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Oilers Mid-Season Review: First Rebuild, Now What?

Yesterday our panel touched on the biggest surprises and disappointments of the 2011-12 season to date. Today, the panel attempts to figure all of this out. First and foremost, General Manager Steve Tambellini will have to deal franchise cornerstone Ales Hemsky or sign him to a long-term deal. But what comes after that? The Oilers are playing their way towards a top three pick in June. Defensive depth is still a huge question mark, and the current management team is still unproven.

Like Edmonton fans everywhere, the panel looks to the future.

Our lineup this time includes Pat, from Black Dog Hates Skunks, a guy being driven towards the brink by this team, Jeff Chapman, the man behind Oil On Whyte, Jerconjake, who carves through the numbers at Oil Acumen, dawgbone98, who continues to embarrass panels with his tactics posts, Scott Reynolds, Copper & Blue's intellectual force, Derek Zona, who preaches that we're all just slaves to the math, Ryan Batty, the guy with so much optimism, he still attends every home game, and Lowetide the multi-media star, owner/writer of three Oilers' sites and an Oilers' radio show.

Copper & Blue: Where will Ales Hemsky play his March and April hockey? What will the Oilers get in return?

Lowetide: Los Angeles, for Voynov. No one needs speed up front like Los Angeles. Second choice? Detroit, for a pick.

Pat BDHS: Who knows? Detroit? Pittsburgh? As for return it depends on his play. If he catches fire then he could bring a lot but if he’s playing like he is now, well, its hard to say. All you need is one team to want to pay. Lets say a 1st round pick.

Ryan Batty: I've seen this same thing happen in Edmonton before and I know how it plays out, I'll say there is a one in four chance he's still in Edmonton after the trade deadline. He will be actively shopped though, so unless the Oilers can't get nearly what they're looking for in return he'll be gone. I wouldn't take less than a prospect ready to make the jump to the NHL, the Oilers will probably ask for a late first rounder at most.

Scott Reynolds: I think he'll be playing his hockey in Edmonton and that the Oilers will re-sign him before the deadline. I'll say five years and $5M per year.

Chappy: Ales Hemsky should be playing for the Oilers in March and April. I predict Hemsky will be playing with the Detroit Red Wings presented by Amway after the deadline, and trading this near PPG career player will net the Oilers a second round pick plus a prospect that plays defence. A second round pick and Sebastien Piche, cause he had a great season in the E, y'know? Then we'll hear about what a great deal it was for both Hemsky and the Oilers. If the Red Wings make a run into the playoffs with Ales Hemsky, I will drink enough to paralyze the entire nation of Lichtenstein. How awkward it would be to pull for Hemsky in a Red Wings sweater. I hope it doesn't happen.

dawgbone: I'm torn on this one. If you believe Hemsky is finished as a hockey player, you have to trade him. If you think that the worst is over injury wise, then you have to keep him if the cost is reasonable (cap hit ~ $5mil/season). I think he will be traded, possibly to a team like Boston who knows how important it is to have extra quality forwards. If the Oilers do make a trade it will most likely be draft picks, but I'd rather see a return like a Jordan Caron type of player... one who already has a few development years and some arrows going in the right direction.

Derek Zona: He'll be in Pittsburgh on Jordan Staal's right side. The Oilers will get Philip Samuelsson in return and they'll be yet another real NHL player away from being competitive.

Jake: Hemsky will probably be playing elsewhere in March. His value is lower than it's been at other points in his career, but he could still fetch a good package for the Oilers. Did anyone think Kris Versteeg was worth first and third round picks at the deadline last year? Who would have dreamed of Tomas Kaberle being worth Colborne plus a first and conditional second? Pierre McGuire was adamant that Penner wouldn't be worth a first round pick, let alone Teubert plus a first rounder and a conditional pick. Hemsky's health will be a red flag, but the desperation of GMs adds enormous value to players at deadline time.

Copper & Blue: Assume the Oilers draft one of Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Girgorenko or Filip Forsberg in June. What's next for them? What has to happen this summer to bring the Oilers out of the six-year rebuild? Will it happen?

Jake: The Oilers may need to trade one of their offensive weapons to acquire an NHL-calibre defense, assuming that they can't find help in free agency *cough* Suter *cough cough*. The problem in the long term is that if the Oilers hang on to Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and another star forward, they will have a disproportionate amount of money tied up in four forwards that they then cannot spend on the defense. The Oilers need a $5 million defender more than they need another forward worth that much once he gets a new contract. There's enough talent on this team and on the way (especially after another year of high picks in each round) to say that the Oilers will be good eventually, but it will require balanced star power like almost all champions have.

