Thursday, July 28, 2011

On Two Franchises Headed Down the Same Path

In the 1980's, both the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders were on top of the hockey world. Of the 10 Stanley Cups awarded that decade, 8 of them were won by these two teams, forming two of the great dynasties in NHL history. Fast forward to today and these same two teams find themselves in the NHL's basement, with the Oilers and Islanders having missed the playoffs for the last 5 and 4 seasons respectively. Earlier this year, Hockey Night in Canada and the NHLPA conducted an NHL player survey and one question asked was what team would you least like to play on? Perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhealming majority of players answered with the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers, combing for 47% of responses. So just as they were in the 80's, the Oilers and Islanders again find themselves in the same position, only this time rather than hockey supremacy, it's respectability they're after, as they both try to rebuild their franchises and get back to the top.

The Oilers and the Islanders had similar beginnings with both franchises finding success relatively early, winning multiple championships within the first decade of their existence in the NHL. Both teams established themselves as NHL superpowers by building rosters littered with future Hall of Famers, 14 of them to be exact. But over the years as these players moved on, both teams found limited post season success. In the case of the Oilers it was poor drafting and poor development, and for the Islanders it was poor asset management. These factors combined with tight budgets in both cities ultimately landed the Oilers and Islanders in the rebuilding state they find themselves today.

While fans in Edmonton and Long Island have had to endure a number of tough seasons in recent history, they are now beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Oilers have built up a strong core of young skill over the last few years via the NHL entry draft, and have now begun adding established NHLers to help fill specific roles to support the roster. Meanwhile the Islanders have also built a roster with a number of talented young players, including 2009 1st overall pick John Tavares, recent 30 goals scorers Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner, top-10 draft picks Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo, and not to mention top prospects such as Nino Niederreiter, Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, and Ryan Strome. While both rosters are still lacking in some areas, the depth on offense is clearly beginning to show. Though they may not be competing head to head for Stanley Cups again in the near future, it is obvious that better days are on the horizon for both clubs. So given their current state of affairs, which team do you think is better poised for success?

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Friday, July 22, 2011

On Wishful Thinking and the Need for Players to Buy In

Earlier this week, the biggest free agent of the 2011 offseason put pen to paper on a new NHL contract. Steve Stamkos signed a 5 year $37.5M deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning, which brings him in at a very friendly cap hit of $7.5M for a team operating with an internal salary cap. At only 21 years of age, Stamkos has already established himself as a premiere goal scorer in the NHL, having put up 51 and 45 goal seasons in the last two years respectively. Through 243 NHL games he has scored an impressive 119-113-232 and is now arguably one of the top 3 players in the league, yet with this new deal he won't be paid as such. In terms of the annual cap hit, Stamkos comes in at a tie for 7th in the league along side Dany Heatley and Marian Gaborik. In fact, Stamkos accepted a deal that will pay him less than his teammate and captain Vincent Lecavalier, who has only scored 78-113-191 in the same 3 years that Stamkos has been around. Clearly Stamkos has bought into the fact that in a salary cap system, for teams to be competitive, top players need to share the wealth. This is something that the Oilers will need to recognize in the coming years as this rebuild comes to fruition, and especially IF their top prospects do indeed develop into top players as fans in Oil Country are all hoping they will.

