We've talked about this before, and now some other media outlets like Jim Matheson's Oil Spills and Jonathan Willis at OilersNation are chiming in as well. It's going to be hard to keep this team together, and it could mean losing one of the Big Four in return for a balanced roster.
The salary cap situation for the 2013-14 season isn't set yet, and there's no guarantee that the Oilers will be forced to trade one of Hall, Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle. In fact, every effort will no doubt be made to keep them all in Edmonton. But if in the end it's unsustainable to have four players with $6 million cap hits, here's the case for trading each one:
Jordan Eberle: I covered this in more detail back in July. Eberle is unlikely to continue scoring at the high level of 2011-12, simply because of numbers. Of players who played at least 50 games last year, Eberle's 18.9% shooting percentage was the sixth-highest in the league. Aside from that, there are only so many easy offensive minutes to go around, and a player like Yakupov is going to eat up a healthy portion of those. Eberle will eventually be expected to carry a heavier workload than 60% offensive zone starts, and opposing teams will match their shutdown players against him. It's not that he won't succeed, because I believe that he will, but he could see a dip in production. Barring a major falloff, though, his value will still be sky high in the summer of 2013.
Taylor Hall: After two seasons in the NHL, Hall is second in goals and points from the 2010 NHL draft, despite the fact that he has had two injury-shortened years and played 20 fewer games than the leader (Jeff Skinner). And therein lies the hiccup. His devil-may-care style is extremely entertaining and it is one of the things that makes him so effective, but it has also resulted in major shoulder surgery early in his career. Like Eric Lindros, Taylor Hall may be one of the best players in the league but he may also have a hard time staying in the lineup. Or, he may never have serious injury problems again. There's no way to know, and that uncertainty could be the reason he goes.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: You have to think really hard for a reason to trade a number one center, because it just doesn't happen in the NHL very often. But first we have to definitively answer the question of whether or not RNH is a #1. He started his 2011-12 shifts in the offensive zone 62.5% of the time and finished them there 53.6% of the time. Of players with at least ten games played, Nugent-Hopkins was second only to Eberle on the Oilers in on-ice shooting percentage. He won just 37.5% of his draws, and he too has had shoulder trouble early on. However, he is probably the least likely to be traded of the four if only because of the position he plays. That, and it's not hard to imagine him leading the league in scoring one day.
Nail Yakupov: If Yakupov's KHL scoring pace is any indication (10 goals in 13 games), the Oilers could have a deadly sniper on their hands. On the other hand, another scoring winger isn't exactly what the team needs, and it's for that reason that there was some debate on draft day about picking him over Ryan Murray. In the end, Yakupov was likely the right choice because even if the Oilers decide to turn him into a defenseman they'll be able to get a very good and already established one in return. Is a scoring winger the right kind to build a team around?
It's tough to poke holes in these four players because there aren't many to speak of. Also, as a fan it's tough to want to find any. But as time passes the Oilers may find that spending $24 million on four forwards (three of them wingers) is a bad way to do business in a cap world. If so, it won't necessarily come down to which one of them is the least awesome, but which one has the most question marks.