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

Welcome to Oil Acumen. What follows is a blog dedicated to ending the tyranny of Oilers management, and making hockey fun to watch again, dammit.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

03/31/11 8.0 Random Thoughts and Oddness

Boy, is there ever frighfully little going on. Here's an odd curiosity that piqued my interest:

http://www.tigershockey.com/roster/show/id/692

Yeah... I know... What are the chances? Granted it's DevEn, not DevAn, and Dubyk, not DubNyk, but still...

But really, other than CHL playoffs, there's diddly happening with the Oilers. Oh yes, they signed Olivier Roy, but that won't matter till next year in OKC. Don't get me wrong; I'm just as thrilled as everyone else about the NHL playoff races that are going on, but none of them involve my sad little team.

Teemu Hartikainen has been a tiny dot of light in an otherwise all-encompassing void of blackness. He looks like he could challenge for a roster spot next year, but I'm not sure if he'll make it. If the Oilers draft a center and don't make any moves at forward in the off season, the lines for next year could look like this:

Hall - Nugent-Hopkins/Couturier - Eberle
Paajarvi - Gagner - Hemsky
Jones - Horcoff - Omark
Reddox - Brule - Cogliano

I lied, they'd have to move Fraser and Jacques out of town. Anybody singing the blues? All in all, that's a pretty solid lineup at every forward position. I've always thought Brule played well in the middle, and he's decent in the dot. He's just got to get healthy sometime. Keep in mind that if they don't take a center, the lines look like this:

Hall - Gagner - Eberle
Paajarvi - Horcoff - Hemsky
Jones - Brule - Omark
Reddox - Fraser - Cogliano

Is it me, or does that chart look significantly better when the centers all move down a line and the Oilers have a true number-one-in-the-making at the top? I've moved Cogliano to the wing because until he can show that he can win a draw, he's not a checking center. He's a pretty darn good fourth line checking winger though. That line could put up some points, and be fairly effective in a checking/PK role. I think every line on that top chart could score pretty effectively. The third and fourth lines on the second chart? Eh, not so much.

Meanwhile, the Oilers defense would look like this with no changes except drafting Adam Larsson:

Whitney - Larsson
Peckham - Gilbert
Smid - Foster

Again, Vandermeer and Struddy would have to walk as free agents, but that's basically it. Petry becomes a spare or gets sent back to OKC, unless he can massively outplay Foster and somehow Foster gets sent down. Frankly, those combinations still aren't good enough. The Oilers have an opportunity to lock it up at the forward position. After that, every asset available can be poured into shaping the defense. Also, from a development standpoint, I'd rather see pairings of:

Whitney - Petry
Peckham - Gilbert
Smid - Foster

Give Perty some time (and a very good partner) and see if he can run with it. I'm betting that he can. Except for maybe the top pairing, I've put an offensive defenseman with a defensive one, which is a balance that I like and think the Oilers currently lack, if only for a lack of options. There's also a fairly experienced (for this team) player matched with an inexperienced one on each pairing. Gilbert's shot blocking is something I'd like to see instilled in Peckham even more, and imagine what Petry could learn. Whitney is like Visnovsky - everyone who plays with him seems to get better.

- By the by, what do you want to bet that Jordan Eberle scores three more goals and ends the season with 42 points?

- Even if Colorado only wins one more of their last seven games and lose one in overtime (1-5-1), the Oilers would have to go 5-0-1 or a perfect 6-0 to not finish 30th. When the Oilers lose two more games in regulation and Colorado wins one, the Oilers will be mathematically unable to catch them. So, basically, the next Colorado win or two overtime losses locks it up.

- If the Oilers don't earn another three points this season, it will be the worst team point total in franchise history. 23 wins is also a new record for futility, and they will recieve that dubious honor even if they win another game, which looks doubtful.

- Amazingly, their offensive output is only second-worst this year with all the injuries. Ottawa has scored fewer goals as a team. The season where the Oilers had just sixty points they scored 242 times. This season they are on pace for just 194; the worst total ever. 195 in 2006-07 is the current low mark.

All that looks pretty bleak, no? Never fear. Where is there to go from here but up? As I've said before, the team isn't as far away as all that would have you believe. What this team needs it to get healthy, acquire another elite offensive weapon through the draft, and maybe try to shore up the defense, though that could be difficult this off season, given the above numbers and the shallow free agent pool. If anything happens with the defense, I believe it will happen via trade or offer sheet.

A complete list of UFA defensemen can be found here:

http://www.capgeek.com/free_agents.php?year_id=2011&team_id=-1&position_id=D&fa_type_id=2

Not many guys who fit the age/price bracket and can also make enough of an impact to make it worth it for Edmonton. Probably the Oilers will try to bring their own kids along by tossing them into the fray, and whoever is still standing will still be around when this team is ready to win. The bad news is that almost no matter what, this team will still have a top-ten pick next year. The good news is that they can parlay that into a defenseman via the draft, which preliminary indications suggest is fairly deep in blueliners.

