With only 15 games remaining in the Oilers season, the sixth straight season that will end without playoff hockey, the thoughts of a number of fans have already turned to next season. Given the state of the team right now there is lot of work ahead for the Oilers this offseason if they want to be a competitive team next season and actually play games that have some meaning after the All-Star break. Earlier this week Alan Hull took a look at just how much work needs to be done to achieve that goal and if you haven't already I suggest you give his Fan Post a read.
Personally when I think ahead to next season and I try to picture the blue line I struggle to come up with an image that doesn't make me want to turn off the lights and cry in the dark for a while. If you've watched the Oilers this season you know the problems so I won't waste time reciting them for you but with the entire blue line either already under contract or a restricted free agent this summer there is the very real, and terrifying, possibility that next seasons blue line will look quite similar to this seasons. So what then is the plan for the blue line?
The plan for the blue line has been front and centre twice in the last month first after the Oilers re-signed Andy Sutton and again in the wake of the Tom Gilbert trade. As someone who has been critical of both moves, and the rebuild in general, I've been told by some fans that I don't know what Tambellini and the Oilers are planning and that I should just wait and see rather than criticize without having all the facts. It is true that I don't know what goes on behind closed doors at the Oilers offices but I have history and I think that can provide us with a hint to what the future holds.
After the jump I'll look at the Oilers blue line under Tambellini and what that might mean for the Oilers next season.
In Tambellini's first season the Oilers blue line consisted of Lubomir Visnovsky, Sheldon Souray, Tom Gilbert, Dennis Grebeshkov, Steve Staios, Ladislav Smid, and Jason Strudwick, only one of whom are still with the team just four years later. That wasn't the best blue line in the NHL but it's miles better than the motley crew fulfilling that role for the team today. How did this team go from this group to what we see now? Well let's follow the trades involving the Oilers blue line:
Grebeshkov → 2nd round pick (Curtis Hamilton)
Visnovsky → Ryan Whitney and a 6th round pick (Brandon Davidson)
Staios → Aaron Johnson and a 3rd round pick (Travis Ewanyk)
Johnson → left as a free agent
Jim Vandermeer acquired in exchange for Patrick O'Sullivan → left as a free agent
Souray → bought out
Strudwick → left as a free agent
Kurtis Foster → Andy Sutton
Gilbert → Nick Schultz
In terms of making a hockey team better, which I think is what Tambellini is trying to, not many of these moves accomplish that. Getting anything in exchange for Staios was addition through subtraction. And getting Vandermeer for a player who was about to be bought out is better than nothing. The Sutton acquisition brought in a player who brings some toughness to the lineup but whose best days are behind him and like Vandermeer is nothing more than a 5/6 player at this point in his career.
The real problem arises when players with skill are involved. Trading Grebeshkov for a second round pick and swapping Visnovsky for Whitney and sixth round pick don't make the Oilers better any time soon and are only palatable under the umbrella of the rebuild when future players, even sixth round long shots, are for some reason more valuable than actual players. And trading your best defenceman straight up for a player who isn't going to be your best defenceman is a loss as well. Even the Souray buyout is a loss. Grown men would have settled their dispute and moved on because that would have been beneficial to both parties; instead the Oilers banished the man to the AHL, dropped his value to zero, and are now paying him to play in Dallas.
But there is more than just those trades that have transformed Tambellini's original blue line and brought us to where we are now, there are signings that need to be considered as well. Kurtis Foster, Cam Barker, and Corey Potter were all signed as free agents. Foster was brought in to replace Souray's offence but was a disappointment in his one season with the Oilers before being traded to Anaheim for Sutton. Barker has been an abject failure, a result that was foreseeable before he was signed. And Potter looks to be nothing more than a bottom pairing defenceman who can contribute on the power play, coincidentally the role Foster was meant to fill. So at best you can say Tambellini has managed to find two bottom pairing NHL defencemen and one bottom pairing AHL defenceman through free agency during his tenure.
In trying to predict what might come next our best source are the moves that have come before, and that is less than encouraging. Tambellini has taken a blue line that was at worst average and has turned it into an utter disaster getting three draft picks in return. In the free agent market he has fared no better. Jeff Petry and Smid have both progressed nicely and there might be help coming from the farm in two or three years but the Oilers are going to need help sooner than that if they want to be competitive. I want the Oilers to be better next season but if this is the plan we're in real trouble.