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Off-Season Game Plan: Edmonton Oilers

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Scott Cullen
4/24/2010 9:02:01 AM
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Finishing last overall, by a comfortable 12-point margin, isn't exactly the way to rally the fan-base, but the Edmonton Oilers are going to try.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what promises to be a challenging off-season for the Oilers as they strive to rebuild a once-proud franchise and return to being a playoff contender.

What's clear is that an Oilers resurrection is not going to come as a result of a ready-made solution. The good news is that the Oilers don't appear inclined to try that approach.

That means avoiding the temptation to go for veteran Czechs Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Plekanec, just because it might appease the team's current best player, Ales Hemsky.

"If I was to stand up here in front of all of you and say, 'if I make one trade, if I make one good free-agent signing, that things are going to be better,' that's not true," GM Steve Tambellini told the National Post. "I'm not going to be the person to tell you that there's a quick fix. We're going to do this thing right. We have a wonderful opportunity here to do things right."

With the Oilers getting a new AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City this year, it's a good time for the franchise to build from the ground up, so that there is not just enough talent, but even a surplus; the kind that requires competition for jobs and results in players with NHL experience being sent down.

Looking at the current crop of Oilers, there are several undesirable contracts and that limits the options for Tambellini, but if buyouts or trades can occur, there is some reason for optimism because what the Oilers do have going for them is that they have some skilled players in the pipeline.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that they could have three rookie forwards playing among their top nine next season if Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and the first pick in this year's draft are all deemed ready for battle.

One possibility, when assessing team needs and looking at the top two draft prospects, is that the Oilers might consider centre Tyler Seguin a better fit, while Taylor Hall would seem more natural for a Bruins team that is deep down the middle.

If a deal needs to be worked out, to assure both teams get the player they want, the Oilers are at least in the position to control that process.

"I keep going back to if you can't develop your core, the expectations of what an Oiler truly is, respect for that logo, this city" Tambellini told the Canadian Press. "You're always going to be spinning your wheels."

Time for the new generation of Oilers to show they have what it takes to set those wheels in motion.

GM/COACH
Steve Tambellini/Pat Quinn

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Ales Hemsky 81.20 $4.1M
Dustin Penner 79.05 $4.25M
Ryan Jones 65.08 $975K
Robert Nilsson 63.76 $2.0M
Zack Stortini 62.10 $700K
Shawn Horcoff 61.79 $5.5M
Patrick O'Sullivan 61.28 $2.925M
Ethan Moreau 58.95 $2.0M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Gilbert Brule 70.10 RFA $800K
Sam Gagner 69.86 RFA $1.625M
Mike Comrie 67.95 UFA $1.25M
Ryan Potulny 66.35 RFA $595K
Marc Pouliot 65.41 RFA $825K
Andrew Cogliano 65.13 RFA $1.133M
Ryan Stone 60.95 RFA $600K
Jean-Francois Jacques 60.02 RFA $525K
Fernando Pisani 58.21 UFA $2.5M

It's possible that the Oilers could have still managed to be the league's worst team with Ales Hemsky in the lineup, but taking him out for the last 60 games went a long way towards sealing their ignominious fate.

Hemsky is Edmonton's most talented player and was off to a good start with 22 points and a plus-7 rating in 22 games before undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum. Presumably with a healthy shoulder, now Hemsky just needs linemates capable of finishing off his creative playmaking.

It took some time, and a new coach, but Dustin Penner finally rewarded the Oilers' confidence in him when signing him to an offer sheet in the summer of 2007. Though he faltered in midseason, Penner ended up with a career-high 32 goals and 63 points.

It can be maddening that he doesn't use his sizeable frame more, but a 30-goal left winger is a valuable commodity in its own right and the Oilers need more of that from Penner for the two years that remain on his contract.

Picked up on waivers from the Nashville Predators, Ryan Jones is a hard-working winger who isn't afraid to go to the net and work the corners. The 25-year-old might have 15-20 goal potential if he can secure a regular spot but, with the Oilers so deep up front, Jones could also be battling just to stick with the big club.

Robert Nilsson has more talent, and is certainly paid better, than most players scrambling for a spot in the lineup. 27 points and a minus-17 rating in 2009-2010 didn't do much to enhance his value.

Since he's under 26, buying out Nilsson would only cost the Oilers one-third of his contract price and, on a team with so many bodies up front, it seems to be the prudent course of action.

While no one is going to be dazzled by the grace and beauty of Zack Stortini's game, he can handle a fourth-line shift and has respectable, if modest, production for a player who has dropped the gloves 65 times in the last three seasons.

Finishing the season with 36 points and minus-29 rating is bad enough for Shawn Horcoff who, at one time, would have been considered the Oilers' top centre, but when he's signed for five more years at an average of $5.5-million per season, Horcoff's lack of production is glaring.

The 31-year-old has been a reliable two-way pivot for much of his career and the Oilers may be best served by getting him back to that role; centering the third line, with some power play time thrown in, similar to, say, a role like that of Matt Cullen. That might not seem fitting for that pay scale, but the money is spent, so the Oilers have to find the best way to make Horcoff a valuable contributor to the team.

