EDMONTON — Ownership moved out the Edmonton Oilers Old Boys Club over the summer, when new GM Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan were handed a failed rebuild with orders to straighten things out.
Well December has arrived and the Oilers are entrenched in 30th place yet again. The focus in Edmonton has moved from the front office to the Oilers flawed core. Too soft, too similar, too used to losing, is what they’re saying about Taylor Hall and the boys in blue and orange.
Someone’s got to go. But who?
“We don’t want the group to change in here,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the 22-year-old centre who has become a prime subject of trade talk for the first time in his young career this week. “I can speak for everybody to say, everyone’s happy with the group we have. We don’t want it to come to (the point) where there is a bunch of moves.”
Chiarelli’s history would dictate that it almost certainly will come down to a blockbuster. As GM of the Boston Bruins Chiarelli traded away a 21-year-old Phil Kessel, a former No. 5 overall pick of the Bruins. He also dealt Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a less successful deal for Boston, but Seguin was chosen at No. 2 behind Taylor Hall in 2010.
So Chiarelli has the stones to make a major deal with a young forward, and he’s got several to choose from in Edmonton. Clearly, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are untouchable. That leaves Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins as players who would return the required level of defenceman, perhaps alone or as the major cog in a package.
Hall entered play on Wednesday as the No. 8 scorer in the NHL with 9-16-25 in 25 games. He has established himself as one of the NHL’s top three or four left-wingers, production wise, and has this season shored up his defensive game considerably with a plus-11 defensive rating.
You might say that Hall would bring the greatest return, but his robust style is a needed commodity among this skilled forward group. That leaves Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle in the cross hairs of the trade rumours, as softer skill players who would be of greater use on a team that could surround them with bigger linemates.
“I think my name has been in the mix for the last three years. Things haven’t gone well for our team, and that’s just how it works,” said Eberle on Wednesday morning, with the Bruins in town for a game tonight. “I know I have to play better and start impacting. I know the impact I can have. I need to bring that.”
Eberle injured his shoulder late in the pre-season and did not return until Nov. 6. He has only three goals (no assists) in a dozen games, and the perimeter nature of his game is emblematic of an Oilers team that is traditionally far too easy to play against.
He signed a seven-year, $36-million deal that runs for three more years after this one, and Eberle was expected to get time with Hall and Draisaitl tonight to help kick start his game.
Nugent-Hopkins has been surpassed by McDavid, and quite possibly by Draisaitl as well. It’s hard to deal a centre, but the return — especially for a centres-poor team, like Nashville — would be higher.
McLellan came to his players’ defence on Wednesday, comparing Nugent-Hopkins to Joe Pavelski, who, it is well known, was one of McLellan’s favorite players in San Jose.
“(Nugent-Hopkins) is small, he’s competitive, and he understands the game,” explained the Oilers head coach. “You have to understand, Joe played (two) years at Wisconsin before he even came to the league at 22. Nuge is 22 years old, you guys.
“He’s 22. I think he has the brain, the will to do it.”
As for Eberle, his game has a long ways to go to justify that long-term deal. He is the eldest member of this core, and as such, the one from whom inconsistency will be accepted the least.
“I’m healthy. Perfectly fine,” he said of his shoulder. “Obviously I haven’t played well, and the score sheet hasn’t been working my way. I know the impact I can bring. I have to bring it tonight.”