Also, the list of UFA defensemen for 2012 is much more promising:

http://www.capgeek.com/free_agents.php?year_id=2012&team_id=-1&position_id=D&fa_type_id=2

Liles, Wideman, Burns, Oduya, Suter, Carle, and Coburn could all play on my team any day of the week, and they have to sign somewhere...

That's it until something happens!

Friday, 25 March 2011

3/25/11 7.0 The Nuge

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog on a semi-regular basis knows that my opinion on who the Oilers should draft with their first pick this year has changed as the season wore on. Before the season started I was a proponent of drafting Adam Larsson first overall (assuming the Oilers had that pick), mostly because he was the most highly touted player I'd heard about up to then. Then I started to think about some of the things I've discussed in the draft primers here, and Sean Couturier seemed like the best choice. It didn't hurt that he became the mostly highly touted prospect. Since the midpoint of the season, Couturier's offensive production and overall ranking has slipped a little, and another player has emerged as the front runner for number one.

That player is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who just dissected the Edmonton Oil Kings tonight. There wasn't really a point in the game where he dominated, especially in the first two periods. He wasn't overly flashy. He won puck battles and created turnovers, but early on in the game it looked like it was going to be a quiet night for the Nuge. In fact, the Oil Kings played very well, outshooting Red Deer 37-24 and staying in the game most of the way through. They managed to mostly shut down Red Deer's star player, limiting him to one assist through two periods and accomplishing their stated goal of allowing him only one or two points per game.

Then Nugent-Hopkins appeared, scoring two goals and three points in the third period. He finished with a four-point night and the Rebels skated off with a 5-3 win on home ice, taking a 1-0 series lead.

Nugent-Hopkins' game is interesting because it seems that he has that innate ability to appear out of nowhere and create scoring chances. The great thing about him is that he has the skill to convert those chances as well. Overall his game seems fundamentally sound enough, though he only finished the night as a +1. His defensive game is decent but not outstanding, and he works hard in the corners, often coming out with the puck. Or, if not, he puts it in a place where his team mates can help him in the battle.

He looks NHL ready to me, for the most part. Physically, he's not the smallest guy out there and of course he's not the biggest. Then again, these are kids he's playing against. Having said that, it's precisely because he's playing against kids that I'm not sure how much more he can learn in the WHL. He finished with the same 106 points that Jordan Eberle had last year, and Eberle was in his fourth year in the WHL. Nugent-Hopkins can't go to the AHL yet because of his age, so it's either the NHL or back to Red Deer. The one positive I could see from sending him back to Junior would be that he could play for Canada at the World Juniors in December, but what he'll glean from that tournament is not equivalent to what he'll learn in the NHL.

One interesting aspect is that the Nuge plays the point on Red Deer's powerplay, and he seems reasonably proficient at it. I'm not convinced that he would get that chance in the NHL, but it's an interesting dynamic for the Oilers, who lack truly gifted powerplay men on the point apart from Ryan Whitney.

Naturally, sending him back to Junior would also give him time to bulk up, but I'm not sure how much of a difference that ten pounds is going to make, because he doesn't play a physical game anyway. Sam Gagner was told that he needed to bulk up when he made the jump, and he did so. After a while he found that the extra weight actually hindered his speed and playmaking ability, so he decided in this past off season to take weight off. Before he got hurt, he was on pace for a career year in the NHL.

I still like Couturier's size better, but I think Nugent-Hopkins' offensive abilities are superior to that of Couturier. Couturier's defensive game is - from what I've heard, at least - probably better than that of Nugent-Hopkins. Everyone talks about Couturier's skating being an issue, but I didn't see much evidence of explosive skating from Nugent-Hopkins tonight. He seemed to coast around the rink at times, though that didn't prevent him from being in the play and in position. He almost lulls you into a false sense of security and then all of a sudden he lights you up for a bunch of goals.

This isn't the first time I've seen Nugent-Hopkins play, but admittedly my sample size when it comes to his abilities is very small. As the playoffs wear on, we will really see how good Nugent-Hopkins is, because now is the time for him to elevate his game. Before the CHL playoffs are over, we'll know what pick the Oilers have, and we'll truly be able to assess who they should select.

03/25/11 5.3 Draft Primer Part Four: The Other Lottery Teams

So the Oilers have pretty much locked up 30th place now, with a lackluster loss to St. Louis last night. Just to catch Colorado’s current point total, the Oilers would have to go 4-4-0 in their last eight games, and even then the Avs would have more wins, giving the Oilers last place. Anyone see this team going 4-3-1 down the stretch? Me either. Of course the bright spot is the draft pick that the team will receive, but just finishing last doesn’t guarantee the first overall pick. The Oilers have a 25% chance of hitting the draft lottery. In addition, if any team outside the top five hits the lottery, the Oilers will retain the first overall pick. Add the totals together, and they have a 48.2% chance of picking first in June.