Stamkos is of course not the first NHL superstar to take less than market value in a new contract for the good of the team. The Detroit Red Wings have instilled this philosophy into their players for years and have thus been able to ice highly competitive rosters year after year. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and arguably Nicklas Lidstrom as well, are all playing under cap friendly contracts in order to allow Ken Holland to maintain a certain level of talent throughout the rest of the roster. In Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby could have easily demanded the maximum salary allowed under the current CBA during his negotiations in 2007, but instead opted to accept a lower number to help build a Championship winning team. Crosby accepting his reduced deal made it easier for the Penguins to re-sign Evgeni Malkin the next year as well. In Vancouver, the Sedin twins and Ryan Kesler are all playing for less than their numbers warrant and that certainly helped in adding significant pieces to the team that just played in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Whether Oilers management will be able to impart this "team first" culture onto their players remains to be seen, but it will be tested in the coming year. On July 1st 2012 two important pieces to this rebuild in Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth are set to become unrestricted free agents. These two players are currently putting a combined $10.32M dent in the salary cap, and while one will very likely accept a home town discount on a new deal, the other is due for a raise. When Ryan Smyth requested a trade back to the Oilers he made it abundantly clear that his intentions were to play in Edmonton beyond his current contract, and that desire coupled with Smyth's age and recent production will likely see his cap hit come down from the $6.25M it currently sits at. With Hemsky the future is not as clear. He recently indicated that he was happy with the direction the team was headed in and that he may not be all that interested in testing the open market. If this is the case and Hemsky does re-sign it will be interesting to see where his new deal comes in. If Hemsky does buy in to this philosophy, he'll need to accept a deal that won't handicap the Oilers and their ability to re-sign Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi the following summer. In recent history the the first overall draft pick has received a significant raise in their second NHL contract, with 4 of the last 5 (Stamkos, Kane, Crosby, Ovechkin) signing large deals with an average annual cap hit of $8.0M, the one exception is Erik Johnson who's cap hit actually dropped after his entry level deal. If this trend continues, which it likely will when John Tavares re-signs with the Islanders, it can be expected that Taylor Hall would also see a good raise in pay with his next contract.

The Oilers have been building a roster of young players with a lot of skill over the past few years, but with high skill comes the potential for high salaries. While top end talent is certainly important, there are many other pieces that go into building a winning franchise, and Oilers management will need to maintain the flexibility to be able to add those pieces when the time is right. If this young nucleus is to stay together for years to come, both the players and management will need to work together to make it financially possible within the NHL salary cap.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On the Cogliano Trade

Andrew Cogliano was traded by the Edmonton Oilers in the summer of 2009 to the Ottawa Senators in the Dany Heatley deal that never was. Ever since the day Heatley decided not to waive his no trade clause, Cogliano's name has been a constant in the Oilers rumour mill up until today, when he was finally traded to the Anaheim Ducks for a second round pick in 2013.

Cogliano was largely an offensive forward in junior and at the University of Michigan, but his offensive numbers didn't translate well to the NHL. While he scored an impressive 36 goals in his first two years in the league, he saw his production drop off in the past two seasons, scoring only 10 and 11 goals respectively. This past year, Cogliano realized that he was never going to play an offensive role in the top 6 for the Oilers and worked hard to adapt his game into that of a penalty killing two-way forward. With his good speed it was a role that he transitioned well into and showed signs he could become an effective penalty killer this season. He worked hard with the coaching staff and his effort and commitment to  improving his defensive game was never in doubt. Unfortunately, despite his character and desire to find a niche on this roster, his weakness in the faceoff dot hindered his progression into that role. Finally with the signing of Eric Belanger on July 1st, Cogliano's future with the Oilers was decided. Not only can Belanger play the role of the penalty killing two-way forward, but he can do it winning a lot more faceoffs and in a bigger body. Furthermore, the impressive showing by Anton Lander at the Oilers' recent development camp also didn't help Cogliano's case. So while Cogliano has been a good soldier for the Oilers over the past four seasons, there simply wasn't enough room on the roster for him moving forward.

