Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Jonathan Huberdeau and a Competition at Center

Last night the Saint John Sea Dogs captured the Memorial Cup and center Jonathan Huberdeau took home the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as Tournament MVP. This came after Huberdeau had already won the Guy Lafleur Trophy as playoff MVP en route to a QMJHL championship as well. In doing so, Huberdeau became one of only a handful players in CHL history to be named MVP of their league playoffs and the memorial cup, with Taylor Hall being the most recent back in 2009. Hall of course went on to be selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers after winning another Memorial Cup and MVP award in 2010. Could Jonathan Huberdeau do the same?

Back in October when International Scouting Services released their initial top 30 prospects for the 2011 NHL entry draft, Huberdeau's name was not present on the list. When ISS released their final rankings today, Huberdeau's stock had risen all the way to 3rd, behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Adam Larsson, and ahead of Sean Couturier, who started the year at #1. After scoring 35 points as a rookie in the QMJHL last year, Huberdeau revealed his offensive skill this season scoring 43-62-105 in 67 games to finish 3rd in league scoring. He followed that up by scoring 16-14-30 in 19 playoff games and 3-3-6 in 4 games at the Memorial Cup. While some would argue that Huberdeau had the benefit of playing on a very strong and highly skilled Saint John team which helped inflate his numbers, the same thing was said about Taylor Hall and the Windsor Spitfires last year and certainly no one is doubting his abilities today.

Center ice is definitely an area of weakness for the Edmonton Oilers, and if they are looking to fill that need with this draft I think the choice will be between Huberdeau and Nugent-Hopkins. While the biggest knock on Nugent-Hopkins has been his size at 6-0/165, Huberdeau is not much bigger at 6-1/168. Both of these prospects will have some filling out to do in order to take the next step. The advantage that Huberdeau does have on Nugent-Hopkins however is that he knows how to perform in the big games and knows how to win, something that helped put Taylor over Tyler last year. In terms of the rankings, Nugent-Hopkins has been highly rated all season long by all scouting services and has finished as the consensus #1 prospect. On the other side, Huberdeau has worked his way up the ranks over the course of the season and managed to get himself into the conversation of first overall pick, a situation not unlike last year with Hall and Seguin.

So at the end of the day has Huberdeau done enough to warrant being selected first overall and ahead of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Nugent-Hopkins and Huberdeau were the only two draft eligible players to score in the triple digits this year, but RNH did it in a more defensive and physical league, and with a weaker supporting cast than Huberdeau. With the draft combine coming up it will be interesting to see how they compare head to head, but ultimately it may be the things they say in the team interviews that make the biggest difference. If it was my decision, I would still draft Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the prospect of him and Taylor Hall playing on a line together in the future is too good to pass up, but no doubt the team that ends up with Jonathan Huberdeau will be getting a very good player.

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

On Ryan Jones and the Value of Cogs

Ryan Jones was claimed off waivers by the Edmonton Oilers from the Nashville Predators at the 2010 trade deadline in what has turned out to be one of Steve Tambellini's more adept moves as GM. Jones scored 14-14-28 in 87 games in the NHL over two seasons for the Preds before coming over to the Oilers. While he only scored 1 goal in 8 games to close out the season, he showed his heart and committment to the team by quickly returning to the lineup following a 2nd degree MCL tear suffered in a knee on knee collision. Most players who suffered that type of injury in the final month of the season on the 30th place team would likely have called it a year.

Jones had a career year for the Oilers in 2010-2011 scoring 18-7-25 while appearing in 81 games and playing a large role on the penalty kill. Jones demonstrated an ability to generate offence at even strength and brought a physical element to the game, which was obviously an area of weakness on the skilled yet undersized Oilers roster. Steve Tambellini rewarded Jones' efforts today with a new 2 year NHL contract. While the dollars are yet to be released, I would expect it to be in the range of 1.5M per year. Jones will now have to prove that he can carry over his strong play, and that last season was not just that of another player having a breakout in a contract year. The two year term is a good number for both the Oilers and Jones, as the player gets some security and the Oilers maintain flexibility when it comes time to re-sign Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi. No doubt that was in the back of Tambellini's mind after seeing what happened to the Chicago Blackhawks and their cap troubles last summer. Nonetheless, in a time when the Oilers have had difficulty attracting players, it's nice to see one opt against free agency to stick with the OIL.

The question that is raised now is what is the value of Andrew Cogliano compared to Ryan Jones? Both players play a 3rd line role, feature on the penalty kill, and will score somewhere in the range of 10-20 goals a season. Last year Jones and Cogliano earned a comparable salary in the range of 1M. However, Cogliano played more minutes (17:15 vs. 13:50 TOI/g including comparable time on the PP but more on the PK at 2:43 vs. 2:07 SH TOI/g), outscored Jones at 11-24-35, and appeared in all 82 games. The curious thing is that despite this, Jones seems to be considered more valuable than Cogliano among the fan base. More often than not it's Cogliano's name that is brought up when trade rumors start circling in OIL country. This season Cogliano demonstrated a willingness to adapt his game and worked hard to turn himself into a two-way forward, while still being able to generate offense 5 on 5. While he lacks the size of Jones, Cogliano brings the element of speed and versatility. So when it comes time for Tambellini to negotiate his new deal, what is the salary range they'll be looking at? Last season the Oilers offered Gilbert Brule a 2 year 3.7M contract after only one year of scoring 17-20-37, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Cogliano camp uses that as a comparable to start negotiations and end up signing somewhere in that range. That is of course if he's still an Oiler after the draft.