But what if the unthinkable happens and a team inside the top five hits the lottery and bumps the Oilers’ pick back to second overall? Here is a look at what it would mean if one of the other teams in the bottom five (or a team with a shot at finishing in the bottom five) hit the jackpot. Who would they take, and who would be left on the board for Edmonton?

Colorado: Almost certainly wouldn’t take a center with the first overall pick. The Avs have Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly down the middle, so they’re pretty much set at that position. Their top two prospects are centers as well. Their defense leaves much to be desired, and I’m hearing that they have scouts watching Adam Larsson closely. He is most likely their player of choice.

Ottawa: With Karlsson, Phillips and Gonchar on the team, and David Rundblad and Jared Cowen as their top prospects, the Senators are not likely to select a defenseman. Larsson is out. The Mike Fisher trade leaves this team thin down the middle, but they are almost as weak on the wing. Their top scoring wingers are Nick Foligno and the injured Daniel Alfredsson, each with 31 points apiece. They could conceivably take Gabriel Landeskog first overall if they feel he is the best player available, but Nugent-Hopkins is also a strong option for them. Much will depend on how the CHL playoffs pan out.

Florida: Recent graduates Dmitri Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby are already on the team’s defense, and the Panthers selected defenseman Erik Gudbranson third overall last year. The defense is still a work in progress, but the team needs help up front in a bad way. There really isn’t an area of strength in their top six, so the Panthers would take whichever forward they deem to be the best with the first pick overall. Teams are built around centers though, which leads me to believe they’d go with Nugent-Hopkins.

New York Islanders: Have your cake and eat it too. Two years ago the Islanders had to choose between John Tavares and big Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. Now would be their chance to essentially have both by drafting Larsson. This team could use another center to play behind Tavares and give them a solid 1-2 punch, but Larsson could really solidify their backend. It would be somewhat a tight decision, but I think the Islanders would draft him if they had the first pick.

New Jersey Devils: Not currently in a position to hit the lottery and move up to first overall, but could slide into fifth or worse before season’s end. This organization needs to restock the shelves. They are strong on the wing with Parise, Kovalchuk, Elias and Rolston. Their defense gets a resounding MEH from me. They could really use what Larsson brings, though a top line center wouldn’t hurt either. 2 of their top five prospects are defensemen, and 2 are centers. Jacob Josefson is the top rated guy who’s coming, and he plays center. I know the organization likes him a lot, so they may lean toward Larsson.

Atlanta: Currently in seventh-last, four points ahead of the fifth-worst Islanders. Could possibly drop and hit the lottery. Pretty much a no-brainer with the first overall pick: a center, a center, a center. They probably feel that their defense is reasonably buttoned up, especially if they can somehow sign Bogosian. Nik Antropov and Rob Schremp as your top two centers simply isn’t good enough. Nugent-Hopkins would be pulling on a Thrashers jersey if Atlanta had the first overall pick.

All told, that’s two teams – Atlanta and Florida – who I feel would almost certainly take Nugent-Hopkins first overall, 3 teams that may take him but may also have other players in mind. I really believe Larsson would be Colorado’s choice. Luckily for the Oilers, so far Colorado has the second-best shot at winning the lottery at 18.8%. Even if that happened, it means there’s a 67% chance that the Oilers will end up with the center they (hopefully) crave.

I like them odds.

Note to all: watch the Edmonton Oil Kings take on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' Red Deer Rebels on shaw at 7:30 (channel ten).

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

03/23/11 5.2 Draft Primer Part Three: Look No Further Than St. Louis

Ah, 2006. What a year it was. The Edmonton Oilers marched all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and came a mere two goals away from winning it all for a sixth time. The Oilers weren't terribly concerned about the NHL draft, having traded their first round pick to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Dwayne Roloson. Fans didn't much mind, either, since we were all trying to think of ways to get back to the Finals right away, not in the long, slow and painful process required to do it through the draft. But there were plenty of other teams whose futures were being decided on the draft floor in Vancouver. One of those teams was the St. Louis Blues, who held the first overall pick.

A debate raged in the months leading up. Would St. Louis opt to take Jordan Staal or Jonathan Toews? Perhaps they would take Phil Kessel, or even Nicklas Backstrom. Or as many suspected, maybe they would attempt to shore up their sagging blue line by taking stud defenseman Erik Johnson. As it turned out, Johnson was the name the Blues called.

A few things led to this decision. First, the Blues had just finished trading away franchise defenseman Chris Pronger due to financial issues. The pressure to replace him was enormous, as fans were used to having a bonafide superstar on the backend. Also, there was the little matter of how truly terrible St. Louis' defense was in 2006. Of the ten defensemen they used that season, only two - Eric Weinrich and Eric Brewer - had more than five years of NHL experience. Dennis Wideman and Matt Walker were in their first seasons, as was Jeff Woywitka, who played just his first 26 NHL games that year. Christian Backman, Kevin Dallman and Barret Jackman were all in their second years and Bryce Salvador was in his fourth.

