Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Ladislav Smid and His New Contract

Ladislav Smid came to the Oilers in the summer of 2006 as a piece of the deal that sent Chris Pronger to the Anaheim Ducks after his infamous trade request only days removed from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Selected 9th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Smid was a highly regarded prospect in his draft year, ranked fourth among European skaters and first among international defensemen by NHL central scouting. While Smid was never expected to replace Pronger on the back end, his development into a dependable NHL defenseman has taken longer than anticipated. Today however, the Oilers re-signed Smid to a new two year deal that will certainly pay him like one.

After turning pro, Smid began his career as more of a puck moving defenseman who would jump up in the rush and try to generate offense. In his first season in the AHL with the Portland Pirates Smid scored 3-25-28, but since entering the NHL with the Oilers, the offensive production has never appeared. In 331 games over 5 seasons in the NHL Smid has only scored 4 goals and 40 assists. However, he has demonstrated a willingness to adapt and change his style of play. Over the past few seasons Smid has transformed his game into that of a shutdown defenseman, something that is certainly needed on an Oilers roster that is heavy on puck-movers on the blue line. Smid has developed into a tough stay-at-home defenseman who isn't afraid to challenge opponents, play hard in the corners and in front of the net, and is fairly sound positionally. More importantly, even with 5 years experience Smid is still only 25 years old and believes he can still continue to improve his game. He has stated that his goal is to become a top-four defenseman for the Oilers who can be trusted to play at crucial moments in games and against the opposition's top players, and if he continues on this development curve he should be able to get there.

But is Smid worth the $2.25M contract he signed today? This figure represents a significant raise over the $1.4M he was paid last year. Smid played a ton for the Oilers last season, averaging over 20 minutes a night, largely due to injury, factoring in on both the penalty kill and the powerplay and finished the year at -10 on the 30th place team. Smid had a slow start to the season after major neck surgery over the summer and suffering a mild concussion early, and found himself sitting at -8 by Christmas. However, once Smid got back into the pace of the game, he improved significantly and was only -2 over the last 4 months of the season, when his minutes were increasing and the Oilers were losing a lot of games. So if Smid can start the season where he left off in 2010-2011, he should be able to justify his bump in pay. For comparisons sake, the Red Wings just re-signed Jonathan Ericsson to a 3 year deal at $3.25M annually after earning only $900K last season. Like Smid, Ericsson plays a shutdown game and doesn't provide much offensively, his career high is the 15 points he scored this past year. He plays less minutes a night compared to Smid and is not nearly as physical. Smid also doesn't have the supporting cast that Ericsson has to help out with his +/- statistic. So perhaps the Oilers are actually coming in at the right price.

One major area of concern with Smid however is his health. He has had 2 concussions and a major neck injury in the last 2 seasons. Although he did appear in 74 games last year, the most he's played since his rookie season. Smid, like many young NHL defenseman, is also still battling consistency and needs to maintain his physical play nightly. He likes to play with an edge to his game and will need to keep it that way if he's going to force his way into the Oilers top two pairings. Of course the offense is something that may never come with Smid's game, but keeping the puck out of his own net should still be the priority over putting pucks in the other.

One area that definitely isn't a concern for the Oilers with Smid is his commitment. Smid has stated many times that he wants to play in Edmonton, which is a nice change at a time when the Oilers are having difficulty attracting players. Today in an interview with 630 CHED's Dan Tencer he had this to say:

"Hopefully this season, like I said, is going to be better. I really believe in this team, and that's why I wanted to re-sign here so bad. I was so happy we did. I'm really, really looking forward to this season."

It is that type of optimism and enthusiasm that is needed in the young Oilers dressing room. Smid is motivated and definitely has a "team first" mentality. Hopefully his attitude is one that is contagious. Last season at the trade deadline the Predators and Blackhawks were both inquiring about his availability, and Smid said he was "devastated" to hear about the rumors. In the end the Oilers opted to hang on to Smid and I feel that decision is one that management won't regret.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the Team's Options With Sheldon Souray

*UPDATED Jun 30th

The NHL buyout window closes on Thursday, June 30th and any player that is to be bought out by a club must first clear through unconditional waivers. This means that the Oilers are running out of time with this option on defenseman Sheldon Souray. In order to meet the NHL deadline, the Oilers would have to place Souray on waivers no later than Tuesday Thursday.

