At first glance, it’s a trade that makes no sense. The Edmonton Oilers—a famously weak defensive team—traded one of their few bona fide NHL rearguards in a deal that brought no immediate help to the team. Worse still, the beneficiary of the deal was hated rival Calgary.
So, what were they thinking? Was this just an example of a bad team making another bad decision?
One possibility would be that Ladislav Smid simply wasn’t a very good player.
There is little sign of that, however, the revolving door of Edmonton coaches the last five years all found time for Smid on the blue line, and while the player’s ice-time was down a little this year (he averaged just under 18:00 per game, split between even-strength and the penalty kill), he was still getting regular minutes. Smid was also heavily leaned on in the defensive zone, with behindthenet.ca showing he had the toughest shift starts of any defender on the team.
It’s also extremely difficult to believe that general manager Craig MacTavish was so wowed by the possible return that he simply had to pull the trigger on a trade.
Roman Horak, the young centre coming the other way, is a middling prospect. Goaltender Laurent Brossoit is an upgrade to Olivier Roy (who was dealt with Smid), but it’s an upgrade from “probably will never play in the NHL” to “possibly will play in the NHL years down the road.”
Why would a weak defensive team move a legitimate NHL defenceman for a marginal return?
Part of the answer is “cap space.” Smid took up $3.5 million against the cap; the players Edmonton took back in the deal cost nothing. The Oilers used some of that cap space immediately, shoring up their goaltending with the acquisition of free agent Ilya Bryzgalov:
Note on Bryzgalov contract: It is a $1M bonus and a $1M pro-rated salary, so his actual cash is a little less.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) November 9, 2013
The addition of Bryzgalov should allow Edmonton to bury backup Jason LaBarbera, meaning that the total cap cost of adding the Russian goaltender is somewhere under $1.0 million. According to MacTavish, there aren’t any plans to use the rest of the cap space the team just cleared:
MacTavish on @630CHED re: the churning rumour mill: "Certainly no moves imminent and hopefully none for quite some time."— Dan Tencer (@dantencer) November 9, 2013
The team could have found the space for Bryzgalov elsewhere. Why, then, did they move Smid?
The answer lies in the makeup of the defence.
On the left side, the Oilers had four options prior to the Smid deal: Smid, team captain Andrew Ference, veteran Nick Schultz and experienced KHL rearguard Anton Belov.
Belov has arguably been the best of the lot and has a wider skillset, while Ference, Schultz and Smid are all veteran defensive defencemen that can slide into the second or third pairing on a good team.
Put another way: despite Edmonton’s defensive weakness, Smid’s particular skills made him somewhat redundant in the here-and-now.
The picture gets bleaker in the future. The Oilers are loaded with left-side defensive prospects, including a pair of highly touted ones in Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse.
Smid has three years left on his deal after this season, as does Ference; given the team’s apparent commitment to Belov, something had to give. That something was Smid, the poorest puck-mover of the three.
Edmonton needs top-end defencemen, and Smid wasn’t going to fill that gap; in both the short- and long-term, there was a good case for moving him. This was readily apparent at least as early as last summer. So, despite the weakness of the team’s defence overall, trading Smid is easily defensible.
What makes this a bad deal—one in a long line of bad deals for the Oilers—is the return.
Smid is still young at the age of 27 and signed to a reasonable long-term contract. Defencemen always seem to have value around the trade deadline (recall a worse player in Douglas Murray on a rental deal fetching two second-round draft picks from Pittsburgh), and if MacTavish is being honest about having no other trades in the works, there was no pressing reason for the Oilers to move Smid now.
The Oilers evaluated the situation and then decided to deal him to a division rival for marginal prospects. It’s not a franchise-devastating move, but getting 25 cents on the dollar for real NHL players is one way bad teams stay bad teams.