All told, this team had the worst goals for / goals against differential in the league at -95. They were third worst in total goals against; only Washington and Pittsburgh were worse. Taking the defenseman first overall made sense, right? It's what they needed most.

Perhaps not. Five years on, the teams who drafted the top centers that year - the aforementioned Washington and Pittsburgh, plus Chicago - are much better teams than the St. Louis Blues. Realizing that scoring is what wins hockey games more than anything else, and with Johnson's defensive play not coming along as hoped, the Blues traded him to Colorado for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shatterkirk. Both were mid-first round picks by Colorado who rounded into effective players. However, where the Blues really missed out is on one of Staal, Backstrom and Toews, who arguably could not be had for any price.

Take a look at the Edmonton Oilers today. The elder statesmen among the defense are Jason Strudwick and Jim Vandermeer, both of whom are likely to be gone next year. That leaves Ryan Whitney and Kurtis Foster. Next year will be the seventh full season for both. As of right now, the team has allowed the second most goals in the league. Ironically, only Colorado, which acquired Johnson from St. Louis, has allowed more. The goals for / goals against differential is the worst in the NHL at -64. By all accounts, leaving the centers on the board and drafting a defenseman makes as much sense for the Oilers as it did for the Blues in 2006.

How'd that turn out?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

03/20/11 6.0 Close the Book on Matt Cooke

After yet another blatant shot to an opposing player's head, it's time for the NHL to remove Matt Cooke from the game.

The elbow can be seen here:

http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/2011/03/20/penguins_cooke/

It is as blatant as it gets. There can be no doubt that he intentionally stuck out the elbow to connect with Ryan McDonough's head.

I for one have had enough of Matt Cooke. There is simply no room in the game for players like him. Anyone who goes out with the intention to injure another player doesn't belong in the NHL. I'm fully aware that the NHL is unlikely remove a player from the league, but if it did happen I wouldn't have the least bit of pity for Cooke.

His antics are the type that can end a player's career. His blindside hit on Marc Savard last season has severely limited Savard's ability to get back into the game, and Savard is the kind of player the league needs more of, not less. It's the Cookes who deserve to be ejected, pronto. I was disgusted when Cooke didn't get a suspension for that hit simply because there wasn't technically a rule against clobbering an unsuspecting opponent from the blind side. The one slight positive about that hit was that it directly resulted in the rule change that now makes such hits illegal and suspendable.

But try telling Marc Savard that there's a plus side to more than a year of concussion symptoms.

Not that it would have mattered if Cooke had been suspended for the Savard hit. Cooke has already been suspended once this season, and it didn't teach him a thing. It boggles the mind how a player like Sean Avery can say the words "sloppy seconds" and be suspended indefinitely, and yet a player like Cooke gets a slap on the wrist and continues to go out and wreak havoc. I hate Avery as much as the next guy, but words are never going to put a player out for the season.

Cooke has shown that he isn't going to learn; at least not the lessons that the NHL is handing down. Sean Avery will never be accused of being a stand-up guy, but he certainly hasn't been the lightning rod of scandal that he was before he nearly lost his career. It's time to send a message.

The bottom line is this: it is the job of the league to protect its players. Matt Cooke is dangerous and wreckless, and the suspensions he has had clearly haven't been enough. If the NHL is really serious about taking not only dangerous plays, but repeat offenders out of the game, it's time to take them out of the game.

Matt Cooke's career should be over.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

03/19/11 5.1 Draft Primer Part Two: How Long Do Defensemen Need to Develop?

Last time we looked at the disparity between where championship defensemen and centers are drafted. Just as elite centers are typically drafted higher than defensemen, they also take a lot less time to develop. Here is a look at the same five teams as before (the five Stanley Cup Champions since the lockout) and how long it took their key players. The criteria are as follows:

- All players must have been drafted by any team. The reason for this is that players who are unsigned free agents are usually more NHL ready, and also older than 18 year old draft-eligible kids. These players could skew the results, and are therefore excluded.

- The numbers below represent the length of time between each player's draft and the time they won their first Stanley Cup. Several of these players won more than once, which means that they may have won before the last five Championships. To not list these past championships would also skew the results, but the reason that these players are included at all is that they were clearly still in championship form when the Cups from 2006-2010 were awarded.

2010 Chicago Blackhawks:
Defense:
Duncan Keith: 2002 draft, won in 2010. 8 years.
Brian Campbell: 1997 draft, won in 2010. 13 years.
Brent Seabrook: 2003 draft, won in 2010. 7 years.
Niklas Hjalmarsson: 2005 draft, won in 2010. 5 years.
Brent Sopel: 1995 draft, won in 2010. 15 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 9.6 years

Centers:
Jonathan Toews: 2006 draft, won in 2010. 4 years.
Patrick Sharp: 2001 draft, won in 2010. 9 years.
Colin Fraser: 2003 draft, won in 2010. 7 years.
Dave Bolland: 2004 draft, won in 2010. 6 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 6.5 years