Lowetide: What’s next for them? They’ll sign a free agent defender in the Ian White family and then hope like hell Ryan Whitney can stay upright. I think Theo Peckham is dealt this summer and the club will part with Sam Gagner and bring in a physical forward.

What has to happen this summer? The Oilers need balance. That means finding out if Devan Dubnyk is the starter of the future or the backup of today, it means finding out if there is anyone on the roster aside from Smid-Gilbert who can play NHL defense without screwing up every second sortie. It means unlocking what Eric Belanger can bring, making sure those gifted kids continue to develop and signing Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky. It means hiring actual NHL players, especially on defense.

Will it happen? No. The Oilers will offload Hemsky, fail to make decisions on what they have and wander in the wilderness until their Ken Holland arrives. It is written.

Pat BDHS: What’s next? lol Well, I’ve said for quite a while that this summer is going to be key. If Hemsky is gone then they’re a weaker club, again. And Whitney’s issues make him unreliable. So basically its still a weak club. You have two quality D, the three kids up front, Gagner, useful vets in Horcoff, Smyth, Jones and Belanger and then a bunch of kids basically. Question marks everywhere – goal, D and up front.

So what needs to happen? A lot. The biggest problem is on the blueline, same as last summer. They need two top four D with Whitney’s situation. Plus a goaltender. They need a lot. I think Tambo, if he survives, probably moves some kids or prospects for a vet or two and tries to augment with a free agent or two. I don’t think he’s up to it but I think he knows this is it for him. And if he fails then this will be his only GM gig ever.

Ryan Batty: Knowing the Oilers they should expect to be playing pro hockey next fall. They should also be prepared to lose hockey games unless management make the blue line a priority in the offseason. This team already needs help on the blue line and if we don't see the real Ryan Whitney again before the end of the season the Oilers should be looking for two more top four defensemen to take the load off Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid. This has to be the number one priority, I can't imagine that management doesn't realize this by now. Will it happen though? Considering they though Cam Barker was the solution last year I'll go with no.

Scott Reynolds: I think it's incorrect to say that the team has been rebuilding for six years. They've certainly been bad for that long, but there was a clear change in mindset about halfway through the 2009-10 season, and there's really no reason to pretend otherwise. As such, they seem pretty much on track with their plan so far, and I'd bet that the expectations for next season are competing for (but not necessarily making) the playoffs. In order to make that jump effectively, the Oilers will need to find a reliable goaltender, significant help on defense, and a coach willing to push for wins. The coach part might be as easy as telling Tom Renney that the priority is winning. Goaltending is fixable if the Oilers are willing to buy out Khabibulin's contract (if no trade is available) or to give up on Dubnyk to bring in someone with a better record of recent success. The defense is the tough part. The club probably needs two top four guys and that's going to be expensive. It will be interesting to see whether they'd rather pay in assets (trade) or in cap space (free agency). I think they're in pretty good position for the former, especially if they're in position to draft another elite forward at this year's draft.

Chappy: Do I have to draft one of those three guys? If the Oilers somehow end top three and landed one of Yakupov, Grigorenko or Forsberg, I'd listen to any offer I could to fetch some defenders for this team. I've been pleading for some for the last couple of years. This team is within sniffing distance of a playoff berth with some experienced NHL players on defence. Next year will be year 3 for the Hall-Eberle-MPS clan, and the majority of those guys are living up to their billing. Can the club get Smyth back on the cheap? Let's see about acquiring some defence. I think it'll be a good thing, don't you? Will it happen? Sure.

dawgbone: If it's Yakupov or Grigorenko they be in the NHL in the fall. Filip Forsberg will be left to play another year in the SEL. The Oilers rebuild plan seems to involve waiting until the roster they have does something amazing. I mean they've tinkered here and there (trading for Smyth, adding Belanger, the Foster sign then trade for Sutton), but they started from ground zero and didn't add enough. If you are going to have Ben Eager in your lineup, make sure that you have 10 or 11 quality forwards to skate with him. If you are going to bring in young defencemen, bring in 1 and surround them with veteran players. They don't need $5+mil per year free agents, they need a handful of August bargains at defence and at F. Will it happen? Doesn't seem like it with this group because it's the same problem they've had for several years now without being addressed. It took the team years to replace Kyle Brodziak. Replacing a guy like that should take minutes, not years.