Sheldon Souray is entering the final year of his 5 year $27M contract. While the annual cap hit on Souray is $5.4M his actual salary for the final year will be $4.5M. The Oilers have the option of buying out the last year of Souray's contract at 2/3 of the remaining value, or $3M spread out over 2 years. According to CapGeek the buyout cap hit for the next two seasons would be $2.4M for 2011-2012 and $1.5M for 2012-2013.

Steve Tambellini attempted to find a trading partner for Souray last week at the NHL Entry Draft but found no takers. Not even the Florida Panthers who are trying to take on salary in order to meet the NHL cap floor were interested, opting to trade for Brian Campbell and his $7.2M cap hit for the next 5 years instead. Based on the overwhelming lack of interest in Souray at last year's trade deadline and this year's draft, it's clear that GMs around the league no longer view Souray as a productive NHL defenseman. The fact that he only scored 4-15-19 in 40 games in the AHL last season didn't help his cause either.

At this point, what are the Oilers' options with Souray? At his pre-draft media availability, Tambellini gave the impression that a return with the Oilers for this upcoming season was unlikely. Interestingly though, it seems the slight majority of Oilers fans would be willing to give Souray another chance. Adding more to the debate is the fact that today the Oilers decided not to offer qualifying offers to both Zack Stortini and JF Jacques, making them both unrestricted free agents on July 1st. While not the most offensively gifted or defensively responsible Oilers this past season, they both provided an element of size and at times some toughness to the lineup, Stortini moreso than Jacques. While it was no surprise to see the organization part ways with these two players, it is still a bit of a loss on a team that is trying to become harder to play against. Looking at the Oilers roster, the only player that is currently under contract that consistently brings this element with his game is Theo Peckham, and as tough as he is he can't do it alone. While Souray may not be able to provide consistent offense at the NHL level anymore, he still plays with an edge and can bring that toughness to the lineup.

So is the added physicality that comes with Souray worth $4.5M as well as the risk that comes with bringing his attitude back into the dressing room? In my opinion it still isn't. The Oilers this week made a step forward when they brought back Ryan Smyth, as his character is the kind that should be setting an example for the younger players. Having Souray around to potentially counter that would simply defeat the purpose. The money saved by buying out Souray could be better spent on other players that could bring that same toughness. Re-signing Jim Vandermeer at a reasonable contract would be a start, and signing one of Ben Eager or Zenon Konopka, should they hit unrestricted free agency, would be a plus. It's time to cut ties with Sheldon Souray and move on with this new Oilers team and this new Oilers culture.

UPDATE Jun 28th: Sheldon Souray was not placed on 48hr unconditional waivers today indicating that he will not be bought out if my understanding of the waiver rules is correct. Steve Tambellini will likely continue to pursue a trade in the offseason as there may be teams interested if they miss out on potential UFA signings. However if an Oilers player elects to go to salary arbitration prior to the July 5th deadline, there is another buyout window in August after the hearings.

UPDATE Jun 29th: According to Aaron Portzline (@aportzline) of the Columbus Dispatch, the Blue Jackets will place Mike Commodore on waivers this Thursday with the intention of buying out his contract. Thus players do not need to clear waivers prior to the June 30th deadline, but rather only need to be placed on waivers before then. So therefore a buyout is still an option until tomorrow for the Oilers with Souray. In other news, the NHL CBA is confusing.

UPDATE Jun 30th: Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMckenzie) tweeted this morning that the Oilers had placed Sheldon Souray on unconditional waivers with the purpose of buying out the remaining year on his contract.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

On How They Did In Round 1

So the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has come and gone and as expected the Oilers selected Ryan Nugent-Hopkins first overall. While there was a fair bit of action on the draft floor, the Oilers stayed relatively quiet, though likely not for lack of trying, and opted to stick with their 19th overall pick and ended up drafting Swedish defenseman Oscar Klefbom. In other news, after a day of rumors that the Calgary Flames had a deal in place to acquire Ryan Smyth from the LA Kings, Smyth opted to veto the trade and hold out for a deal with the Edmonton, which eventually came with the Oilers sending Gilbert Brule and a conditional draft pick back the other way. However, while media outlets in LA have reported the deal is done, Steve Tambellini himself has denied this. Regardless, this is a trade that will eventually be completed, likely by tomorrow.

