The Oilers are rebuilding. I know this, you know this, we all know this. We also know that for better or worse the team's "core group" is now comprised mostly of younger forwards like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi, and that Ales Hemsky's contract is up at the end of this coming season. The year after that Ryan Whitney can become an unrestricted free agent, and one year after that it's Tom Gilbert's turn. All of these players are seven or eight years older than that core group of youth, and there's been some suggestion that one or more of these players no longer "fit" on account of age. Bollocks.
Let's take a look at the core group of players for each team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals since the lockout. I've defined the "core" as the top goaltender, top ten forwards, and top five defensemen in terms of playoff time on ice, and organized the players by age:
Each and every team have players of many different ages, but what they all have in common is good players. So on the one hand, age doesn't really matter. On the other hand, good players do tend to be players in the heart of their career, which is why every team has a majority of their "core" players between the age of twenty-one and thirty-three, and all but one team has at least twelve of their sixteen core players (75%) in that range.
So what does that mean for the Oilers? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the youngest "core" guy, and has three more seasons before his twenty-one year-old season, which is a timeline that fits very nicely with Kevin Lowe's "four to six year" plan (with last season representing Year One) .
So that should provide some clarity for this discussion. The question is whether Ales Hemsky (or Tom Gilbert, or Ryan Whitney) is going to be a good player - and more importantly, represent good value - in four or five years. I think that he (and they) will. If I'm right, the Oilers should definitely try to retain these guys (or trade them for another established good player) instead of moving them for picks and young'uns. Bird in the hand and all that.
But I will admit that getting good value does rely at least partially on my belief that the Oilers are going to have a tough time spending to the ever-increasing salary cap going forward. Edmonton is a good hockey market, but the Oilers aren't likely to keep up with the spending of top earners like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, and Chicago. If I'm right, then getting value against the cap becomes much less important than getting value in real dollars. And that makes for an interesting opportunity here with Ales Hemsky (if he's interested in sticking around). A six-year deal that would pay him $12M, $8.5M, $5.5M, $3M, $2M, $2M (AAV: $5.5M) represents a huge overpay in the first two years ("building years"), but might be attractive to Hemsky who would get his money sooner and get a pretty good average wage. It would also represent excellent value in the last three years when the young core of forwards is entering its prime, the kind of value that is very difficult to find in free agency.