While the Edmonton Oilers' main need -- improving their blue line -- has been widely publicized in the lead up to the 2012 NHL draft, it should be noted that you don't finish 29th overall without needing a whole lot. However, this team has a bright future up front with its top four scorers all age 22 or under. As Edmonton's forward corps trends toward its peak, it's reasonable to think the Oilers' offense should be in the top half of the league for years to come.
The Oilers have a few fine pieces on defense that could contribute on a good team going forward between Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry and Nick Schultz (who played the toughest opponents this season), but they are missing a legit high-end talent on the back end.
In the Oilers' pipeline, they have several good defensive prospects between their first-round pick in 2011, Oscar Klefbom, their second-round pick in the same draft, David Musil, as well as Martin Marincin and Martin Gernat. Based on my own observations and talking to scouts, all four of these prospects project as potential top-four defensemen, although that varies depending who you talk to. Klefbom stands out among the bunch, while Marincin and Gernat have decent offensive upsides to go along with big frames, but a longer development curve than Klefbom. Despite the talent levels of these defensemen, it's still hard to envision any in the legitimate top pairing that Edmonton needs.
So how do the Oilers improve themselves the most with their No. 1 pick in the upcoming entry draft? Their options seemingly are between the consensus No. 1 prospect, Nail Yakupov, or picking a defenseman like Ryan Murray or Mathew Dumba, who longtime NHL scout and ESPN Insider Grant Sonier has ranked as the top defenseman in his final Top 50 prospect rankings.
To me, the pick is clear. And it should be Yakupov, a right winger for the OHL's Sarnia Sting
I understand the Oilers' predicament in terms of needing that stud defenseman; however, the draft isn't really the place to fill that need. I don't mind drafting for "need" as a secondary factor, but if the value drop off between the top player and the one you're looking to fill a gap is substantial, it doesn't make much sense from an asset-management standpoint to surrender that much value.
As NHL Draft Blog contributor Alvin Chang wrote the other day, when drafting young defensemen, they tend not to produce at a high level right away. While you will find your occasional player such as Drew Doughty or Alex Pietrangelo, who produce at a high level while facing tough opponents during their first seasons, most top defense prospects take several pro seasons before they reach that level.
Hypothetically, should Murray be selected by the Oilers, even on a below-average defense unit, he likely won't be a top-four defender in his first year. Nor will he likely be a high-end producer in Years 3 or 4, based on historical evidence of how even good defensemen tend to develop. The problem with that timeline, aside from having to wait, is the Oilers' contract situation and when their core players' deals will expire:
Jordan Eberle, RFA, 2013-14
Sam Gagner, RFA, 2012-13
Taylor Hall, RFA, 2013-14
Ales Hemsky, UFA, 2014-15
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, RFA, 2014-15
Magnus Paajarvi, RFA, 2013-14
Ladislav Smid, UFA, 2013-14
Jeff Petry, RFA, 2012-13
Gagner and Petry will likely see pay raises this summer with expiring deals, and many of Edmonton's other core players will probably see significant pay boosts in the coming seasons as well, as they enter negotiations for their second or third contracts. Cap issues may mean some of these players could leave. This is all around or before Murray will reach his peak production, which would have made drafting a defenseman somewhat pointless if the reason Edmonton took one was to plug a hole in the core. By the time Murray or another drafted defenseman is ready to excel, the core has changed.
The solution to Edmonton's defensive issues is to acquire help externally. Teams such as Nashville and Phoenix are ideal trading partners due to a lack of scoring punch and being stocked with good, young defensemen at the NHL level and in their pipelines. Due to Ryan Suter's impending free agency, I imagine Phoenix would be a preferred partner with stud defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the NHL, and two great D prospects in David Rundblad and Brandon Gormley coming up.
Drafting Yakupov makes the most sense because it would add a tremendous amount of value to the Oilers' organization, give them the leverage to deal significant parts and allow them to still maintain a very strong core.
But who do you part with in exchange for that needed D? Ideally, you hold onto Yakupov, as he will provide tremendous value on an entry-level deal and his talent level is equal to, if not marginally higher than, past top picks Hall and Nugent-Hopkins. That leaves Eberle, a player whom some believe will seek a new contract greater than his true value. And that could be particularly true when you consider Eberle received soft minutes this year in regard to his average quality of competition. He also started 61 percent of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone. Will he be able to produce in more difficult conditions? It might behoove the Oilers to let another team find out and fill their big blue line need in the process.