Overall the Oilers had a successful first day of the 2011 Draft. They picked the best player available with their first pick and managed to grab a big defensive defenseman at #19. In Oscar Klefbom the Oilers are getting a physical character defenseman who can move the puck well and played in the Swedish Elite League at 17 last year. He also captained Team Sweden to a silver medal at the U18 World Jr Tournament. At 6 foot 4 and 200 pounds he certainly has the size to play the NHL game but may need some time to develop.

Today the Oilers were able to add two solid prospects to help fill two large holes in the current roster at center ice and on the back end. More importantly they did so without having to give up a significant roster player in an attempt to move up from the 19 spot. They also added the veteran leadership of Ryan Smyth and managed to ship out an expendable forward in Gilbert Brule. Hopefully the Oilers can find more success tomorrow in the remaining rounds.

UPDATE: TSN and the Edmonton Journal are reporting that concerns over the health of Brule is holding up the Smyth deal. While the trade is still likely to be completed, it will probably involve different pieces going back to the LA Kings.

UPDATE2: The Oilers reported this morning that Ryan Smyth is heading back to Edmonton in exchange for Colin Fraser and a 7th round pick. Interesting that the final offer was less than what was in the original deal. Good on Steve Tambellini to not cave to all the fan pressure to just make a deal happen but to actually hold out and get the best deal for the Oilers.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Future of Sam Gagner

If all of the speculation is correct, tomorrow night Steve Tambellini will step up to the stage at the Xcel Energy Center and announce that with the first overall selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, the Edmonton Oilers are proud to select from the Red Deer Rebels, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If this is the case and the Oilers do select the dynamic playmaking center, where does that leave Sam Gagner and his future with the Oilers?

Sam Gagner was drafted 6th overall at the 2007 NHL Entry Draft and immediately made the jump to the NHL the following season. It has been hotly debated ever since among Oilers fans if this was the correct decision, or whether Gagner would have been better served going back to junior for another season. Gagner silenced most of his critics that year when he went on to score 49 points in his rookie season. However, he may have done himself a disservice in doing so as he raised the expectation level for himself throughout OIL country, which was already quite high considering how early he was drafted in the first round. Ever since his strong rookie season, Gagner has seen a slight decline in his offensive production scoring 41, 41, and 42 points over the next three years. The jury is still out on what Gagner’s ceiling really is. OIL country seems to be divided on this, with some believing he has not yet reached his true potential, and other believing that he has already seen his game plateau. Many have suggested that Steve Tambellini offer Gagner up in a trade tomorrow in an attempt to move up from the 19th overall selection.

Looking back at the selections in the 2007 draft, it’s clear that the Oilers made the correct selection at #6 spot. Out of all the players taken in Gagner’s draft class, the only player that has scored more points than Gagner is Patrick Kane. The only other player that was available at number 6 that might have been a better pick is Logan Couture who went 9th overall, but of course hindsight is never wrong and clearly the Sharks knew something no one else did as they made two trades on draft day in order to get the 9th pick. However at the time, Couture did not have nearly the numbers in junior that Gagner scored, and certainly 2 seasons in the AHL and playing in the San Jose Sharks top 6 this season helped his impressive rookie campaign.

So if the Oilers select Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tomorrow, does that immediately make Gagner expendable? In his first 4 seasons, Sam Gagner has shown at times that he possesses the hands and vision to be a quality playmaking center in the NHL. In addition to the offensive abilities, Gagner has also demonstrated willingness to battle and even push back when challenged. More importantly, he has also shown a commitment to improving his game, often putting in extra time at the rink to work on his weaknesses. This fall Gagner will enter his 5th NHL season at only 22 years of age, and there aren’t too many NHL players who stop improving at 22. While Gagner may never be a first line center, I feel he does have the ability to be a strong second line center. Given that the quality of wingers on the Oilers has improved significantly over the past few years, I would expect the point totals for Gagner to increase as he solidifies his role on an offensive line. Is a 20 goal 40 assist season beyond his abilities? Gagner has one more year on his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent again. There is no need to give up on him yet. Even if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins becomes an Oiler tomorrow, keeping Gagner around will give RNH time to develop either back in Red Deer or in a sheltered role in the NHL. Until Nugent-Hopkins becomes a legitimate first line center and pushes Horcoff down the depth chart, there is time to wait and see with Gagner. Of course it is still entirely possible that the Oilers could select Adam Larsson tomorrow, which would then make Gagner’s future a lot clearer.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On Ryan Smyth and a Possible Return

