February is a wonderful time of year, a time when hockey fans thoughts turn to trades. And even though the NHL trade deadline is still two and a half weeks away Edmonton Oiler fans have been fully consumed by trade fever. Who can we get? Who’s available? What do we need? It’s all a little bit ridiculous at times but when your team has been all but out of playoff contention for close to two months you can certainly understand why Oiler fans get excited about the trade deadline - it’s all about the future and right now that’s all we’ve got.
For the most part the trade speculation to date has centred on Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner. If you look at the Oilers line up they’re the only two forwards that are likely available and could make a significant contribution for a team during the last two months of the season and into the playoffs. Other players like Ryan Jones, Andrew Cogliano, and Jim Vandermeer could also be available but they’re not going to bring anywhere near the same return and so as fans we don’t care nearly as much.
Because both Hemsky and Penner have another year remaining on their current contracts Steve Tambellini has options as to how he wants to handle the situation unlike Don Wadell with Ilya Kovalchuk at last the trade deadline last season where a trade was basically forced on the Atlanta Thrashers General Manager. He can decide to keep one, both, or neither. If the right deal comes along Tambellini can pull the trigger before the February 28 deadline, he can make a trade after the season, maybe at the draft in June, or he can choose to get contract extensions in place after July 1. But those are the only options that he has; he cannot start next season with either Hemsky or Penner set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the year.
As part of the rebuild of the Edmonton Oilers it is critical that the team get value for its assets, players with significant value – players like Penner and Hemsky – can’t be allowed to walk away for nothing. Of course there is another trade deadline next season when Tambellini could make a trade if need be but waiting that long could be potentially disastrous.
Tambellini doesn’t seem to be the type of guy who rushes decision (see three goalies on the roster to start the season for proof). In some situations can be a good trait to have. The NHL deadline however is a fixed date, so even though Tambellini may want just another few days to think things over that isn’t an option that’ll be available to him. With one player, potentially two, set to become an unrestricted free agent at seasons end and the trade deadline looming, it terrifies me to think of the trade that might be made. Do you really want to relive the Ryan Smyth trade all over again?
But the potential for a bad trade isn’t the only reason to avoid starting next season with their contracts set to expire. Look at the NHL standings right now. All but one team is still in the Western Conference playoff race. Colorado and St. Louis are tied for 13th place but are only seven points back of a playoff spot. Is it really that unrealistic to think that the Oilers could be in that same position next season? If this seasons rookies – Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and Linus Omark – all continue to improve like we think, or hope, they will and the team gets solid goaltending (perhaps more Devan Dubnyk and less Nikolai Khabibulin), and stay relatively healthy I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that the Oilers could compete for a playoff spot next season.
And if they can, then what does Tambellini do at the deadline? The team can’t afford to lose either of Hemsky of Penner for nothing but could he really trade them at the deadline? It would ensure a return on the asset but when that player boarded a plane out of town he’d almost certainly be taking the teams playoff chances with him. This season will be the Oilers fifth straight with the team finishing outside of the playoffs, the longest such streak in franchise history. Would imploding a shot at the playoff 20 games from the end of next season be accepted by the masses? My gut says no. My gut also says that Tambellini wouldn’t make the trade and would explain that he still thinks a deal can get done after the season ends. Maybe he would get a deal done. Maybe he’d overpay to do it. But regardless of the outcome, it’s a lot of risk with very little reward.
The decision to trade or keep Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner doesn’t have to be made today, tomorrow, or even next month, but it does have to be made. And it has to be made before the start of the next season. As a fan I’d prefer that both players get extended because the team is better with them on it and to be honest I’m tired of watching loses night after night. But if that can’t be done I will understand and accept a trade. What I won’t accept will be allowing them to walk away for nothing.