Difference of: 3.1 years

2009 Pittsburgh Penguins:
Defense:
Kris Letang: 2005 draft, won in 2009. 4 years.
Sergei Gonchar: 1992 draft, won in 2009. 17 years.
Brooks Orpik: 200 draft, won in 2009. 9 years.
Rob Scuderi: 1998 draft, won in 2009. 11 years.
Hal Gill: 1993 draft, won in 2009. 16 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 11.4 years

Centers:
Sidney Crosby: 2005 draft, won in 2009. 4 years.
Evgeni Malkin: 2004 draft, won in 2009. 5 years.
Jordan Staal: 2006 draft, won in 2009. 3 years.
Tyler Kennedy: 2004 draft, won in 2009. 5 years.
Maxime Talbot: 2002 draft, won in 2009. 7 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 4.8 years

Difference of: 6.6 years

2008 Detroit Red Wings:
Defense:
Nicklas Lidstrom: 1989 draft, won in 1997. 8 years.
Niklas Kornwall: 2000 draft, won in 2008. 8 years.
Chris Chelios: 1981 draft, won in 1986. 5 years.
Andreas Lilja: 2000 draft, won in 2008. 8 years.
Brad Stuart: 1998 draft, won in 2008. 10 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 7.8

Centers:
Henrik Zetterberg: 1999 draft, won in 2008. 9 years.
Pavel Datsyuk: 1998 draft, won in 2002. 4 years.
Kris Draper: 1989 draft, won in 1997. 8 years.
Valteri Filppula: 2002 draft, won in 2008. 6 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 6.75

Difference of: 1.05 years

2007 Anaheim Ducks:
Defense:
Scott Niedermayer: 1991 draft, won in 1995. 4 years.
Chris Pronger: 1993 draft, won in 2007. 14 years.
Francois Beauchemin: 1998 draft, won in 2007. 9 years.
Sean O'Donnell: 1991 draft, won in 2007. 16 years.
Joe DiPenta: 1998 draft, won in 2007. 9 years.
Kent Huskins: 1998 draft, won in 2007. 9 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 10.1 years

Centers:
Ryan Getzlaf: 2003 draft, won in 2007. 4 years
Sammy Pahlsson: 1996 draft, won in 2007. 11 years.
Rob Niedermayer: 1993 draft, won in 2007. 14 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 9.6

Difference of: 0.5 years

2006 Carolina Hurricanes:
Defense:
Frantisek Kaberle: 1999 draft, won in 2006. 7 years.
Brett Hedican: 1988 draft, won in 2006. 18 years.
Aaron Ward: 1991 draft, won in 1997. 6 years.
Mike Commodore: 1999 draft, won in 2006. 7 years.
Glen Wesley: 1987 draft, won in 2006. 19 years.
Niklas Wallin: 2000 draft, won in 2006. 6 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 10.5

Centers:
Eric Staal: 2003 draft, won in 2006. 3 years.
Matt Cullen: 1996 draft, won in 2006. 10 years.
Doug Weight: 1990 draft, won in 2006. 16 years.

Average time between draft and first Stanley Cup: 9.6

Difference of: 0.9 years

Overall the defense of these teams is much older than the centers are. Also, this data shows once again how long the learning curve is for defensemen, compared with the relatively short curve for centers. Players of either position may step in and be effective right away, but typically the centers can do it sooner. Moreover, the centers can perform at a championship level sooner.

Of the defensemen listed, only Scott Niedermayer, Chris Chelios and Kris Letang won the Stanley Cup within five years of being drafted, and there are more of them than the centers. Of those three, only Niedermayer was a top-five pick. Ward, Wesley, Pronger, Niedermayer and Stuart were all defensemen picked in the top five. They took 6, 19, 14, 4 and 10 seasons respectively to win it all; an average of 10.6 years between them.

Of all these defensemen, the average time it took them to win a Cup from their draft was 9.9 years.

As for the centers, 8 won a Stanley Cup within the first five years: Toews, Crosby, Malkin, Kennedy, J. Staal, E. Staal, Datsyuk, and Getzlaf. Five of those players were selected in the top five. As such, every top-five-pick center won the cup within 5 years. Once again, in must be noted that 3 of them were on the same team, but perhaps they wouldn't have won otherwise.

Of all these centers, the average time it took them to win a Cup from their draft was 7.1 years.

Naturally, many say that the Oilers won't be ready to contend for another few years, and therefore it won't matter if it takes a while to bring a defenseman along. To properly develop a defenseman - especially a European one - time in the AHL is almost a necessity. Adam Larsson is not eligible for the AHL this coming year, which means that he would stay in Sweden. His apparent NHL comparable Nicklas Lidstom spent two more years in the Swedish Elite League after being drafted. Larsson could play in the NHL, of course, but to expect him to dominate or even live up to his potential is probably a pipe dream. Can Oiler fans sit back and watch 2011 draft-eligible centers play in the NHL while their defenseman slogs along in Edmonton or plays in the SEL?