Derek Zona: I don't know if it comes into play, but Stu MacGregor has ever drafted a Russian. Not only that, I think when all is said and done Alex Galchenyuk will be in the top 3 or 4. So expect the Oilers to draft Forsberg or Galchenyuk. What's next? They'll move Omark or maybe let him go and move Gagner. To our chagrin, they'll re-sign Cam Barker, a move which will be met with great accolades by the local press, and add a big physical defenseman like Bryan Allen, a move which will be met with great accolades by the local press and tack on a depth forward like Paul Gaustad, a move which will be met with great accolades by the local press. They'll rely on Ryan Whitney's injured legs, they'll rely on Nikolai Khabibulin to play at a level he's not seen since he was in his 20s, they'll rely on a young defenseman to play way above his head, they'll rely on Anton Lander and Galchenyuk to play minutes they can't handle and they'll play exciting last-place hockey again.

Copper & Blue: Is anyone's job on the line right now? If the Oilers finish in the bottom three, will anyone be asked to leave the bus?

Ryan Batty: No and no. Another finish in a lottery position should be seen by everyone as unacceptable and if it was up to me both Renney and Tambellini would be shown the door. I think there is still enough support for the process (whatever the process is) that the injuries will be sufficient to explain away another terrible season and let everyone keep their jobs.

Scott Reynolds: I don't think anyone in management has a job on the line if the team finishes in the bottom three. I think the mandate for this season was modest improvement over last season, and would guess that if the team wins at least thirty games, earns at least seventy points, and doesn't finish in last place, that will be good enough whether they finish 29th or 23rd.

Chappy: I think I said something similar last year, but Renney and Tamby aren't going anywhere if the current ship keeps sailing. If the club finishes anywhere but last (say, 27th?) it will be looked at with a little disappointment, but the spin will be "hey, we didn't finish last, that's an improvement". Renney could dress Peckham, Chorney, Teubert, two otters and pencil shavings and he'd still be here next year. At this point, if there was an attempt to attain a D man or two, I could almost excuse the ship from sailing. They signed Barker. While it's unfortunate he's injured, his contribution to the lineup wasn't quite what we hoped for. It's not like he didn't come as advertised.

dawgbone: It should be, but it isn't. If the Oilers don't finish with at least 75 points, the season has to be written off as a disappointment especially when you factor in their hot start and the natural expectations that come with being a year older and wiser. Unfortunately, every hole that could be exposed has been (poor forward depth, poor defense) and that falls on the architect of the team. Tom Renny has been a bit of a lame duck but has also started making questionable lineup and matchup decisions in recent weeks. The whole coaching staff was overhauled, the whole roster was overhauled and the whole scouting staff was overhauled. The next group has to be management, though I doubt we'll see that this summer.

Derek Zona: The Edmonton Oilers will not fire anyone on the management team until they post a losing season in their new arena.

Jake: Before the season I would have said no, but some of the coaching from Tom Renney has been questionable. The Oilers have lost some games by being out-coached this year. It's unlikely that Renney will actually lose his job, but there will be plenty of unhappy fans unless his line matching improves. When fans were fed up with MacTavish it felt more arbitrary, but Renney has made some mistakes that can be (and have been) pinpointed.

Lowetide: I think the template for Daryl Katz development as an owner is contained in the book Hockeytown. Mike Illitch signed Jim Devallano as GM in 1982 and then bumped him upstairs in 1990. That’s 8 seasons. I think Steve Tambellini has at least another two years in his position.

As for Tom Renney, it’s pretty easy to argue that he doesn’t have the horses. Edmonton has turned over the coaching a lot in the last few years, and I suspect they will not flush Renney at this time. A change in the asst coaching positions is possible, but I think it’ll be status quo for the summer. I am not convinced Renney is the coach for this team, but you need to give a man the chance to stand and deliver. That may be this coming season, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to flush him this summer.

The one thing that hovers over all of this is Kevin Lowe. Should he decide that the day to day activity of the GM job appeals to him again, that could occur any day now. A quick media conference announcing Tambellini will continue his fine work with the draft, OKC and be an advisor on trades and KLowe is back behind the rig again.

Pat BDHS: I would say Renney is going to get it. I don’t think he’s been horrible and Lord knows he has little to work with on the blue line but someone has to take the fall. Now there is a part of me that thinks Tambellini may get cut loose as well but that may be wishful thinking.