The next few months are critically important for the Edmonton Oilers, a team that has lost its way since enjoying a dream run to the Stanley Cup finals against Carolina in 2006.
Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini has seemingly bitten the bullet and made the tough choice to rebuild with a roster heavy on youth with a dash of skill and veteran presence.
His most challenging task is to deconstruct a lineup filled with under-sized, over-paid players. He certainly was under no misconception when accepting the GM position in Edmonton, that at some point if the club continued its plunge down the NHL standings, he would be forced to dismantle – potentially from a position of disadvantage – a lineup filled with unattractive, costly contracts.
The club can thank former GM and current President of Hockey Operations, Kevin Lowe, for that monkey on his back.
Look no further than Shawn Horcoff, a $2.5 to $3M player at best, locked into a multi-year deal by former Oilers GM Kevin Lowe that will see him earn Patrick Marleau-like money next year at $7M, minus the production. Horcoff, a leader in the dressing room, failed to live up to the generous paycheque on the ice, however, putting up embarrassing numbers (13-23-36) in 77 games.
Adding insult to his anemic offensive stats was an ugly +/- Rating of – 29, second behind Patrick O’Sullivan’s league high +/- Rating of -35!
Poster children for hockey dysfunction.
Tambellini is without question, in a contractual pickle. Having the support of team owner Daryl Katz, to blow up and commence the reconstruct, is half the battle.
It’s a project, no doubt, that will involve discarding some of the organization’s dead wood through trade, contract buyout, a commitment to youth, as well as intelligent drafting for talent and size.
There are as many opinions on how to move forward, as there are opinioned scribes. Allow me to add mine to the growing pile.
With pain, however, also comes healing, and in the NHL that translates into solid draft picks. The Oilers’ number-one overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, will land them a gem, a player who could potentially become a cornerstone of Tambo’s rebuild. That player will likely be either Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers or the returning Memorial Cup Champion Windsor Spitfires’ Taylor Hall. Seguin, the OHL’s Player of the Year, comes with top billing as a 100 point-plus, right-shot centre, apparently a rarity for a centre. Hall, also a 106-point player this season, displays skill, size and grit – attributes desperately needed in E-town. Seguin could very well find himself back in the “O” next season, while Hall, a year older, seems the more physically mature player. Unless Edmonton deals its first overall pick, I would put my money on Taylor being the new “Kid in the Hall”, when Tambellini calls his name out in L.A. next month. With Hall and can’t-miss prospect Jordan Eberle on the team’s 2010-11 radar, Edmonton fans will have something to finally get excited about.
Fernando Pisani: Edmonton native Fernando Pisani has spent more time on the IR than in the scoring column, since his magical 14-goal post-season experience during the 2006 Cup run. Concluding a $2.5M contract, Ferni is a UFA. Cut him loose. More talented third liners are available for half the price.
Patrick O’Sullivan: A complexity for the Oilers. Although the Oil are a team in need of a talented two-way centre, O’Sullivan has failed to impress, though Head Coach Pat Quinn’s use of O’Sullivan undoubtedly impacted his game, moving him throughout the lineup from first to fourth. Nonetheless, O’Sullivan, at 5’11″, 190 lbs, frequently plays soft, bailing on puck battles down low for fear of the big hit. At close to $3M, 11 goals and -35 do little for a team looking to improve. At $2M next year, fellow underachieving centre Robert Nilsson is better value. Although Nilsson occasionally found himself in the doghouse of former Oilers’ bench boss, Craig MacTavish, Nilsson’s two-way play and physical game, IMO, improved a bit this year.
Marc-Andre Pouliot: An RFA next season currently earning $850K, Pouliot is one of those underachieving players who seem to have horseshoes up his behind. Pouliot is better known for his junior linemate, Sidney Crosby, who he toiled with for the Oceanic, than for his NHL accomplishments. The clock, howeer, should have expired on this player long ago. Both MacT and Quinn speak positively about this player, more for his size (6.1, 190 lbs), than his offensive production (7-7 in 35 games in 2009-10). A project player at best. Get rid of him…send him to Pittsburgh and reunite him with Sid for a third, fourth rounder.
