Among other things, Craig MacTavish was infamous for consistently referring to the group of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz as the core of the Oilers. They were treated a bit differently by the coaching staff, spoken of a bit differently in the media, and were generally looked at in a different light than their teammates. A player like Nail Yakupov was held to a different level of accountability than Jordan Eberle. Even though both players have significant defensive gaps in their game, Yakupov would see immediate repercussions for poor defensive play, whereas Jordan Eberle would get seemingly unlimited chances to make up for his errors.
Now, to a point, that does makes some sense. Eberle is a veteran that has been there and done that, putting up both scoring and point totals that, so far, Yakupov could only dream of. But, accountability should apply to everyone, not just the GM’s favourites.
A Shift In the Core
There is a shift in that ‘the core is unassailable’ mentality, however. Justin Schultz is averaging just over 20 minutes per night of ice time, a significant drop from the last two years. Jordan Eberle’s 18:34 average this year is his lowest number since the lockout year – part of that might be his injury to start the year. Even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 19:50 total this year is his lowest total since the lockout, before he, too, went down to injury, an absolute plague on the current season. Part of that’s due better depth, such as the emergence of Leon Draisaitl as a top flight centre, but it also speaks to the fact that players are being held to a different standard than ever before.
The Oilers have clear and present needs in order to improve, first and formost being defence. That being said, every organization needs to draw a line in the sand with players that are available for the right price, and players that are simply off the table. You don’t make improvements to your team by throwing the doors to the vault open and saying ‘take whatever you like!’
I’ve seen and heard various people, both in and out of the media, say the Oilers should do whatever it takes to fix their defence, but that’s simply not a path to success. I believe the Oilers have slowly gravitated toward a new core of players that would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pry out of the organization: Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse, and Oscar Klefbom.
Why not McDavid? Because you don’t move generational talents unless absolutely forced to, silly goose.
Why not Hall? Because on top of being the emotional leader of this team (along with Matt Hendricks) he’s their best player and a top 3 player in the league at his position. Simply put, Hall drives the engine in Edmonton, and unless trading him got back a Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson or Oliver Ekman-Larsson calibre of defenceman, trading him would cause more problems than it would solve.
Why not Draisaitl? Because Leon Draisaitl is already a fantastic centre that plays a very well rounded two way game, and is mature beyond his years. I truly believe that he’s a player you can go to war with and win. Again, I’d probably consider moving him if the price was right, but that price would be extremely dear indeed.
Why not Klefbom? Because Oscar Klefbom is already the Oilers best defenceman at 22 years old. The point of trading for a lynchpin defenceman is to get a player that can carry the defence, but trading Klefbom to do it isn’t the solution. The Oilers should be trading from a position of strength, not weakness, and defence is and has been the weakness of this team for the last decade.
Why not Nurse? Similar reasoning to Klefbom. Nurse isn’t without his warts – he’s getting his teeth kicked in with regards to shot statistics and he’s clearly not ready to be a top pairing defenceman, but he’s only 20 years old. Adding to a defensive core that includes Klefbom, Nurse, Sekera, and the continually surprising Brandon Davidson should be the goal, and to do that, you trade from strength, not weakness.
Given the recent extension, I’d probably add Cam Talbot to that group as well.
Now you might be saying to your screen, “But, Jason, ya gotta give to get! What’s left for trade bait in Edmonton besides those guys?!”
Plenty, actually. Moving Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be incredibly painful and the last player out of what’s left that I would move (since I believe you can never have enough centres) but for the right return – that is, an established top pairing defenceman – I would consider it. There’s also Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Griffin Reinhart, Benoit Pouliot, a resurgent Teddy Purcell, the 2016 and 2017 1st round picks, and basically anything else. There’s plenty left there to get a deal done.
And now you’re probably saying “Jason, you idiot, good defensemen take huge overpays! The Oilers owould have to move Hall of Draisaitl to get one!”
Really? Tell me, how was Dougie Hamilton acquired? Zach Bogosian? Johnny Boychuk? Nick Leddy? Jeff Petry? Brian Campbell? Jay Bouwmeester? And dozens of more examples? No. It’s very possible to improve a defensive core without blowing things up. A perfect example is Peter Chiarelli’s Cup-winning Bruins squad, whose defence consisted of:
Zdeno Chara – Signed in free agency
Dennis Seidenberg, traded to Boston with Matt Bartkowski for Byron Bitz, Craig Weller, and a 2nd round pick
Johnny Boychuk, traded to Boston for Matt Hendricks
Andrew Ference, traded to Boston with Chuck Kobasew for Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau
Adam McQuaid, traded to Boston for a 5th round pick
Tomas Kaberle, traded to Boston for a 1st, Joe Colborne, and a conditional 2nd.
and some spot-work from Shane Hnidy.
No blockbusters. No moving of Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand or Lucic (until later) Heck, hardly any homegrown talent either. Just astute signings and sharp trades.
It’ll hurt – a lot – to see a fan favourite like Jordan Eberle move, and first round picks are extremely valuable, but I truly think that the Oilers can get the defensive help they need while keeping McDavid, Hall, Draisaitl, Klefbom, and Nurse off the table.