Rebuilding The Edmonton Oilers

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Rebuilding in the National Hockey League is a long, daunting task. In the salary cap era, gone are the days of utilizing a mix of strong draft classes and high-profile free agents. This is amplified in smaller markets, although I hesitate to call any Canadian market a “small market” team, a phrase that is often used as justification by ownership to not spend as much money as they should on roster players. Some rebuilds seem to be endless, and some, such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins seemingly happen overnight. The Edmonton Oilers are viewed as one of the most exciting up and coming teams the league has seen in years. Before we go so far as to crown the Oilers as a team of the future, let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences that they’ve shown compared to the aforementioned success stories.

The story of the Edmonton Oilers’ current situation begins with the draft. As the only team in NHL history to have three consecutive #1 overall picks in the draft, one has to like the chances of one, or at the very least two of those picks to be immediate impact players. Below are the Oilers first two draft picks going back to 2007, with round/overall in parenthesis.

2007 – Sam Gagner (1/6), Alex Plante (1/15)

2008 – Jordan Eberle (1/22), Johan Motin (4/103)

2009 – Magnus Paajarvi (1/10), Anton Lander (2/40)

2010 – Taylor Hall (1/1), Tyler Pitlick (2/31)

2011 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1/1), Oscar Klefbom (1/19)

2012 – Nail Yakupov (1/1), Mitch Moroz (2/32)

(Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk was selected  1/14 in the 2004 entry draft). 

As you can see, the Oilers have a pretty good recent history of selecting players at the top of the draft who are currently making an impact on the roster. Gagner, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, and to a lesser extent Paajarvi and Yakupov are game changing players. Paajarvi and Yakupov are showing intense promise, and should be viewed in the same light as the others in the near future. 

That’s a pretty impressive start. So what makes the Oilers different from the Chicago’s and the Pittsburgh’s? In my opinion it’s all about supporting cast. The Blackhawks have Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, and Keith. They also have Bolland, Hjalmarsson, Carcillo, Frolik, and Stalberg. The top tier guys are obvious talents who can score at any moment, but there really are no weaknesses. The young guys have support from veterans who can play the game and get their hands dirty. You can build a lineup with two lines of great talent and have some success, but it’s impossible to win consistently without those gritty bottom-6 players. You have to have a little bit of nasty to go with your flash and dash. You need the Brent Sopel out there blocking shots. You need the John Madden doing whatever it takes to win that key face-off. Talent isn’t always directly reflected on the score-sheet. 

The problem that the Oilers face going forward is that they’re building a culture of losing. With so many young star players, it’s a recipe for disaster. When you’re taken in the top 5 of the NHL draft, chances are that you’re not accustomed to losing games at any point of your career. This idea of losing and waiting for the future is foreign to many on the Oilers’ roster. We can all say that the Oilers are on their way, but once losing becomes accepted as a means to the “big picture”, the picture fades rather quickly. With the core of the team at around the same age, the current course is a recipe for disaster.

I am, however, optimistic that the Oilers will be a good team because of their high-end talent. With that said, their high-end talent is exactly why their window is smaller than most think. A culture of winning needs to be instilled in young players’ minds as soon as possible. 

Analyzing The Ryan O’Reilly Offer Sheet

Edmonton Oilers v Colorado Avalanche

Yesterday afternoon, word came that the Calgary Flames had submitted an offer sheet for Colorado Avalanche restricted free agent Ryan O’Reilly, effectively ending the most publicized contract negotiation of the year. At an average annual value of 5 Million dollars, many people, myself included, thought the Avalanche would bid adieu to arguably their best player. The Calgary offer sheet specifics included a 1 Million dollar salary for the 2012-13 season, a 2.5 Million dollar signing bonus, and a 6.5 Million dollar salary for the 2013-14 season. Colorado wasted no time matching the Flames’ offer sheet, doing so in under 12 hours. Had the Avalanche decided to let O’Reilly walk to Alberta, the compensation would have been a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick in this season’s draft.

Now, some might say that the money committed to O’Reilly is ridiculous for a player averaging under a point-per-game in 3 full NHL seasons. While I would agree, I would also argue that Flames’ GM Jay Feaster knew exactly what he was doing in submitting this offer sheet. Feaster likely knew that the Avalanche would not allow a division rival to swoop in and take their young star. The NHL’s rules for qualifying RFA’s include one often overlooked facet. Ryan O’Reilly’s final season under this contract pays him 6.5 Million, which means that following the 2014-15 season, should the Avs wish to submit a qualifying offer, it will have to START at 6.5 Million, effectively putting the screws to their salary cap numbers for the future.

