During one 60-minute stretch back in late June the NHL briefly went crazy with a flurry of blockbuster moves that included the P.K. Subban–Shea Weber trade, Steven Stamkos re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Edmonton Oilers finally going through with a trade involving one of their core players (Taylor Hall) to the New Jersey Devils in an effort to solidify their defense by acquiring Adam Larsson in a one-for-one swap.
On Saturday night in New Jersey, the Devils and Oilers meet for the first time since that blockbuster trade and they will meet again in Edmonton a week later. That means it is now a good time to look back at that trade and see how it is working out for both teams. So let’s do that.
In the immediate aftermath of the trade it was largely viewed as a major win for the Devils. Hall was a top-line player — and just the type of player the Devils needed — while Larsson was simply a solid defenseman that probably fit in better as a second-pairing guy on a contending team.
Now that the 2016-17 season is half over, perception of the deal has shifted a bit, at least when it comes to the Oilers’ return because of how well the team has played this season.
Entering play on Saturday the Oilers are the owners of a 20-13-7 record and have a pretty strong hold on a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Devils, meanwhile, are still six points out of a wild card spot in the East with six teams ahead of them. Coming out of that to earn a playoff spot seems like a real long shot at this point even as Hall scores at would be a 70-point pace over 82 games.
Based on the success of the two teams, it would be easy to chalk the trade up as an easy win and shrewd move for the Oilers that has helped drastically change their fortune on the ice. Especially as the Oilers have seen an improvement in their overall defensive performance go from complete dumpster fire to middle of the pack NHL team this season.
It would also be a bit unfair and misleading, and a good example as to why team success isn’t necessarily the best way to evaluate a trade.
Larsson is a good player, and the Oilers are no doubt happy to have him. But do you know who else is a really good player? Taylor Hall. A possession-driving forward that is still among one of the top-30 most productive players in the NHL.
So why have the Oilers been able to turn it around this season with Larsson while the Devils remain stuck in mediocrity?
It basically comes down to this: The Oilers have Connor McDavid, and the New Jersey Devils do not.
That is what has sparked the turnaround for the Oilers. Playing in just his second season in the league — and what should be his first full season, barring an injury in the second half — McDavid is already one of the two best players in hockey and has had a profound impact on the Oilers’ success. He is in now in a back-and-forth race with Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the NHL’s scoring title, while the Oilers play like a top playoff team when he is on the ice. They control more than 55 percent of the shot attempts during 5-on-5 play and outscore their opponents by a 34-21 margin (that is more than 62 percent of the goals).
When McDavid is not on the ice, the Oilers play like … well … the Oilers team we have come to expect. Their share of the shot attempts drops down to only 47.9 percent while they actually get outscored by a 41-48 margin. The difference is night and day.
There is no question that Larsson has been a solid addition to the Oilers’ blue line and an upgrade over what the team had been trotting out there over the past five or six years. But he hasn’t been so great that it has sparked this sort of one-year turnaround for the team. Especially when you look at his actual contributions. For example, when it comes to limiting shots and keeping pucks out of the net Larsson currently ranks sixth out of the eight Oilers defensemen (minimum 50 minutes of ice time) in goals against per 60 minutes (2.58) and total shot attempts against (55.20), and he isn’t a huge contributor offensively (only six points in 40 games).
Granted, those numbers are still better than what a lot of Oilers defensemen were able to put up in recent seasons. Heck, just last season the only two defensemen that played in Edmonton that posted better numbers in both categories were Brandon Davidson and Jordan Oesterle … and Oesterle only played in 17 games. But it is not the type of defensive performance that turns a team around.
Plus, there are a lot of other factors that go into the Oilers’ improved defensive play beyond just the addition of Larsson.
Andrej Sekera has been better in his second year with the team. Oscar Klefbom (only played in 30 games a season ago) is healthy and has taken a huge step forward in his development. Kris Russell might be a polarizing player in the eye test vs. analytics debate, but he is at the very least serviceable NHL defenseman that is better than a lot of players the Oilers relied on last season. And that does not even get into the fact Cam Talbot has given them better than league average play in net while playing in almost every game this season.
All of that has played a role in the Oilers’ improvement.
But nothing has played a bigger role than McDavid turning into hockey Superman. That is the source of most of your turnaround, Edmonton.
Hall and Larsson — as well as the success of their two teams — are going to be compared against one another for as long as they both play in the NHL because of the trade that sent them to their current teams.
Individually, Hall is still the better player. But the Larsson side of the trade is looking like a winner because his team is playing better — and it’s mostly due to a player that isn’t Adam Larsson.