I’m always fascinated by photos of the Empire State Building during construction. My Dad took a trip to NYC before coming back home after WW2, and his stories of the Empire State Building, the Yankees and boxing greats of the era have stayed with me all these years. I’ve never been to New York, but will go in the next few years. When I get there the conversations held decades previous between father and son on the bald Canadian prairie will have come full circle.
I think it’s time we started thinking about this Oiler rebuild in longer swaths. Like a decade. A five year plan is well and good, but in today’s NHL–with free agency leaking out the other side at 25–teams have a very small window of opportunity. The odds of the Oilers getting it right on the first go are not strong. Taylor Hall is eligible for free agency in 2017 summer. How far can they get by then?
Let’s mark out the starting point:
- Goal: Devan Dubnyk looks like he’ll have a major league career. We don’t know if he’ll be a quality starter, a co-starter, and effective backup or a fringe goaler but DD has shown enough at this point to get another season and he’d likely catch on with another team even if he falters next year in Edmonton. Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Gerber, Jeff Deslauriers and Bryan Pitton don’t appear to be long term options. Stu (Magnificent Bastard) MacGregor has addressed goaltending with two fine prospects: Olivier Roy (.922SP in Feb) is a quality Q goalie and Tyler Bunz (.929 in Feb with Medicine Hat) is playing well in the WHL. This position is not deep and has the denver boot NK contract, but good goaltending is available at reasonable prices so the club could endure the Khabibulin contract while running Dubnyk and a suitable partner over the next two seasons. When will this position become championship quality? I don’t have an answer.
- Defense: Ryan Whitney is a veteran defenseman with the most complete skill set on the roster. He’s also injury prone and some of those injuries could be chronic. Tom Gilbert is an effective finesse defender signed through 2014 but didn’t get a mention in an Oilers web article that tackled the future. Ladislav Smid gives the team some experienced depth and Kurtis Foster should have a better season in 11-12. They do have some nice things coming along in young ruffian Theo Peckham and puck mover Jeff Petry. Youngsters Alex Plante, Colten Teubert and Taylor Chorney are also available. The draft table has been plentiful since Stu’s group took over in 2008, with impact prospect Martin Marincin and quality puck movers Jeremie Blain and Brandon Davidson all coming from the 2010 haul. Defensemen are injured so often that there’s a good chance only one of three will reach his potential. Still, he’ll be a welcome sight upon arrival. When will this position become championship quality? It’s a long way from average. It’s anyone’s guess because injury plays such a major part in this position, but it’s clear this is an area of weakness. If the club can count on Peckham and Petry moving forward, and can add a couple of similar talents over the next 24 months then they’re going to be okay in the depth areas. I suspect the club is seriously considering selecting Larsson at the entry draft; if not, my bet is they trade up into an area where they can select a Dougie Hamilton.
- Center: Shawn Horcoff’s contract runs out 2015 summer. He’s got some issues (injury) but remains a solid pro at this point. Andrew Cogliano has found a friend in Tom Renney and that is an important item; Sam Gagner continues to improve-not in leaps and bounds, but rather in fits and starts. In the minors, Milan Kytnar, Ryan O’Marra and Chris Vande Velde don’t appear to be the answer. Stu’s selections have given the team some nice quality in Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick (currently on the wing in junior) and Ryan Martindale. One or two of them could develop and help a team. When will this position become championship quality? Not as hopeless as the blue, there’s still work to be done. Gagner is a safe bet (if they keep him) to be a solid contributor on the top 2 lines and Horcoff can hang around in a checking role. Cogliano appears to be finding his way, but the Oilers must consider selecting either Ryan Nugent Hopkins or Sean Couturier with their top pick. I believe Taylor Hall may be the answer at center.
- Left Wing: Taylor Hall and Magnus Pääjärvi could be a deadly 1-2 combination at this position for years. If the club can find a way to surround them with quality 2-way players, both kids should be able to develop into real outscorers. Ryan Jones is going to get a good contract offer (better than the one he got) and my bet is he’s here for at least two years once the ink is dry. We have to allow for a wonky roster spot here (call it the Jacques spot) for a knuckle-dragger, but I do wonder if the team would be better off with a strong winger like Teemu Hartikainen. The Oilers appear to have struck gold (down the line) in junior winger Curtis Hamilton (6th in WHL assists). When will this position become championship quality? I’ll say 2013. Hall and Pääjärvi should be able to impact at a high level by year four.
- Right Wing: Ales Hemsky is all-world but injuries are beginning to eat away at his career. That’s a major item rolling out. Jordan Eberle is music. Once Hemsky leaves, Eberle will become the de facto #1 RW (Horcoff and Cogliano are place holders for the future top line this season) and that could happen as early as next fall. Gilbert Brule and Linus Omark have shown flashes of brilliance and the inconsistencies of youth, but one of them should turn into a dependable player (that’s what we said about Robert Nilsson). Liam Reddox doesn’t get a lot of attention but he can play the game and every team needs plumbers. The minors offer little, but Toni Rajala should get some consideration. When will this position become championship quality? A signed and healthy Hemsky along with Eberle gives the Oilers some nice depth right now. Add a checker from the Dvorak/Pisani tree and you’d like to think this group could go to war now. RW as it stands isn’t an area of weakness. If they trade Hemsky for a center, Gabriel Landeskog would be a solid selection for this position.
So the areas of need are goal (relatively easy to address); defense (Adam Larsson and some luck in the development department could go a long way) and center (the team needs size and more skill between Hall and Eberle on the top line).
Edmonton is in rebuild mode. The Dustin Penner trade (and Kevin Lowe on HDIC) told us as much. Oiler fans can look to a productive drafting team and a farm system that could send as many as 7 kids to the show next season (Lander, O’Marra, Hartikainen, Rajala, Chorney, Plante, Teubert).
Plus the lottery pick. It’s a long way to go.