Last year I wrote a piece here on the beginning of the Oilers rebuild and how I thought management should act for the upcoming season. This year, I would like to revisit where the team is at and once again offer how I feel they should act in the coming year. It’s an Armchair GM article. This year I removed the salaries because let’s face it – they don’t matter nearly as much with the current team.
To quickly revisit last year’s article, my team would have looked like the following on opening night with additions to the team in italics:
· GOAL: Khabibulin; Deslauriers
· BLUE: Gilbert; Whitney; Shut-down guy (FA); Smid ; Chorney; Peckham; Aaron Johnson
· CENTER: Gagner; O'Sullivan; Horcoff; Pouliot; Potulny
· LEFT WING: Penner; Hall; Cogliano; Ryan Jones
· RIGHT WING: Hemsky; Brule; Colby Armstrong (FA); Eberle; Stortini
For comparison, here is the roster the Oilers started the season with:
· GOAL: Khabibulin; Deslauriers; Dubnyk
· BLUE: Gilbert; Whitney; Vandermeer; Smid; Peckham; Foster; Strudwick
· CENTER: Gagner; Horcoff; Cogliano; Brule; Fraser
· LEFT WING: Penner; Hall; Pajaarvi; MacIntyre
· RIGHT WING: Hemsky; Eberle; Jones; Stortini
I must admit that these two are not that far off. They signed Fraser instead of my suggestion in Armstrong. They flushed O’Sullivan, Pouliot and Potulny and added Pajaarvi, then brought in Vandermeer and Foster where I had a FA shut-down defenseman and elected to bring back Aaron Johnson. Overall, just some minor tweaks in both options.
Going into the 2010 -2011 season, I honestly thought this team would perform a lot better than they did. I wasn’t expecting a playoff team yet, but especially after that opening night win against Calgary, how could you not be optimistic? Sure the excitement and compete was much better than the 09-10 season, but the results were just as bad. They only had 25 wins and needed over 40 to get into the dance. That is a lot of improvement to ask for in one year, so I will be trying my best to temper my optimism and keep it in mind this year.
Having said that, I am still fairly optimistic about how the rebuild is going to date. We may be two or three years away, but I personally believe with the right additions, we could see a competitive team (e.g., in the 7-11 Western Conference range) as soon as the 2012-2013 season or if we are really lucky maybe this coming year.
The need to inject some veteran leadership should not go underestimated. Don Cherry mentioned this specifically referencing the Oiler’s on Hockey Night in Canada and I agree with him. The Oiler’s need to be careful they don’t allow a culture of losing to develop and therefore they must get in a competitive position as soon as possible.
Same as last year, I will start with the draft and then list the to-do items that may impact the opening night roster as the following:
1) Draft Ryan Nyugent-Hopkins 1st overall. Skill, skill and more skill. Plus, the guy has played in Red Deer for 3 years and publicly stated he wants to play for the Oilers – you’ve got to love that! Sure he is only 165 lbs soaking wet, but there are many elite players who are small and getting stronger is a lot easier than adding speed or that uncanny sixth hockey sense.
2) Explore the trade front for a potential big win-win deal. The focus of these big trades that need to be worked out before free agency should be on improving the top end talent of the team. In my opinion particular focus for the Oiler’s top end talent must be on defence. Guys like Bogosian and Weber keep coming up in blogs. Although this is unlikely, we have to explore these options to accelerate the team’s improvement. Sure we may see one of our prospects emerge but we may not and the risk of having another weak defence is too great to not address it. Also, this will not be fixed by adding depth defenders like Foster. We need a top sheriff back there to help out Whitney, because after him the talent drops way too fast.
3) As Free agency opens, focus on a few key players and if unable to sign them, don’t settle. There are a few key needs for this team right now that are quite obvious. A top defender and a defensive center who can win face-offs. I know these positions can be hard to find, but the Oiler’s have cap room to spare, so they should not shy away from a lot of money over a short term to address these needs. I believe that once the Oiler’s get out of this rut of being near the bottom and actually competing for playoffs, they will have reached a tipping point and all of a sudden Edmonton will be a much more attractive team to play for. Players around the league will see the upside of the youth they have in Hall, Eberle, Pajaarvi and RNH. We should not rely on the excuse that the team can develop every need from within. Although filling these gaps are critical, I wouldn’t settle. You have to identify where the capability drops off in the free agent market and then decide to go with prospects rather than settling. I would look to sign up to four depth players, as per the following:
a) A top end defender. This will be tough no doubt, but every possibility should be assessed to bring this guy in. If you can’t trade for him as per point number 2 above, then look to sign him here. I would keep this list short and I doubt any are available that really fit. I like Wisniewski and Bieksa, but I am not sure they have the potential to become a top defender.
b) A potential high calibre goalie, while he’s still cheap. I originally was not on the Fasth train until recently reading this article with a quote from Pajaarvi of how good he is. That sold me. Sign Fasth and dump Khabibulin. Even if just for the fact that I won’t have to listen to the Sportsnet broadcasters call him the Oiler’s MVP anymore, it will be worthwhile.
c) A bottom six Centre. Does Brooks Laich or Vernon Fiddler fit?
d) A bottom six Winger. Does Scottie Upshall fit?
4) Where unable to sign the targeted depth UFAs, look into making a positional trade. For example, move a player in a position of strength (skill forward) for a player in a position of weakness (bottom six forward). I believe trading for depth players can be worked out over a much shorter time scale then the top end players (point 2) and therefore may be completed if unsuccessful through free agency.
5) If unable to sign or trade for the team’s key needs, then stand pat and provide opportunity for prospects to fill those voids. Hopefully, two or three of Hartkainen, Lander, Pitlick, Hamilton, Marincin, Tuebert, Plante and others can eventually fill out the bottom six and defence. However, this is not preferred over the short term. Bring in a couple of short-term contracts to make the team competitive now while waiting for some prospects to eventually deserve roster spots. If possible, let our prospects prove themselves as much as possible in Oklahoma City first.
My ideal team to start next year would be as listed below. However, this is obviously dependant on some key trades and signings to occur and as such the final roster may only have two or three changes and not all four that I have suggested.
· GOAL: Fasth; Dubnyk
· BLUE: Whitney; (1 or 1A Defenseman); Gilbert; Smid; Peckham; Petry; Foster
· CENTER: Gagner; Horcoff; RNH; (Laich or Fiddler); Brule
· LEFT WING: Hall; Pajaarvi; (Upshall); Cogliano; Jacques
· RIGHT WING: Hemsky; Eberle; O’Mark; Jones; Hartkainen
Here’s to another exciting off-season with a second first overall draft pick. I just pray that RNH and Hall can become those elite players we need and expect of them.