March 23 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney (6) skates during the third period against the Florida Panthers at the BankAtlantic Center. Edmonton Oilers won 2-1 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
In my last post, we established the type of risks that have plagued the Edmonton Oilers in recent seasons and examined Management's inability to properly plan for these occurrences. In part two of my look at the roster decisions made by the current leadership of the Oilers, we will take a look at where things stand with the team as of today to see what risks (or threats) we may be able to identify and if there are any clearly visible solutions to those issues that should be taken prior to the start of the season in order to minimize the impact of those risks should they occur.
Listed below are the four threats I have identified with the Oilers' roster as of today that carry a level of risk that I would not be comfortable with heading into training camp and the corresponding opportunities available to help address the issues before they happen.
Risk #1 - The Health Issues of Ryan Whitney
This is essentially a mirror image of last year's off-season with Cam Barker, although the situation is admittedly less dire than it was a season ago. Right now, with the acquisition of Justin Schultz, the team's top six heading into camp as it stands today are Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Whitney, Nick Schultz, J. Schultz and Andy Sutton. While Sutton actually did about everything that could have been asked of him last season, depending on a now 37 year old career bottom-pairing defenseman to be part of your every day line-up is a fairly risky move. Even more risky however is depending on Ryan Whitney to return to form this coming season. When healthy, Ryan Whitney has shown some sublime abilities during his time in Edmonton; his first pass is tremendous. However, since the 35 game mark of the 2010/11 season when Whitney was injured, he as never been able to regain that form and has been a decidedly less effective player on the occasions he has been in the line-up.
There is a case made by some that Whitney was still re-habbing his ankle last summer and wasn't fully healthy when the season began, which meant he was basically playing catch-up all year. Fair enough. However, If you were the GM of the Oilers would you really be willing to stake another entire season of their fans' money and patience, not to mention sacrifice a year of the careers of your young stars based on the hope (and be clear, it is nothing more than hope) that Whitney can regain his previous form? Can Management consider themselves to be doing "everything possible to improve their team" if they are not at least considering the possibility that they may have to live without an effective Ryan Whitney again next season?
Corresponding Opportunity: While the UFA market this summer left a lot to be desired, the team is in an enviable position to target specific players via trade that they feel could help them get back into the playoffs next year. Players like Andrej Sekera in Buffalo, or any one of a dozen or more other examples that have been named in recent weeks.
Were a GM thinking about the upcoming season and attempting to assemble a roster that would "Leave No Doubt" (as I discussed in part one of this piece) that they are at least serious contenders for a playoff spot, if not favoured to finish in the top 8, I would think they would be looking to add at least one and possibly two more proven NHL Dmen through trade or otherwise. By creating a depth chart where Ryan Whitney is slotted in at #6 or #7 due to his uncertain health, the team creates a scenario where the risk of injury has been sufficiently accounted for and the possibility of a return to form by Whitney would deliver an unanticipated boost to the team's blueline, only furthering their quest to return to the post-season. Doing anything less than that creates a high level of vulnerability on the back end should things go awry in 2012/13.
Risk #2 - The Potential for a "contract amnesty" in the new CBA
With the CBA set to expire prior to the start of training camp, there have been numerous mentions of the possibility of a contract amnesty which would allow teams to purge themselves of at least one undesirable contract before the start of next season without incurring any cap penalties. In the case of the Oilers, this would most certainly be worth considering with regards to their Captain, Shawn Horcoff. His deal of 3 more seasons at $5.5 Million per year on the cap is tough to swallow and will become increasing unpalatable as the entry-level deals of Hall, Eberle and RNH begin to expire.
Were the contract amnesty to come to pass, the team is currently not in a position to be able to safely say goodbye to Horcoff without seriously damaging their prospects for the upcoming season. While this clause is nothing more than a hypothetical possibility at this time, the addition of another centre for added depth would not be a bad thing even if Horcoff does stay an Oiler (as Scott Reynolds discussed here recently), but should he be bought out, an additional experienced NHL centre would be an absolute necessity.
