The Oilers had a list of possible scenarios for their fourth-overall pick heading into the 2016 NHL Draft. They kicked the tires on several moves prior to the opening pick, including going up and down the draft board. In fact, the Oilers had a legitimate deal in place for a defenceman that included the fourth pick. However, as they began discussing the moves available the Oilers started to realize that the right move may be to just sit and wait.
Less than two hours before the opening pick of the first round, the hockey world was abuzz with speculation on trades with general managers working the floor. Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli was engaged in conversation with Flames GM Brad Treliving and Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen.
The three were undoubtedly discussing potential movement, among other things. Both Chiarelli and Kekalainen said they were open to swapping draft slots with another team, perhaps even each other.
“We were just looking at jockeying around, whether it was moving up or maybe moving down and seeing what we could maybe harvest from going down,” said Chiarelli. “It maybe is more common practice where we were and how the players laid out in the rankings. But yes, we talked about maybe moving up and maybe moving down also.”
Kekalainen, whose Blue Jackets were one spot ahead of Edmonton, also entertained moving back. The only logical spot to move back to, however, was with the Oilers. Columbus had one player in mind for the third pick. They knew Edmonton was interested in another, so they were the only team Columbus could deal with and still be assured their man.
“We had a lot of offers,” Kekalainen said. “But we said all along we don’t want to move too far back. There were a couple scenarios we could move back and then move back up but that didn’t work either. We were happy to get the guy we wanted at three.”
The guy most expected Columbus to want at three was Jesse Puljujarvi. Kekalainen’s fellow Finn was ranked by many as the third-best prospect in the draft. And for a time, he was in the mix for the second spot. However, the Blue Jackets were keeping a secret. They had a different draft board.
“Those are outside opinions, and we make our own list,” said the Blue Jackets GM.
Columbus selected Cape Breton’s Pierre-Luc Dubois, which meant Puljujarvi dropped to the Oilers.
“Since (Dubois is) the guy third on our list, we didn’t want to take any chances not getting him,” said Kekalainen. “So we tried (moving back to pick him). The only safe pick was to move back to four knowing that Edmonton would take Puljujarvi at three, probably. We tried. We were on the phone all morning before the draft started to see if we could do something like that but Dubois was our guy at number three. We didn’t want to take the chance to lose him.”
Chiarelli says he spoke with Kekalainen for the last week in exploratory efforts to move up one spot. However, he also had conversations with three or four other managers to move down. It was in these conversation that Chiarelli began to get the sense that it was not Puljujarvi who was third on Kekalainen’s wish list.
“It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out who may be available at four,” Chiarelli said. “But what we started doing was, at one point, we started to look to move down. While that was happening, we got the sense that maybe Puljujarvi would drop. We kind of backed off. You kind of know what other teams’ needs might be, and while there’s some speculating and it happened that he was available. We’re fortunate. He’s a big, strong kid, a smart player who can shoot the puck. Happy to get him.”
In the end, it was a slight variation of rankings between teams that led to Puljujarvi becoming available.
“There’s always debate, obviously,” said Kekalainen. “That’s what we do all year long. We have midterm meetings and we have a lot of debates, sometimes heated debates on guys they like. When we come out of the room before the draft we all agree on our list and all of our scouts are really excited about the pick we made.”
And the Oilers were excited about theirs. Everyone was happy.
“As it turns out, we feel fortunate to get a guy we thought we might not get,” said Head Coach Todd McLellan.
McLellan has been in the team’s “war room” and at their draft table this week. He was thoroughly impressed with Chiarelli’s preparedness when it came to all scenarios. The Oilers were willing to suspend trade talks with the expectation their coveted player would drop.
“The staff led by Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the group did a tremendous job because they anticipated a number of different scenarios and we played them out,” said McLellan. “One of them was one of those top two or three guys falling to us at number four. Of course, it happened and we were prepared to react and make the pick immediately. It’s interesting how much strategy and stress maybe goes into figuring out what you’re going to do. Are you going to move down? Are you going to trade the pick? And as it turned out, we got a player we coveted and we’re excited about joining our organization. We think he has chance to be a long-time Oiler.”
And they feel he fills a bit of a need and could play this season, which makes him sliding one spot all the more exciting to the club.
“Yeah, I feel a little fortunate because we had him high but other teams may have other guys higher,” said Chiarelli. “We have a lot of centremen so to have a winger come is nice, to be able to play with our centremen. A little fortunate, but sometimes these guys drop.”
The Oilers could have gone a number of ways with the fourth pick. They could have traded assets to move up, and maybe take Puljujarvi in his expected spot. Or they could have traded back. They could have taken defence, or one of the other high-end forwards. But in the end, the right move — and perhaps most exciting — was them staying right where they were.