I will, in deference to the readers of this site, do my best not to harp on endlessly about this topic for the next three years. I’ve kind of made the point in passing though and I want to make it squarely before the season starts: neither Taylor Hall nor Magnus Pajaarvi should make the Oilers this year.
I’ve made the argument about burning years off the entry level contracts of rookies before. It’s a simple enough proposition: you only get three years with these guys on entry level contracts and you might as well use them when the player in question is a stronger player. As I’ve pointed out before, on teams like Detroit and New Jersey, teenagers virtually never make the team. There was lots of talk, when the Oilers installed Tambellini as general manager, that they were moving towards more of a Detroit model. I made this point then, but there’s more to doing what Detroit does than having a lot of people in your management group. They do smart things, like not forcing teenagers into the lineup and wasting their cheap years on 45 point seasons.
There seem to be basically two arguments against sending Hall down and delaying MPS for a year, although they probably apply more to Hall. The first is the development argument. In essence, the argument goes, if you send Hall down, his development might stall and he’ll stagnate. The second relates to their feelings towards the team and whether sending them down would effectively poison the wells. I don’t find either of these arguments compelling.
The development argument seems to me to be without much in the way of supporting evidence. Of course, the contrary position isn’t well supported either. It’s an unknown. Nobody knows one way or the other. With that said, it strikes me that players who were better than Taylor Hall is now have played their age 17 seasons in major junior. Was Sidney Crosby’s development materially affected by playing his age 17 season in junior? I can’t prove that it wasn’t but he turned out alright. Eric Lindros spent his age 18 season wandering through the OHL and playing for Team Canada against god knows what level of competition. His development wasn’t undone by it. Prior to the NHL altering its draft policies in 1979, of course, no teenagers were playing in the NHL – they spent their age 18 and 19 seasons playing against other 18 and 19 year old players (with the exception of those who went to the WHA). You can’t really appeal to NHL history to support this practice because it wasn’t the practice until 1979. This argument is nothing more than more speculation either way and it’s a little mystifying that those who subscribe to it are permitted to do so without offering some evidence.
I’ve suggested in the past that teams like the Oilers could use the threat of a non-return of Taylor Hall to junior as leverage to have his junior team renounce his rights in exchange for a fee. Even if they didn’t want to get that brass knuckled, they could surely negotiate all sorts of access to him by their development coach and training personnel. I would guess that a junior team would be willing to go a great distance to make the Oilers happy in terms of doing what they want for Hall’s development.
As far as Hall’s feeling towards the team goes, three years is a long time when you’re dealing with an 18 or 19 year old. The fear, as I understand it, is that he’d become disenchanted with the Oilers and demand a trade at some point. I don’t particularly buy this. To start with, holding guys back for contractual reasons is common in baseball. It happened to Evan Longoria, for example. Longoria subsequently signed a long term contract with the Tampa Bay Rays. Jason Spezza had his own dispute with the Senators when he was sent down, first to the OHL and then the AHL at the start of his career, most likely for contractual reasons. He’s still in Ottawa.
If Taylor Hall wants to play NHL hockey, he has no choice but to start his career in Edmonton, unless he’s willing to wait until he’s 27. When it comes time to get him signed to a new contract, he’ll be considering a variety of factors. One of those will, undoubtedly, be how he feels he’s been treated by the team. I would guess though that, as important as some squabble that’s three or four years in the past will be the hockey experience that he’s having in Edmonton and what he thinks of the prospects for the future. The teams that Longoria and Spezza signed long term with were teams that they could feel comfortable with, teams that they could reasonably believe were on the cusp of winning.
Which leads to my final point. By delaying Hall and MPS for a year, the Oilers will be in a better position to be competitive during the third year of their contracts, creating a team that they want to be part of going forward. This season can be safely written off, I think. While anything can happen and the Oilers could make the playoffs, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me. What’s more they’ve got some bad contracts to deal with. Allah’s Beloved is in place until 2013. Souray has another two years to go. As it stands, that’s just over $9MM in contracts tied up in guys who aren’t really worth it. That money could be usefully spent on other players, players who might prove to be worth their price, creating a better team.
Barring a trade or jail, the Khabibulin money will be on the cap for the life of the Hall/MPS ELC’s if they start this year. By delaying them a year, in the third year of their contracts, Khabibulin’s money is gone and the Oilers will have a starting goaltender who isn’t fragile and in his late thirties, which is something of a pre-condition of success. They would also be in a situation in which their ELC would expire in the same year that Horcoff’s NMC/NTC expires and he’s got a salary of $3MM on a $5.5MM cap hit, which should make him pretty tradeable.
What’s more, the Oilers have a lot of other young players to still sort through on their roster, guys whose contracts are running. Amongst the forwards, Jordan Eberle, Linus Omark, Gilbert Brule and Andrew Cogliano will all be competing for minutes and opportunity with Hall and MPS. I suspect that Hall and MPS are better players than Eberle and Omark, at least, at this point and quite possibly better than Brule and Cogliano as well. I’m pretty convinced that Brule and Cogliano aren’t top two six fowards on good NHL teams but they’re assets, if ones of questionable value. If MPS and Hall are on the team, they’re probably going to be taking minutes from those four guys to a certain extent. Internal competition is all fine and well but, as I go on about, this is an efficiency contest. There’s a cost to giving opportunity to Hall and MPS in that it reduces opportunity for the other forwards on the team. Without that opportunity, it’s harder for the four guys I’ve named to prove themselves (if there’s anything to prove) and the return on a trade would be less. If, as seems possible, Brule and Cogliano posted 20 goal seasons, they’ll be more interesting to other teams than if they each put up ten goals.
To the extent that those guys could use an opportunity this year to make themselves into more valuable commodities for trades, that costs the Oilers. Delaying Hall and MPS costs the Oilers nothing but gives them another year in which to make time available to Cogliano and Brule and to provide opportunity to Eberle and Omark to see what they can do. Maybe, ultimately, it provides them with some players who can be turned into defencemen or a goalie who isn’t either terrible or awaiting the outcome of his appeal. Hockey talent is a scarce resource. When the Oilers have an opportunity to groom some of it at the NHL level or enhance its value in a trade at a negligible cost, they should take it if they want to ultimately be an elite team.
The Oilers have talked a lot this summer about doing things the right way and changing how they approach the business of running a hockey team. Quite frankly, I don’t believe they’re all of the way there yet. I haven’t heard any discussion anywhere about the costs of MPS and Hall being on the team this year, only about the positives. Installing Hall and MPS on this team now will come with all sorts of costs to the team and result in all sorts of invisible limitations being placed on the heights that this team can reach in four or five years. If, after serious thought about those costs, a team decides to bear them, that’s one thing, but I’ve got a hard time believing that the Oilers have seriously considered this, if only because the two big reasons to have them on the team this year seem so vague and ill-defined and the costs of doing so are so clear cut.
As MPS has already spent one year outside of the NHL since being drafted and because Hall is a late birthday in the same year – he’s only seven months younger – it realistically only makes sense to hold them back one more year. If Hall was held back another year, his entry level contract wouldn’t slide, although the Oilers would still be entitled to seven years from him. This is the last I’ll say about this at any length until the Oilers have to pay Hall and MPS in three years but I’m reasonably certain that they’re making a mistake here (assuming, as I am, that they both ultimately make the team.) They’re giving away an edge and they’re limiting the prospective return on guys like Cogliano. This can’t be how Detroit would do it.