Ryan Smyth was the saving grace of the 1994 NHL entry draft for the Edmonton Oilers when they selected him 6th overall after making the mistake of drafting Jason Bonsignore with the 4th overall pick. In 12 seasons for the Copper and Blue, Smyth scored 265-284-549 and currently sits 7th all time in Oilers scoring history. During his tenure in Edmonton, Smyth became a fan favorite not because of his offensive abilities, but because of the so called intangibles that were so obvious in his game. Smyth played the game with heart and passion, and was a true workhorse every shift, every game. He displayed a constant willingness to sacrifice for the team, which was no more evident than during the 2006 Stanley Cup run, and also likely the reason why he only played 4 full seasons in his 12 years with the Oilers. He was a true leader for the team both on and off the ice and became the face of the franchise. Then in the spring of 2007, Kevin Lowe and the Oilers made a decision they probably now regret when they opted to trade Smyth at the deadline after failing to come to terms on a new contract. So today when Bob Mckenzie posted an article on TSN suggesting that Smyth was interested in a return to the Oilers, it was no surprise that OIL country was abuzz with the news. Smyth, and not Nugent-Hopkins, was the Ryan that Oilers fans were interested in acquiring on this day.

In an interesting turn of events, Smyth himself later denied the story in an interview with the Edmonton Journal's Jim Matheson. However it has since been reported by Helene Elliott of the LA Times that Smyth requested a trade for family reasons and Kings GM Dean Lombardi confirmed that he has had talks with Smyth. Looking at the Kings numbers it would make sense that Lombardi would be open to trading Smyth. They currently have 11M in cap space (with a 59.4M cap) with only 16 players under contract, and still need to sign a number of free agents including Drew Doughty and Wayne Simmonds. Trading away a 35 year old veteran with a big contract and one year away from unrestricted free agency would go a long way financially. So if all of this is true and Smyth does indeed want to return, should the Oilers welcome him back with open arms?

Smyth has one year remaining on his 5 year 31.2M contract at an annual cap hit of 6.25M, although his actual salary for the upcoming season is only 4.5M. These numbers are hardly an issue for the Oilers who currently have over 20M in cap space, and likely have no intention of spending to the ceiling for the upcoming year. Last season Smyth scored 23-24-47 and appeared in all 82 games for the Kings while still playing significant minutes (18:02 TOI/g). Interestingly, despite developing into a strong penalty killer while with the Oilers, the Kings hardly used him shorthanded (0:19 SH TOI/g). However Smyth did factor largely into their powerplay unit (2:57 PP TOI/g), parked in front of the net no doubt. So clearly, while he has taken his fair share of punishment over 16 NHL seasons, Smyth clearly still has game left in him.

While his offensive output last season with the Kings was hardly that of a 6 million dollar player, his 23 goals and 47 points would still have lead the Oilers in scoring. Offensive numbers aside, his ability to play in all situations, as well as up and down the lineup would be a great asset to the Oilers. On this roster, Smyth wouldn't be counted on to provide offense every night. Which brings me back to the intangibles. Over the past few years Oilers management has been adding a lot of skill to the lineup, but it is very young skill. The Oilers last season were the 3rd youngest team in the league with an average age of only 25.8 years. The Boston Bruins just proved to the hockey world that experience is still important to winning. Along with the experience in Smyth also comes his veteran leadership. While Shawn Horcoff did a fine job in his first year as Captain, you can never have enough strong leaders on a team. Not only does Smyth lead in the locker room, but he also leads by example on the ice. There are not many players better to help teach the young players on this team about what it takes to be a professional in the NHL, and more importantly what it takes to be an Oiler.

Of course there are some drawbacks to bringing Smyth back to Edmonton. Mainly he would be taking potential ice time away from the younger players the coaching staff are working to develop, players such as Teemu Hartikainen who also plays a gritty game on the left wing. Secondly, what would the price be the Oilers would have to pay to bring him back? In a perfect world the Oilers could send back Sheldon Souray, who will make the same salary as Smyth this season with 1 year remaining on his contract, but given Lombardi is likely trying to gain cap space in a deal, they would probably have little interest. Although it has been suggested that the asking price from the Kings may not be all that high.