*UPDATE: Dustin Nielson (@nielson1260) just tweeted the cap hit on Jones is 1.5M
*UPDATE2: Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) also confirmed the Jones contract details via twitter

Friday, May 27, 2011

On the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Power of the Draft

Tonight the Tampa Bay Lightning have an opportunity to win themselves a spot in the Stanley Cup Championship Series. However, regardless of tonight's outcome, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals is quite an acomplishment for a team that finished in 30th place not too long ago.

Following a successful 2006-2007 season, which ended with a loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Final, the Lightning had a miserable showing in the 2007-2008 regular season finishing in last place. However they ended up with the NHL's consolation prize when they won the draft lottery and the first overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft. That selection was of course Steven Stamkos. Despite the addition, the Lightning failed to improve the following season and selected 2nd overall at the 2009 draft taking Victor Hedman. Selecting high in the NHL Entry Draft in consecutive years has proved to be a significant step in the Lightning's return to the playoffs. Stamkos has become an impact player and Hedman has become a dependable guard on the blueline in the short time they have been in the league, which is a testament to the quality of player teams can acquire with lottery selections. During these years, the Lightning have gone from finishing the regular season with 71 points, 66 points, and 80 points, to 103 points this season. The development of their prospects alongside the play of their veterans certainly contributed to the significant jump in the standings this year. Three short years after finishing dead last, the Lightning are back to being Stanley Cup Contenders and are proof of how quickly franchises can turn around.

And if you think that the Lightning are the exception, the Chicago Blackhawks selected 3rd overall in 2006 and 1st overall in 2007 and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane proved to be significant additions to the roster that went to the Western Final in 2008-2009 and won it all in 2009-2010.

Next month the Edmonton Oilers will select 1st overall at the NHL Entry Draft for the second consecutive year and will add another significant propect to a growing pool of young talent. While it only took 3 years for the Lightning to get back to the dance, it took the Blackhawks 5 years, and the Oilers will look to avoid making it 6 in 2011-2012. Unlike the Blackhawks and the Lightning however, the OIL are still looking for the right mix of verteran experience and depth to help develop their young roster. This is something that Tambellini and his pro scouting staff will need to address in the coming months. While the Oilers may still be on the outside looking in come this time next year, recent history suggests that success is not too far off. In the meantime I will be cheering for the Lightning to continue the trend.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Doug Weight and a #1 Center

Doug Weight, who hung up his skates today after 19 seasons, was drafted 34th overall in the 1990 NHL entry draft by the New York Rangers. After appearing in only 65 games for the blueshirts, he was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Esa Tikkanen in what turned out to be a steal of a deal. Weight went on to score 577 points in 588 games for the Oilers and was eventually named team captain. In the summer of 2001 he was traded to the St. Louis Blues and the Oilers have been searching for a new first line center ever since.

Last summer at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft Steve Tambellini and company had the opportunity to select a potential #1 center in Tyler Seguin but opted instead, as we all know, for dynamic winger Taylor Hall. Despite Seguin being one win away from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in his rookie year, I think we all know that Hall was the right choice. However one year later the OIL have been given another chance to fill the hole that was made when Weight left. With top end prospects the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Sean Couturier available, Stu MacGregor and his staff are certainly not limited in their options down the middle. While the draft is obviously not the only option to find a 1C, it's becoming more and more apparent that other teams are reluctant to let them go once they find them. There have arguably been only two legitimate 1C's traded in recent history in Brad Richards and Joe Thornton (although Jeff Carter's name seems to constantly be in the trade rumor mill these days), which goes to show how valuable they are. At this point in the rebuild of the Edmonton Oilers, it is probably not in their best interest to pursue a 1C via trade or free agency, as those that are under contract are mostly locked up long term at large cap hits, and those that are looking for contracts aren't likely to sign with a team working to get out of lottery contention without an overpayment. There is however something to be said about developing a player and having him come up through the ranks alongside other prospects in the system. Adding one of RNH, Huberdeau, or Couturier to the growing core of young centers, including Sam Gagner, Anton Lander, and Tyler Pitlick could set the Oilers up for years to come. With a number of talented wingers already on the roster, the need for centers to play between them is growing, especially one who can keep up with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle on a first line in the near future.

10 years ago the Oilers were forced to trade away their last first line center, and after a decade of fighting to be competitive in the West and only 2 playoff appearances since, it's time to fill that gap.