Sunday November 23, 2014

The kids need help in Edmonton


Edmonton Oilers fans are frustrated, probably more than ever in the history of the franchise. They are losing their patience to see their team compete in the Western Conference. They, after all, haven’t seen the Copper and Blue in the playoffs since 2006.

It is undoubtedly understandable for Oilers fans to be frustrated. If things were done right since the start of the rebuild, they wouldn’t be sitting in last place in the Pacific Division right now. Clearly, the fans are paying for the mistakes that have been made by upper management.

However, where the Oilers sit today is also a testament to that these kids who are supposed to lead them to the promise land aren’t as good as they thought. The assumption made by some fans that they would follow the footsteps of the Pittsburgh Penguins is proving to be dead wrong. Edmonton doesn’t have a franchise player like a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. If Edmonton drafted first overall in 2008 or 2009 where Steven Stamkos and John Tavares went first overall, it would be a different story. But they didn’t hold the first pick in a year where the top prospect had the makings of a star that could carry a franchise. Therefore, they don’t have the privilege of leaning on a couple players to keep their head above water. They need a complete team.

Their three first-overall picks, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, are clearly diamond in the rough talents. But it’s still up in the air on how big of an impact they will make.

Hall proved last year, scoring 16 goals and 50 points in 45 games, that he’s already a top-line player; moreover, he’s likely one of the top 20 wingers in the league. It is, however, unclear on whether they will be able to count on him because he’s prone to injuries. He has already missed 41 games throughout his first two and half seasons in the league because of injuries.

It seems Nugent-Hopkins is poised to blossom into a play-making centre comparable to Marc Savard. Albeit Savard doesn’t have the flashiest name in terms of NHL stars, the Oilers should be happy if Nugent-Hopkins turns out to put up the points (back-to-back 90-plus point seasons in 2005-06 and 2006-07) that Savard did in his prime years.

Yakupov is the real wildcard in the group. He and his agent, Igor Larionov, have already been complaining about his struggles in transitioning from major junior to the NHL. If Yakupov continues to struggle, it’s possible he could ask out. But being optimistically thinking, if the Russian winger reaches his full potential, he could have 80-plus point seasons in his prime, which would likely occur when he’s 24-28.

The other two young Oilers that they are banking on are Jordan Eberle and Justin Shultz. It seems what you see is what you get with Eberle. He’s a player capable of scoring 80 points, but he’ll never develop into a franchise superstar. Shultz, on the other hand, could turn out to be a building block or someone comparable to John Michael-Liles.

Outside of the NHL, the Oilers have Darnell Nurse, selected sixth overall in 2013, and Oscar Klefbom, selected 19th overall in 2011, to look forward to playing on their back end. They both have the potential to be high-end players. But no different than any other prospect, they still have to prove themselves.

All that said, these youngsters don’t have what it takes to carry the Oilers on their own. They need some veteran help. And one or two players won’t be enough to turn Edmonton into a playoff team, let alone a contender.

Up front, the Oilers are missing two top-9 forwards. They need another top-6 power-forward winger to go along with David Perron. Toronto Maple Leafs winger James Van Riemsdyk would be the perfect fit, but he isn’t going anywhere. A more realistic option might be the Washington Capitals’ Troy Brouwer. He hasn’t lived up to expectations in Washington, the proof is in the pudding in his six points in 20 games on the year, and he has a high 3.66 cap hit that they might want to get rid of. The other missing offensive piece, meanwhile, is an edgy third-line centre. The Buffalo Sabres’ Steve Ott fits that bill and is a pending free agent, so there might be a fit there.

On the back end, the Oilers need a top-3 defenceman that can anchor a penalty kill and play 20-plus minutes a night. Edmonton GM Craig McTavish was chasing Philadelphia Flyers blueliner Brayden Coburn in the summer. This would be a great fit, but Coburn would have to waive his no-trade clause. If they can’t snag Coburn, the Ottawa Senators’ Jared Cowen and the Capitals’ Karl Alzner would be other options. Of course, it would take a lot to get them out of their respective cities.

The tandem of Devan Dubnyk and Ilya Bryzgalov is interesting to say the least. They are both starters, but barely. Ultimately, the Oilers will have to wait to see who becomes available in the summer before they can make a net upgrade. It’s possible the Anaheim Ducks could cut ties with Jonas Hiller and the same with James Reimer in Toronto.

Now, a combination of Brouwer, Ott, Cowen and Hiller obviously won’t make Edmonton a contender. It, however, might get them into the playoffs next year. And they have to start somewhere.



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