Given all this, the benefits of bringing back Smyth clearly outweigh the negatives. On a young rebuilding team such as the Oilers, having another veteran leader to mentor and guide the young stars would be the greatest gain. It's obvious that Ryan Smyth still bleeds OIL, so why not bring back a player who is motivated and has the desire to play for this team and this city? Trade for Smyth, put an 'A' on his chest, and help move this team forward into the future.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On What to Do With Ales Hemsky

Today over at The Cult of Hockey an article was posted regarding the Columbus Blue Jackets' interest in Ales Hemsky. With the Blue Jackets holding the 8th overall selection in the upcoming NHL entry draft and looking to acquire NHL-ready talent, it should come as no surprise that Scott Howson would be calling up Steve Tambellini to inquire about the availability of the talented winger. Howson of course was second in command to Kevin Lowe for the Oilers when Hemsky entered the league as a rookie in 2002, and watched him develop over the years until he took on the title of GM in Columbus in 2007. Rumors were rampant last year at the trade deadline that Hemsky was available for the right price, so no doubt he will likely be available again at this years draft. So if the sources are correct, what should the Oilers do with the most skilled player on their roster?

Hemsky is entering the final year of his contract with the Oilers at very affordable cap hit of 4.1M. However with the final year of a contract comes impending unrestricted free agency. Over the past 6 seasons since the lockout, Hemsky has scored a total of 96-235-331 in 360 games and proven himself to be a first line winger on most NHL rosters. He has demonstrated a willingness to play hard in the corners, carry the puck into traffic, and take hits to make plays, often at the expense of his own body. His dynamic offensive skillset, high-end vision, and ability to make plays with the puck at top speed make him one of the premiere playmakers currently in the league. At his age he is entering the prime of his career, and he is certainly the type of player that could help turn around a struggling franchise. No doubt the Blue Jackets are interested in Hemsky on the hockey side as they have been looking for a set up man for Rick Nash ever since they drafted him, but also on the business side to help ice a winner in a market where fans are getting impatient.

Of course with the good in Hemsky also comes the bad. In the past 6 seasons where he has scored nearly a point per game, he has also missed 132 games due to injury. Worse yet, in the past 2 seasons he has only appeared in 69 out of 164 games. He has a tendency to overplay the puck which often leads to turnovers in the offensive zone, and there has also been questions raised in the past about his work ethic at practice. While the latter criticisms are issues that are typically resolved with experience and maturity, Hemsky's on-ice durability is the main concern going forward.

So with this in mind, which direction should the Oilers take? If there is a deal to be had with the Blue Jackets at the draft it is likely centered around the 8th overall selection coming back to the Oilers. With a draft class like this year's where the top-end talent is so spread out, the Oilers would likely get a decent prospect at #8 to go along with the player they take 1st overall. However the issue with moving more proven NHL talent in exchange for prospects is that it would likely mean another lottery pick for the Oilers at the 2012 NHL entry draft. While young talent is certainly a much sought after commodity in today's NHL, there is still something to be said about experience. At some point the Oilers will need to maintain or add some veteran presence to the roster, and with 8 years NHL experience there's no reason why Hemsky couldn't be part of it. Also at only 27 years of age Hemsky is still young enough to move forward with the growing pool of young talent the Oilers have acquired over the past few years. With Ales Hemsky the Oilers know exactly what they are getting, that is a point per game player when healthy. With a draft pick, there is still a significant amount of risk involved regardless of how highly touted a prospect may be. In my opinion it would be better to take the risk with Hemsky's health than with an 8th overall pick, especially considering that Stu MacGregor ranked this draft as only a B+. Unless the Blue Jackets are willing to pay a higher price, which Tambellini should be asking for, and likely is considering he wanted Brayden Schenn in return at the deadline from the LA Kings, I wouldn't consider moving Hemsky. Instead I would look at negotiating a contract extension which would see him through at least the entry level deals for Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi.

When the Oilers made the decision to move Penner instead of Hemsky at last year's trade deadline, Steve Tambellini must have gotten the impression from Hemsky that he was committed to the rebuild of this franchise. If this was the case then negotiations between both camps should start on July 1st. But just like with Ryan Smyth, if a deal is not in place come spring of 2012 then the Oilers need to move him at the deadline, as they can't allow a talent like his to walk away for nothing next summer.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

On the Value of a Pest

What do Chad Larose, Corey Perry, Kris Draper, Matt Cooke, and Dave Bolland all have in common? First, they are all players of the breed known as the "pest" and second, they've each hoisted the Stanley Cup in the past 5 years. In today's NHL the pest has remained a valuable member of successful winning teams, and it's been no more evident than in this year's Stanley Cup finals in which both teams feature players the type, including Alex Burrows and Brad Marchand among others. So the question is, should the Oilers be looking into adding one to the roster?

