One of the (many) things that drives me nuts about the Oilers’ philosophy is their seeming inability to mesh a number of different approaches to acquiring talent. They’re either in build through free agency/big trade mode or they’re in build through the draft mode. There’s a cost to this singlemindedness and rigid adherence to some sort of a grand plan, as it prevents you from taking advantage of opportunities that might crop up. Lowe made the following comments the other day:
“We’ve got to get back to what we did for a lot of years,” said Lowe, who was promoted in 2008 after eight seasons as general manager. “We’ve got to get back to our basic principles of drafting and development, get out of the free agent business.”
“It just seems to be in recent NHL history that the only way you become a contender is you have to go to the back of the bus for a while and regroup,” Lowe said. “We had a pile of injuries this year to key players and in some respects — having been at this for 10 years now — it’s a blessing in disguise.
“It’s almost like something hit us in the side of the head and said, ‘OK, if you guys can’t figure this out yourself, then we’re going to do it for you.’”
This, along with quotes from Steve Tambellini, have kind of suggested to me that the Oilers are out of the business of trying to plug holes on the team by acquiring top of the roster players from other teams. There seems to be a fair amount of support for this from people who were disappointed when Nikolai Khabibulin, Dustin Penner and Sheldon Souray didn’t put the Oilers over the top. The ill-fated wooing of Dany Heatley and unfortunate Michael Nylander incident, along with a lot of people rejecting the Oilers’ money along the way, hasn’t done much to convince fans of the Oilers of the value in trying to acquire players this way.
I’m still not convinced that this is a bad way to acquire talent if you can actually acquire elite players and not guys from the next tier, like Penner and Souray. I have Jason Spezza down as a very good hockey player. I don’t think people realize that he’s become a tough minute guy for the Senators. He’s 17th in NHL scoring over the past three seasons, none of which have been banner years for him. He’s a right handed centreman who would fit nicely with Hemsky on the PP. The price isn’t cheap – $7MM annually – but he’s got a front loaded deal, which should make him relatively easy to move if things don’t work after the first three years.
He’s not a guy who really drives possession but he’s got enough of a history of having an ESS% above the norm that you can expect the team to outscore if he gets a saw-off on the shots and doesn’t get done in by the goaltending behind him. What’s more, he’d be an acquisition for the Oilers who might conceivably open up a window in which they might contend in say years three through five of his deal. If the Oilers were to draft Hall, and had the courage to keep him and MPS out of the NHL next season, they could conceivably have a group of forwards for years three and four of the Spezza deal that included Hemsky, Hall, MPS, Eberle, Horcoff, Gagner and Spezza for less than $30MM. With Horcoff and two others taking on a healthy chunk of the toughs, you could run something like Spezza/Hemsky/Hall against the next tier of competition, a step down for both Hemsky and Spezza from their most recent competition. You’d then be left with Gagner, MPS and Eberle to run out against the best of the rest.
I’m by no means a prospect guy or a fan of “planning” that includes all of the prospects panning out, but given that Hall is basically a sure thing, and MPS/Eberle have been clearing every hurdle placed in front of them with relative ease, this doesn’t seem like an unreasonable plan to me. It doesn’t seem implausible to me that the young fellows might have advanced enough by 2012-13 that such a group could win. The objective for the Oilers management should be to ratchet up the ceiling of what’s possible. This is the light in which moves should be evaluated, not whether or not they fit in with some faddish mode of team building that the Oilers have decided to employ this week.
Looking at the pieces that were talked about as potentially going the other way, I don’t really see any of them as being dealbreakers. With Hall, Hemsky, MPS and Eberle, the Oilers may well have four top four wingers for the next five to seven years. Eberle, of all of them, is probably the biggest gamble. If Cogliano is unlikely to be able to make it into the top four, I’m not at all sure it makes sense to keep him long term. If Penner’s deal is up at the end of two more years, he’s not someone you can plan on having on a value pact when the younger fellows are ready.
