It wasn't very much fun playing for the Edmonton Oilers during the 2009-10 season, and things didn't get any better for anyone who became a free agent in the off-season. Sure, it was an opportunity to change organizations, but those who were cut loose didn't seem to have much leverage on the free market: many players couldn't find a one-way contract, and those that did are at the very bottom of the pay scale. Robert Nilsson and Denis Grebeshkov are off to Europe; Fernando Pisani and Mike Comrie are playing for the league minimum; Marc Pouliot, Ryan Potulny, Ryan Stone, and Patrick O'Sullivan all signed two-way deals; Riley Nash was exiled for bad behaviour and Sheldon Souray can only wish it was that easy. After the jump, I'll take a look at how the departed Oilers are doing.
Denis Grebeshkov signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL, one of this season's biggest winners in unrestricted free agency. In addition to Grebeshkov, the Soldiers added Evgeny Nabokov and Maxim Afinogenov to a lineup that already included players like Alexei Yashin and Sergei Zubov. Despite the fact that the club stands 8th in the KHL standings today, I think there's a good chance that they'd finish better than 30th overall if they were in the NHL. At the very least, they'll be 1-0 against the NHL this season after last night's victory over the Carolina Hurricanes. As for Grebeshkov's personal performance, through the first 11 games of the season, he leads the club in time on ice (22:47 per game), +/- (+7), and all three scoring categories among defensemen (3-4-7). The dude is still a good player. So why did he sign in Russia? Business. The Russian club gave him a bump in pay over what he made last year in the NHL, something that wasn't available to him in North America. His agent explained the situation over the summer: "We just weren’t prepared to throw away the prime of his earning power, at 27 and 28 years old. Denis really wanted to play in the NHL, but we couldn’t do it at a huge discount." Probably a good move on his part, and it points to one of the unfortunate realities of the NHL's salary cap: not all of the best players are in the NHL.
Robert Nilsson's situation is a wee bit different, but only a wee bit. After being bought out by the Oilers, I'm guessing that Nilsson may have had a hard time finding a one-way contract at all. Both players, however, ended up in Russia. Nilsson now plays for Salavat Ufa alongside the KHL's biggest star, Alexander Radulov, and old Oilogosphere favourite, Patrick "The Electric Norseman" Thoresen. Through seven games Nilsson has seven points (3-4-7), and seems to be off to a good start on his "second career" in Europe. He's almost certainly going to make more money there than in the NHL over the next several years if he can score at that pace, so we may have seen the last of him for quite some time.
It's hard to imagine a softer landing than the one that awaited Mike Comrie in Pittsburgh. Sure, he only signed for the league minimum, and things can definitely change quickly, but Comrie ended the pre-season playing on a line with Evgeni Malkin, and it sounds like that's where he's going to start the year. Now, of the three Pittsburgh centers, Malkin is generally the most sheltered, as well as the dirtiest (just ask Willie Mitchell). It's basically a perfect fit for Comrie who has both incredible skill, and isn't at all afraid to play a physical game.
Like Comrie, Fernando Pisani drifted well into the summer without a contract, and seemed incredulous with the market for veterans with his skill-set. He ended up signing a one-way deal with the Blackhawks for the league minimum, and all indications are that he's made the team. The Hawks do have one more cut to make, but only thirteen forwards on their active roster. Further, it seems most fellows following the Hawks agree with head coach Joel Quenneville's assessment of Pisani's usefulness at the start of camp: "His experience and predictability are things we were looking for. He's a penalty-killer and seems like a great team guy." Considering the number of veteran forwards who can PK and take pressure off the kids, I can definitely see why management in Edmonton was so eager to get rid of that guy!
Ryan Potulny was the other former Oiler who moved to the Blackhawks, but he did so without a one-way contract in hand. Apparently even a fifteen-goal season isn't good enough to earn a one-way deal if the last-place team doesn't want you back. Potulny, then, had to go to camp and win himself a job, and it looks like he's done just that. Potulny is another of those thirteen forwards left on the roster in Chicago, and it looks like he'll be breaking camp in the NHL for the first time. (Edit: Not so much. Ryan Potulny was placed on waivers today) Con
Another player who probably expected a one-way deal, but didn't get one is Patrick O'Sullivan. Now, he did have a league-worst -35 +/- rating working against him, and he was in fact really bad in Edmonton, so on the one hand it's pretty understandable. On the other hand, there aren't too many players with a 50-point season in the last three years who can't find work. O'Sullivan ended up signing with the Hurricanes in September and is still on the active roster with the club currently in Europe. At only $600,000, O'Sullivan is a very good gamble for the Hurricanes/ For Oiler fans that remember his time here, he also provides yet another reason for to hate the Hurricanes (Darn you Cam Ward!)
When Riley Nash signed a deal with the Hurricanes over the summer, the numbers looked awfully fishy for a first-round pick; I was sure there was some kind of nudge-nudge agreement that Nash was going to be playing in the NHL. I was wrong. Nash was cut from the team last week and will indeed start his pro career in the AHL. Unlike some in the Oilogosphere, I'm still pulling for the player to make it in the NHL, and expect he will. Still, it's not quite the start I was expecting.
Another player that looked like he'd found a great situation was Marc Pouliot, but he was cut and cut early by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning didn't have a lot of depth, and the head coach knew him from their time together in junior, so it seemed like a great situation. Obviously, it wasn't. All thirty teams in the league took a pass when Pouliot was on waivers, and now the young forward's NHL career is in doubt. No longer young enough to be a prospect, Pouliot had better accept a role and run with it soon because, from what I understand, the Guy Carbonneau type gets paid quite a bit more than the Ralph Intranuovo model.
Ryan Stone's situation in the off-season was very similar to Pouliot's in that he was forced into taking a one-way deal, but it's been a different story in camp. Whereas Pouliot's play was what underwhelmed, Stone can't seem to stay healthy (knee problems), and now that the Flames have added Brendan Morrison to the mix, it seems like Stone will have trouble getting back onto the active roster once he's cleared to play. If that ends up being the case, here's hoping he gets a shot somewhere else in the NHL (I never wanted him in Calgary anyway).
And finally, what of Sheldon Souray? Perhaps the day of his ECHL assignment is drawing closer...