The pest is the player that hockey fans hate on opposing teams, but tend to love when they skate in the home jersey. There's absolutely nothing more frustrating than seeing an opposing player run around the rink, play chippy, start scrums at the whistle, and skate away from them with their gloves on their hands and an aggravating grin on their face. For the past few years Oilers management has been talking about making this team "harder to play against" and adding a player cut from this mold would be a way to get there. The ability of a pest to agitate an opposing team's top players to get them off their game and goad them into taking penalties has been seen time and time again. Just think back to Round 1 and how the Blackhawks fared against the Canucks with and without Dave Bolland in the lineup.

The Oilers currently have one player that could arguably fill the role of the pest in Theo Peckham. Peckham is a player that loves to mix it up and yap at the opposition. However the man they call Teddy Peckman rarely backs down from a challenge and doesn't quite infuriate the opposition in the same manner. Also his style of play while agitating, usually ends up in more penalties taken than drawn, as evidenced by his 3rd most PIMs in the league this past season. I have no problems with the way Peckham plays the game and the toughness he brings to the lineup, but I wouldn't go as far as calling him a "rat".

However it should be noted that there is a difference between a pest and a villain. That there is a difference between a Dave Bolland and a Matt Cooke, or a Corey Perry and a Sean Avery. The most effective pest is one that can drive the opposition crazy without resorting to diving and taking cheap shots, and can still play the game well. One that can take away the focus of the opposition without themselves becoming the focus of the game. There are different breeds of pests in the NHL and it is a thin line dividing them. Finding one of the right character is certainly not an easy task, but one that Steve Tambellini should consider as they continue to build this franchise into a winner.

UPDATE Jun 15: With the exception of Tim Thomas, Brad Marchand was the difference in the Stanley Cup Final for the Boston Bruins

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Monday, June 6, 2011

On Free Agency and What to Do With All That Cap Space

According to CapGeek the Edmonton Oilers currently have just over 37M committed to 14 players for the 2011-2012 season, not including Sheldon Souray. That gives them with more than 22M in salary cap to sign another 9 players to fill the 23 man roster. However if one assumes that Linus Omark, Teemu Hartikainen, and Jeff Petry will all be on the starting roster next season, their salaries combined will take up another 2.6M, leaving management with over 19M to sign an addition 6 players. It should be noted though that these numbers are based on the current NHL salary cap of 59.4M, and that limit is expected to rise again this summer to as high as 63M for next season, therefore the Oilers will actually have a bit more money to play with. So with all this salary flexibility, how should Steve Tambellini be spending his money this summer?

There are a number of restricted free agents that the Oilers will need to make decisions on, including Andrew Cogliano, Zack Stortini, JF Jacques, Ladislav Smid, Theo Peckham, Taylor Chorney, and Ryan O'Marra. From this group I would expect management to try and re-sign Cogliano, Smid, and Peckham at the least. With Zack Stortini being placed on waivers earlier this season, the coaching staff's opinion on him was made pretty clear and despite being a fan favorite in OIL country, it's probably unlikely that he'll be back for next season. While JF Jacques is one of the few big bodies on the Oilers roster, he often struggled to be a big presence on the ice in the 51 games he played this season and I wouldn't be surprised if they decide against bringing him back as well. With Taylor Chorney, the future is not so clear. After making his debut in 2008, he has appeared in only 56 games in the NHL, with the majority coming in 2009-2010 due to mass injury, scoring a mere 1-6-7 and posting a combined -30. Chorney has already been passed on the depth chart by Peckham and Petry, both of whom were drafted after him, and will now face even more competition to move up with the arrival of Colten Teubert and Martin Marincin.  It will be interesting to see which way the Oilers decide to go with him. As for O'Marra, since being acquired in the Ryan Smyth deal he has only appeared in 24 games at the NHL level and like Jacques, may be on his way out. While the Oilers certainly do need a center who can kill penalties and win faceoffs like O'Marra has done in the AHL, they are probably more likely to find an NHL-capable one in Anton Lander when he comes over to North America this summer.

