After years of watching their beloved franchise pounded relentlessly into the dirt by Steve Tambellini's failures as General Manager, Oiler fans were finally granted a glimmer of hope when Craig MacTavish was named as the team's new GM just before the end of the regular season.
Some weren't happy with the selection, but I don't think there is much argument that since being appointed to the position, MacTavish has said all the right things and he's actually got some people believing that he could be the guy to pick up the banner of this once proud franchise and lead it out of the darkness.
Though he's already been on the job for a number of months now, MacTavish has not yet had many significant opportunities to effect real change on this team. The trade deadline had past when he was hired and very few transactions typically take place during the NHL playoffs, but MacTavish did make some small moves that once again, lean more to the positive side of the ledger. He added a wildcard blueliner at no cost other than money in Anton Belov, he somewhat surprisingly fired his head coach and hired the highly sought after Dallas Eakins to assume the role next season and he has been on point with virtually every decision to-date in terms of who NOT to bring back next season. He informed Nikolai Khabibulin and Ryan Whitney they would not be re-signed, he has made little-to-no attempt to re-sign pending UFA's Ryan Jones, Lennart Petrell and Marc Fistric and just yesterday, he neglected to qualify dead wood assets Alex Plante, Colten Teubert and Theo Peckham.
MacTavish's real first opportunity to make an impactful change to his roster was this past weekend's NHL Draft. There were plenty of rumours surrounding the Oilers, but nothing materialized. Some are already impatient and viewing the lack of trades as a sign that MacT will be a continuation of Tambellini's trademark inertia. Others, including myself, believe that no judgement should be past until the roster for next season has taken shape and MacTavish has placed his bets. Regardless of how you view his drafting decisions from last Sunday, the fact is, those choices were always unlikely to affect next season's roster, and since no trades were finalized, MacTavish still really hasn't given us much to evaluate him on yet.
That all changes on Friday. Though free agency has already begun for all intents and purposes as teams are now able to speak openly to pending UFA's from other franchises, no deals can be finalized until noon Eastern time on Friday. The opening day of free agency is Craig MacTavish's best remaining chance to re-make the look of his team for next year. Trades can of course happen at any time right up to and including the start of next season, but with the team implying that so many roster spots will be filled by new faces next fall, its unlikely that they will be able to bring in enough bodies through trades alone. The Oilers are going to need to be active in the free agent market.
Without getting into the details about where Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff will land and if players like Eric Belanger or Ben Eager will be given the chance to win a job back, let's just look at the list of current holes in the Oiler roster that need to be addressed in the coming days:
1. A top six forward (likely either a LW or C for the 2nd line) who can help improve the possession numbers of the Yakupov line.
2. A tough minutes C who is prolific in at least one special team (preferably the PK), can win face-offs and can drive possession against tough opposition while facing some difficult zone starts.
3. A RW to act as a companion to the 3rd line Centre listed above. A new Ales Hemsky to replace Ales Hemsky. Or...y'know, Ales Hemsky?
4. A 4th line Centre who can play on the penalty kill and keep their head above water 5v5.
5. A 4th line RW to complete the top 12 and put Mike Brown in the 14th F role where he belongs. Preferably a veteran w/ a big body who can contribute to an even or better shot attempt differential against secondary opposition.
6. A top 4 D to push some of the current depth chart down a notch. Not a prospect with upside. This individual needs to be a proven difference maker who will support Justin Schultz in the second pairing.
8. An insurance Centre to serve as the 13th forward on the roster. A guy like an Adam Hall or Tim Brent who can step in at various positions in the line-up and not be a liability. A veteran to allow Arcobello and Lander to play meaningful minutes in OKC rather than sit in the press box.
9. A proven back-up netminder to support Devan Dubnyk in his first season as the undisputed man in the Oiler goal. A player who can handle sitting for a week or more at a time and play 20-25 games at a high level.
There are numerous more holes to be addressed in the minor league system, most notably an entire goaltending tandem for the Barons, but those nine spots are the big ones for the Oilers.
Craig MacTavish stated himself when he was first introduced as the GM that he would be judged based on his actions, not his words and it's time for him to act.
If the team is serious about jettisoning the dead wood and replacing it with legitimate NHL talent, then a number of players will need to be signed in the next few days because right now, the resources aren't available internally.
It's a delicate mix of choices to get this right. I'm certainly not a GM or, y'know...I'd be one, but it will be very easy for MacT to make mistakes. If on Friday night, fans are asking themselves how they are going to fit a $6M long-term contract for David Clarkson and a $4.5M deal for Ron Hainsey into the team's long term cap future then things went off the rails somewhere. On the flip side, if the team is calling Zach Smith their new tough minutes centre and trying to convince fans that Alex Ponikarovsky and Doug Murray are the difference makers the team needs, then mistakes have been made in a very different way.
However, If one week from today fans are talking about Boyd Gordon, Clarke MacArthur, and other suitable targets (it doesn't have to be those players, there are also many ways to get this right) then I think we can start to have a little faith that the team is in the hands of someone a little more adept at player assessment and roster management than the past regime.
No matter what the result will be, the time for the Edmonton Oilers to become Craig MacTavish's team starts on Friday. No more waiting and wondering.