Friday, May 17, 2013

Valeri Nichushkin

Like many Oilers fans, I was checking the reverse standings daily near the end of the season to see where the Oilers might be slotted to pick in the 2013 Entry Draft.  At the conclusion of the season (and after the lottery had no impact on Edmonton's selection), the Oilers were slated to choose 7th, a rather fortunate position in my mind since many observers of the draft, myself included, have surmised there to be a tier of 7 prospects at the top of this year's draft.  Well, "a tier" is probably the wrong way to put it; most seem to have it organized as a group of 3 followed by another group of 4, or 4/5 players followed by 3/2 players.  That group of 7 includes Jones, Drouin, and MacKinnon, who are generally seen as the top 3, followed by some order of C Barkov, C Monahan, C/W Lindholm, and W Nichushkin*.  In any case, picking 7th assures that Edmonton will receive one of the players in this "top tier", should they view the draft in the same manner.  I would argue that the most likely group of players to be selected in the top 6 is Jones, Drouin, MacKinnon, Barkov, Lindholm and Monahan.  That isn't to be confused with a guess that it's more likely than not those 6 players will in fact be the first 6 drafted - maybe they will be, or maybe they won't, I'm only guessing the aforementioned group of 6 players more likely to be the first selected than any other single group of 6 players.  I would be a bit surprised to see another player crack the top 6, but at the same time it isn't unusual to see a surprise or two near the top of the draft, like Hickey in 2007, or Fowler, Couturier, and Forsberg sliding in 2010, 2011, and 2012, respectively.  If that group of 6 is in fact selected as the top 6, it would leave Nichushkin for the Oilers**.  The problem, if you want to call it that, is that some of the circumstances surrounding both the Oilers and Nichushkin might conspire to move him down Edmonton's list.  I'm going to attempt to make the case that, in spite of those potential pitfalls, it would be in Edmonton's best interest to draft Nichushkin if he is the player left available from that group of seven, "warts" and all.

One of the arguments against drafting Nichushkin is that he's likely to be a winger at the NHL level, and that the Oilers could use a C or D more than another W.  Even if its true that the Oilers could use a center or a defencemen in the prospect pipeline more than a winger (I would agree on the C, but not the D), need is not a good argument for drafting an inferior prospect.  By ignoring the Best Player Available (BPA), you are giving up value.  You also can't be certain about your needs in a few years, so drafting down a tier to fill a perceived need now might not even fill your actual need by the time the prospect is ready to truly contribute to your team.  If you are within a similar tier of talent, I can understand addressing a need when picking between two roughly equivalent prospects.  But in this draft, I have seen very few argue that you'd have a better chance of getting an impact player by picking someone other than Nichushkin at 7, among the expected remaining eligible players.  The draft is not about drafting players - not really.  It's about creating value for your organization.  You have a better chance of doing that, in my opinion, by picking the best players available than you do by addressing organizational need.  Combining the likelihood a player will work out with his value if he turns out is a better bet than simply picking the best player available at your position of perceived need.  Sure, you could just draft a C, and hope that works out, that's the easy thing to do, but in my opinion you would be giving up too much value simply because you question your ability to make a trade at a later date.  I understand the NHL trade market isn't as liquid as cash, but it's always preferable to have to make a deal involving a drafted player with value than to have already drafted a player to fit a need who didn't develop into the player you wanted.

Specifically as it relates to the Oilers depth chart, there may currently appear to be a relative surplus of wingers, but that isn't necessarily the case given the timeline for Nichushkin.  He's likely not coming over until the 2015/16 season, by which time only 2 Oilers forwards would be under contract: Hall and Eberle.  Yakupov's ELC would be up, so even if all 3 are still a part of the Oilers, that would theoretically leave one top 6 F spot if Nichushkin was ready to fill that role as a 20 year old rookie.  It's unlikely based on the rumblings now, but it's possible Hemsky might still be around.  If so, it would likely be in a reduced role for reduced pay, and wouldn't seemingly conflict with Nichushkin in the lineup.  Paajarvi might well still be in Edmonton, and he might potentially be in a top 6 role by that time, which seemingly wouldn't leave a similar role available for Nichushkin.  However, it is the rare rookie who is truly ready for a two way, top 6 role.  If both he and Paajarvi are capable of playing those minutes, well, great!  That's depth!  If Nichushkin's ready to play, but not ready to be a two way factor, it  would only help that Edmonton could play Nichushkin in an somewhat easier role to start his NHL career.  By the time you would have to worry about paying Nichushkin serious money upon expiration of his ELC, Eberle will have one year left on his 6 year extension, Paajarvi will be UFA eligible - I guess what I'm saying is that it's a long time from now until EDM would have to worry about paying Nichushkin, Hall, Yakupov and Eberle big money.  It's good to have a mindful eye on the future, but worrying excessively about your cap situation five years down the line in today's age of free agency is not necessarily desirable.