From Calgary’s point of view, submitting this offer sheet is a win-win situation. Had Colorado chosen not to match the offer, they would have received a very good young player from a divisional rival. Even though the contract carries a high cap hit, the deal is only for 2 years, thus making it manageable from a cap perspective. Even though the Flames offer to O’Reilly was matched, you could also argue that they walk away feeling like winners by throwing a wrench into Colorado’s salary cap. There is now less money for a divisional rival to play with in going after free agents, or even signing their own RFA/UFA’s, especially given the qualifying offer that they will have to submit to Ryan O’Reilly after next season.

The Ridiculousness Of The NHL

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With all of the recent news of players signing huge contracts, both in monetary value and length, it’s hard to believe that the owners of the National Hockey League are once again crying for mercy. Look no further than the contracts given to high-profile unrestricted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, each at 13yrs/$98MM from the Minnesota Wild. Matt Carle at 6 yrs/$33MM from Tampa Bay. Dennis Wideman, 5 yrs/$26.25MM from Calgary. Dennis Wideman is a fine player, but to the tune of $5.25 per year?! And finally, the most prime example, Shea Weber. The Philadelphia Flyers signed Weber to an offer sheet that would pay him a total of over $110 million through the 2025 season. That offer sheet was subsequently matched by the Nashville Predators. 

Let me say that I have absolutely no issue with the amount of money that players make. What I do have a problem with is the league and its owners complaining about losing money, and that the CBA needs to be re-written…again. As you’ll remember, the 2004-05 season was completely washed out due to lockout. The ensuing CBA was supposed to address these very issues, and make all teams competitive regardless of market size. The implementation of a hard salary cap was supposed to make the Calgary’s, Edmonton’s, and Nashville’s competitive against the Detroit’s, New York’s, and Toronto’s. We can argue all day about the merits of a salary cap system, and we will, but first lets take a step back and ask ourselves…what exactly was the purpose of the lockout? What have we gained?

Take a look at those names again. You’re seeing huge contracts coming out of Minnesota, Tampa, Calgary, and Nashville. Not the Rangers, Chicago, or Detroit. Some of the same teams crying about being in the poorhouse are spending the most money.

Personally, I’ve never bought the line from the owners that small markets are doomed to fail. Take the Edmonton Oilers as an example. The Oilers were one of the loudest to complain about the necessity of a salary cap system during the last lockout. The Oilers charge over $50 (Canadian $) for Standing Room Only tickets. As of the end of the 2012 regular season, the Oilers boast of a sell-out streak of over 300 consecutive games. That’s tickets sold, and not taking into account TV money, concessions, parking, and merchandising revenue. And you’re broke? Give me a break.

The NHL got everything they could have possibly asked for in 2005. The players are still trying to find their pants after that one, and they shouldn’t give in this time. While I’m not fond of the current system, it has largely worked. But, like those who abuse welfare, it’s pretty hard to complain about not being able to afford food when you have a flatscreen hooked up to a nice surround sound system. 

The owners of the NHL do need to be saved…from themselves. Isn’t it ridiculous that they can ask for a new CBA while at the same time handing out ridiculous contracts and offer sheets? It shouldn’t be up to the players or fans to save the owners. 

The Annual Clown Convention…

This weekend brings the 5th annual Chicago Blackhawks Convention to the Hilton hotel in downtown Chicago. I’ve made the decision to essentially boycott the event until some changes are made. The team can start by giving John McDonough and Stan Bowman their walking papers. I’ll touch on that in a moment, but first, a few general words about the convention.

The convention is usually a fun time for fans to meet up and share a common passion. It’s a great place to chat with current and former stars, such as Tony Esposito, Eric Daze, Pierre Pilote…the list goes on. During the first convention, for example, I ran into Eric Daze in the empty hotel bar. He could not have been a nicer guy, and we had a conversation over a brew.

