The Oilers & Mathew Barzal

Hindsight is always 20/20, especially when you didn’t like the move to begin with. Oilers fans haven’t forgotten the 2015 draft, and it’s not just because of Connor McDavid. The Oilers made a big trade, sending the 16th overall pick and the 33rd overall pick to the New York Islanders for Griffin Reinhart. The case for the trade was simple: the Oilers needed an NHL-ready defenceman, rather than more prospects. The problem was that Reinhart was a fringe NHL defenseman at best. A year and a half later, Reinhart is toiling in the AHL. Was that trade a mistake?

The Plight of Griffin Reinhart

Edmonton Oilers defensemen Griffin Reinhart (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
Edmonton Oilers defensemen Griffin Reinhart (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2012 NHL Draft was the year of the defenceman. Eight blueliners were chosen in the top 10, featuring names such as Jacob Trouba, Morgan Rielly, Hampus Lindholm and Matthew Dumba. Griffin Reinhart was chosen fourth overall, the second rear guard chosen (Ryan Murray was taken second).

The justification for his high selection was simple. Reinhart had the size, hockey sense and skill to be a top-pairing defenceman. He was never the best skater, but his all-around skill-set had him pegged as a reliable shut-down guy with offensive upside.

Most prospects, especially defencemen, will always be something of a crapshoot. You simply don’t know how they will pan out as a pro. That’s why drafting is such a science. Reinhart had the look of a sure thing, at least to the Islanders, because they picked him much higher than his ranking. He’s struggled to find his place in the NHL, suiting up for 37 career games between the Islanders and Oilers, in which he had zero goals and two assists.

The Oilers were counting on Reinhart to shore up their blue line, but thus far, he’s been a bust. Despite injuries on the back-end, Reinhart remains in the AHL and has shown little to no improvement in his game. Reinhart isn’t the first and won’t be the last prospect to have trouble making it, but the problem for the Oilers is what they gave up to acquire him. It’s too soon to say whether they have completely given up on Reinhart, but he doesn’t seem to be poised to help them anytime soon.

How Good is Mathew Barzal?

Mathew Barzal
Mathew Barzal: (Photo: Christopher Mast)

It’s World Juniors time, which means prospects that most fans pay no attention to come into the spotlight. This year, one of the names for Canada that’s getting some press is Mathew Barzal, the player whom the Islanders chose with the Oilers’ 16th overall pick. Barzal is a centerman with good hands,and hockey sense, who also skates well. He has only played two games for the Islanders, spending most of his time with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. He’s struggled to find the back of the net this season, scoring just two goals in 13 games.

But Barzal had a big goal for Canada in the first World Junior game against Russia (it proved to be the game-winner). That didn’t sit well with Oilers fans who hated the Reinhart trade. And at this point, you can’t blame them. But we don’t know if the Oilers would have even chosen Barzal with the pick, nor do we have any idea how good he will actually be. Barzal’s best season with Seattle came in the 2015-16 season where he scored 27 goals and 88 points in 58 games. Good numbers, but how do they compare to other Junior players?

To put it in perspective, the WHL’s leading scorer that season was Adam Brooks, who had 38 goals and 120 points. He also played in more games than Barzal. But we know it’s more than just putting up points. Barzal led Seattle in scoring last season despite missing so many games. He’s billed as more of a playmaker than goal scorer, and there have been questions about his size and if he could handle the physicality of the NHL game. Is he the kind of player that the Oilers needed?

The Oilers Didn’t Need a Center

Here’s the reality of the situation. Had the Oilers hung on to the 16th overall pick, there’s really no guarantee they would have even chosen Barzal. Yes, he scored for Canada, but he wasn’t exactly tearing up the Western Hockey League. His size was likely a detriment in terms of his prospect rankings. The Oilers would have been much better served by selecting a defenceman in that spot (such as Thomas Chabot who went at 18), or even a winger like Kyle Connor, who went at 17.

If you’re being rational, would you have approved of the Oilers using the 16th overall pick to draft a smallish centerman when they desperately needed defencemen? Probably not. Sure, it’s frustrating to see Reinhart looking like a bust and the Oilers essentially losing two draft picks for nothing. And it’s easy to look at Barzal playing well and lamenting the fact that he isn’t an Oiler. But there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have been anyway. Perhaps we should lament the fact that there were some good choices available at 33, like Sebastian Aho, Brandon Carlo and Mitchell Stephans.

In any case, there are no take backs with NHL trades. The Oilers felt they were doing the best thing for the organisation, and so far it proved to be a misstep. That happens in pro sports. Not every trade works out. But save yourself the heartache and don’t worry about Barzal. He might turn out to be a good NHL player, and he might not. He wasn’t what the Oilers needed and that’s why they felt comfortable making the deal.

Revisionist history is fun sometimes. But it’s not worth it in this case.