The day Steve Tambellini was fired from his position as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, a fresh sense of hope arrived in Edmonton. The process wasn't perfect -- you could argue that Kevin Lowe should have gone with him or that the decision to turf Tambo should have been made much earlier or that the Oilers should have done a more thorough search for his replacement -- but Tambellini's exit from the organization signaled one thing for sure: abject failure was no longer going to be regarded as following the plan.
The team's new general manager, Craig MacTavish, said pretty much exactly that when he was introduced and then reiterated similar sentiments when he appeared on After Hours last Saturday night:
I think we’re at the stage now where you go from almost a neglect style where you’re in rebuilding mode to, at some point you have to change gears, get into a more aggressive style of play and be more aggressive in the way that we manage the team. I think we're very much there.
A "neglect style" is an excellent way to describe the last two (or so) years of Tambellini's tenure, and it's encouraging to me that the organization was quick to make a change when that phase of the rebuilding process was over. Everything that MacTavish has said since coming into the role suggests that he'll be much more active in the coming weeks, and he provided some insight into what change might look like in his year-end address:
Our overall team strength and depth needs to be improved upon.... We want more toughness, more meat in our lineup, and just more depth.... We've got to add some specific role players. In today's NHL you really have to be a threat to score at some point, even marginally. We had a lot of guys that the best they were going to be in any given game was a non-factor. There wasn't a lot of upside for our role players to significantly help us. But the few times they did, we ended up winning those games. So we've got to get more impact out of our bottom six forwards.
From a defensive perspective, we need more foot-speed.... We've got to be able to move the puck quicker, we've got to have defensemen that can skate up into open ice and try to open the ice up for our forwards to give them the puck. I think if we can't do anything on the back end, we'll still be better on the back end next year than we were this year. Klefbom is a guy everybody is anxiously awaiting to come into our lineup. It's always dangerous to have too high of expectations for a young player, but he's a very complete player for such a young player, so I think he's going to really help back there.... Marincin's probably the most immediate guy [of the remaining prospects], who might benefit from another half-year down in the American Hockey League, but pressed into action he's probably ready to come back and start the year next year if he has a good camp.
There is going to be some significant and meaningful change for sure... six to eight new members.
I found these comments mostly encouraging. MacTavish clearly identified the team's bottom six forwards as an area that will see significant change, and that's a good thing. He also suggested that the club would be open to adding significant pieces to help on defense if there was a good opportunity available. This seems like a good balance to me: he doesn't feel forced to act, but is willing to. The comments about Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin are easier to take in this context because it seems clear to me that moving forward with them is clearly "Plan B".
The fly in the ointment of any plan is, of course, the salary cap. Next year's cap is set at $64.3M. How might MacTavish's priorities be addressed if the Oilers are going to stay under the cap? In the past, I've suggested the following baseline cap guideline:
Top 3 Forwards - 27.5%
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0%
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5%
Goaltending - 10.0%
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0%
One of the reasons Edmonton's lack of depth is so galling is that, based on these guidelines, they're overspending in areas like "middle six forwards" and "bottom eight players". Based on the cash outlay, these should be areas of strength. Over the long term, that kind of set-up looks poised to continue. Based on MacTavish's comments, this is what I expect the roster might look like next year if all goes well:
Two major additions on defense that push Klefbom and Marincin to the AHL to start the season (9th and 10th on the depth chart feels right to me), a mostly revamped bottom six forwards, and a new back-up goalie. The final number is over the cap, but is cap compliant because the Oilers have so many players with rookie bonuses in their contracts. They could create more space by using a compliance buy-out on Shawn Horcoff, which might help to bring that middle six forward percentage more in line with the guidelines.
In terms of specifics, I'm sure there a wide variety of things worth exploring, but I think the Oilers will need to look for both defense options via trade (examples might include Ryan McDonagh for the 1LD and Roman Polak for the 1 RD slots), which would probably mean putting both this year's and next year's top pick in play. I've highlighted Gagner because I think if he's asking for more than $4.5M per season, it probably behooves the Oilers to put him in play as well (even though that creates another hole in the lineup).
But even if this plan works in the short-term, will it work in the long-term? Well, if we assume cap inflation of 5%, that would put the cap at $67.5M for 2014-15, and the team might look something like this:
The club is cap compliant via bonuses for a second straight year, but they might be able to trim further. It's quite possible that the Oilers won't see Schultz get $4.5M on his next contract, but I think it makes to budget that way in case the club decides to sign him to a long-term deal (or he goes supernova in his second season). If Schultz isn't ready, there's no harm in leaving the $2.75M defender acquired the previous summer (the Roman Polak type) on the top pairing for another year. If Schultz is ready, that player could serve as a very good bottom pairing defender to break in Klefbom, whose name isn't written down, but whose contract is slotted into the 3LD slot. I've also provided a price-point that seems reasonable for both Hemsky and Dubnyk. Both are UFAs at the end of next season, so extensions should probably be explored this summer, and if they end up asking for too much, MacTavish may need to consider moving them out.
Finally, here's a quick peek at 2015-16, assuming a cap of $70.9M:
If we continue assuming $6M contracts for the first overall picks, the team should be able to keep them all. I've been assuming a long-term, outside solution for 1 LD all down the line here, and I really think that needs to be the team's top priority this summer. If they have that, this team should be a strong Stanley Cup contender in 2015-16. The Oilers are in a pretty good position, and are prepared to be aggressive. As a fan, I'm very excited to see what happens next.