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Projecting the Oilers’ draft-day strategy

(Bob Frid/Icon Sportswire)

For the first time in years, the Edmonton Oilers won’t be the story on draft day. They will draft outside of the top three for the first time since 2013, and only the second time since 2010. Edmonton holds the fourth overall selection this time around, giving them a fairly strong chance at addressing key organizational needs.

Atop that list is the need for improved defense — just as it has been for the past half decade. The Oilers are still in desperate need of a true No. 1 rearguard, and while the 2016 draft might not necessarily grant them that, it will give the club a chance to improve their blue line, whether via adding a prospect or trading for an established name.

Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli has been fairly vocal about the club’s offseason progress so far, and his comments suggest that Edmonton is set for a significant summer regardless of which path they choose.

Who will the Oilers draft fourth overall?

Edmonton’s draft-day strategy is much more up in the air this year than in recent history. Having dropped out of the top-three — taking them out of the running for Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, or Jesse Puljujärvi — the Oilers aren’t necessarily locked into a can’t-miss opportunity like they have been in the past with their slew of first-overall selections. At fourth overall, they’ll be picking from a larger group of players who all seem to be fairly equal in overall value.

Considering the club’s need for a defensive upgrade, the two leading options appear to be the draft class’ two leading defensemen in Jakob Chychrun and Olli Juolevi.

American-born Chychrun is coming off an excellent season for the OHL’s Sarnia Sting, where he posted 49 points in 62 games. Finnish defender Juolevi wasn’t far behind, scoring 42 points in 57 games for OHL powerhouse London Knights. Juolevi has also been a key part of London’s tremendous postseason run, posting 14 points in 18 playoff contests and six points through three Memorial Cup games.

Either defender would be a significant boost for Edmonton down the line, but it seems the decision comes down to the precise type of blueliner Edmonton is looking for. Chychrun has the clear size advantage, weighing in at 214 pounds while Juolevi weighs 180. But the most significant difference between the two seems to be their offensive instincts, as some scouts believe Juolevi’s underrated hockey sense makes him the draft’s best blue-liner.

Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce elaborated on the subject recently, quoting one NHL scouting director as saying the following about Chychrun’s skill:

“Chychrun has all the tools, great skating, great shot, size, but you keep waiting for him to make plays and you’re left wanting more. Maybe the team is a bit of a factor. Maybe Chychrun would look different if he were playing with [a team like Juolevi’s]”

Juolevi, on the other hand, has shown time and time again that he can thrive with skilled players. He did earlier this year at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, helping his native Finland win gold on home ice and doing so as the squad’s number-one defender.

The Finns were an offensive force all tournament long, led by the potent line of Laine, Puljujärvi and Sebastian Aho while Juolevi played the role of blue line facilitator quite well, posting nine points in seven games – tied for the most among all defensemen in the tournament. He’s also been able to succeed in that role consistently in London, doing his part to aid in the success of the team’s historically lethal top line of Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak.

Considering the fact that Edmonton is loaded with elite young offensive players already, Juolevi might have a slight edge over Chychrun simply due to the talent he’s developed alongside. Playing with elite scorers like Marner and Laine, Juolevi already has plenty of experience regarding what it takes to help these players succeed – when to get involved and provide offensive support, and when to hold back and let them do what they do best.

Chiarelli was open about Edmonton’s interest in Juolevi, saying the following to Sportsnet:

“He had the terrific World Junior, real good, played very well, [and] complimented some really high-end offensive players there. Very efficient play, we’re looking at him very closely. He’s very smart – you have to be a very smart, cerebral type of defenceman to succeed in the NHL. He’s got that.”

That being said, Chychrun is no dud. Despite his already impressive size, he’s also an exceptionally fast skater — an attribute that bodes well in today’s NHL, and a trait that is surely valuable on a team that houses quick-footed scorers like McDavid and Hall. Many have drawn similarities between Chychrun and 2014 first-overall pick Aaron Ekblad, as the young American figures to develop into an elite two-way defender if all goes as planned.

What if Edmonton doesn’t draft a defenseman?

Just because Edmonton is desperate for a blue line upgrade doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll add one at the draft. The Oilers have two options to beef up their defense: either draft a marquee rearguard who can grow into a key role, or trade a roster player for defensive help before drafting said roster player’s replacement.

This latter option doesn’t seem too far fetched given Chiarelli’s noted focus on adding size to the Oilers’ forward corps. Big-bodied forward Pierre-Luc Dubois — who stands 6’3″ and weighs 202 pounds — could fit that bill. The versatile scorer does a little bit of everything, and does it all well. He’s coming off a strong offensive showing in the QMJHL, having scored 42 goals and 99 points in just 62 games.

Should Chiarelli look to move out someone like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle or Nail Yakupov, it’s likely they would do so to add an NHL-ready top-four blueliner, and would draft either Dubois or Tkachuk to replenish their forward corps.

Will Chiarelli trade the fourth overall pick?

Judging from his comments, he’s trying. The longtime manager was open about the fact that Edmonton might trade the pick if the right deal comes along. He recently added the layer of a win-now mentality to that equation, saying the following to Sportsnet:

“Would I look to move [the fourth overall pick]? We want to win. I took the job in Edmonton to win, so as I said earlier, we’ll look at all options. There’s some pretty good players that are going to be available at four but we may look to move down and still use a pick to get an asset as part of a larger deal. We owe it to the fans to get better in a relatively short period of time and we’re going to look at all options to allow us to do that.”

If the Oilers want to win now, then drafting a defender isn’t their top priority, as neither Chychrun nor Juolevi look ready to play central roles at the NHL level just yet. It’s more likely that Chiarelli would aim to swing a deal that nets Edmonton a bona fide top-pairing or second-pairing defenseman, either by trading a roster player or the fourth overall pick, or both.

However, whether or not such a deal is out there is another story, and Chiarelli surely won’t throw away the pick or a prized contributor like Nugent-Hopkins unless it’s for a sure thing. But with many clubs craving a game-changing forward like Nugent-Hopkins, Dubois, or Tkachuk, Edmonton may just find itself some business on the trade market.

Regardless of what happens, the Oilers faithful should be overjoyed to see their General Manager actually looking to address the team’s problems in such a clear-headed way. After years of mediocrity on the blue-line, the Oilers finally seem to be building some momentum with Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and the chance to add a future No. 1 option with the fourth-overall pick.

Now it’s up to Chiarelli to back up the talk and make the moves necessary to raise Edmonton up out of the league’s basement, and if he can find that final missing piece or two, the Oilers may finally be able to claw their way back into the postseason sooner rather than later.

Projecting the Oilers’ draft-day strategy
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