More importantly, how long will it take a player like Nugent-Hopkins or Sean Couturier to be dominant at their position? And Larsson? Will the Oilers still be many years away if they take a center?

It should be said that I am an Adam Larsson fan in a big way. It's only because the team has to choose that I am trying to create a separation between the positions. I believe that what Larsson brings can be found in trade and free agency as this team matures, and waiting 8-10 years for that same kind of ability from a player like Larsson is too long.

Oilers! TAKE A CENTER.

Monday, 14 March 2011

03/14/11 5.0 Draft Primer Part One: A Look Back

The NHL Draft can mean a lot to a team and its chances of winning the ulimate prize, especially those teams that are able to draft in the top five. In those top five picks one generally finds a player who will make an impact. The Edmonton Oilers are on the road to another top five selection, and most likely they will have the best shot at first overall for the second straight year. The team finds itself in an interesting position this year, as it is clear to all observers that the Oilers need both a number one center and a number one defenseman. In all likelihood, only one of those can be acquired via this draft with the Oilers' first selection. So which position should the Oilers go for? Here is a look at what defensemen and centers have meant to the last five Stanley Cup Champions. To fit the criteria, all players listed must have played at least half their team's games in the playoffs.

2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks:
Defensemen drafted by the team: 3
Centers drafted by the team: 3
Defensemen drafted in the top five: 0
Centers drafted in the top five: 1 (Toews)

The three defensemen that were drafted by this team and eventually won the cup with it were Duncan Keith (round 2), Brent Seabrook (14th overall), and Niklas Hjalmarsson (round 4). In the case of Keith, he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman last year, and yet his draft position wasn't as high as one might expect. This is clear evidence that it is not necessary to take top defensive talent in the top five.

2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins:
Defensemen drafted by the team: 3
Centers drafted by the team: 5
Defensemen drafted in the top five: 0
Centers drafted in the top five: 3 (Crosby, Malkin, Staal)

Again, only half of the defensive group was drafted by the team, and the highest selection among those was Brooks Orpik at 18th overall. The highest pick of the whole group was Sergei Gonchar at #14 by Washington. Cornerstone Kris Letang was a third round pick and Rob Scuderi was picked in round 5.

Conversely, Crosby (#1), Malkin (#2) and Staal (#2) were all taken in the top five slots, and were the overwhelming reason why Pittsburgh was able to march to the cup, and why they continue to be a contender even with the loss of Gonchar, Scuderi and Gill.

2007-08 Detroit Red Wings:
Defensemen drafted by the team: 2
Centers drafted by the team: 4
Defensemen drafted in the top five: 1 (Brad Stuart)
Centers drafted in the top five: 0

Interesting example, since the Red Wings never draft in the top ten. Brad Stuart was a third overall pick by San Jose, but other than that the team's highest pick on defense was Kronwall at #29. Niklas Lidstrom was a third round pick of the Wings. Their second-best defenseman (Rafalski) was undrafted.

Zetterberg and Datsyuk were astute picks from a time when not every team had the best European scouting. Had it not been for these two, Detroit would not have been close to contending. Detroit drafted all four of the centers it used to win the cup and only one third of the defense. Still, this team is a bit of an anomaly since they managed to find so many gems in the late rounds of the draft.

2006-07 Anaheim Ducks:
Defensemen drafted by the team: 0
Centers drafted by the team: 1
Defensemen drafted in the top five: 2 (S. Niedermayer, Pronger)
Centers drafted in the top five: 1 (R. Niedermayer)

This one is interesting because the team actually did have two defensemen who were drafted in the top five. However, neither one of those players was drafted by the Ducks. The rest of the defensive group was scattered in rounds 3 and 6 and Ryan Shannon was undrafted.

As for the centers, Rob Niedermayer was a fifth overall pick way back in 1993. Ryan Getzlaf was taken at #19 and Sammy Pahlsson was taken at #176. Ryan Shannon played 11 of 23 games, so I counted him, but he was undrafted.

Brian Burke's trademark is being able to find players who are undrafted free agents that end up being legitimate NHLers. Getzlaf and Perry are arguably the only players drafted by the Ducks who made an impact in their cup run, and both are forwards. The defense was built entirely through trade and free agency.

2005-06 Carolina Bastards. Er, Hurricanes:
Defensemen drafted by the team: 1
Centers drafted by the team: 1
Defensemen drafted in the top five: 2
Centers drafted in the top five: 1

Aaron Ward and Glen Wesley were both top five picks, but neither of them were selected by Carolina. Only Wallin was actually selected by Carolina in the fourth round. Again, this defense was built through trade and free agency.

Without Eric Staal (#2 overall), this team would not have had a shot at the Stanley Cup.

Overall:
9 of 32 defensemen who played at least half of the playoff games for their team were drafted by that team. This represents about 28%

14 of 24 centers who played at least half of the playoff games for their team were drafted by that team.
This represents about 58%

4 of the 32 defensemen were drafted in the top five.
This represents about 11%

6 of the 24 centers were drafted in the top five.
A full 25%

I think that for the most part this data shows that when it comes to building a Stanley Cup Champion defense, it is not necessary to use a pick in the top five. Of the four defensemen who were picked in the top five, only Niedermayer won a Stanley Cup with the team that drafted him.

