before truly competing for a playoff spot.
The summer of 2014 promises to be a superior class of free agents. Provided none of them re-sign with their current teams, there are a bevy of players who could significantly help the Oilers take another step away from suckery. Jonas Hiller, Ryan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Callahan, Dion Phaneuf, Dan Girardi, Brooks Orpik and Steve Ott all figure to be part of the discussion when the off season shopping list is put together. Of course these players can help 20 other teams as well so the Oilers will no doubt have to overpay to get who they want. One advantage that the Oilers do possess is cap space. With a number of high priced contracts coming off the books in Hemsky, Smyth, N. Schultz and Dubnyk, there is money to play with. Couple that with a rising salary cap and the fact that most teams are still going to be experiencing a squeeze to stay under the limit, the chances that the Oilers bring in at least two significant free agents are good. If they actually manage to do it however is another question. Another question is why I decided to eat tacos last night at 2 a.m. Yes that’s right, I’m writing this article on my phone from a public toilet. And on another note, 1 ply toilet paper should be illegal.
The draft presents a couple more wrinkles to the situation. Projected to go first overall is Vancouver native Sam Reinhart, brother of former Oil King Griffin Reinhart. At 6’1 and 185 lbs., he has a slightly bigger frame than RNH and a similar offensive skillset. He projects to be an elite scoring centre at the pro level but also possesses strong defensive instincts and can be fairly competent in his own zone. The other player vying for the top pick is towering defenseman Aaron Ekblad. At 6’4 and 215 lbs., he figures to be the workhorse shut down defenseman that the Oilers are desperately in need of. A blue line featuring Justin Schultz, Darnell Nurse and Ekblad would be a force to be reckoned with for years to come as long as the Oilers don’t screw it up. And judging from history, finding a way to make a mess of things is a very possible outcome.
Trading the pick is also a solid option. Depending on where that pick falls, the package that the Oilers could get in return would go a long way into speeding up the end of this debacle of a rebuild. Of course, if the opportunity to draft one of these guys turns into fruition, it would also be a sane decision to hang on to the pick. Even though the idea of drafting Reinhart may seem redundant with all the other smallish forwards on the team, he is at the very least a clear upgrade over Sam Gagner and would allow the team to deal him instead for help in goal or on defense. Ekblad has to be a no-brainer but remember that there have been very few defenseman come into the league and make an impact in their rookie season. Despite the need on defense, the Oilers made the right decisions in drafting RNH and Yakupov over Adam Larsson and Ryan Murray. Yakupov showed last season and against Columbus what he is capable of. RNH is already the best player in his draft class and will be a fixture as the first line centre for the Oilers for years to come. Larsson has struggled early in his career and will turn out to be a steady player, however not the franchise D that most people were expecting. The early returns on Ryan Murray are positive but as with Yakupov, it is too early in his career to see how he may turn out.
Ekblad’s game is comparable to two recent draft picks – Seth Jones and Victor Hedman. Seth Jones came with a higher pedigree and is already showing in his rookie season that he will be a dominant franchise defenseman for years to come. He is a rarity however it should be noted that Nashville has the luxury of sheltering him as he develops behind Shea Weber and Roman Josi. Victor Hedman was widely discussed as a possible threat to be top overall pick over John Tavares in 2009, but Garth Snow wisely passed on him and went with the sure thing. Hedman took a few years to develop and is only now becoming what he was projected to be. Ekblad looks more likely to be cut from the Hedman cloth. He will be a very good defenseman at the NHL level, but expecting him to be Seth Jones right out of the box is unreasonable at best.
Trading the number one overall pick should the Oilers get it only makes sense if they are getting back a true number one all-star defenseman. Some team out there will be starving for offense and around draft time the hype machine around prospects kicks into full gear, which means that someone out there is willing to pay a considerable ransom to get the top guy available. For teams that could use a big name up front to supply offense and re-invigorate the fan base, making a deal to get Reinhart would be a strong possibility. Of those teams that would be sniffing around for a deal, you can bet that Nashville, Phoenix, Winnipeg, and NYR all have the pieces on the backend that the Oilers would be interested in. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that some sort of package can be worked out to get a big time stud like Oliver Ekman-Larsson if the price is right. An offer of the 1st overall pick, a high end prospect like Kelfbom or Marincin plus a quality roster player could do the trick. That might seem like an overpay, but the Oilers are hardly dealing from a position of strength and Phoenix has the depth on defense to absorb the loss. Also in another dimension exists the possibility of Weber becoming available. Frankly, the likelihood that Weber gets moved is about the same as Carrie Underwood being gift wrapped in knee high boots and a mini skirt under my Christmas tree this year. Not gonna happen but one can dream.
So I’ve been having some verbal sparring on twitter with noted idiots Jason Botchford of the Vancouver Province (the guy who is fascinated with Joe Thornton’s dick) and Chris Brown. I keep trying to bait them in to challenging me to a fight but so far no luck. To watch the hilarity that is my twitter account and also keep up to date with the latest musings of my cat Mango, follow me @Yaseen_AC.