Why a big Oilers trade is a matter of when, not if

Mark Spector joins Gene Principe to talk about the possibility of the Edmonton Oilers moving one of their players for a big return, saying some around the NHL talk about Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall as the most valuable chips.

There is a significant trade coming in Edmonton.

It could be tomorrow (least likely). It could be at the Feb. 29 National Hockey League Trade Deadline (less likely). Most likely it occurs in the lead up to the 2016 Entry Draft in June.

The reason: The original Oilers rebuild has failed (newsflash), and the new general manager — Peter Chiarelli — is assessing which of its parts can best be recycled into a legitimate No. 2, and perhaps also a No. 3 defenceman. Teams don’t trade No. 1 blue-liners, so that’s out of the question.

There is still much talent in Edmonton, but it’s clear to all that the original blueprint is a loser, and the new architect has to swing the wrecking ball — to some extent — in Edmonton. However, significant trades are nearly impossible to do mid-season, when everyone’s cap/budget is locked in. Also, history tells us good defencemen seldom move mid-season, and clearly Chiarelli doesn’t favour the New York Islanders’ ask for Travis Hamonic, or that deal would have been completed a month ago.

From his days in Boston, Chiarelli is known not to shy away from ‘The Big Trade’. He not only dealt a 21-year-old Phil Kessel in 2009, but four years later dealt away the biggest acquisition from that Kessel deal, Tyler Seguin. It didn’t turn out to be a great deal for the Bruins, but it took guts to make, and Chiarelli clearly has that on his resume.

Today, as Edmonton again languishes in and around 30th place once again, the question “What do you do with the Oilers?” is asked with various levels of fascination and derision in press boxes across the league. More often now that it appears genuinely possible that this dysfunctional rebuild could collect its fifth No. 1 overall selection since 2010, and walk away with Auston Matthews come June.

It is considered bad form for a member of one organization to publicly GM another team, even though it happens in private every night across the NHL. So, over the past couple of weeks, we have canvassed some not for attribution opinions from trusted, experienced voices across the league — scouts, front office men, coaches — representing teams from both conferences and all divisions.

We asked the question: “If you were Peter Chiarelli, what would YOU do?”

Here’s how they answered:

Eastern Exec: “Trade (Taylor) Hall and (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins. Build around Connor McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl. Eberle stays. Go after a puck-moving defenceman that can make a pass and make players better.

“Think of how much you’re going to have to pay McDavid and Draisaitl. If you find some defencemen, they’ll cost as well. Trade Hall now. McDavid could be the best player in the league. Need puck moving defencemen (to provide) a transition game.”

Western Coach: He’d move RNH first, then Eberle second.

“Nugent-Hopkins is too easy to play against,” he said. “Hall doesn’t have great hockey sense, but he’s an honest, hard-working player who can skate and shoot the puck. He competes. The kid plays hard.”

Eastern Exec: “They’re all good players, and they look like they’re playing good hockey. But the team has no pulse. When they get turned up, they go great. Their stats are great, but their overall games aren’t.

“They need a leader in their top 6 who can play with these kids. All the guys they’ve brought in to provide leadership have been bottom of roster players,” he said. “The dangerous thing is, (Hall and Eberle) weren’t just good at the (2015 World Championships). They were fantastic there.”

Western scout: He’d trade Nugent-Hopkins, because as a centre, that would bring back the highest return. “I wouldn’t trade Hall. No way,” he said.

“The problem for this group of good young players is, the veterans who’ve been brought in (to Edmonton) have been bad. Andrew Ference, (Nikita) Nikitin, (Benoit) Pouliot, (Mark) Fayne. That has more to do with why the Oilers are where they are,” he said, echoing a familiar theme here.

Western Exec: “You’d get the most for Hall,” he said of the NHL’s third most productive left-winger over the last three seasons. “I like Hall, but there is a missing level of engagement, somehow. You want to love him. He plays hard, with reckless abandon. He tries, he battles. But there is this lack of awareness, it seems to me.”

The cap could mean Edmonton turns into a team like Pittsburgh, with two elite centres and a collection of less expensive players on the wings, he said. That’s assuming Chiarelli finds two defencemen good enough to command significant salaries.

Western scout No. 2: “I would trade Nugent-Hopkins. I’m not trading Hall, although he’s the guy you’d get the most for.”

Why the drop-off in return after Hall? Especially considering he’s a winger and RNH is a centre? “Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are soft players. No one really wants soft players.”

Like every voice we spoke to, McDavid and Draisaitl are untouchables. No one trades them. So we asked our scout, if Hall’s return is the greatest, why not move him?

“Are you kidding me? Taylor Hall?” he said. “You are crazy if you trade Taylor Hall, my friend.”

Conclusion: Despite being a winger, consensus is that Hall has a higher trade value. The question is, in making this trade do the Oilers need to move out a softer player to help change their DNA? Hall is not the perfect player, but he is highly productive and is developing a much harder and better defensive game this season.

It also accepted among this group that McDavid and Draisaitl are Edmonton’s top two centres going forward, so although Nugent-Hopkins is at worst a No. 2 NHL centre, he represents an area where Edmonton can trade from strength. He would also return significantly more than Eberle.

For the record, neither Nail Yakupov nor Justin Schultz was considered to be players who could significantly improve the Oilers plight if dealt away. At best, they are viewed as complimentary pieces that could top off a deal if added by Chiarelli.