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THN.com Blog: Oil drop unlikely to reverse

The Edmonton Oilers finished in 11th place with 85 points last season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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The Edmonton Oilers finished in 11th place with 85 points last season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s one thing for a contending team to be pressed up against the cap ceiling, but quite another for a middling squad to be shackled by financial restraints.

Teams such as the Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Washington Capitals, Calgary Flames, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks can take a win-now-and-worry-about-the-future-later attitude because they are all rational Cup contenders. Fans will forgive serial shedding of salary in the wake of a championship high.

Clubs like the Edmonton Oilers, however, don’t look good now and, thanks to roster mismanagement, don’t look good for the future, either.

With little changed from a roster that finished six points outside the Western Conference playoff picture last season, I think our 11th place prediction for 2009-10 is a fair assessment.

Edmonton’s new co-coaching committee of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney will give the young Oilers proper offensive freedom and defensive structure, which can’t help but improve their chances in the ultra-competitive West, but that’s where my ability to gush over the Oil ends.

This team lacks a game-breaker (perhaps if Ales Hemsky learned to shoot the puck he could develop into one) both up front and on the back end - and has questions concerning depth, especially amongst its forward corps.

Uncertainty abounds in the crease as well. Nikolai Khabibulin had a bounce-back 2008-09 season in Chicago, but it was a contract year and he was less than spectacular in the playoffs when it mattered most.

Most troubling, though, is Edmonton’s lack of wiggle room to do anything about their issues.

After signing Ladislav Smid to a two-year deal worth $1.3 million per season Wednesday, the Oilers are left with a little more than a million dollars worth of cap room. As Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal pointed out recently, hometown boy and unrestricted free agent Blair Betts would be a welcome addition to a roster that could certainly use his faceoff and penalty-killing skills, but the space simply isn’t there for a player who will be looking for a raise on the $600,000 he made last season.

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Edmonton’s problems are exacerbated by the Gibraltar Rock-esque immovability of almost everyone on the roster. Is there a GM outside of Manhattan willing to take on Shawn Horcoff’s $5.5 million annual cap hit? Dustin Penner’s $4.25? Lubomir Visnovsky’s $5.6? Not likely, especially when you consider each is locked up until at least 2011-12.

Things are as bright as black gold beyond this season, too. According to capgeek.com, Edmonton has 13 players under contract for $44.2 million in 2010-11, leaving them with $12.6 million for 10 players to fill out the roster – assuming the cap stays static and doesn’t drop, as some predict.

Those totals don’t include RFA forwards Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, both of whom are coming off their entry-level deals and will be interested in healthy raises, nor defenseman Denis Grebeshkov, who certainly won’t be taking a hit on his $3.15 million salary.

Of course, everything could go right for the Oilers – Hemsky could live up to his 100-point potential, Horcoff could become a point-a-game player, Khabibulin could be a wall in goal, the young forwards could all flourish under Quinn’s tutelage, the ‘D’ could round into one of the league’s best puck-moving units, and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson could win the Calder.

But even if all those factors come up roses, is the City of Champions still anywhere near the West’s upper tier? In salary only.

Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog normally appears Thursdays.

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