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Oilers Free Agency Plans

Free Agency is upon us.  For most fans, it's a time for optimism as their team's general manager has time and money and must only outwit the rest of the league and use his shrewd negotiating skills to bring home the pieces to solidify their hometown heroes as they prepare to make a run at the Stanley Cup.  For Rangers' fans, the start of unrestricted free agency is nothing but edge-of-your-seat terror, just waiting for Glen Sather to jump out of the shadows with bags full of money for Ales Kotalik, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Wade Redden, or whoever else he wants to negotiate against himself with.  For Edmonton fans, the start of the free agency period has been a sorrowful time recently, as they've had to watch Kevin Lowe make his vessel seaworthy and set out for the start of whaling season.

We're all well-aware of Edmonton's version of Captain Ahab and his yearly quests to harpoon his very own Moby Dick.  However in the Edmonton Oilers' version, Ahab doesn't get the whale and it's Ahab, not Ishmael, who survives, despite Ahab sinking the ship.  Queequeg was sent to the bottom of the deep, Ishmael drowned in own-zone faceoffs and his body was sent off to the Wild and Starbuck was forced to get a job on the panel of an intermission show.

In May, I talked with Ryan at Red Light District about the Oilers' off-season plans and he asked me "Which free agent(s) should the Oilers target this summer?".  My six-week old response remains valid, so we'll review it in parts:

The two highest priorities are going to be the the same free agents that they should have targeted the last two summers: the most cap-friendly center that is able to win faceoffs and kill penalties, a la Dominic Moore, Matt Cullen, Richard Park, Jim Slater, Eric Belanger or Manny Malhotra. A cheap left wing that isn't completely over his head against tougher minutes or one that has penalty killing abilities, so either someone like Alex Tanguay in the former category, or someone like Stephane Veilleux in the latter category. The Oilers have a boatload of young forwards that can't handle the tasks outlined above and only three or four forwards that can handle those tasks.

I believe this has changed somewhat.  With the acquisition of Colin Fraser, the Oilers won't go after another center.  As Bruce pointed out, Fraser has some level of ability on the penalty kill and is better on the draw than every Oiler but Shawn Horcoff.  I don't believe that Fraser's game is nearly as well-rounded as the other options presented above, but Tambellini likes this option.  What's still hanging out there is the cheap winger with defensive and / or penalty killing ability.  I believe, and hope, that Tambellini will still make a run at someone like Richard Park or Stephane Veilleux or take a chance and re-sign Fernando Pisani for the league minimum.

If Sheldon Souray is traded at the draft, as he's expected to be, then the Oilers are going to need the most affordable second minutes defender with penalty killing experience in the class of Henrik Tallinder, Jordan Leopold, Zbynek Michalek, and Dennis Seidenberg. They're also going to have to find a low cap hit bottom pairing defender that can move the puck to pair with Ladislav Smid, guys like Kurtis Foster, Brian Pothier, and Carlo Colaiacovo fit the bill. Finally, they'll want a cap-minimum bottom-pairing defender for depth, and I'm expecting them to find one in the European leagues.

This remains valid as well.  Tambellini isn't going to get a high end player back for Souray, and I think expecting a second pairing defenseman is too much.  The team only has three legitimate NHL defenders right now, so finding at least two defenders capable of playing NHL-level hockey is paramount.   I'd love to see the Tambellini sign Leopold and Pothier or Tallinder and Colaiacovo to bring some inexpensive stability to the defense.  He shouldn't overpay, or repeat the Khabibulin term gaffe, but he should be able to land a couple of under-the-radar blueliners.  In my answer, I suggest reaching out to Europe for a seventh defenseman, but one of the worst-kept secrets in Edmonton is Jason Strudwick's impending return to the team.

To do all of this, they're going to have to first find some cap space. Their cap liability for next season is around $42,000,000 and they have restricted free agents to sign in Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Gilbert Brule, Marc Pouliot, Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Potulny and Theo Peckham. An educated guess on their contracts adds about $10,000,000 to the cap. $5,000,000 isn't going to be enough cap space for the five players I talk about above. There is hope in Edmonton that the Oilers will use the new AHL franchise the Oklahoma City Barons to hide some of the dead weight in the cap, but I don't know if Tambellini is willing to do that. Most of next season hinges on what Tambellini chooses to do with the dead weight on the roster.

Colin Fraser only adds to these issues.  By my count, the Oilers now have thirteen forwards qualified to play the bottom six and are either under contract or restricted free agents.  They have four forwards qualified to play top six minutes and will likely add Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin to that mix.  Tambellini needs to get to gettin' and pretty soon.  I don't know who is going where or how, but Tambellini is going to need to find a home for at least five of those thirteen forwards, a home that isn't Edmonton.

The new piece of information in trying to figure out the forward situation is the Andrew Cogliano to Florida trade offer that Tambellini made on draft day.  Given all that's gone on regarding Cogliano, I think Tambellini will try to move him one more time, maybe as a part of any possible Sheldon Souray deal.

A quick look at the depth chart of forwards under control shows the need for at least one wing that can handle NHL top six minutes (Categorized by the player's ability to handle tough minutes):

Top Six Forwards:
Ales Hemsky
Shawn Horcoff
Dustin Penner

Middle Six Forwards:
Gilbert Brule
Colin Fraser
Sam Gagner
Taylor Hall
Patrick O'Sullivan
Marc Pouliot

Bottom Six Forwards:

Andrew Cogliano
Jordan Eberle
Ryan Jones
Ethan Moreau
Robert Nilsson
Linus Omark
Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson
Zack Stortini

I'm heartened by the Fraser trade and more by Tambellini's comments in an interview with Bob McCown:

"I think we'll be active, but we're not looking for the home run here. We're looking for some depth players. We need to retool the bottom end of our defence. We need to change maybe a little bit of our bottom six forwards. We're not looking for that home run through trade or fee agency at this point."

It's about damned time that someone put an end to the madness.  Let's just hope Steve Tambellini isn't Captain Bligh and Captain Ahab isn't stowed on board the HMS Bounty.