Dead at the Deadline? A Copper & Blue Roundtable

When you cheer for a last-place team, there's not a lot of dates you can look forward to. Even rivalry games like the Battle of Alberta bring only a lingering sense of dread at the degree of obliteration that seems certain to follow. Every more mundane match carries with it the vaguely exciting possibility of a 10-0 loss, but the excitement there is more akin to jaywalking the Whitemud in rush hour while carrying an overflowing garbage bag full of feces.

One of the few hopeful occasions that remains on the calendar is the annual NHL trade deadline. There is, of course, a fringe of terror that our inept and uninspiring general manager will sell the heart of the team for magic beans (again), but there is also the chance that he'll being in some exciting new commodity, or maybe foist Steve Staios's killer contract off on a rival while actually getting something back in return. This ambivalence is the closest thing to excitement I can feel in my charcoal black heart of late.

So the Copper & Blue gathered its collective intellect, meeting in a secret location deep in the Rocky Mountains where generations of Oiler fans have been drawn to practice their dark rites (or possibly we swapped e-mails for the last week). Our profound experience and limitless wisdom were put to one purpose and one purpose only: to answer the question which galls us so thoroughly.

That question being: after Steve Tambellini's moves on trade deadline week, are the Oilers set to be better or worse in the future?

After the jump, our responses.

Ben: Like all good questions, this one hasn't got a clear answer. In some respects, the Oilers have clearly improved long-term. They've picked up three sweet, if not exactly blue-chip, draft picks. Their average age has declined. They got rid of a producer over thirty and brought in a producer in his prime. They're giving ice to prospects like Taylor Chorney and Theo Pechkam. It's all very exciting. There's so much youth on this team Michael Jackson would be banned from watching it.

On the other hand, that over-30 producer we traded happens to be one of the three players on the team who can actually come close to outscoring in this miserable environment. The player we got back isn't anywhere near the same level: the downgrade is so sharp as to border on the startling. And as Patrik Stefan or Alexandre Daigle can tell you, it takes a rare sort of integrity and commitment for a young player to develop to his potential in an atmosphere as noxious and defeated as the 30th-place Edmonton Oilers. Taking away one of the few role models as well as one of the few ways to stop the bleeding seems asinine.

Moreover, the loss of Denis Grebeshkov, coming into the prime of his career and set for a not-terrible contract as a restricted free agent, is bizarre. A second-round pick isn't bad, but it's not Denis Grebeshkov. Taylor Chorney is to defense what Jean-Francois Jacques is to, well, everything, really, and it's still an open question whether Theo Peckham has what it takes. We may be gutting the team and making everything worse for a very limited reward.

I think the Oilers got worse. Marginally. It's a close call.

 

Bruce: Cheering for the Oilers may be the last refuge of the incurable optimist or the clinically insane. As one with tendencies towards both I might be a perfect fit. The optimist in me says the Oilers absolutely had to get younger, bigger, and cheaper, and the net effect of this week's activity certainly accomplished all of those objectives. Whether they got any better is another question entirely, but as a cap team they had no room to manouevre; now they do. A serious issue with this team has been the number of long-term big-money contracts given to players already in their 30s who were destined to be in their mid-30s or beyond by the time said contracts expire. The 2009-10 Oilers were burdened by seven such contracts, each a 4- to 5-year deal, committing fully half of the cap hit (~$27.5 MM) to aging players who were generally underperforming when they weren't actually injured. All but one of those deals - the ill-fated Nikolai Khabibulin pact - were inherited by Steve Tambellini, and it was his task to clear the decks of at least a couple of them, preferably more. He accomplished the minimum objective by sending out Lubomir Visnovksy and Steve Staios.

