EDMONTON — When Bob Nicholson stepped behind the podium and declared, “we believe in the organization, we believe in the dressing room, that we can (make the playoffs),” what did it really mean?
Of course, the players in the dressing room think they have what it takes to make the post-season. Honestly, 99.9 per cent of NHL players will say that until their team is mathematically eliminated. And in Edmonton, captain Connor McDavid said this only a few days before:
“If you don’t believe in this group, and you’re in the locker room? Then you need to leave.”
When McDavid speaks, Oilers listen.
The owner? We don’t confer with Daryl Katz often, but if the question is, “Does an NHL owner prefer to have a few playoff dates in a sold out arena where he doesn’t have to pay any players and can charge even more for tickets?”
The answer is “of course.”
How Edmonton handles the trade deadline — more specifically what assets they are willing to part with — will reveal just how important 2019 playoff dates are.
When the Oilers return from their break with day games at Philadelphia Saturday and Montreal on Sunday, they’ll find that the level of competition rises as the final run to the playoffs begin. So, a club that could barely keep its head above water before the break needs improvement if it harbours any realistic playoff goals.
With assistant general manager Keith Gretzky working the phones, let’s talk about how he’s going to make this team better. Especially considering the Oilers are absolutely capped out, thanks to the fired Peter Chiarelli, and may soon need to have space for the return of Andrej Sekera — even if he’ll likely spend the rest of his season in the AHL — assuming he can return to action at all.
Oh, and don’t forget Nicholson’s promise: “We’re not trading away our first (round) pick.”
So, if you were the Oilers, would you trade…
Not a chance. The Oilers do not currently have a legit, no-doubt top pairing defenseman in their organization. Oscar Klefbom is the only reasonable facsimile. Bouchard could be one in a few seasons, assuming the next GM does a better job in development than the last one did. He must be retained.
Kailer Yamamoto and/or Jesse Puljujarvi?
Sure, if you can bring a player back with some term who can help today. Back to development, these two players should be almost ready to leave the AHL after having spent the entire season there and tearing up the minors. Instead, both have yo-yo’ed up and down from the NHL, where neither have proven to belong. Now, we’re not sure how great a prospect either one is.
A 2019 first-round pick?
We’re pretty sure this deal doesn’t exist, but if the Oilers could find a legit top pairing defenceman, someone who can really pass the puck at an elite level — and someone with a couple years left on his deal — then, yes, deal the pick.
McDavid and his mates are being held back by the lack of skill on the Oilers’ blue-line. I wouldn’t trade a first-round pick for a forward, but for the right defenseman — in a package including more from Edmonton? For sure. And, yes, and we realize how valuable a first-round pick is these days.
Gretzky has to be careful here. Nurse is a key part of the core in Edmonton, and by that I mean a guy who has grown up in the game with his old World Junior teammate McDavid. He’ll wear a letter here one day, he’s really tight with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and if management keeps dealing away guys who actually like it in Edmonton — like Taylor Hall and Ryan Strome — eventually the wrong guys might decide they want to leave too. I keep Nurse.
So, this is the conundrum for the Oilers:
There aren’t enough good players on this roster — that’s why they’re having trouble making the playoffs. But dealing the few good ones you have, like a Nurse or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, just robs Peter to pay Paul.
So the only way to get better is to deal picks or prospects. But now the cap becomes a problem.
Players coming in will affect the cap more than the picks and prospects going the other way, so in order to afford them you have toss in a bad contract (Ryan Spooner, Brandon Manning, Zack Kassian) and then include more picks and prospects to even out the deal.
Even if you can pull that off and make the playoffs, you’ll face a Divisional winner and likely get blasted out in five or six games. And you just lost a prospect and a couple of picks for those two, or three playoff dates.
So we would conclude that the Oilers put their No. 1 pick in play just in case they can strike gold and find the right, top-pairing defenseman, while actively trying to dump salary so the new GM — whoever he may be — can be in a better position to make deals leading up to the draft.
Play the long game.