On the unrestricted free agent front, the Oilers have already taken care of their most notable one when they re-signed Ryan Jones. The remaining players on the team UFA list includes Steve MacIntyre, Jim Vandermeer, and Jason Strudwick. I would expect MacIntyre to be back since Renney likes to keep the tough guys on his roster and SMac is still one of the toughest in the league. I wouldn't mind Vandermeer being brought back as a depth defenceman, unless there is success in signing other options on the open market (see below). Finally, as good a presence as he is in the locker room, I'm not sure if Strudwick will still have a place on this roster come September. I'd like to see the Oilers keep him around in some capacity if he doesn't catch on with another team, since he's a good pro and connects so well with the younger players.

When scanning the league UFA list it really is slim pickings this summer, as after Brad Richards there is a significant drop off in the talent available this summer. Of course while the Oilers are currently in no position to be chasing big ticket players the likes of Richards, there are a few I would hope Tambellini contacts come July 1st. Faceoffs and the penalty kill were two of the Oilers biggest problems this past season and 2 players that could help in that area are Brooks Laich and Marty Reasoner. Both players are sound defensively, can win over 50% of their faceoffs, chip in on offense, and would provide a strong leadership presence on a young roster. Signing either one of them would be an immediate boost to the roster for next season. Of course, there are likely to be multiple teams bidding for the services of Laich should he hit the open market, so the Oilers might get priced out with him. Also, after playing for the Capitals he may not be all that interested in joining a rebuild. The Oilers may have a better chance with Reasoner, that is if he's interested in a third go around with the team. On the blueline, Jan Hejda could be a solid addition as a physical shutdown man, since the Oilers are a bit heavy on puck movers now with Whitney, Gilbert, Foster, and Petry in the mix. He would likely come at a reasonable price as well. Signing him could also right the wrong the Oilers made when they let him walk away as a free agent four seasons ago. We are all aware of the difficulty Edmonton has had in the past in attracting free agents in the summer, although with the direction the team is heading in, it may now be a more attractive option. However while there is help available on the open market, I would rather see Tambellini stand pat and fill holes from within the system than get into bidding wars on free agents. Cap space is going to be an important asset in the coming years with Hemsky and Gagner set to hit free agency next summer, and Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi the year after that. Despite Katz's deep pockets and willingness to spend to the cap ceiling, Tambellini and co. will certainly need to spend wisely this offseason.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

On the NHL Scouting Combine

While perhaps the most important part of the NHL draft combine for the top 102 draft-eligible prospects has already passed, that being the team interviews, today they take on the most grueling portion of the 5 day event: Fitness Testing. Just like in high school gym class, the fitness testing portion of the combine pushes the prospects to exert themselves to their max in a variety of physical tests and likely leaves them wondering how the results will affect their final grades, if they even do at all.

First the players are tested on their body composition, which includes standing height, wingspan, weight, and body fat measurement. Next the prospects undergo strength and endurance testing where they are tested for their grip strength, upper body push/pull strength, bench press, curl ups, push ups, medicine ball toss, standing long jump, and vertical jump. The players are then tested for balance and agility, and finally aerobic and anaerobic fitness in the V02 max test and the dreaded Wingate test.

How much the results of all these tests actually play into where these prospects will be selected in the draft has always been an interesting question. Last year Tyler Seguin performed incredibly well at the draft combine and Taylor Hall didn't even participate in a number of the tests, but come draft day it didn't seem to make a difference as Hall still went first overall. Furthermore, how relevant some of the tests are to the actual on ice product is also questionable. If Gabriel Landeskog has a better grip strength than Sean Couturier, does that mean he'll be the better NHL player? If Dougie Hamilton can jump higher than Adam Larsson, will he be the better defenseman? In either case, not likely. However there is a lot of good information that NHL scouts can draw from the fitness testing portion of the combine beyond the actual numbers. The dedication and commitment of the individual prospects is something that becomes quite obvious to teams over the course of the day. In addition, the scouts and GMs get an opportunity to view the prospects as people off the ice and not just as hockey players. All of this information is valuable and important in ultimately determining which prospects are going to be worth the investment of an NHL franchise on draft day. And at the very least, all of us in OIL country will finally get to find out exactly how much Ryan Nugent-Hopkins actually weighs.

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