It's been a a long time since Oilerville has felt this much optimism. After 4 years of non-playoff hockey that has featured seemingly endless stretches of futility, injury and turmoil, Edmonton fans are starting to get a sense that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Time to give credit where and when it's due: General Manager Steve Tambellini, who has been criticized a lot in this space, has had one hell of a week.
It began with the acquisition of former Red Deer Rebel Colin Fraser from the Chicago Blackhawks at the mere cost of a 6th round pick - a bargain for a genuine NHL player.
Obviously selecting an franchise player at the draft in Taylor Hall meant a prosperous weekend but Edmonton's second round which saw them add three talented prospects and also drop a disgruntled Riley Nash has to be considered as very positive moves.
Then, when it appeared all but certain that the team would take a financial hit to buy out the contracts of three players it no longer wanted, the Oilers found dance partners for both Ethan Moreau and Patrick O'Sullivan. They ever received a capable depth defenceman, Jim Vandermeer, in the process.
Robert Nilsson was bought out and the move will actually save the organization in cap space this year.
Free agency has started and although it appeared the Oilers would be quiet on Day 1, the team went out and signed Kurtis Foster, the second highest scoring UFA blueliner on the market. Not only did they land the 6'5, 225 lbs defender but the got him at a very reasonable $1.8M ticket for the next two seasons.
Like I said... a pretty damn good week. However, it's not quite picture perfect yet and if Tambellini doesn't act quickly, one area of the organization is going to be hooped.
What About the Farm?
It's great that Tambellini seems to have all his ducks in a row at the NHL level but the Oilers farm situation remains unresolved as the free agency frenzy gets underway. With no AHL GM and no AHL coaching staff named (I'm told Gerry Fleming is likely back), the chances shrink drastically of signing the veteran farmhands Edmonton has declared a priority. What player will want to sign a contract not without knowing who his coach is going to be? Very few.
And at this point, who is in charge of even approaching the AHL level free agents? I assume that falls to Assistant GM Rick Olczyk right now but haven't we been told that the eventual replacement for Kevin Prendergast will take on that responsibility? Would it be prudent to have that position filled already?
We've heard the name Scott Bonner, the GM of the WHL's Vancouver Giants, as a leading candidate. I'm led to believe that Bonner has received at least two offers from the Oilers but so far he had not taken the job. That might happen any second now but I'm getting the impression that it isn't necessarily a consensus feeling within the Oilers organization. There are those that have doubts that Bonner will accept the position.
The AHL GM is to fill out the roster and hire the coaching staff and the latter should probably be in place before the hunt for players can realistically begin. If Bonner is the man for the job, and I have no reason to think that he wouldn't be capable of succeeding int he position, then get it done already. If it's not a done deal already, move on to the next worthy candidate because time is running out.
Presumably the Oilers will be looking for two AHL level goaltenders, at least one veteran for sure. One day into the free agent bonanza and Curtis Sanford, Andrew Raycroft, Jason Bacashihua, Nathan Lawson and Dany Sabourin are off the market. Guys like Joey MacDonald, Steve Valiquette and Wade Dubielewicz are available but probably won't be for long.
Former Springfield Falcons scorers Chris Minard and Charles Linglet have already made it known that they won't be in Oklahoma City, in large part because of Edmonton's decision to sack coach Rob Daum. Linglet (right), who finished top-10 in AHL scoring last year as a Falcon, signed on with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in the KHL a couple of days ago.
Edmonton's relationship with their minor league partners sees the NHL club responsible for the salaries of the players and the hockey staff (coaches, trainer, equipment manager, etc) while the marketing and ticket sales are handled locally. It's a solid arrangement but it puts them at a disadvantage when compared to teams like Manitoba, Chicago, Milwaukee and Hershey.
I'm told that those clubs have players with salaries shared and sometimes paid 100% by the local group as opposed to the NHL team. So if a Mike Keane can make a large AHL salary and it cost the Canucks a small portion, of course they'll gladly open a spot for the veteran who will help develop future Canucks.
This is why the top AHL players almost always seem to end up with one of a small number of AHL teams. The big fish will usually sign later as they try and get a 1-way deal from NHL clubs but if that fails, they'll sign lucrative AHL contracts with affiliates that will shoulder much of the salary so the NHL club will keep a roster spot open.
Forwards gone off the AHL free agent shopping list already includes Derek MacKenzie who scored at a point per game last year for Syracuse and was retained by Columbus for their move to Sprinfield. Tough guy Triston Grant was snapped up by Florida. Joey Crabb was inked by Toronto. The leafs also signed defenceman Danny Richmond.
Some available names to consider for the back end include Jordan Hendry, Andy Wozniewski, Shawn Belle, Mark Popovic and others of similar caliber. The lit of forwards features Ryan Vesce, Nathan Smith, Martin St. Pierre, Darren Haydar (above), Jeremy Williams, Duncan Milroy, Mark Cullen, Alex Giroux and Corey Locke.
Those aren't names that jump off the page at an Oiler fan but it's those types of players that go on to lead the AHL in scoring year after year and they won't remain on the open market for long.
Steve Tambellini has been described to me as a person who cannot multitask; he's a one-track mind and stays focused on one subject until it's completed. The last couple of months has been focused on the draft and that's why the situation with the coaching staff of both the NHL and AHL teams was dealt with several weeks later than it should have been.
The buyouts, trades, qualifying offers and start of free agency has hogged the spotlight this week. Oklahoma City fans should be hoping that the subject of their team's management and coaching staff gets moved to the front burner soon or else the Barons' fate in 2010-11 will look a lot like the Springfield Falcons of the last couple of years.
Steve Tambellini has had a great week but the job is far from done.