With the 2018 NHL trade deadline now past, the time-honoured tradition of rehashing previous deals is now front and centre. The Edmonton Oilers, on the back of a very disappointing season, were not buyers at this deadline, instead moving out Brandon Davidson (NYI), Mark Letestu (CBJ) and Patrick Maroon (NJD) for picks, prospects, and one improbable roster player.
For the Oilers to be in this situation less than a year after they finished with 103 points and came within one win of the Western Conference Final is troubling at best. While Letestu was in the middle of a significant goal-scoring slump (which he’s since busted in his second first game as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets), those three players were hardly the problem in the Oilers lineup.
Much has been made about the significant drop in goals for, save percentages, wins, and even points. While last season was notable for its lack of man games lost to injury, especially among the top two lines and top defensive pairing, this season has been quite the opposite. Blaming a lack of success on injury is shortsighted though. What the team suffers from is a lack of talent, one which could have been prevented through inaction in previous years.
Before the 2015 NHL Draft, the Oilers had some skilled players in the lineup (or at least in the system), namely Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Oscar Klefbom, and Leon Draisaitl. Rounding out that lineup was a complement of veterans who could have helped guide the team toward a future. As if there was ever any doubt as to who the Oilers would take, Draft Day 2015 officially brought Connor McDavid into the fold. After making perhaps the easiest decision of his GM careern, Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers still had a 16th and 33rd pick to make use of.
However, instead of using that 16th pick to take another player they could develop and use in 2016 or 2017, the Oilers GM instead bundled that pick with the 33rd and sent both to the Islanders for the blue-chip defenceman the club had been looking for – Griffin Reinhart. A former 4th overall pick in the shallow 2012 entry draft, Reinhart was supposed to be the solution for a blue line that was severely lacking in both size and skill: Jeff Petry had already been sent to Montreal; Andrew Ference was on a steep decline in what would turn out to be his last full season; despite playing 81 games Justin Schultz had not yet emerged from under the weight of Norris Trophy potential; Mark Fayne played 74 games that season, and has yet to crack a regular NHL lineup since.
Griffin Reinhart, on paper, was meant to fill the void left behind by any number of the defenders employed by the Oilers in 2014-15, but the reality is that the trade was the first step towards the decline experienced by the Oilers in 2017-2018.
Looking at the Oilers current roster, it’s difficult not to engage in a game of ‘what if?’ and imagine what could have been. With Connor McDavid almost guaranteed to have a Hall of Fame caliber career, new Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was given the task of building a team around the highly skilled forward. He had two line drivers in Connor McDavid and Taylor Hall, a ready-made second line of Hall-Eberle-RNH, and a serviceable, if inexperienced, top defensive pair in Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz.
Adding Reinhart to that blue line should have meant that the second pair was also solid, but instead he struggled to even crack the lineup, playing in only 29 games over two seasons with the organization, scoring one point. That inability to play in the NHL on a consistent basis was reflected in Reinhart’s exposure during the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft. He was picked up by Vegas, but has spent the bulk of this season in Chicago with the Vegas AHL affiliate Wolves franchise. At this point, over two years past the trade, it’s safe to say that the Oilers lost not only the deal, but any potential progress with respect to building a solid, sound NHL-calibre defence.
To add insult to injury, the 16th pick traded away by Peter Chiarelli in that bundle for Reinhart is Mat Barzal, a Calder trophy front-runner and Islanders phenom who has had three 5-point games this season (becoming only the second NHL rookie to do so since 1918), and who has scored 66 points in 63 games. Not only did the Oilers lose that trade, seeing the success of the pick that could have been is a constant source of frustration for Oiler fans.
To look at any transaction other than the Reinhart trade as the source for the Oilers’ current problems is myopic. Had Peter Chiarelli not emptied the cupboard in return for what was seen at the time as ‘not much’ and what has amounted to nothing, the purchase price for other talent would not have been so steep.
As wonderful as that day was in adding Connor McDavid, I keep coming back to the Reinhart deal and seeing in it the first stirrings of what would become a deep and troublesome trend for Peter Chiarelli and his vision of the Edmonton Oilers.
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