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THN.com Blog: Oilers must not over-grease free-agent wheels

Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers has nine goals and 25 points in 43 games this season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Sam Gagner of the Edmonton Oilers has nine goals and 25 points in 43 games this season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Steve Tambellini will have one of the NHL’s most demanding jobs come March and into the off-season. As GM of the Edmonton Oilers – a capped-out squad – he will have tough decisions to make.

The Oilers have been nothing if not disappointing this season. Dead last in the West and 29th overall, Edmonton even resorted to a mini-training camp this past weekend in an attempt to salvage the season and re-boot the players.

But a lottery finish wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world this year. Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, Cam Fowler and a few others who look like sure things await the NHL’s bottom-feeders in June.

No, Edmonton’s biggest problem comes in the form of money, specifically the salary cap and not having enough of it to go around. This is what will demand the most of Tambellini in the near future.

The pickle the Oilers are in cap-wise is not all Tambellini’s fault – although he’s not entirely innocent, either. It was former GM and current president, hockey operations, Kevin Lowe, who traded for or signed most of the Oilers’ most expensive players.

Shawn Horcoff – he of more minuses than points this season – is signed through 2014-15; Dustin Penner, famously poached from Anaheim, may be panning out, but is an Oiler through ’11-12; the oft-injured Ales Hemsky is also inked until 2012; Lubomir Visnovsky was traded for just before Tambellini officially took over and is on a deal that carries him through ’12-13; and Sheldon Souray is signed through ’11-12 as well.

It was Lowe who had the final say on paying most of those players what they make for as long as they make it. And of the five, Hemsky comes the cheapest at $4.1 million per annum.

Tambellini is responsible for acquiring the ever-underwhelming Patrick O’Sullivan at last year’s trade deadline and, possibly the most egregious of all the bad contracts in Edmonton, signing netminder Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $15-million contract that can’t come off the books until the deal is over, retirement or not.

Those seven players account for nearly $32 million of Edmonton’s cap next season and, in all, the Oilers have more than $44 million wrapped up in just 13 players. Not a good situation.

Tambellini’s job this summer will be to reverse the trend of trading for over-priced players or signing guys to over-priced, too-long contracts. And, with three unrestricted free agents and 10 restricted free agents on the roster, he’s got a lot of decisions to make.

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At the top of the to-do list is Sam Gagner. The sixth pick of the 2007 draft jumped right into the Oilers lineup from junior and is in the final year of his entry level deal; he’s on pace for 46 points and topped-out as a rookie with 49. The temptation will be to sign him to a contract in the range of five years and $20 million, based on what he might do, not what he’s done.

But Tambellini needs to fight that temptation. He needs to get Gagner under contract for a much more reasonable amount – or trade him. Something like three years and $8 million is much more in line with Gagner’s play to date.

Andrew Cogliano has dropped off the map since firing 18 goals and 45 points as a freshman. He, too, is in the final year of his entry level deal and is on pace for 18 (yes, 18) points. Lord knows what his representatives will be asking for, but anything much more than the NHL’s minimum wage is a laugher. Again, Tambellini must be judicious.

The most intriguing of Edmonton’s RFAs is defenseman Denis Grebeshkov. The second-highest scoring Oiler from the blueline is 26 and a season away from UFA status. He has Top-4 skills and has been on an upward swing since joining the Oilers in ’07-08. But he’s earning $3.15 million this season and will expect a raise or a long, long term to re-sign for more than just next season.

Toss in the likes of the possibly-beginning-to-reach-his-potential RFA Gilbert Brule, the snake-bitten and unrestricted Fernando Pisani, both backup netminders and a few others, and Tambellini has a chance to makeover his roster, make up for past transgressions or make some serious errors.

Nobody is ever as enamored with a team’s players as the people responsible for acquiring them – except possibly that team’s fans. And that’s where the danger lies. If Tambellini overvalues his guys, he could get the Oilers into some real trouble, if they’re not already there.

John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog appearing Tuesdays and the Wednesday Top 10.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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