The Oilers are built around a solid young core, but will they have to trade one of them to address other roster issues? (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
In the wake of the Edmonton Oilers hiring Craig MacTavish to replace Steve Tambellini as GM, the local media wasted little time speculating over MacTavish's off-season plans.
Joanne Ireland of the Edmonton Journal believes the Oilers’ biggest needs are on defense and center, as well as size and skill to complement the young stars (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov) acquired with their first overall draft picks.
She wondered if MacTavish would address those needs via the draft, or with trades and free agent signings. To free up roster and salary cap space for such additions, he may have to buy out one or two veteran players.
Jim Matheson, replying to reader e-mail on the subject, doubted MacTavish would hire a new coach, noting the Oilers have already gone through four coaching changes in the past six years, one of which was MacTavish in 2009.
Matheson wondered if MacTavish would consider moving one of the Oilers’ young stars, suggesting either Jorden Eberle or Nail Yakupov if the target was one of the NHL's top defensemen, such as Nashville's Shea Weber. Otherwise, Matheson considers those players as untouchable as Hall, Nugent-Hopkins or Justin Schultz.
Matheson also believes Ales Hemsky (who has one year and $5 million left on his contract) is “definitely trade material,” though the Oilers might have to pick up part of his salary in a trade. Other trade candidates may include Corey Potter (one year, $770,000) and Eric Belanger (one year, $1.75 million).
He doesn't expect pending free agent defenseman Ryan Whitney will return and speculated the Oilers would re-sign either Mark Fistric or Theo Peckham “but not both.”
One of MacTavish's biggest decisions is determining the future of Sam Gagner. The 23-year-old will be a restricted free agent this summer and is coming off his best season to date (on pace for 41 points in 48 games). He could seek between $4.5 million and $5 million per season.
If Gagner proves too expensive to re-sign, MacTavish could trade him for depth on the wings, but that could weaken the Oilers at center. If sophomore Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continues to struggle through injuries and inconsistency, Gagner's absence would be even more noticeable.
Same goes for captain Shawn Horcoff, who has two years (at an annual cap hit of $5.5 million) remaining on his contract. His declining production isn't worth that kind of salary, but if he's dealt or bought out, MacTavish must find a suitable replacement.
MacTavish won't find many quality centers in this summer's free agent market. Mike Ribeiro, Stephen Weiss, Tyler Bozak, Derek Roy and Matt Cullen are the best of the bunch, but there's speculation all but Roy will be re-signed by their current clubs.
As for free agent wingers, New Jersey's David Clarkson would be a good fit if the Devils fail to re-sign him, but a number of clubs will pursue him.
Boston's Nathan Horton is another option, but his concussion history makes him a risky signing. The NY Rangers appear keen to retain recently acquired Ryane Clowe, while Brenden Morrow is clearly on the downside of his career.
An intriguing possibility is Jarome Iginla, who was born and raised in Edmonton. Given his long career with the Flames, as well as his age (35) and declining production, joining the Oilers seems unlikely.
MacTavish must also find a top-two defenseman. Phoenix's Keith Yandle would fit the bill, but the Coyotes asking price is reportedly two first-line players, one of them a center. Such a move would bolster the Oilers defense, but weaken their forward depth.
Free agency doesn't hold many options, with ageing Sergei Gonchar and Mark Streit topping the list.
Perhaps MacTavish should contact the St. Louis Blues about the trade status of defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Both are restricted free agents this summer, and if their contract talks get difficult, the Blues might listen to offers for one or the other.
A bolder move would be signing Pietrangelo or Shattenkirk to an expensive offer sheet. Former Oilers GM (and current team president) Kevin Lowe used that tactic to land winger Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Considering how badly that turned out, plus the fact almost all offer sheets get matched, MacTavish could pass on that option.
The Blues could also be a worthwhile target for a skilled physical winger. Like Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart is a restricted free agent. If the Blues (as expected) put the priority on re-signing their two young defensemen, Stewart might become available.
If MacTavish seeks an experienced “stay-at-home” defenseman, LA Kings' blueliners Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi, along with Winnipeg's Ron Hainsey could be available via free agency.
With ageing Nikolai Khabibulin unlikely to be re-signed, MacTavish must find a suitable backup for Devan Dubnyk. Free agents Jose Theodore, Dan Ellis, Chris Mason, Joey MacDonald and former Oiler Mathieu Garon are possibilities, while the Kings' Jonathan Bernier would be a tempting trade option.
MacTavish could have bold moves planned for this summer, but fixing the Oilers glaring problems could take more than one off-season to address. For a fan base growing uneasy over the Oilers direction in recent years, patience will once again be the watchword.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).