What would you rather have: three players with 30-goal potential, or seven players with 20-goal potential?
Do the math and it sounds easy – you’d probably rather have 140 goals over 90 goals, right?
But put some names in the conversation like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on one side, and Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris on the other side, and it’s easy to lose sight of the numbers.
The Edmonton Oilers rebuild has been critiqued from many angles, but those critiques usually involve the same handful of teams. They’re doing what Chicago and Pittsburgh did by getting bad and drafting high, yet they can’t seem to improve. They’re not patching holes like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have tried to rebuild on the fly for about as long as the Oilers have been trying to rebuild from the ground up.
But Edmonton might have more to learn from smaller-market Canadian teams like Ottawa and Winnipeg, who have more of the same organizational challenges.
Winnipeg is clearly head-and-shoulders above Edmonton these days, but Ottawa is very much a team in transition, just like the Oilers. Ottawa and Edmonton aren’t exactly top-tier free agent destinations, and both have very hands-on owners. Add in Ottawa’s tight purse strings, and it’s a wonder they manage to routinely outperform their cross-country counterparts in Edmonton.
Both teams are packed with high first-rounders, but Ottawa drafts better and judges its players based on performance, not potential.
Edmonton has a bunch of high first-round picks at forward and a dearth of talent at every other position, while Ottawa has a more well-rounded mix of solid if not spectacular contributors at every position. Ottawa has also kept a lid on its salaries and shows a willingness to make trades and reclaim other team’s disappointing first-rounders.
Ottawa’s depth was simply too much for Edmonton to handle on Saturday, as the Senators pounded the Oilers 7-2. Veteran Milan Michalek (acquired by trade) had two goals, but the remaining five goals were scored by five different players.
Were those scorers all former high draft picks?
Some of them were, but they weren’t Ottawa’s high picks, and the Sens are not paying them for their draft positions. Kyle Turris (former No. 3 overall) makes $3.5 million a season. Veteran David Legwand (former No. 2 overall) is a $3-million man. Michalek was a sixth overall pick once upon a time, but he only makes $4 million at age 30.
None of those guys were drafted by Ottawa. Michalek and Turris were projects acquired by trade, and they’ve grown into what they are today. Legwand was a rare UFA signing, but he’s not expected to be a superstar anymore.
Then there’s Cody Ceci (15th overall, $1.369 million), Mike Hoffman (130th overall, $750,000) and Alex Chiasson (38th overall, $900,000). All three players were valuable Senators on Saturday, though each guy started his career in a very different place.
Ceci was a high Sens pick, but Hoffman was a fifth-round find by Ottawa and Chiasson was acquired by trade from Dallas.
Go through the Ottawa roster and you’ll find plenty of high first-round picks, yet none of them are paid like Edmonton’s $6-million young guns. The Ottawa roster also includes a number of young and talented players acquired from other teams who have grown into solid if not spectacular depth players in Canada’s capital.
The point here is not that the Sens had more guys score on Saturday than the Oilers did. The point is that, like Edmonton, Ottawa can’t go buy free agents, so they’ve spent their resources on scouting well, building organizational depth and only dishing out big money to those who deserve it (read: Erik Karlsson).
The Senators have six forwards and one defenceman on their roster right now who could hit the 20-goal mark by the end of the season. Heck, Hoffman already has 19. Ottawa could realistically finish the season with 20 goals for each guy on its top two lines.
Only two of those six forwards were first-round picks by Ottawa. The remaining players were acquired through trade or late-round drafting, which shows it takes creativity to build a roster.
But imagine if the Sens paid their high picks like the Oilers do? Bobby Ryan is a No. 2 pick. So is Legwand. Chris Phillips is a No. 1, Turris is a No. 3 and Zibanejad and Michalek are both sixth overall picks.
Short-term deals seem to be working fine in Ottawa. And if guys look ready to bolt, they get traded. Ottawa pays for performance, and Edmonton should start following that example.
Edmonton can’t simply continue to pick in the top three at the draft and expect to improve. Craig MacTavish needs to get creative. He needs to take a chance on someone else’s high-ceiling project players. He needs his scouts to start turning up late-round gems. Maybe he needs to start trading some of his own failed projects.
And good lord, he needs to stop handing out big-money, long-term deals to guys who have accomplished nothing.
For all the hype surrounding Edmonton's big-name players, Ottawa is much better set up for long-term success.