a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Thursday, 24 February 2011

02/24/11 1.0 State of the Union/Deadline 2011

So here we are, three quarters of the way through the 2010-2011 NHL season, and things are progressing pretty much as planned. The Edmonton Oilers are at the bottom of the league standings (which I expected), with their only real competition for 30th place being the Ottawa Senators (which I did not).

Actually, that's a bit of a fib. In truth, I expected this incarnation of the Oilers to be at least a little bit improved over the one that finished last overall in 2009-10, and that hasn't been the case. The Oil are on pace for a whopping 65 points, only a three point improvement over last year. When I said I expected them to be a little bit improved, I didn't mean three lousy points.

So what happened? I think we all get the general idea by now. Injuries have played their part, but not nearly as large of a part as over the last several seasons. More important this year than how many man games were lost is who was lost, with Ales Hemsky, Jordan Eberle, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Whitney all missing significant stretches.

Most importantly of all, though, this is a team in transition. There are finally some key elements in place here that could carry this team a long way, but it's still taking shape. You can't have that much turnover of a roster without having to totally reinvent the identity of the squad, even for guys who are returning. Also, there are some key components missing here. Management didn't bend over backwards to find bottom six forwards who can kill penalties or shutdown the opposition; and why should they have? This was never a team that was going to contend for a playoff spot this year, so the attitude is to keep them as far down the standings as they can until they are ready to make that push for the fabled post season.

So what does that mean for the team? It means that the Oilers will have yet another high draft pick in June and they must decide whether to use it on a potential number one center like Sean Couturier, or a potential franchise defenseman like Adam Larsson. Elite players for both positions are sorely needed by this team. It seems almost certain that the Oilers will be good enough to not get another top five pick next season, which means that whichever player they choose, they will have to fill the other need via trade or free agency. As of this writing the trade deadline is only four days away and there are plenty of irons in the fire.

Speculation abounds that Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner and Ladislav Smid are all in play. Undoubtedly there are others, but here is a breakdown of who is interested in those three and what the implications are for the team going forward:

Ales Hemsky: Possible suitors for the crafty right winger include the LA Kings and New York Rangers (and everyone else in the league if they thought they could get him). A week ago I would have listed the Pittsburgh Penguins as a strong possibility, but their recent acquisitions of James Neal and Alex Kovalev seem to indicate that they've filled their needs on the wing.

The New York Rangers were reportedly dangling young defenseman Michael Del Zotto (20th overall in 2008, 6 ft, 188 lbs, 11-36-47 in 126  NHL games). The jury is still out on this kid. He's had an up and down year (literally, from the AHL to NHL repeatedly), but he's young and does seem to have a lot of potential. He's probably a bit smaller than what the Oilers are looking for, and he may never be a true number one defeseman, but he's a good start to a package. It will take more than just Del Zotto to nab Hemsky, but prospect center Evgeny Grachev (75th overall in 2008, 6'3", 212 lbs, 14-10-24 in 51 AHL games this year) could sweeten the deal, and give the Oilers some insurance no matter who they draft in June. New York still owns its first round pick in this year's draft. Del Zotto, Grachev and a 1st rounder could get it done. If the Oilers want a replacement on right wing, Ryan Callahan (5'11", 185 lbs, 16-15-31 in 42 games with Rangers this year) could fit the bill instead of Grachev. That may be too high a price for Glen Sather, but for anything less I'd keep Hemsky an Oiler.

