Time To Stop The Bleeding


Editor's Note:  This FanPost was written before the Penner trade

Enough already.  Going into this season, I was okay with the Oilers stinking this year to get another high draft pick.  The current Oilers depth chart shows, in my view, significant holes and flaws.  Some of these holes require top flight talent to fill (1st line centre, top pairing physical d-man) while others require some strategic use of free agency (couple of guys who can win face-offs, real penalty killers, solid bottom pairing d-men, and a guys with size who can play hockey). 

Since top free agents are not coming to Edmonton anytime soon, I viewed the draft as the Oiler's best hope to fill the gaps at centre and on the top pairing.  At the time, I was not sold on Eberle or Hall being ready to make real impacts on the Oilers tops six, meaning Edmonton's only other lever to fill these roles - trading Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner - was not viable at this time.

Well, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall may well be two of the top three Oiler forwards this season.  Magnus Paajarvi is coming along nicely and Linus Omark is at least as good as we could have hoped for.  Ryan Whitney, before he got hurt, was a revelation.  The man plays great hockey when he is not hurt. 

So, there are reasons to be optimistic for the future. 

But losing is like a cancer.  It can take hold of an organization and grow and spread and be almost impossible to eradicate.  For case studies on this, please see Florida, Columbus, Atlanta, the Islanders and Toronto.  No matter what these organizations seem to do, it fails.  Players with bright futures and all sorts of talent wither and die in these organizations. Can't say it enough, losing is cancer. 

Everyone is affected.  Scouts get Prendergast syndrome and overvalue prospects in hopes of plugging holes.  GMs rush prospects along, put them in losing environments that destroy their confidence, and then change coaches every six months so they never get comfortable playing a system.  They also throw crazy money at on the verge of washed up free agents hoping to up the talent levels enough to hold on to their jobs for one more season (see Kevin Lowe) Coaches, desperate to win, overplay young talent or given them tough minutes they aren't ready for.  By the time its all said and done, the free agents are going through the motions and the prospects are destroyed, left to wonder, like the fans, how this all could have happened.

The only except to the above appears to be Atlanta, which stemmed the cancer through an infusion of character guys having just won a Cup.  That option is rarely available and the Oilers missed that option.  And besides, the cancer appears to be creeping back in with the Thrashers.  I wish Dudley good luck in his fight.

The Oilers are in serious danger of becoming cancer victims themselves.  Every blog on the Oilers railed about and pleaded with management to address the Oilers weaknesses in the face-off circle and on the PK last summer and management did nothing.  Yet they had to know these were issues that needed to be addressed for the Oilers to improve.  I hope the view of management was "we want another top draft pick, so lets see what we really have currently because if they flop this year, that's okay" and not "we believe in these guys. Everyone else is underestimating them" (see Pendergast syndrome).  Why do I hope this?

Because the next sentence out of their mouths should have been "but we will not let this continue into 2011/2012 if our current bottom six fail". 

The Oilers cannot afford for their top young talents like Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi, Jeff Petry and whomever they draft this summer to fall victim to the losing cancer.  I fear it has already affected Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano

And I am not advocating for crazy moves here.  Nor am I seeking a quick fix.  Offering Brad Richards $10M per this summer will blow up the budget so bad it won't matter how good a player he is. 

But there needs to be goals for year over year progress set.  For 2011/2012, the organization should be looking for at least a 15-20 point improvement over this year (from ~62 points to ~82 points).  

Many of those points could be had by addressing the weaknesses in the bottom six (couple of guys who can win face-offs, real penalty killers, and a guys with size who can play hockey) and bottom pairing (solid bottom pairing d-men who can clear the front of the net instead of impersonating pylons). 

You need the players you bring in to fill these critical lunch pail roles to also bring character and work ethic.  Ray Shero's view on this was a key element of Hockey writer Ken Warren's (Ottawa Citizen) story on rebuilding.

"But even with all of that young talent [Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Fluery], the Penguins were far from a finished product. Everything about the culture of the team from top to bottom -- including the training staff, strength and conditioning coaches -- was reevaluated as part of a larger strategy," Warren notes.

Shero said, "My job was just to get us to be ... competitive. ... I just started by signing guys like Jarkko Ruutu and Mark Eaton and Dominic Moore, guys with work ethic."