Getting a second round pick for Cogliano in my opinion is on the low side for a durable established NHL player who is only 24 years old, although the return the Oilers could have gotten for him likely would have decreased if they had waited any longer. Cogliano is currently set to go to arbitration on July 21st where he likely would have recieved a raise on the $1M he was paid this past season. If Cogliano were to receive a ruling that the Oilers didn't like, he would have become an unrestricted free agent and the Oilers would have lost him for nothing. In recent years the Oilers emphasis on improving center ice has resulted in a crowded depth chart down the middle. Strong drafting and the signing of Belanger ultimately made Cogliano expendable. In terms of asset management the Oilers made the right move, but I won't be surprised to see Cogliano develop into an effective 3rd line center down the road. While the Oilers didn't win this trade today, it hopefully won't be one they regret in the future.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On The Current Roster and Things to Come

This past weekend Steve Tambellini kicked off the second phase of the rebuild of the Edmonton Oilers. After blowing up the old roster, Oilers management made a commitment to rebuilding this franchise with an emphasis on the draft. But now after stockpiling a number of solid prospects who are beginning to show a great deal of promise, Tambellini has begun addressing team deficiencies by acquiring established NHL talent via trade and free agency.

With a young team short on leadership, Tambellini made a trade to bring back Ryan Smyth. With a group of centers having difficulty winning faceoffs, Tambellini signed Eric Belanger. With a roster lacking size and toughness, Tambellini signed Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk and traded for Andy Sutton. With a blue line looking for more help, Tambellini took a chance and signed a former 3rd overall pick in Cam Barker. Based on the flurry of activity over the weekend, it's clear that Oilers management is no longer satisfied with letting a young team sort things out themselves while remaining in lottery contention. The acquisition of a number of players specifically to address team shortcomings means that winning is now on management's mind.

Looking at the players currently under contract, the 23 man roster is starting to take shape. With today's signing of Theo Peckham to a 1 year extension, the Oilers now have 7 NHL-capable defensemen and the blue line may be set for the upcoming season:

Whitney, Gilbert, Smid, Barker, Sutton, Peckham, and Petry.

At forward the Oilers have a long list of players under contract and there will definitely be stiff competition at training camp for spots. These are the forwards who appeared in the NHL last season:

Smyth, Horcoff, Hemsky, Hall, Gagner, Brule, Belanger, Paajarvi, Jones, Eberle, Eager, Omark, Hartikainen, and Hordichuk.

With 14 forwards under contract, along with 7 defenseman, and a goaltending tandem of Khabibulin and Dubnyk, the Oilers would already be at the 23 man roster limit if the NHL season started tomorrow. In addition to this group, Cogliano is still yet to re-sign and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins could very well make the roster out of camp. So clearly something has to give. From this list of players, Omark, Hartikainen, and Petry are still waiver exempt, meaning they would not be required to clear waivers for assignment to the AHL, which gives Tambellini some added flexibility. However, Omark has an out-clause in his contract that allows him to return to Europe this season if he so chooses. Omark was clearly unhappy last year when he was cut at training camp and may choose to head back to the KHL if he isn't playing for the Oilers in the NHL this October.

With the signing of Eric Belanger to a three year deal and the selection of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers are now a bit crowded down the middle. The most likely scenario would be for Tambellini to move a center for another NHL-ready defenseman. Trade candidates at this point probably include Andrew Cogliano, as he is yet to sign a new deal, and Gilbert Brule since he was already almost traded once this summer. However Brule is unlikely to yield a significant return in a trade based on his injury concerns, which turns the focus back to Cogliano, although Sam Gagner might also be available if the return is significant enough.

The current Oilers blue line is still a work in progress and hasn't gotten help as quickly as the forwards have. There are a number of promising blue line prospects in the system, including Martin Marincin, Colten Teubert, and now Oscar Klefbom, but they are all likely still a ways away from making an impact in the NHL. While the addition of Andy Sutton adds significant size and physicality, the addition of Cam Barker is still a question mark. Will the Oilers be getting the Cam Barker that scored 40 points in 68 games in 2008-2009 or will they be getting the Cam Barker that regressed and struggled these past 2 seasons? For the Oilers to start moving up in the standings they'll need to continue to improve their defense, and if the right deal comes along Tambellini likely won't hesitate to make it. If the Oilers are trying to model themselves after the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks, they have their Kane and Toews in Hall and Nugent-Hopkins, but now it's time to find their Keith and Seabrook.

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