Many would argue that Lubo Visnovsky was the one exception to the rule. I've even read he's a  guy that for reasons unspecified deserved to be overpaid for what he brought to the table. I like Lubo just fine but I don't get that argument. The problem wasn't the player, it was the term and the cap hit. 3 more years at $5.6 MM for an aging, undersized skill defenceman playing second pairing minutes seems to me like a luxury a rebuilding team can't afford. He was the most expensive piece on a 30th place club ... whether or not it was his "fault", it's pretty clear that it wasn't working. That his coach preferred the likes of Jason Strudwick (at ⅛ the cap hit) for penalty killing and defensive situations speaks to his limitations, real or imagined.

The incoming Ryan Whitney seems a better comp to replace Denis Grebeshkov than Visnovsky. At $4 MM per he's a tad more expensive than Grebs was; that said Whitney is locked up through some of his UFA years which always cost a little more. The jury is way out on Whitney, but he is a workhorse with a history of playing ~24 minutes a night including both special teams, unlike either of Vis or Grebs. If however, his reported chronic foot problem is a serious issue and the Oilers didn't conduct due diligence, that by itself should be a firing offence. So that gives the Tambellini haters and pessimists something to hope for.

I've got all day for Steve Staios but his trade represented Tambellini's best moment to date as Oilers GM. Dumping the warrior's last year at $2.7 MM for another third pairing guy ten years younger and a fifth as expensive was a master stroke. And the Oilers got a third-rounder in the deal! Awesome. The acquisition of promising Ryan Jones at the cost of zero assets was another solid move. The team needs to turn over a few rocks and see what they can find, cuz the current strategy of running with the smurfs has been an epic fail.

It may turn out that shipping out half the defence corps at once sets the stage for more misery in the short term, but that was surely going to happen anyway, indeed it was happening already while those guys were here. I would have been happier if Tambellini could also have found a taker for Ethan Moreau and/or Sheldon Souray. The contracts of Khabibulin and Shawn Horcoff are unmoveable at this juncture, but there still is future value in those guys, at least in theory. A rebuilding team can maybe carry a couple such contracts, but they sure in hell can't afford six of them.

At the end of the day the squad wound up with three new guys all over 6 feet, all over 200 pounds, and all entering the prime years of their respective careers. They also got three draft choices, and over $7 MM in cap space. To me that is solid and necessary work, even as it wasn't entirely pleasant to fans of the various outgoing players.

 

Scott:  The answer to the question above depends largely on the definition of "in the future."  Given the statement from Darryl Katz that this team is thinking rebuild and that the last of the dead money comes off the books in three more years I'll assume that "in the future" means, at best, the 2011-12 season and beyond.  If "rebuild" is in fact the strategy this should have been the Oilers singular focus of the last week.  Let's look at each transaction, from the last that occurred to the first:

Steve Staios for Aaron Johnson and a 3rd round pick in 2010 or 2011 (Flames choice): Given the time frame, this move is valuable for several reasons because Staios was not going to be part of the picture in 2011-12 and beyond.  By moving him now, the Oilers get some extra cap space to use on players that might be part of a winning Oilers team and they get a roster spot to evaluate players they like in their own system (Peckham/Chorney/Plante).  Johnson is an UFA at the end of the year and is inconsequential.  The 3rd round pick is a nice bonus.  Excellent move.

Lubomir Visnovsky for Ryan Whitney and a 6thround pick in 2010: I really like Lubomir Visnovsky and haven't really come around on this trade but it's not really a bad one.  By 2011-12 Visnovsky will be 35 so he may be in the decline phase of his career but he may also still be the same old effective Lubo he's been the last couple of seasons.  Both players in this deal are second pairing defenders with the important difference that Lubo drives results at EV and can on the PP whereas Whitney survives second pairing duty in all three game states and takes a lot more penalties.  The gamble is Lubo's 35-36 seasons against Whitney's 28-29 seasons.  I think I'd rather gamble on Visnovsky if those are my two options but if Whitney covers his contract then this works out.  I doubt Whitney is part of the (really) long-term plan because his contract (and Khabibulin's) comes up at the same time as Eberle as well as Paajarvi and Hall/Seguin assuming Paajarvi and Hall/Seguin are in the NHL next season (I probably wouldn't have them but I bet the Oilers do).  Defensible move.

