Philly Sports Live

What We Learned: Reconsidering the Edmonton Oilers’ failures (Puck Daddy)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.) There are a great many things for which the Edmonton Oilers can, are, and should be criticized over the last decade. A great many things. But when they won the draft lottery on Saturday night, the immediate reaction among many hockey fans and pundits alike was to trash them for picking first overall for the fourth time in six years. “It’s rewarding failure,” and so on, as though this isn’t what the draft order being predicated upon reverse order of finish isn’t the same exact thing. “They don’t deserve another first pick,” and so on, as though the Penguins getting the Nos. 5, 1, 2, 1, and 2 again in four straight draft years was in some way fine and dandy while this is not. And the best one: “Look how they screwed up the other first-round picks,” and so on, as though Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are somehow horrible players contributing to the Oilers’ continued failure. People are obviously allowed to think what they want about the system and the way it rewards ineptitude, but to say that any of these players somehow haven’t “worked out” for the Oilers is ludicrous. It’s been said before but when you pick first overall, you’re kind of a slave to what’s available to you. You could, in theory, trade down, but that happens on very, very rare occasions, and indeed doesn’t necessarily guarantee any sort of success even if you aren’t super-enamored of the consensus No. 1 guy. It’s not like the Oilers went off the board to draft Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, or Yakupov. All were the clear No. 1 choices, and all are working out to be at least among the best in their draft classes. The Oilers, if anything, are victims of circumstance in some regards. Because the first thing to keep in mind here is that if you’re trapped by the responsibility of picking first overall, and you have to take what you’re dealt in terms of “best player available,” that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting what you need as a franchise (not that “drafting for need” is a necessarily good thing either). Hall is a left wing, Nugent-Hopkins a center, and Yakupov a right wing. Tough bounces to draft an entire line in three straight years and not, say, a franchise-changing defenseman like Aaron Ekblad — a rare blue line talent who at 18 years old looks like he absolutely belonged at the NHL level — which is what they really need. Maybe you criticize the choice of Yakupov over Ryan Murray in that regard, but Murray only has 78 games of NHL experience under his belt and has mostly looked only a little above average when he’s been healthy. It’s also not the Oilers’ fault that the years in which they picked first overall were not exactly ones in which major difference-makers were available. And that’s not to slight Hall or Nugent-Hopkins, both of whom influence the game at high levels, but rather to say that they are not necessarily a Stamkos or Tavares (the two years before the Hall draft) or MacKinnon and Ekblad (the two years after the Yakupov draft). Looking at it individually, in fact, it becomes clear that the Oilers couldn’t really have expected to do a lot better than they have when drafting first overall. There was Taylor vs. Tyler, of course, but it’s not as though either has done much to separate himself as the clear winner here. You can argue that centers are more important than left wings, and you’d be right, but these are extremely comparable players at the very least. (Hall, for instance, has a higher points-per-game over his career than does Seguin, though certainly their circumstances have varied.) Were it not for myriad injuries slowing Hall — and causing him to play 55 fewer games than Seguin — the issue becomes even muddier. Certainly, Hall has been among the premier left wings in the NHL more or less since his arrival in the league, and if you can get a guy like that first overall, then you cannot have failed in any way. And if injuries have been a problem for Hall, they’re a nightmare for Nugent-Hopkins, who has missed at least a few games in every season but one in his young career. But if you strip away the injury concerns and just look at this year, for instance, you see a picture of an emerging great center in this league. Based on the “ similarity scores ” calculator on War on Ice, the players to which Nugent-Hopkins’ output in 2014-15 — which he started as a 21-year-old — was most comparable were guys like James Neal at age 23 (good player); John Tavares at 19, 20, 21, and 22 (good player); Jordan Eberle at 23 and 24 (good player); Alex Galchenyuk at 20 (good player); Eric Staal at 21 (good player); Nathan Horton at 23 (good player); and Jonathan Toews at 19 (good player). So the idea that Nugent-Hopkins has somehow failed is, clearly, based on his team’s lack of success rather than his own. And then you come to Yakupov, who just wrapped up his age-20 season. His comparables are a little iffier (age-20 Matt Duchene is great as the top one, age-22 Mason Raymond not so much as the second). In fact, examining these two at a similar age goes a long way toward telling you what Yakupov might become.