Of the 6 centers that were drafted in the top 5, five of them won with the team that selected them. This number is a bit skewed because Jordan Staal, Malkin and Crosby were all on the same team, but then perhaps if they weren't they wouldn't have won.

Centers give a team something that defensemen cannot: they win faceoffs and give the team puck possession. Yes, it's important to get it back and to move it forward, which falls to the defense, but the Oilers have proved this year that if you don't start with the puck it's hard to get any momentum going. Also, hockey is about scoring goals and the better your centers, the more goals you will score. The same cannot necessarily be said for defensemen.

Pick a center, Oilers. It's the beginning of something great.

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.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

03/02/11 3.0 Zach Bogosian Offer Sheet

The Oilers were unable to trade for Zach Bogosian, but he is exactly the type that the team needs. He's big, strong, can put up points. He's going to be a force on the blueline for years to come, and his entry level contract just happens to be expiring.

I'm of the opinion that top line centers don't grow on trees, and they are critical to the success of a team. For that reason, I hope the Oilers draft Couturier in June, and given the fact that they were looking to trade for a defenseman, I think they are leaning that way.

It would once again make the organization unpopular, but I think an offer sheet for Bogo is in order.

There are rumors that he is having differences with the coaching staff, and insider Nick Kypreos even tweeted that Bogosian wants out of Atlanta. I don't think it would be all that difficult to convince him to join an up-and-coming team, given he'll be making more money and getting out of a situation he doesn't like.

There are serious ownership questions going on in Atlanta right now. The team is reportedly showing enormous losses (up to $181 million), and the current ownership group wants out. They have given GM Rick Dudley a mandate to reduce the payroll of the team. With the extension to Dustin Byfuglien (5 yrs at $5.2M per) and captain Andrew Ladd needing a salary bump, would the Thrashers be able to afford to match an offer sheet exactly like Byfuglien's new contract?

At 5 years and $5.2 million per season for Bogosian, the Oilers would have to give up 2012 first, second and third round picks to the the Thrashers as compensation. However, the Oilers currently own two first round picks in this year's draft, which softens the blow considerably. With the addition of Bogosian and Couturier, and the progression of all the Oiler rookies, this team would still probably finish in the bottom ten, but I doubt it would be bad enough to be in the hunt for a lottery pick.

If the deal was the 8th, 38th and 68th overall picks next year for Bogosian when the Oilers will probably pick from 1-3 and 15-20 at this year's draft, would you pull the trigger?

Bogosian already has three years of NHL experience under his belt, and you'd get just as much mileage out of him as you would an Adam Larsson, except the Bogo offer sheet would allow the Oilers to draft Couturier. Also, if the Oilers draft a center this year they would definitely draft a defenseman with next year's first pick anyway. At 5-10th overall, that player would probably not have as much upside as Bogosian and would be four years behind in development. The second and third round picks are almost a moot point, because a player like Cogliano could easily turn into a second rounder next year and the Oilers already own LA's third round pick.

So would you do it? It's cutthroat, but it could work.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

03/01/11 2.0 Does Rebuilding Through the Draft Really Work?

The Edmonton Oilers, after years of languishing on the playoff bubble, have finally decided to embrace a full blown rebuild of this team. Over the lean years of the 90's, it was easy to see why management was under pressure to ice a competitive product. The team was near bankruptcy and only intervention by the Edmonton Investors Group saved the team and kept it in the province's capital. In that climate, it would have been almost impossible to conceive of going down the path that the Oilers are currently treading. However, it also ensured that the Oilers never really had a superstar on the team like they had during the glory days of the 80's when fans were spoiled rotten with talent, and it meant that they made very little noise in the west. It seems certain that Taylor Hall will be that superstar, and there is plenty of potential blossoming in the other rookies as well, from Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle to Jeff Petry, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk.

However, there are many hockey pundits out there who are quick to point out that rebuilding through the draft is no guarantee of success, or of a Stanley Cup. They point to several teams who have tried and failed to rebuild in this fashion, including the Columbus Blue Jackets, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Islanders, and Florida Panthers. On the surface of it, it would seem that these teams have tried the Oilers' style rebuild and all have nothing to show for it except losing records and no playoff hockey. That's the sort of news that makes Oiler fans nervous. What if the fans and the team go through all this painful losing just to end up as a perennial bottom-feeder?

I would argue that there were other factors that resulted in the failure of these rebuilds, and that the actual concept of rebuilding through the draft is not only sound, it's the only way to do it in the current NHL. There are no guarantees of anything no matter how you build your team. The trick is to find the way with the greatest probability of success. There are just as many examples of successful rebuilds as there are of failed ones. I would categorize a success as a team that is a perennial contender, regardless of whether or not they have won yet. Such teams include the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks, and Los Angeles Kings.