However, the dynamic surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks has become so different, it’s almost unrecognizable. The divide between die-hard Hawks fans and “new” Hawks fans is obvious, and it’s easy to determine where someone falls within a minute of conversation. This isn’t intended to be a knock on new hockey fans. Hockey brings people of all cultures together, and it shouldn’t be ‘exclusive’. I’ll admit, there is a big part of me that wonders where all of these Hawks fans were 10 years ago. I had Blackhawks season tickets from 1998-2002 (when I moved from Chicago), and the team was terrible. To quote Pat Foley, “You could have shot a cannon through the United Center and not hit anyone”. There IS some stupid sense of pride that I get from having always been there, even when times were bleak. To see these new people show up in droves when the winning starts (and leaving by the 2nd intermission) is a little sad to me, because even though we were fewer in numbers, we were the “real” Hawks fans. We put the time in.

Excuse the loyalty commercial, but there’s a point behind that. The current Blackhawks front office is structured under owner Rocky Wirtz with John McDonough as team president, and Stan Bowman as GM. Who’s John McDonough, you ask? He’s the former Chicago Cubs marketing guru. How is he qualified to hold the position of President with the Chicago Blackhawks? He isn’t. The Chicago Cubs are known for their marketing, so I know that he does a good job in that department. But, if there’s one team that NO other professional sports franchise should strive to emulate, it’s the Chicago Cubs.

I don’t think that you should necessarily have to be a genius hockey mind to hold the title of president, but Rocky Wirtz has given him full reign of the day-to-day and hockey operations. You do, however, need to let the hockey people in the organization run the hockey team. He’s great at formulating “One Goal” commercials for TV, Print, and billboard…the “new” fans eat that up. He can wax poetic about how Brandon Saad is the next Gretzky, and “new” fans are convinced. No need to go out and get Center depth…we have Saad in the system. And that’s my rub with the new Hawks fans. The old guard can see through that, but as long as there are people drinking the red Kool-Aid, it doesn’t matter. Sound familiar, Cubs fans? Every fan base overvalues their prospect system, but the Blackhawks take it to a new level.

The other problem with McDonough is his ego, which ran some of the best hockey minds this team has seen in decades out of Chicago. Dale Tallon, former GM, was reportedly infuriated when McDonough insisted that Cristobal Huet, at the time the hottest free agent goalie, be signed. The Blackhawks already had Nikolai Khabibulin on a near-max contract, but McDonough demanded the “splash” signing. Same with Brian Campbell, who ironically Tallon traded for in order to reach the cap floor in Florida. Al Mac Adams and Mike Havilland are two others who have been essentially ran out of town by McEgo. As much as it hurts as a fan, I find it funny that as the Blackhawks decline post-Tallon, the Florida Panthers are coming up the same way the pre-Cup Blackhawks did under Tallon.

Stan Bowman as GM. Where to start?! I’ve always felt that Stan Bowman is living off of his father’s (Scotty Bowman) name. Now, I’ve obviously not sat in on negotiations directed by Bowman, but just listening to him talk is painful. Even in interviews, he mumbles and waffles constantly. To his credit, I don’t doubt that his hands are somewhat tied by the suits in the organization, but he was hand picked for the job. Get the theme? Scotty Bowman’s son…almost sounds like a marketing hook. The first clue that Bowman was going to be a disaster came when he was serving as the assistant GM under Dale Tallon. At the time, Tallon took the fall, like any good boss would do when an understudy screws up. It has since come out that Stan Bowman was responsible for sending the paperwork to 8 Blackhawk RFA’s. The paperwork was sent late, prompting a grievance by the NHLPA, and costing the Blackhawks dearly. That mistake directly contributed to the post-Cup salary cap fiasco that gutted this team of its depth.

So, when Hawks fans go to the convention this weekend, they can give Bowman, McDonough, and co. a standing ovation for their one signing this offseason. Nothing against Sheldon Brookbank…he’s a solid player…but this team needs more than a #5-6  defenseman. A lot more. Free agency is a two way street, I get it. It takes a competent GM and a willing player. This is Chicago…a team 2 years removed from a Stanley Cup Championship. A city with everything possible to offer to a player and his family. I invite you to look at the team the Hawks defeated in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, the Philadelphia Flyers. Since the Hawks skated the cup around Philly ice, the two teams have gone in completely different directions. When the city of Philadelphia is considered a better option than Chicago, we have a problem. And it starts at the top.

Have fun at the convention. I’m staying home.