Unfortunately for the Oilers, Horcoff's minus-29 wasn't the low mark on the squad; that belonged to Patrick O'Sullivan and his league-worst minus-35. O'Sullivan had shown some offensive promise in his first few seasons and even had some moments early with the Oilers last year, but the end result was forgettable.

With another year left on his deal, at a more than $2.9-million cap hit, 25-year-old O'Sullivan is, like Nilsson, a prime buy-out candidate. O'Sullivan may be ultimately successful in his NHL career, but the Oilers may not want to pay the freight next season to find out if that is going to happen in Edmonton.

Continuing the run of players whose contract exceeds production, Oilers captain Ethan Moreau is heading into the final year of his deal and while there's no denying Moreau's hustle and veteran leadership, $2-million is a lot for 18 points and a minus-18. Just to increase cap space and create positional vacancy, Moreau could be expendable.

The Oilers have a stunning seven restricted free agent forwards. If nothing is done to shed some of the other unpleasant deals, then this could be where the hardest decisions come into play.

After several years of unfulfilled potential, 23-year-old Gilbert Brule finally cracked through and looked like he might have an NHL future, scoring 37 points in 65 games; good enough for third on the team. With more ice time, particularly on the power play, Brule could bring enough offence to fill a second-line role.

Expectations are higher than that for Sam Gagner, who has yet to match the 49 points he put up as a rookie. A hip injury sidelined him late in the year, but there hasn't been much in the way of improved production.

He's still just 20-years-old, so there's no need to panic, but the Oilers need to determine at some point if Gagner has the playmaking skills to be a number one centre or if he's more likely to be second-line material.

Ryan Potulny finally found regular NHL employment, skating in a career-high 64 games, and he showed enough skill, putting up 32 points, but it remains to be seen if he's solid enough defensively to play regularly for a competitive NHL team. Even if he is, that team might still be somewhere other than Edmonton, where second and third-tier offensive forwards are plentiful.

Drafted in the first round of the 2003 draft, Marc Pouliot remains an unfinished product. He has decent size, can skate and goes through streaks of good production, but he hasn't put it together yet and is another relatively young Oilers forward that could be battling for a job or end up as trade bait.

Speedster Andrew Cogliano's production has declined, from 45 points as a rookie, to 28 points last year. He's only 22, so there would surely be a market for the young forward if the Oilers shopped him, but his skills could still fit on the wing (he's won just 39% of face-offs in his career) in a third-line role now as the Oilers evaluate whether or not Cogliano is going to be a significant scorer at some point.

Though he didn't register a goal in 27 games before suffering a knee injury, Ryan Stone performed admirably in a fourth-line role. With limited ice time, he brought some toughness and didn't hurt the Oilers defensively. He could very well be part of the organization, but not necessarily in Edmonton.

Considering the Oilers' lack of size and nastiness up front, they'd surely approve if Jean-Francois Jacques could be an impact player, but with 12 points and a minus-32 rating in 109 games, there's little reason to think the 6-foot-4 winger is capable of handling a full-time NHL job.

Given how many forwards the Oilers would have under contract just by bringing back their signed players, restricted free agents and then possibly adding highly-touted rookies like Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, there doesn't seem to be a lot of room for unrestricted free agents Mike Comrie and Fernando Pisani, both of whom are Edmonton natives.

The Oilers may need to package a forward or three in order to clear room or acquire a defenceman.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Ryan Whitney 72.44 $4.0M
Tom Gilbert 67.96 $4.0M
Ladislav Smid 63.30 $1.3M
Sheldon Souray 61.20 $5.4M
Taylor Chorney 52.14 $942K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Aaron Johnson 62.20 UFA $540K
Jason Strudwick 55.76 UFA $952K

Edmonton's defence is an area of need already, even with a healthy Sheldon Souray. However, if Souray gets healthy, he's made it clear now that he wants out of Edmonton.

The good news in that regard is that dealing Souray would provide some much-needed cap flexibility, to the tune of $5.4-million per season, but it means another hole on the Edmonton blueline.

Acquired from Anaheim in a trade for Lubomir Visnovsky, Ryan Whitney is the new leader on defence. Though Whitney is 6-foot-4 and 219 pounds, he doesn't always use that size, but he's a very capable puck-moving defenceman who can log major minutes and the 27-year-old should continue to get better, provided he recovers fully from foot surgery.

Tom Gilbert joins Whitney at the top of the defensive depth chart and there are similarities in their games, as both have good size, but tend to be more regarded for their ability to distribute the puck.

Gilbert slumped to 31 points and a minus-10 rating last season (after 45 and plus-6 the year before), but he's also played all 82 games in each his three full seasons, and there ought to be something said for at least showing up night-in and night-out.

Picked up as part of the Chris Pronger trade, Ladislav Smid has evolved into a solid defensive defenceman and, given the Oilers' lack of depth at the position, he'll have to handle a shutdown defensive role; ideally with a new veteran partner.

