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NHL Free Agency Set To Open - Who Should The Oilers Target?

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"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 free agency at this point."

--Steve Tambellini, saying the things that the 'sphere has been waiting on for the better part of four years. Will he follow through?

Sports radio hosts and their callers clamor to see the "kids" turned loose, going so far as to suggest a second line of Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle, but more sane minds know that kids who may not be quite ready for "The Show" will drown against tough minutes. Need evidence? How about the Edmonton Oilers circa 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Between now and the time that Stu's kids are ready to face the big bad minutes of the Western Conference, the Oilers will need to find a couple of veterans to handle the hard work and allow Stu's Kids to develop.

That was the essential basis of my thinking when I looked at the Oilers off-season plans. The Oilers should be looking for stopgaps to get them through the next year or two, and Tambellini's statement gives some hope that he understands that as well. In the previous post, I mentioned a number of low-cost options that the Oilers could bring in to serve very specific roles, namely "...the most cap-friendly center that is able to win faceoffs and kill penalties...or a cheap left wing that isn't completely over his head against tougher minutes or one that has penalty killing abilities..." I mentioned a couple of names in the post as well:

Dominic Moore, Matt Cullen, Richard Park, Jim Slater, Eric Belanger, Manny Malhotra, Alex Tanguay, Stephane Veilleux.

Jim Slater has re-signed with Atlanta, so he's out, but the others remain. There will be no Hossa, no Heatley, no Jagr this off-season. There will be one or two players from the class above and the Oilers will be better for it.

Tambellini mentioned the bottom six forwards and that's the group that I'm going to look at today. The first grouping fit the bill, but will likely cost too much for them in cap hit or contract term.

Colby Armstrong R
27 ATL $2,400,000 2010 (UFA)
Matt Cullen
33 OTT $2,875,000 2010 (UFA)
Matthew Lombardi C
28 PHO $1,816,666 2010 (UFA)
Alexei Ponikarovsky F 30 PIT $2,105,000 2010 (UFA)
Lee Stempniak F 27 PHO $2,500,000 2010 (UFA)
Alex Tanguay F 30 TBL $2,500,000 2010 (UFA)
Raffi Torres F 28 BUF $2,250,000 2010 (UFA)

We know that Colby Armstrong can handle the tough minutes, but if the Oilers have any significant competition for his services, they won't be able to afford him. The same goes for Matt Cullen. Matthew Lombardi and Alexei Ponikarovsky both saw their play fall off late in the season and in the playoffs and may have scared off potential suitors. Lee Stempniak's offensive explosion will likely get him a bidder or two if someone is looking to capture lightning in a bottle. Raffi Torres has been around the block once and wasn't happy, I doubt he'd come back to Edmonton of his own free will.

That leaves Alex Tanguay. Tanguay turned down multiple offers at the beginning of the free agency period last season and kept looking for the big score. He had to settle for a one-year deal with the Lightning and didn't fit in well there. He didn't produce and spent much of the season in Rick Tocchet's doghouse. A number of sources have hinted that Tanguay's shoulder wasn't right and that was the cause of his struggles.

Eric Belanger C
32 WAS $1,750,000 2010 (UFA)
Andy Hilbert L
29 MIN $650,000 2010 (UFA)
Manny Malhotra C
30 SAN $700,000 2010 (UFA)
Dominic Moore C
29 MTL $1,100,000 2010 (UFA)
Rob Niedermayer F 35 NJD $1,000,000 2010 (UFA)
Richard Park C
34 NYI $750,000 2010 (UFA)
Fernando Pisani F 33 EDM $2,500,000 2010 (UFA)
Marc Pouliot C
25 EDM $825,000 Not-Qualfied
Vinny Prospal F 35 NYR $1,150,000 2010 (UFA)
Ryan Stone F 25 EDM $600,000 2010 (UFA)
Stephane Veilleux F 28 TBL $750,000 2010 (UFA)

There are no tough-minute-beaters in this group - Niedermayer, Pisani, and Prospal used to be able to handle the job, but the years are catching up to them. Could they handle limited second minutes action and penalty killing duties? The stupefying decision to qualify Jean-Francois Jacques likely means that Ryan Stone doesn't have a place in Edmonton, but a cap-strapped team like the Calgary Flames would be a perfect home. The "name" centers in the group - Eric Belanger, Manny Malhotra and Dominic Moore - all made names for themselves in the stretch drive and playoffs with the Capitals, Sharks and Canadiens and may have priced themselves out of the Oilers' market.

That leaves a couple of players for the Oilers to consider:

Andy Hilbert - Jonathan Willis asked the Oilers to sign Hilbert last season and, predictably, they ignored him. But now that we have the scouting department's ear, at least when it comes to the draft, maybe the fellows in charge of negotiating and such will listen. Hilbert couldn't find a job with the Wild last season, but has been a solid contributor in previous years, as Jonathan pointed out.

Richard Park - Park still has the wheels, can still win faceoffs, and he plays on the penalty kill; his numbers were terrible last season, but so were the Islanders. He's not capable of playing tough minutes and seems to replicate most of what Colin Fraser brings to the team.

Marc Pouliot - Well, yeah.

Stephan Veilleux - He was a tough, affordable winger in Minnesota, but he didn't fare well against bottom-rung competition in Tampa Bay last season.

Where does that leave the Oilers? Looking over the list, my choices would be to make a run at Tanguay, after doing the proper medical due diligence on him, and to re-sign Ryan Stone. Tanguay is a proven commodity when healthy and Stone looked very good in his limited time before injury and giving him a one-way deal for $600,000 makes sense - if not for that qualifying offer to Jacques.

The Oilers can also go the offer sheet route. From my article on dual offer sheets, there are a number of useful pieces that could be had for a second round pick next year, namely Andrew Ladd and Martin Hanzal. Hanzal would solve a huge number of the Oilers' ills, and at the potential cost of only a second round pick.