One further point on the potential surplus of wingers, and maybe this is just me, but until you have more than 6 elite wingers, you haven't really reached the point of having too many.  I understand the argument that it might not be an optimal use of cap dollars to carry a high number of expensive wingers, but I don't see it as redundant in terms of usage - those aren't quite the same thing.   A team needs to fill 120 minutes on the wings and until you can fill all the required ice time with top tier performers, you haven't reached the point of redundancy in the same sense as having an all star caliber back-up goalie (although there are different arguments for that as well) sitting on the bench for 60 games.

The second argument against drafting Nichushkin tends to be some combination of transfer risk and the delayed time frame involved.  The likelihood that he'll be unavailable for two seasons post-draft is not terribly alarming to me.  No matter which other player you draft at that point, it's not probable the player will crack the NHL in 2013/14 (and even if he did, what are the odds that player is a genuine contributor as opposed to someone relatively replaceable via UFA for a similar cap hit this summer?).  I don't even know how probable it would be for that player to play, and genuinely contribute, in 2014/15, although it would be more likely than Nichushkin if he's tied to Russia through 2015.  Provided you have little reason to believe he'll re-sign in Russia and stay there beyond the expected two seasons, I don't see the time frame as a big issue.  He'll continue to develop playing in Russia, and likely be a more complete player for it when he moves to the NHL.  The transfer risk is a potential issue, and needs to be thoroughly examined and assessed to the best of Edmonton's knowledge prior to the draft.  I would be willing to gamble a bit more for an elite talent than some others might, but that doesn't necessarily mean you take him at 7 overall, even if he's the BPA, if he were to flat out tell you he isn't interested in coming over to North America until 25, or that he isn't interested in Edmonton specifically, or something like that.  I have read nothing that indicates he isn't willing to come over.  In fact, I read somewhere (who knows, maybe this is true, maybe it isn't) that he was looking at Tarasenko as a template by playing two years post-draft in Russia before coming to the NHL.  Given the lack of information suggesting he isn't be interested in coming to the NHL, I would tend not to worry about it that much, but I'm also not in a position to get the information the Oilers are in.  It is in Edmonton's best interest to talk to as many informed people as possible to assess Nichushkin's desire to play in the NHL, to ask him and his representatives at the combine, perhaps bring him to town as they did for some other potential top picks in previous seasons if they think it's something that might help sway him towards North America as soon as possible.  If all those background checks don't turn up any information that leads you to believe he's not interested in coming over, then I don't think the transfer risk should be significant enough to dissuade the Oilers from selecting Nichushkin.  And if there is some way to get him signed this summer while still respecting his two years in Russia (allowing the slide rule to keep all 3 ELC years while his Russian contract runs to its completion), all the better. 

Elite players are worth their weight in gold, and you really can't have too many of them, regardless of position, until the salary cap says otherwise.  If Nichushkin represents Edmonton's best chance to select one, I think they should take him even though he's another winger, and even though he'll be unavailable next season.  The transfer risk needs to be assessed, but accepting a certain amount of risk is a reasonable gamble to take, in my opinion, for a better chance at an elite player.

* I have seen Nichushkin listed as a C/W in some places, but haven't read too many people suggesting he would likely play C in the NHL.

** If there is a surprise or two before Edmonton's selection, if someone like Nurse or Ristolainen is picked in the top 6, then Edmonton would have a choice between at least two of those top 7 prospects once it's their turn to pick.  This post is potentially rendered moot should an unexpected pick occur, since any of the players likely to slide as a result of a surprise selection could potentially both fill a need for Edmonton (likely to be a center) along with meet the criteria of being the BPA.  Additionally, if EDM doesn't tier the talent in the same way on their list, or trades the pick away, most of this post is likely also moot.  However, I'm operating under the assumption that they do, and they don't, respectively.

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