Prospects Taylor Chorney and Theo Peckham play nearly opposite games but neither has proven to be ready for a full-time NHL job. Starting the season with those two at number seven and eight on the depth chart wouldn't be the worst plan in the world.

Just to do that, presuming Souray is traded, the Oilers would need to fill three more spots. Perhaps one of unrestricted free agents Aaron Johnson or Jason Strudwick could return. While he saw more time than would be ideal over a full season, Johnson played well after he was picked up by the Oilers in the Steve Staios deal.

To fill two more spots, the Oilers can hope that they get an NHL defenceman in return for Souray, though it's also possible there might be teams hoping to get away with giving draft picks only in exchange for the cap space provided.

Beyond that, some younger free agent defencemen that might bring some of the physical presence the Oilers need on the back end include: Phoenix's Zbynek Michalek as well as Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina of the Washington Capitals, while hitters like Freddy Meyer of the Islanders or Garnet Exelby of the Maple Leafs could fit as part of a third pairing.

With so many young forwards on the roster, the Oilers really need to address the blueline, shoring up their defensive play in order to give those young forwards the freedom to make a mistake or two without those mistakes costing them goals against game after game.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Nikolai Khabibulin 63.53 $3.75M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers 56.90 RFA $625K

Investing in Nikolai Khabibulin on a long-term free agent contract is a risky game to play, and after a season in which Khabibulin was limited to just 18 games and then was arrested for DUI in February, the early returns haven't been promising.

On the other hand, Khabibulin's .909 save percentage was better than his career average and the 37-year-old has championship experience. With three years left on his deal, Khabibulin has to be able to handle the workload as the Oilers' No. 1.

Between Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk, one of them will have to handle the backup job. Deslauriers was overmatched when needed to play 48 games last season, but he developed enough that he should be considered a good second-stringer.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Jordan Eberle RW Regina (WHL) 50-56-106,+8, 57 GP
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson LW Timra IK (SEL) 12-17-29,+14, 49 GP
Linus Omark LW Moscow Dynamo (KHL) 20-16-36,-9, 53 GP
Anton Lander C Timra IK (SEL) 7-9-16,-2, 49 GP
Jeff Petry D Michigan St. (CCHA) 4-25-29,+1, 38 GP
Theo Peckham D Springfield (AHL) 0-6-6,-10, 37 GP
Devan Dubnyk G Springfield (AHL) 13-17-2, 3.17 GAA, .915 SVPCT, 33 GP
Chris Vande Velde LW North Dakota (WCHA) 16-25-41,+4, 42 GP
Alex Plante D Springfield (AHL) 2-7-9,-11, 49 GP
Johan Motin D Springfield (AHL) 1-5-6,-5, 55 GP

One of the most highly-touted prospects, due in some part to his clutch scoring for Canada in World Junior tournaments, Jordan Eberle tore up the Western Hockey League and has also put up 23 points in 20 AHL games at the end of the last two seasons. He's ready for a shot on a scoring line in Edmonton.

Taken tenth overall in last year's draft, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson is coming off a strong showing in the Swedish Elite League. He has good size and is a strong skater, so even if he's not necessarily ready to make an immediate offensive impact, he could play a checking role as his game matures.

Celebrated YouTube star Linus Omark will play in North America next season after a year in the KHL. He's obviously skilled, but next year will provide a valuable opportunity to learn the grind of the North American pro game.

19-year-old Anton Lander is another prospect that the Oilers would like to bring over from Sweden. While not as offensively gifted as some prospects, Lander plays a sound game that makes him a low-risk player.

Jeff Petry has good size, can handle the puck and got some AHL seasoning at the end of the year. He could use a full year in Oklahoma City.

22-year-old Theo Peckham is a tough blueliner who has one assist, 104 penalty minutes and minus-9 rating in 31 career NHL games. Perhaps he gets a depth spot in Edmonton, but it's fair to consider that the Oilers might go for more proven veterans on the back end.

Dubnyk took some lumps when he was first called up, but played better in the last month of the season. The 2004 first-rounder could easily return to the AHL for more grooming.

Following a solid four-year stint at the University of North Dakota, Chris Vande Velde is ready to tackle the pros. He's a big winger, so it will be interesting to see if his offensive skills can make the jump.

Alex Plante was a first-rounder in 2007, is big, tough and plays a simple stay-at-home style, but the 20-year-old could still use more time to get acclimated to the pro game.

Some other prospects that may be more long-term include Finnish centre Teemu Hartikainen; Riley Nash, the two-way centre from Cornell, and Toni Rajala, the diminutive Finn who is playing with Brandon in the Western Hockey League.

DRAFT
1st - Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Oilers have approximately $41.8M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 14 players.

Needs: Two top six forwards, one top four defenceman, two more defencemen.

What I said the Oilers needed last year: One first line forward, one defenceman, starting goaltender.

Who did they add? Mike Comrie, Nikolai Khabibulin.

TRADE MARKET Andrew Cogliano, Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Ryan Potulny, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Jean-Francois Jacques, Sheldon Souray.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.

 

Ales Hemsky (Photo: Andy Devlin/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Andy Devlin/Getty Images)
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