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

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Thursday, 10 March 2011

03/10/11 4.0 How Far Away Is This Rebuild?

The wake of the Dustin Penner trade is leading many analysts to the conclusion that the Edmonton Oilers rebuild is still in its infancy. 30+ goal scorers are truly a rare breed, especially ones with Penner's size, and trading away that player is certainly a sign of something. In the short term, this deal makes the Oilers worse - that point is beyond contention. However, is this a signal to the fan base that management sees this process (aka: losing) going on for another 3, 4 or more seasons? I don't think that's necessarily the case.

I believe that the Oilers rebuild is currently in year five. Of course, there's nothing saying exactly how long it should take to rebuild a team, but certainly being five years in means that some significant strides must have been made, and the end of this dark, dreary tunnel of suck must be nearing. What basis do I have for believing that this is year five, and not year one of the process? Read on, dear reader. Read on.

The Edmonton Oilers rebuild really began the moment they lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Carolina (sorry to have to mention that). With the mass exodus of players out of town, it left little room for anything but a complete restructuring of the team. The first step of this painful journey was Chris Pronger's trade. He ultimately turned into Jim Vandermeer, Ladislav Smid, Jordan Eberle and Martin Marincin (after a number of other subsequent trades). Aside from Vandermeer, these are all significant pieces of the present and future puzzle.

Then the Oilers traded Ryan Smyth for Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra and a first round pick (Alex Plante). Didn't work out as well as the Pronger deal, but Plante and O'Marra have a chance to be NHLers.

Assuming there are no more trades before or during the draft, the Oilers will have made 8 first round selections in the last 5 years. This is a team that has been stockpiling assets for years. Those picks have become, in order: Sam Gagner, Alex Plante, Riley Nash (traded to Carolina for second round pick in 2010; Martin Marincin), Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Taylor Hall and potentially one of Sean Couturier, Adam Larsson, Ryan Nugent Hopkins, etc., and then what we can assume will be a decent prospect in the middle of the first round in 2011. Most of those players are now either NHL ready or close to it, and the one that isn't (Marincin) is tracking extremely well (6'4", 187 lbs, 62 GP in WHL, 13-39-52).

The Oilers are going with youth. Management obviously believes in the kids that they have assembled. Paajarvi and Hall are not going to play third line minutes at left wing on this team, and neither was Dustin Penner. There is a log jam at that position, and if the Oilers are going to go with the kids, it simply became a matter of when you trade Dustin Penner and not if.

This was exactly the right time. Why? The teams that will covet Penner most, as LA obviously did, are contending teams. These teams are never going to give the Oilers a high first round pick, simply because they are too good. But this year LA is by no means a shoe-in to even make the playoffs, let alone go deep. Therefore, the first round pick the Oilers will get from LA is probably better than the one they may have gotten next year, when Brayden Schenn enters the fold and that team is a year older and wiser, and is a legitimate contender. Also, as a rental player, I don't think Penner is worth first and third round picks plus Colten Teubert. His reasonable contract will be ready to expire and he'll be up for a raise that some teams might know they won't be able to afford when it comes time to re-sign him. Also, if Paajarvi and Hall are to get increased ice time, Penner's would have to decrease, limiting his effectiveness and value. Moving him at the draft means that teams like Los Angeles are less desperate, and therefore probably less willing to part with major assets. This was precisely the right time to trade Dustin Penner.

And does it mean that the Oilers are set back by another couple of years? I honestly don't see how. Yes, they will miss the big man next season, but probably not as much as they would have missed Ales Hemsky, as the right wing is a little thinner on the depth chart. Hall and Paajarvi will have a realistic shot at replacing Penner's offense from the left wing, and the loss of Penner means Ryan Jones can take over a more permanent home there on the third line. Assuming that Paajarvi and Hall do round into dangerous offensive threats, I don't think the Oilers would want to bring Penner back after next season. He'll be looking for more money, and he'll deserve it, and the Oilers could use it some place else more effectively. They can't pay Hall, Paajarvi and Penner when one of those guys will be stuck on the third line. Moreover, even with Penner in the lineup the Oilers aren't making the playoffs next year, and if it doesn't make sense to extend him what is being set back? Giving Paajarvi and Hall more minutes and powerplay time will set their development forward, not backward.

In exchange for Penner they added some always valuable defensive depth in Teubert, and while he may be a couple of years away, the Oilers can afford to wait. Especially if, as I'm crossing my fingers for, they sign one of Bogosian or Weber to an offer sheet. Teubert makes OKC tougher at once, and despite no longer projecting to be Pronger-like, he's still a good prospect. The picks give the Oilers flexibility at the draft, and allow them to either trade up, or take several types of players that will help the team in the future.

So essentially the Oilers traded a part that was almost redundant for three assets that can help them address other areas. Much will depend on how well those assets pan out, but this is still a strong move by Oilers management.

I've heard it said that a good rebuild takes seven years. If so, I think the Oilers are no more than two away from playoff contention. It may be said that the team wasn't always trying to rebuild through the first five years; that they were attempting strongly to be competitive. While true, they were nevertheless rebuilding. Chicago didn't openly decide to blow it up. In 2005 Dale Tallon signed a goalie by the name of Nikolai Khaibulin in an attempt to make a run to the playoffs. They made huge offers to free agents in 2006, only to be rebuffed. Sound familiar? Just because it didn't always look like a rebuild or behave like a rebuild, it doesn't mean it wasn't one in Chicago or Edmonton.

So how far away are the Oilers, really? They are still at least five players away as of this moment. I believe they will add at least one at the draft and possibly another in the off season. By the end of next year, the writing will be on the wall that this team is going to be good, and then watch the free agents line up. I don't think it's lost on pending free agents that guys who sign with up-and-coming teams (see: Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa) get to play winning hockey for years, while guys who sign with teams that are good today (see: Jay Bouwmeester, Ilya Kovalchuk) can get left in the lurch. When the Oilers' kids start performing nearer to their potential, suddenly adding the pieces that are left isn't so difficult; be it through free agency or via trade, as the Oilers will have stockpiled plenty of assets. There will also be a number of young players working their way up through the system that can really play, and fill whatever holes are left.

Two years, friends. Two years.

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