The Kings are an interesting option. I get the sense that GM Dean Lombardi is the type of guy who watches pots of water boil in his spare time. He's the definition of patience and it's starting to pay off. However, the Kings aren't a shoe-in for the post season and they're certainly not guaranteed to do anything when they get there. It's no secret that Lombardi would like to remedy that situation with the addition of Ales Hemsky, but unless they are willing to part with Brayden Schenn, they will be in tough. Bob Mackenzie says not to hold your breath on a deal involving Schenn for anyone and when Bob says it, it's probably true. Still, there may be other ways. The deal would obviously start with LA's first round pick this year. If Schenn isn't moving then the Oilers might be interested in one of their defensive prospects. Derek Forbort (15th overall in 2010, 6'5", 200 lbs, 0-13-13 in 27 games for U of North Dakota) is an attractive option and projects to be a number one guy one day. However, as he has opted to go the college route it will be several years before he's ready to even challenge for an NHL spot. Expect a similar curve to Jeff Petry, drafted 45th overall in 2006 and just now getting his feet wet in the NHL. LA can afford to be patient with him. Can Edmonton? Two names that have floated around are Thomas Hickey (4th overall in 2007, 5'10", 182 lbs, 6-16-22 in 58 games for LA's AHL affiliate in Manchester) and Colten Teubert (13th overall in 2008, 6'4", 210 lbs, 2-8-10 in 36 games with the Monarchs). Hickey is putting up fairly decent numbers, but not decent enough for a guy of his size. Teubert, while not an offensive defenseman, has apparently also underwhelmed defesively in the AHL so far. While either of these players could end up being useful cogs, I don't see either one as a franchise defenseman. Mackenzie also says that Wayne Simmonds isn't in play. The problem in dealing with LA becomes the fact that the players on their roster who are good enough to land Hemsky are too good or too coveted by that team's management, and the same goes for their top prospect. I don't honestly see a deal getting done here unless the Oilers undercut the value of Hemsky, which they do not need to do.

Dustin Penner: I'm sure that the Kings would like to have Penner as well, as they could use some help on the left wing, but the same problems are in the way of a deal that are potentially stifling a Hemsky trade. Penner isn't worth as much as Hemsky, so if Schenn isn't in play for him, he's not even in the conversation for Penner. Montreal is also interested in the hulking winger, but to be honest, I don't see a lot there that I want. That is a small team trying to get bigger, which means they don't have a lot on the roster that they'd be willing to part with that the Oilers need. The Oilers definitely don't need to get any smaller, so if a deal happened with Montreal, it would need to start with defensive prospect Jarred Tinordi (22nd overall in 2010, 6'7", 212 lbs, 1-10-11 in 52 games with the London Knights of the OHL). Size on the backend? Yes please! But Tinordi isn't enough. Montreal's 1st round pick and Tinordi probably isn't enough, but it's getting there. I'd like to talk about PK Subban, but he isn't going anywhere. 1st and 2nd round picks plus Tinordi and you're in business. Still, Tinordi is a few years away, so I'm not jumping out of my seat on this one.

Ladislav Smid: Linked to Nashville and Chicago. From Nashville the rumor was Jonathan Blum (23rd overall in 2007, 6'1", 180 lbs, 8-26-34 in 54 games with the Milwaukee Admirals of the AHL), who projects as a solid offensive defenseman. He's smaller than Smid, but has better offensive instincts. He's on pace to eclipse last year's AHL totals by ten points or so, bringing him to around 90 in two seasons. Gotta believe he would be at least as sound defensively, though perhaps a touch less gritty. Not a number one guy maybe, but I think this trade would be a coup for the Oilers, and leads me to believe that it would take more than just Smid to get him. As for Chicago, the one prospect I like a lot there is Kyle Beach (11th overall in 2008, 6'3", 210 lbs, 13-16-29 in 54 AHL games). What makes this kid so attractive as a prospect is his grittiness. He's already amassed 110 penalty minutes playing for Rockford and he's managed decent point totals too. In his last year of junior he scored 52 goals in 68 games for Spokane, along with 34 assists and 186 penalty minutes. Solid pest winger with some offensive upside.

The Oilers have also been linked to Zach Bogosian out of Atlanta, which leads me to believe that the Oilers are leaning toward Couturier at the draft and looking outside for their number one defenseman. It makes sense, considering that defensemen typically take longer to develop, and the Oilers have some forwards that they wouldn't mind parting with for the right guy. I've focused mostly on defensive prospects for this reason.

The one guy who I think will certainly be traded sometime before next season is Andrew Cogliano, and his stock is as high as it's ever going to be right now. I think he would be a decent fit in Phoenix, though I have no rumors to back that up. From there I'd like to see Brandon Gormley, who was projected to go as high as 3rd overall at last year's draft and ended up slipping to 13th. He should be a top four shutdown d-man, but he also has 37 points in 36 games for Moncton of the QMJHL. 6'2", 190 lbs isn't huge, but it's decent. If he's too much for Cogliano, I'd take a run at "stifling stay-at-home" defenseman Chris Summers (29th overall in 2006, 6'2", 185 lbs)  from Phoenix, who is playing for their AHL affiliate in San Antonio.

Got all that? If so, congrats on all the reading. Until next time.

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