Yakupov and Russell Deals Show Changed Focus

Judging by fan reaction, you’d think that over the last 24 hours, the Edmonton Oilers just dismantled a winning franchise. Early into the evening on Friday, two transactions woke the hockey world as the Oilers shipped underachieving right-winger Nail Yakupov to St. Louis and then quickly announced the signing of often under-appreciated defenseman Kris Russell to a one-year contract. Neither move should have been seen as a surprise, yet despite Edmonton’s lack of success, both moves have been met with mixed reactions.

First Impressions

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Peter Chiarelli’s bold moves in Edmonton haven’t always been met with the warmest response. Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an interesting phenomenon when in one breath a contingent of fans can come down on a player for a lack of production, then in the next breath publicly condemn the team that trades him. Of course, this is not to be outdone by the vocal fanbase who criticises a team for taking on a player who underachieved elsewhere, but has the tools to succeed in a new environment.

That seems to be the situation in Edmonton; where, after years of harping on the level to which right-winger Yakupov underachieved, fans are vocally showing their displeasure with the Oilers who are “mistakenly” moving on before giving him a chance to break out as an NHL player.

So too, a large contingent of fans appear unhappy over the fact that the Oilers have signed Russell, who clearly isn’t a 25 minute-per-night blueliner, but is an upgrade on defense to a blueline that has underperformed for close to a decade.

It’s too early to judge these two transactions, but that doesn’t mean these moves don’t make sense from an Oilers perspective.

Forward Depth

Nail Yakupov
Nail Yakupov (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Even though Yakupov was potentially destined to be a small part of the Oilers offense in 2016-17, perhaps even ride the bench for much of the season, rumours of a Yakupov trade became reality when the Oilers traded him to the St. Louis Blues for forward Zach Pochiro and a conditional pick in 2017.

Related: Nail Yakupov Traded to St. Louis Blues, Oilers Reportedly Sign Russell

As hard as it is to do, the best way to understand this move is to ignore the optics of it. It was a trade that most people saw coming, but the shock over how little a first-overall draft selection fetched on the open market is unsettling. How could a player with such pedigree return next to nothing? It’s a shot to the gut if you’re an Oilers fan.

The Reality

Simply put, Yakupov didn’t produce. He wasn’t even a player the Oilers would likely consider protecting in the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft. Advanced stats advocates will point to a small sample size in which alongside Connor McDavid, Yakupov was a better point/60 player than Jordan Eberle, but the reality is, Yakupov wasn’t consistently getting it done.

While some were for the idea of showcasing him again with McDavid (honestly, I was not opposed to the idea), the Oilers were forced to wrap their head around the fact that moving Yakupov wasn’t about the return. The transaction was based on an understanding that Yakupov was no longer in the long-term plans for the Edmonton Oilers. He was a $2.5 million dollar player that had been moved down the depth chart and the Oilers were going to struggle to fit him into the roster. Edmonton had better options and needed a way to make room for them.

Peter Chiarelli had been shopping him all summer and the flip-side of the coin was that Yakupov was looking forward to a new opportunity. When the Oilers saw the chance to move him, all the while not having to retain any of his salary in the deal, Edmonton jumped.

What’s Next

Moving Yakupov means a few things: First, Kris Versteeg has likely earned himself a contract coming out of his professional tryout (PTO). He’s a veteran right-winger with a history of steady production. He’ll slot in at any of the right wing positions on whatever line requires his services and he’ll provide reliability at the position.

This also opens the door for Jesse Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi has outplayed Yakupov in preseason play and while he may still require a bit more time in the AHL before regular NHL duty, he seems to have the makings of a dynamic right-winger who can drive his own line.

Edmonton’s depth at right wing is set. Jordan Eberle, Kris Versteeg, Jesse Puljujarvi and Zack Kassian make up the core, rounded out by players like Tyler Pitlick, Drake Caggiula and potentially Leon Draisaitl. All will get plenty of opportunities to fill in any spaces left by Yakupov’s absence.

Kris Russell

Kris Russell, NHL, Dallas Stars, Trade Deadline
Kris Russell has signed in Edmonton where the Oilers will have a specific role in mind for him. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

To understand why the Oilers signed Russell means grasping one concept: Edmonton is going for depth on defense and what they had in their system wasn’t making them comfortable.

Related: Reinhart Latest Failure in 2012 Draft Class

On Friday, before the Russell and Yakupov news, Griffin Reinhart was demoted to the AHL. While it seems a distant memory thanks to the bigger moves of the day, Reinhart’s inability to crack the Oilers roster speaks volumes. There was room for him: Injuries were a factor, Edmonton had no power play point-man and the Oilers lacked a defenseman who could effectively kill penalties. None of that seemed enough motivation for Reinhart to seize the opportunity and all of these areas were exposed

There was room for him: Injuries were a factor, Edmonton had no power play point-man and the Oilers lacked a defenseman who could effectively kill penalties. None of that seemed enough motivation for Reinhart to seize the opportunity, and all of these areas were exposed during the Oilers’ early preseason losses. Edmonton’s hopes of solving these problems were riding on the shoulders of Eric Gryba (on a PTO) and Matthew Benning (a newly signed college free agent rookie).

Related: Defensive Depth a Difference Maker for the Oilers

Related: Oilers Signing May Work Well Under 2 Conditions

The Reality

Kris Russell doesn’t solve all of the Oilers problems, but he is a viable low-risk solution to some of them. Russell is well known for his work on special teams. He plays plenty of minutes on both the penalty kill and power play and if deployed properly, the issues with his problematic 5-on-5 advanced stats will be minimized.

Russell is one of the NHL’s best shot-blockers, though the knock on him is that he’s forced to block many shots because the opposition tends to have the puck in his zone when he’s on the ice. He’s also a lefty on a team that is full of left-handed defenseman.

What’s Next

Eric Gryba
Eric Gryba. Photo: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Unless the Oilers are going to keep right-handed d-men on the right side as much as possible, the Russell signing could mean the beginning of the end for Gryba. Gryba offers the Oilers veteran grit and defensive ability on the penalty kill, but he’s struggled with his passing and playmaking while offering little in the way of offense.

Alternatively, Russell’s signing could mean taking the defensive depth and creating defined roles for them. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson have been sweet music in the preseason and have likely earned the trust of the coaching staff to be Edmonton’s top pair duo. Andrej Sekera and Mark Fayne/Brandon Davidson can be a formidable two/three and Darnell Nurse, Matthew Benning along with Russell give Edmonton eight defensemen to work with. This signing also gives Edmonton the option to slow-play Nurse and Benning.

Final Impressions

The Oilers have moved an asset that wasn’t going to be used and added a short-term option that has an opportunity to show he deserves long-term consideration. Edmonton hasn’t altered their status for the upcoming expansion draft and they now have a player who can provide power play and penalty kill minutes on a team that needed help in both those areas.

Edmonton made moves today that made sense for their team. It’s easy to criticize the moves because one move saw an enigmatic player leave for a pile of nothing and the other brought in a player who has a lot to prove. That doesn’t make them the wrong play.

On the surface, it’s just another move in a long line of moves made by a manager not afraid to take risks. Underneath, it shows a clear change in direction for a team that needed it.