Here is a list of the teams whose rebuilds have failed and why:

Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus, as with Atlanta, is a team that was not technically rebuilding, in the sense that it was a team that didn't exist until 2000. As such, the team didn't have any assets to sell off in order to gain draft picks or prospects, as a rebuilding team might. Starting from scratch is extremely difficult, and was certainly a factor in the development of the team. Yes, there was the expansion draft, where Columbus was allowed to select players not protected by other teams, but that's no way to build a competitive hockey club.

In the team's first ten years of drafting, they had exactly three picks inside the top five, and only one, Rick Nash (first overall), inside the top three. Their picks in the top five ended up being Rostislav Klesla, Nash, and Nikolai Zherdev, all of whom are NHL players with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, in Klesla's draft year, Columbus missed out on selecting Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik at 2 and 3 overall. In 2001 Columbus "improved" and finished 8th last, which meant that they were too late in the draft to select one of Ilya Kovalchuk, Jason Spezza, Stephen Weiss or Mikko Koivu. In 2002, Columbus got the right idea and finished last, which ended up netting them Rick Nash. Then the trend starts going the other way, with Columbus improving slightly, missing the playoffs and also missing out on some future superstars at the draft.

Why did this happen? This was a new team. Just like the Oilers of the 90's, there was pressure on management to make this team competitive so as to build interest among the fans. If the rebuild could have been done slowly, with a lot of sucking over the first five years or so, the team would have ended up with some superstars in the top 3 picks instead of some mediocre NHLers in the top ten.

The Atlanta Thrashers were in a similar situation, being new to the league in 1999. They were struck with some extreme misfortune however, which is uncommon, but sometimes unavoidable. They picked first overall in a weak 1999 draft, taking the disappointing Patrik Stefan. They followed that pick up with Dany Heatley in 2000 and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001, who would be a good core to any contending team. Then came the infamous Heatley car crash that seriously injured him and killed his teammate Dan Snyder. After the season, Heatley requested a trade that brought Marian Hossa to Atlanta. The Thrashers added some players in the hopes of making the playoffs, including Mike Dunham, Peter Bondra, Bobby Holik and Scott Mellanby, but failed to do so until 2006-07, when they won the division. All of these players helped in the short term, but were near the end of their careers. As such, the Thrashers didn't have a draft choice in the top five from 2003 to 2007, and very little to show from those years. When their free agents left or retired, there was no one to fill the void. It wasn't until they started to really build through the draft again in 2008 that they started to see some real stable fruits, including Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane, who will be key cogs for the new and improved Thrashers.

Florida Panthers: After going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, the Panthers began a slow and steady decline. From 1995-2000 they didn't have a first round pick inside the top five, and only one in the top ten. They used 4th, 3rd and 3rd overall picks from 2001-2003 to select Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton, who are all solid NHLers. However, if they had been a worse team they would have had a shot at Kovalchuk, Spezza, Nash, M-A Fleury and Eric Staal. What ifs are not the strongest part of my case, but the point is that being absolutely terrible and losing a lot can end up paying off. The Panthers didn't pick in the top five after that until 2010, when they selected Erik Gudbranson. However, Keaton Ellerby (10th in 2007), Jacob Markstrom (31st in 2008) and Dmitri Kulikov (14th in 2009) are all solid prospects that can still help this team going forward. To say that the Panthers' rebuild is a failure is fallacious thus far, since many of their drafted prospects have yet to make their mark on the NHL.

New York Islanders: The epitome of spinning one's wheels, right? But why? It's all because of one man: Mad Mike Milbury, aka The Worst GM in History. Milbury traded Zigmud Palffy because upper management didn't want to pay his contract. From 1993 to 2000, the Islanders drafted Tood Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, J.P. Dumont, Olli Jokinen, Roberto Luongo, Eric Brewer, Tim Connolly, and Raffi Torres, all of whom were later traded by Milbury for very little gain. Those are golden draft prospects as it is, and the makings of a championship team. To make matters worse, Milbury traded Luongo and Jokinen to Florida for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha, then selected Dipietro first overall in 2000 instead of Marian Gaborik or Dany Heatley. Then, with Ottawa eager to unload Alexei Yashin, Milbury traded Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and the second overall pick to acquire him. The pick turned into Jason Spezza. Yashin was later bought out of his contract. Clearly, if even a semi-competent general manager had been at the helm, this rebuild would have been enormously successful and a beacon for rebuilding teams. Instead, the Islanders are starting all over again because of the worst GM ever.

As I said before, rebuilds are not a sure thing but there are plenty of modern examples of ones that do work, and the examples of rebuilds that don't are either mismanaged or not done properly, in the sense that the team is trying to rebuild quickly, as in the case of Columbus, Florida and Atlanta. The Ottawa Senators are actually a fine example of a rebuild that never really panned out, but they still got a team that was fantastic for many years, which is a healthy way for a franchise to be. The Edmonton Oilers are on the right track, and they are going to be just fine.