For all the talk I’ve seen in the local papers about the Pittsburgh and Chicago models, I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about the other thing that permitted those teams to do what they’ve done, which is leveraging the cheap contracts they’ve enjoyed with some of their young guys by surrounding them with other talented guys. There is some reason to believe that the Oilers might have a special group of young players. The Oilers should be asking themselves how they can best leverage the cheap contracts that they’re going to be playing on. Other than fixing the mistake that they made with Gagner and holding these fellows back for a year or two – Gagner is one of only seven guys through the end of next year who will have burned two years off his ELC before turning 20 – they should be looking at how they can add elite players to the cast that they’ve got.
You have to have things go right if you’re going to win the Stanley Cup and it’s reasonable to plan as if things will turn out in reasonably well. It’s problematic if you’re planning on Khaibublin being a 65 start number one goalie when he’s 38 but it’s less of a problem where you’re making more reasonable assumptions, like Gagner, Eberle and MPS being able to handle the soft minutes three or four years from now. You’re only going to win the Stanley Cup if your bets pay off and all you can do is make bets that are as reasonable as possible. With Cogliano at the point where he’ll get paid his worth – if he scores 35, he’s going to get paid for it, his worth is diminished to the Oilers. Same goes for Smid. It’s extra true for Penner, who represents wins in the next two years that have little value to the Oilers and then becomes a UFA, who will want whatever the market bears.
One thing to note from the success of many of the teams in the post-lockout era is that they had a ton of value contracts when they were at their peak. Anaheim had Penner, Ryan Getzlaf and Cory Perry on cheap deals. Detroit had guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary who they were grossly underpaying. Pittsburgh had Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal on entry level contracts. Chicago has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith on contracts that are grossly below fair value for those players. Those teams have declined (it’s coming Chicago) once they were through the period in which they were underpaying key contributors.
The point I’m really driving at is that, in the old NHL, you developed your young guys and then were able to win when they were between the ages of 24-28. Listening to Lowe and Tambellini talk, I sort of get the sense that that’s what they’re building towards. That approach seems to me to be one from the days of the pre-lockout NHL. In today’s NHL, it’s awfully difficult to get the value out of the second and subsequent contracts that you once did – the players that you develop are going to be much closer to earning the value of their contributions at that point. I like Spezza as a potential addition to the Oilers not just because I think he’s a great player but also because his contract meshes reasonably well with the period in which the Oilers are going to have a bunch of guys who are grossly underpaid. He fits with the timing of these group that the Oilers have coming, particularly if they’re willing to delay Hall and MPS a year. I’m not married to the idea of getting Spezza but you aren’t going to get a star in a dump/trade who doesn’t come with some sort of perceived risk. Historically, these things seem to have worked out well – Pronger (2005), Thornton (2005), Heatley (2009)…there was a lot of suspicion about these guys when they were dealt but they all turned out reasonably well. The key thing is to constantly be looking for ways to take advantage of the opportunity that will be created by these fellows.
You could make the argument that the Oilers should wait another year before trying to add a star but these opportunities don’t arise every year. If you were to try and peg the expected value of the Oilers pick for 2011, you’d probably come up with something like 5th or 6th. The potential of finishing last next year and getting to add another sure thing strikes me as being insignificant enough that you should be willing to forego it by making the team better for next year and the following four by adding someone like Spezza.
My sense is that this isn’t going to come to pass and that the Oilers are just going to do what they perceive as the conservative thing and stockpile talent through the draft. There are some teams that have obtained some great players through the draft – Tampa comes to mind – and then completely pissed the tremendous advantage of underpaying people away because they didn’t take advantage of the spending room to surround the player with other great players. The Oilers burned that advantage with Gagner, in part because they weren’t willing to delay him and, if they’re going to take the safe route here, the end result will be a more egregious frittering away of the advantage accrued through four years of hockey that ranged from mediocre to atrocious.