Benefiting from the Lockout, Part V: Edmonton Oilers

Nugent-Hopkins

Regardless of what you may think, neither the owners nor the players want the ongoing CBA negotiations to result in a lockout, but both sides have made preparations to remain off the ice for the first few months of the 2012-13 season.

Previous posts in this series:

Back in 2004, there were several players and teams that came out of the lockout refreshed, recharged, and ready. Teemu Selanne is the most obvious example. The Finnish Flash used the year off to completely rehabilitate his wonky knees, and he has been one of the best forwards in the NHL since that time.

Several young players spent an extra year developing, including Eric Staal and Jason Spezza, who both dominated the AHL. Staal emerged as a superstar after the lockout ended, racking up 100 points 2005-06 and leading Carolina to the Stanley Cup, while Spezza led Ottawa to the Stanley Cup Final just one year later. The elite draft crop from 2003 was given another year of developmental time, as NHL teams weren’t able to rush players from the CHL or Europe to the NHL. The 2005-06 rookie crop was one of the strongest ever, and several players benefitted from more time developing, including the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, and Zach Parise.

This time around, there are several young players who will either stay in Major Junior or Europe or go down to the AHL if the start of the season is delayed. In general, the younger teams like Edmonton and Long Island stand to benefit, while the aging teams like San Jose, Detroit, and Vancouver stand to lose out. However, it isn’t that simple.

As mentioned above, the youthful Oilers are one team that would likely benefit from a late start to the season (and they are also a team that could benefit from a completely wiped out season, depending on how the NHL would award the 1st overall pick next June).

Jonathan Willis wrote on the same issue a few weeks ago over at the Edmonton Journal. One Oiler who benefitted from the last lockout was Ales Hemsky.

“Ales Hemsky turned 21 the summer before the 2004-05 stoppage. He had two full NHL seasons under his belt, and was coming off a year during which he had recorded 34 points in 71 games. He spent the lockout playing for his hometown team of Pardubice, along with other NHL’ers – people like Milan Hejduk, Jan Bulis and Michal Rozsival. He had a good but not overwhelming season, but then had a dynamite playoffs, winning the playoff MVP award and leading his team to the Czech Extraliga championship. Perhaps most importantly, he had another season of development – the next year his points/game rate doubled and he led the Oilers with 77 points.”

Edmonton has a lot of young talent in the organization – Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all going to be star forwards (if they aren’t there already). Attempting to pick one would be very tough (with a gun to my head, I’d go with Yakupov), and it will be interesting to see how head coach Ralph Krueger allocates ice time to his young forwards.

On the back end, one could argue that Edmonton’s two most important defensemen are Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz. Petry has 108 career NHL games to his name, while Schultz has none. Petry emerged as Edmonton’s best defenseman last season, while Schultz is coming in after dominating the college ranks at Wisconsin for a few years.

This column isn’t meant to bash the Oilers – their abysmal record over the past three years speaks for itself. Where the team has failed the most though, (asides from not winning with any sort of consistency) has been a lack of proper insulation around the young talents on the roster. And that hasn’t really changed at all this summer.

Eberle and Hall are now experienced NHL forwards. Nugent-Hopkins showed last year that his lack of size and strength isn’t a problem against bigger and stronger defensemen, as he dominated at times with his terrific instincts and “hockey strength.”

There have been some positives this summer, outside of the draft. Not re-signing Cam Barker is a classic example of addition by subtraction, and apparently Ryan Whitney is fully healthy, too. Devan Dubnyk is going to start most of the games, and he has earned the chance with solid play behind a pretty poor defensive group. Hall’s shoulder rehab is also right on track.

Time to Adjust

The one player who will benefit the most from a lockout isn’t Dubnyk, however, and it isn’t any of the young forwards, either. Schultz is coming in to the NHL with a lot of pressure and expectations. Players around the league likely took note of how he handled the situation in Anaheim, and fans did too. He was within his rights to choose where he wanted to play, but it isn’t an avenue often pursued by rookies. With a lockout, Schultz would be able to get his feet wet professionally at the AHL level down in Oklahoma City first.

Excel Elsewhere

If the NHL season were to start in December, that would mean that Edmonton’s young players would all have a few months to dominate at the AHL level (or in Europe, where Hall and Yakupov could be headed if the lockout drags on). Right now at least, the CBA negotiations don’t have the same overhanging doom and gloom as they did back in 2004, but that could change quite quickly.

Confidence is such an important part of a young player’s success in any sport, and hockey is no different. Even a few weeks or months of increased ice time, responsibility, and production at the AHL level would be extremely beneficial. And it would be pretty fun to see a stacked team in Oklahoma City, wouldn’t it?

Yakupov has already said he isn’t going back to Sarnia of the OHL. And as things stand right now, he is too young for the AHL. Russia makes sense logically, but there have been some rumblings that the CHL and AHL may find a way to get top young talents AHL-eligible (although it would only apply to 1st round picks from 2011 and before, like Jonathan Huberdeau on Florida for example).

Grow Together

The Oilers went to the Cup Final only one season after the lockout of 2004-05, and a large reason for that was the chemistry they possessed. Of course that team wouldn’t have gone anywhere without the sublime play of Chris Pronger, but players like Raffi Torres, Jarret Stoll, and Kyle Brodziak all spent the lockout year playing for the Edmonton Roadrunners of the AHL. Stoll, Hemsky, and Horcoff in particular all emerged as much-improved players in 2005-06.

The Oilers may not be able to get all of their young players to play together (Hall and Eberle would likely go play in Europe if the lockout dragged on), but having a large collection of the roster together in Oklahoma City would be great for chemistry.

The Barons could field a roster with many future Oilers – Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz, Petry, Teemu Hartikainen, Anton Lander, and Magnus Paajarvi, Tyler Pitlick, and Curtis Hamilton, among others. Nugent-Hopkins would be eligible for the World Junior Championship as well – imagine him centering the top line for Canada this winter?

Paajarvi is a player who would particularly benefit from less pressure and more time at the AHL level. He has been without a definitive role in Edmonton since coming in to the league, and his lack of production has reflected that. However, he is still a top prospect and someone the Oilers need to get back on track.

The potential is there:

And Edmonton would once again have a great shot at landing the 1st overall pick next June if the NHL used past performance to figure out how to decide the draft order for 2013. Imagine Nathan MacKinnon joining the Oilers next summer?

There is a small downside to the lockout for Edmonton, however (in addition to lost revenues and a lack of NHL hockey) – the team would lose a year off of the rookie deals for all of their young talents. This is the final year for Eberle and Hall before their $6 million annual salaries kick in. Schultz is an RFA in the summer of 2014, as is Nugent-Hopkins.

Whatever happens over the next few days/weeks/months, the Oilers are one of a few teams that could find many positives from a short term work stoppage.