Ryan Jones off waivers: He'll be in his prime in 2011-12 but will be an UFA before that season.  The Oilers get a chance to look at him for the next couple of seasons while he's on a pretty okay contract.  He does enough nice things and has enough potential that taking a look is worthwhile IMO.  If they get him to sign at a discount for 2011-12 and beyond this is a success.  If he leaves as an UFA nothing is lost.  Good move.

Denis Grebeshkov for 2nd round pick in 2010: I've written about this at length already but I think this one is foolish.  Grebeshkov is still young enough that he could well be part of a winning team in 2011-12 and beyond.  It's very unlikely that the 2nd round pick becomes something better than Grebeshkov and, so long as you're willing to pay Grebeshkov between 3M and 3.5M for next season, there was virtually no risk in holding onto him for another year.  It's very likely, based on returns from this trade deadline, that a pending UFA Grebeshkov is still worth at least a second round pick at the deadline.  In the interim you could have tried to package him for something more valuable or signed him longer term if you felt he was worth it. Stupid move.

Overall: Overall, I feel like the Oilers mostly ran in place in terms of what the roster looks like for 2011-12 and beyond.  The closest they came to adding an impact player was adding Whitney but that's offset by the loss of Grebeshkov (and given the choice I'd prefer to have Grebs).  Other than that they gave themselves a few extra picks which is nice, a roster spot on D so that they can know for sure that Peckham and Chorney won't cut it as top four defenders and a look-see at Ryan Jones.  Not a lot to get excited about.

 

Derek:  This deadline could have mattered greatly to the future of the Edmonton Oilers had anyone else but Steve Tambellini been at the helm.  The Oilers made three moves, reviewed above, and lost two of them.  The only move that Tambellini was able to win is the one where he was the heavy hitter in the negotiations, which speaks to how bad things have become in Calgary.

The guys covered the trades above from all angles and I'll say this - Tambellini may have cleared cap space going forward but he didn't get nearly enough in return for either Visnovsky or Grebeshkov.  Maybe he was hamstrung by the Sheldon Souray's hand infection revelation, but given Tambellini's track record, it wasn't Souray that did him in.  The problem really isn't that the Oilers lost the trades as badly as they did, it's that Tambellini chose the wrong path, the wrong players to move.  During Daryl Katz' carefully orchestrated interview with organizational mouthpiece Bob Stauffer, Katz indicated that

 

There's absolutely no question that Tamby has the complete green light to do whatever he thinks is necessary to rebuild the hockey club.

 

One would assume that "whatever he thinks is necessary" includes burying salary in the minors.  As our own Jonathan Willis proved out, the Oilers could easily clear $10 million in cap space with a couple of buyouts and waivers transactions involving spare and overused parts.  The cap space wouldn't impact the team until next year, so it didn't matter whether it was cleared on Wednesday or in June.  So rather than wait until the off-season when Souray was again healthy and marketable and the the buyout and waiver transactions could happen, Tambellini chose the deadline to get his cap space.  Rather than toss a couple of spare, defective and overused parts overboard for his future cap space, he dealt away actual NHL players - useful players for that same cap space.  He made the team worse, much worse, in the short term for the same long-term benefit, and he still has the same problems in the off-season.  A pile of immovable pieces that he's going to have to waive, bury or package with useful assets to get them out of the organization.

Tambellini made the team worse in the short term and no better than he could have made it long term.  The franchise was a mess, still is a mess and will be a mess for awhile, and Steve Tambellini continues to prove that he's not the guy to turn this whole thing around.  As much as everyone has pacified themselves with thoughts of a first overall pick - neither Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall is Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews - they aren't going to single-handedly save the franchise.  Turning the Edmonton Oilers around is going to require sound management.  Sound management isn't what the trade deadline was all about.

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