Ethan Moreau: In the final year of a $2M contact, Tambellini tried, but failed, to trade his aging captain at this year’s trade deadline. Moreau, who has lost a step, should be part of a package deal or bought out this off-season.
Sheldon Souray: The $5.4M blueliner’s days may be numbered in Edmonton. A local boy, Souray spent half of the 2009-10 campaign on the Injured List, both as a result of run-ins with Flames’ Captain Jarome Iginla. Outspoken of late, Souray has publicly demanded a trade, underlining his discontent with the Oilers’ management. Sad really, as Souray was the logical choice to replace Moreau as team captain. With a youth movement underway now, look for Tambo to grant Souray his wish this summer, if an appropriate blue chip forward is available. Wouldn’t surprise me to him head back to Montreal in a Souray for Plekanec and draft pick exchange. Not sure the organization has confidence yet in promoting defensive prospects Alex Plante or Jeff Petry.
Cogliano or Gagne: Tambellini thought he had a deal once for Dany Heatley, which would have seen Cogs head to the Nation’s Capital with Ladislav Smid. I think the Oilers will eventually thank Heatley, given Smid’s emergence as a physical presence, and Cog’s upside as speedy forward with solid special teams experience. It’s likely an unpopular and seldom discussed option, but my preference would see Tambo trade Sammy Gagner, a physically-challenged, skilled forward to free up cap space to allow the team to pursue a stronger, offensive forward, not prone to being constantly forced off the puck. Although both are currently RFAs, Washington forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Tomas Fleischmann are the perfect blend of skill and strength that Edmonton desperately needs up front. The Caps need to shave some salary, and Gagner plus might be an attractive option for one of those emerging talents. While good value (RFA earning $1.6M), Gagner’s importance to the Oilers (15-26-41) is arguably over-valued! If Tambellini decides to keep both Cogliano and Gagner, it will be interesting to see what both cost the club this time around. My guess? Two-year contracts at $1.75M for Cogs and $3M for Gags.
After shipping out some contracts including Steve Staios and Lubomir Visnovsky at this year’s trade deadline, Edmonton currently has upwards of $5M in cap clearance. With the salary cap likely rising by a couple of million, and Souray and/or a forward being shown the door at Rexall Place, the Oilers should have some cap room to work in a few pivotal components. A few free agents Tambo might consider:
Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec ($2.7M) – Seventy-point player; solid face-off man.
Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom ($2.25M) – Best crease crasher in the league; depth of Stanley Cup experience.
Vancouver’s Willie Mitchell, ($3.5M) – A take-no-prisoners D man.
Phoenix’s Matthew Lombardi ($1.8M) – Affordable flash and dash with finish.
Phoenix’s Taylor Pyatt ($600K) – Brings size to the wing, presence in front of the net, something the Oilers desperately need more of (Height 6.04 — Weight 230). Ready to return to form, after death of fiancé a few years ago.
Omsk Avangard’s Jaromir Jagr – At 38, Jags arguably has some game left in him. The questions are whether he has offence left in his game, and at what price? Last season, his second in the KHL, Jags scored 42 points in 51 games (22-20) for Omsk. Playing alongside his fellow countryman, Ales Hemsky, has some members of Oilers Nation drooling. If he hasn’t matured, Jagr can be a cancer on a team as well. If Tambo could get him to sign for under $3M for one, possibly two seasons, he might be worth the risk.
That’s my wish list – what about yours?
In the meantime, keep your chins up and your sticks on the ice Oiler fans.
About the Author
Written by Scott Pattison
Scott is an award-winning sports writer whose career spans more than 20 years. He's proudly covered the Oilers since moving to the Alberta capital in 2000.