There was a lot of excitement in Oilerville last March 4 when Steve Tambellini made his first significant deals, sending soon-to-be-UFA Erik Cole back to Carolina in a three-way trade that landed Patrick O'Sullivan from Los Angeles. The swap also involved a favourable exchange of draft picks (a 5th-rounder for a 2nd), and Tambellini quickly used the latter to acquire another impending UFA, Ales Kotalik, from Buffalo for the stretch drive.
The best part of the deal according to many was that while Cole was surely going elsewhere at season's end, O'Sullivan (whom I will hereafter refer by his rather unfortunate acronym POS) was locked up for two more years. That's a great return for an expiring contract, what?
Well, yes and no. A player and his contract represent both an asset and a liability, and that is especially true in the salary cap era where more than ever the equation is Salary = Expectations.
In the case of POS, he had a strong season in the last year of his entry level contract (80 GP, 22-31-53, -8) and cashed in with a three-year extension at an annual cap hit of $2.925 MM. He arrived in Edmonton less than one year into that deal, with a reputation as an exciting and versatile young player known to be a shooter, something everyone agreed the Oilers needed. Indeed he had already fired 200 shots on the season, and while just 14 of those had found twine (Sh% 7.0%) surely he just had to keep firing and the goals would come.
Well, he has kept firing, and the goals have not come. Just 2 goals on 59 shots over the last 19 games of '08-09, and just 2 goals on 44 shots in the first 15 games of '09-10, leaving him with a severely unimpressive Sh% of just 3.9% as an Oiler. He may be a shooter, but there's not much evidence to say he's a scorer, and even less that he's a positive difference-maker (34 GP, 4-10-14, -10 as an Oiler). Now nearly halfway into that 3-year contract, his production level has stagnated, suggesting that his fine '07-08 season may have had more to do with linemate Anze Kopitar driving results than POS himself.
There is much to like about the player. He's still young. He skates well. He can play all three forward positions and both special teams (if not particularly effectively to this point). My bigger concern is about asset management and roster building. That contract ranks a solid fourth among Oiler forwards behind the big three of Horcoff, Penner and Hemsky. Surely he should be a driving force behind secondary scoring? And surely he should bring things to the table to complement rather than replicate the skill set of the team? These questions are not so much of the player as of management. What kind of team is Steve Tambellini trying to build here?
By committing to Patrick O'Sullivan last March, Tambellini effectively limited both his cap space and his options for the free agent market last summer. $2.925 MM is a lot of scratch that could land a very good player, or two or even three pretty decent ones. For example Calgary pays $2.55 MM combined for Curtis Glencross and Rene Bourque and gave up next to nothing in the way of assets for either. Rather than cherrypick though, I will simply compare the three guys involved in the dealings of March 4.
As I see it the Oilers have been a seriously unbalanced team for a while. The team has a severe shortage of prime-of-career players, with just three players -- Horcoff, Comrie, MacIntyre -- between the ages of 28 and 32. Moreover, they lack size up front, particularly among the so-called skill players in the top 6. Yet Tambellini gave up Cole (and any realistic chance to resign him) for POS; and while Kotalik was a nice temporary fix, there was no money in the pot to re-sign him over the summer. All wound up signing for very similar money. Which guy might best have suited Oilers needs?
1) Vital statistics:
POS: Age 24, 5'11, 190, cap hit $2.925 MM through 2010-11
Cole: Age 31, 6'2, 205, cap hit $2.9 MM through 2010-11
Kotalik: Age 31, 6'1, 227, cap hit $3.0 MM through 2011-12
2) Ice time (crude average since March 4 weighting both partial seasons equally):
POS: 18.4 M/G (1.6 PK, 2.8 PP)
Cole: 19.3 M/G (2.2 PK, 3.3 PP)
Kotalik: 15.3 M/G (0 PK, 3.0 PP)
3) Performance (since 2009 March 4):
POS: 34 GP, 4-10-14, -10, 0.41 P/G
Cole: 20 GP, 2-13-15, even, 0.75 P/G
Kotalik: 34 GP, 12-11-23, -2, 0.68 P/G
1) is perhaps most damning. Cole and Kotalik are both mature players who bring significant size and aggressive play into a skill role. Aggressiveness can be measured to some extent by Hits, an unreliable metric which nonetheless contains important truths when the discrepancies are extreme as these: Cole 58 (2.9/G); Kotalik 53 (1.6/G); POS 14 (0.4/G). O'Sullivan is best classified as a smurf, and his 8 hits in '09-10 place him in the middle of a pack that includes Cogliano (11), Penner (11) Gagner (6), Horcoff (6), Nilsson (6), Comrie (5), Hemsky (3), which is to say every single skill forward on the team. (Penner isn't a smurf obviously, but he's not ultra-aggressive either.) The only consistent hitters are Jacques, Stortini, Brule, Moreau, Stone, and there's not a legitimate top-6er in the group. This was an imbalance on the team last year even with Cole or Kotalik, and rather than be addressed it has become more polarized than ever. It's a sad fact that Erik Cole has more hits (12) in just 3 games before being injured, than any Oiler "skill" forward has 15 games in.
2) POS holds his own in ice time, whether his actual play has warranted it or not. He brings one important skill that Kotalik does not (penalty-killing), which is a plus for a team that was desperate for decent PK guys. He also has more flexibility than either vet, as Kotalik is strictly a winger and Cole strictly a Right winger. POS can play in the middle as well ... unfortunately he is nothing close to a faceoff ace, winning just 42 of 110 sorties on the dot for a Coglianoesque 38.2% success rate.
3) POS is a distant third to the other guys in both points production and plus/minus. To this point he's just not getting it done as an offensive or as a two-way player.
As for bringing balance to the Oilers, the PK seems to be his major edge over the other smurfs. That said there's lots of PK guys out there for half or a third or even a quarter of $2.925 MM. I would consider his versatility a plus if he were actually producing at any one of the three positions, but based on his career as an Oiler to this point he might as well be Marc Pouliot or Liam Reddox flitting from line to line, filling in where needed. Or even Toby Petersen for goodness sakes. $2.925 MM is a lot of scratch for a utility infielder.
I'm not rooting against the young man, but he needs to bring more to the plate, and quickly, to justify the organization's faith and dollars. Perhaps he's the guy who will be given the chance to step up if Horcoff is down for any length of time ... for sure he needs to step it up somewhere. Steve Tambellini's reputation is at stake. :)