The 1980s Oilers had those guys.  Players like MacTavish, Hughes, McClelland, Hunter and the like.  McClelland, for example, could play hockey, hit, fight and score the occasional goal (a favourite memory of him was the time he challenged the Jets' bench to a fight - after pummelling one of their players - and no one from the Jets stepped up).  Many of these players were acquired via trades given free agency was more restrictive then, but the trades didn't cost much. 

The story also noted, "Over time, the Penguins developed lower-profile prospects such as Max Talbot, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy into clearly-defined roles. and "

While Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi, Omark, Petry, Devan Dubnyk and this years' first round pick won't necessarily have the star power of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, and Marc-Andrre Fluery, there may be better depth in Edmonton. The Oilers have their Talbots, Letangs, and Kennedys coming along.  Curtis Hamilton, Teemu Hartikainen, Alex Plante, Jeremie Blain, Brandon Davidson all fit the bill.  What the Oilers lack is the role players to bridge the gap.

The list of players the Oilers should consider is long, and with some overpayment, enough would come to Edmonton.  The list includes:

Arron Asham
Eric Belanger
Matt Bradley
Chris Clark
Mark Cullen
Pascal Dupuis
Ben Eager
Vernon Fiddler
Curtis Glencross
Marcel Goc
Jeff Halpern
Jussi Jokinen
Brooks Laich
Jamie Langenbrunner
Chad Larose
John Madden
Rob Niedermayer
Michael Rupp
Jarkko Ruutu
Dave Scatchard
Fredrik Sjostrom
Brian Sutherby
Maxime Talbot
Scottie Upshall
Joel Ward
Todd White

Many of these players don't have the market might to dictate where they end up or need to maximize thier earnings because they will not finish their careers awash in cash.  A generous offer will catch thier attention.

It does not mean, I don't think, that the Oilers must retain Penner and Hemsky.  I am on record as saying they must avoid a Brad Richards situation with either player, and the current depth on the wings makes both players, to a degree, expendable.  But the trade of these players can't only bring back draft picks, particularly first round picks outside of the top 10.  At least one trade must bring back NHL players or NHL ready prospects that can contribute next season.  At the same time, the Oilers can't lose sight of the incoming players controllable window and attempt to optimize it.

Trades rumours for players like Zach Bogosian, Brayden Schenn, and Wayne Simmonds fit the bare minimum requirement.  Bogosian can play NHL minutes and would be an upgrade over Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandemeer and Jason Strudwick.  Simmonds would dramatically improve the Oilers 3rd line and would give them a big body option on the powerplay.  Schenn has the potential to play second line centre minutes next season. Trades for the Kings or Penguins 1st round pick in 2011 do not fit. They are unlikely to provide players that can contribute in 2011/2012.

And before anyone jumps on the likelihood of the Oilers acquiring these players, I am not saying the Oilers will, or even can, acquire these players.  I am using them for illustrative purposes.

The Oilers have been in a lot of their hockey games this year.  Smart, surgical enhancements to the roster will deliver more wins next year.  Not necessarily the playoffs, but more wins.  More wins will build both hunger and confidence in the Oilers' young players.  They need to feel like they can win close games; like they can come back if down a goal or two.  And they need to feel the team is trending up, not treading water.

I saw that in the Oilers' young players in the first half of the season.  As the losing has worn on, I have seen some of that confidence drop in the Oilers' youngsters.  You want the young players heading into next season's camp feeling that confidence again.

They can have that without Hemsky.  They have played well when he is injured.  They won't have it if they feel the glaring weaknesses with face-offs, PK and defence have not been addressed.  They can't inwardly groan when Cogliano or Gagner line up for a key face-off.  They can't have the edge taken on their aggression because the PK is a disaster.  They can't live in fear of opposing players blowing by Foster, Vandemeer, and Strudwick if the puck is turned over.

At the same time, they don't need a superstar to save them.  They need hard working players who know how the keep the puck from going in their own net to say, "don't worry about our game, we have it covered.  Go worry about refining your talents and growing into the players you have the potential to be."  They need their Eaton, Ruutu and Moore. 

With that, more 3:2 losses become 3:2 wins.  With that, the young talent can focus on growing their game.  With that, the cancer stops spreading.

I will be watching the Oilers moves between now and July 10th to see if Oilers' management get it.  I admit I am not overly confident.  But the good news is we won't have to wait long.  July 10th is not that far away. 

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