Corresponding Opportunity: The opportunity here lies in the chance to be pro-active and attempt to foresee a potential opportunity before it arises so that you are prepared to take advantage of it when given the chance. Not taking the proper actions in advance would likely make this move a difficult one to justify, and if it were done without the proper forethought, it could lead to a large step backwards in the team's depth down the middle. Forwards such as Jay McClement were available at the start of the UFA season, but a guy like Dominic Moore is still out there and would be perfect insurance for the possibility of a contract amnesty in the new CBA.
Risk #3 - Lack of proven NHL depth on the LW.
The Oilers' depth chart as it stands right now for 2012/13 consists of Taylor Hall, Ryan Smyth and Ben Eager. While very few people talk about it, there is significant reason to believe that given the late date that Hall had his shoulder surgery last season, there is a chance that he may not be fully recovered by the start of the season, or at least not in top form. There is certainly a reasonable chance that Teemu Hartikainen and/or Magnus Paajarvi can fill one of those slots for the coming season, but rather than bank on the performance of two players who spent significant time in the AHL last season, wouldn't a more prudent course of action be to acquire a proven NHL player and make those young players earn their role on the team rather than being awarded it through a sheer lack of alternatives? Again the willingness of Management to leave openings on the roster for unproven players in the hope that they are ready to step up and fill that role creates a certain level of risk that I would not be comfortable with.
In a worst case scenario, acquiring another winger on the UFA market would only further enhance the team's ability to make use of their depth at forward to make a trade which will improve their NHL blueline depth. To demonstrate the risk in this decision, in the event that either Hall is not ready to start the season, and/or Hartkainen and Paajarvi prove to still need additional developmental time in OKC, the team would be relying on both Ben Eager and Lennart Petrell among their top 4 options on the left side, both of whom struggled greatly at even strength last season. For a team with playoff aspirations, that is not good enough.
Corresponding Opportunity: This issue could potentially be addressed by acquiring a centre as suggested above and moving Shawn Horcoff to the wing if he remains, but with the availability of inexpensive, proven players such as Daniel Winnik on the UFA market, it is a mistake not to explore the interest he (or other comparables) may have in playing in Edmonton.
Risk #4 - Potential of injury to Devan Dubnyk
Finally we get to Nikolai Khabibulin. I intentionally omitted his situation from part one of this article, but I could easily have used him as an example of previous misjudgements and risks that were left unaddressed on two separate occassions (following both the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons). Instead, I have chosen to consolidate the entirety of his awfulness into an examination of the current scenario facing Tambellini & Co.
Following a 9-game stretch at the start of last season where Khabibulin played perhaps his best hockey in the last five years, his level of play plummeted back to the depths of the NHLs lowest rated goaltenders. After three disappointing seasons and with one year left on his deal, the fact that he still has a back-up job in Edmonton is frankly astounding.
Once again this off-season is bringing about a renewed sense of hope for Oiler fans that next year will be better, and with the return of Ryan Smyth, and additions of J. Schultz and Nail Yakupov, their reason for optimism is somewhat understandable. However, even if all else goes exactly according to plan, if Devan Dubnyk suffers any kind of injury that results in a prolonged absence from the lineup, it is conceivable that the team's entire season could be lost.
With a multitude of back-up options on the market on July 1st, the team re-signed Yann Danis to mentor Olivier Roy in the AHL, but did nothing to address the need for additional depth in Edmonton. Given all evidence suggests that the current trend of poor performance from Khabibulin is likely to continue, the lack of a second capable NHL goalie to support Dubnyk is a risk roughly equivalent to asking a toddler to juggle a set of flaming knives.
Corresponding Opportunity: Acquire an additional NHL back-up and buy out the remaining year of Khabibulin's contract.
Looking back over the examples from previous seasons as well as the challenges which have gone unaddressed to date this summer, I have seen enough to believe that the trend is indicative of a flawed approach to the project of building the Oilers' NHL roster.
A willingness to begin an NHL season with either a lack of depth at a given position, or a lack of sufficient contingencies to account for easily foreseeable issues that may arise over the course of 82 games has become a calling card of Steve Tambellini's tenure as General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers. If another season is lost due to a lack of sufficient planning and forethought from the front office, then for this reason alone, there would be substantial justification for a new regime to guide the team through future off-seasons...of that...there is no doubt.