Oilers need to learn you must deal talent to get talent

Ryan Kennedy
Jordan Eberle (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jordan Eberle (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

One of these days, sometime in the future, certainly before the NHL’s new TV deal with Rogers runs out, maybe we’ll come to a trade deadline where the Edmonton Oilers are serious about being contenders and approach the date as buyers.

When that day comes, Oilers fans better hope the members of Edmonton’s brass were studious history observers. Because the franchise that has slumped its way to three No. 1 overall picks in the past four drafts – possibly four out of five this summer – should take a look at how the Pittsburgh Penguins became Stanley Cup champions in 2009 and how the Pens have maintained exalted status in the Eastern Conference ever since.

Oh sure, you can be pithy and say “Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, that’s how,” but it took more than that. What Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero executed so well was the accumulation of assets he was willing to move to fill a need. Simply put, Oiler fans: don’t fall in love with your own players if you want to win.

From 2002 to 2006, the Penguins drafted two players first overall (Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury), two players second overall (Malkin and Jordan Staal) and one player fifth overall (Ryan Whitney).

Whitney would turn out to be a crucial piece to the puzzle, even though he did so from Anaheim. Coming out of Boston University as a smooth-skating puck rusher who could quarterback a power play, Whitney ranked as high as 17th overall in THN’s Future Watch edition and put up 14 goals and 59 points in his sophomore NHL campaign.

But with the Penguins knocking on Stanley’s door, a Pittsburgh team with so much talent down the middle still needed some wingers to complement the pivot trifecta of Crosby, Malkin and Staal. That’s when Shero pulled the trigger, sending Whitney to the Ducks for previous Cup winner Chris Kunitz and prospect Eric Tangradi. Kunitz became an integral part of the attack and the rest is history.

Two years later, Shero needed another top-end winger and went over to Dallas, where he landed James Neal, alongside defenseman Matt Niskanen, for blueliner Alex Goligoski. Like Whitney, Goligoski was entering his best years when Pittsburgh traded him, adding offense from the back end and playing more than 20 minutes a night. But you have to give in order to receive, so that’s what Shero did. And though the Penguins didn’t win the Cup, the emergence of Neal and Niskanen have still made the trade look great from a Pittsburgh perspective.

Which takes us to Edmonton.

The list of young offensive talent up front is great right now, with Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov all coming to town as No. 1 overall picks. Jordan Eberle was a steal with the 22nd choice in 2008 and plays like a top-five selection. If you stretch Edmonton’s rebuild back a bit farther, you can add in skilled center Sam Gagner, who was the sixth overall pick in 2007. Trade rumors surrounding Gagner have been omnipresent for more than a year, but the real return would come from one of the other scorers.

The Oilers, as currently constructed, are terrible defensively and that’s not limited to the blueliners. The top-end forwards are all on the smaller side, with Hall the biggest at 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds. In the West, this is not a group that can hang with the Ryan Getzlaf/Anze Kopitar/Joe Thornton crowd. But any team would love to add one of those players to its lineup if Edmonton were willing to part with an asset. Yakupov is the least experienced of the crew and has taken a lot of lumps from the local press and fans, though it’s only fair to point out he’s just 20. He would benefit most from a change of scenery, but would also bring the least return.

Ben Scrivens or Viktor Fasth may be the answer in net for Edmonton and goaltenders seem to be easier to find these days, but the Oilers definitely need more NHL defensemen and top-six size up front.

It might sound like sacrilege to Oilers fans, but if Edmonton were to part with one of Hall or Eberle, the return would be substantial: a top-pairing defenseman, for sure.

The Oilers have holes to fill and some great assets, but need to look at what the Penguins did to connect the dots.

It may not be pleasant, but it works.

This column originally appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hockey News magazine . Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.