Why Doesn’t Anyone Want to Play for the Edmonton Oilers?

What’s up with my beloved Edmonton Oilers?  Three years ago they were one game from being Stanley Cup champs.  Today the Oil can barely buy a free agent and will again struggle to make the playoffs this year.  What started with the unexpected demand for a trade from Chris Pronger, continued with plays made for Michael Nylander, Jagr and Marian Hossa, and culminated this past summer when Dany Heatley made it perfectly clear that he’d rather scrub toilets than play in Edmonton.

So what happened?  Why doesn’t anyone want to play for what was once the greatest team in the land?  Why did we have to settle for a crumbling Bulin Wall and Mike Comrie this past offseason while teams like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and others seemingly had the pick of the litter? 

The answer may seem obvious:  have a winning team and players will want to play for you.  While that is a true statement, the reason players pick their team has many more layers to it. 

That brings us back to the Oilers.  Players who are in it to win it don’t think they can win it in Edmonton.  The players who have a choice in where they play don’t want the hassles that come with playing in Edmonton (the cold, the travel) so they go elsewhere.  That leaves the Oilers signing guys who are in it for the money or at a point in their career where they have no other choice.

The rest of the post will delve deeper into the Oilers problems and look at ways to turn things around. 

Why would I want to play there?

Let’s pretend for a moment you play in the NHL.  Be whoever you want to be.  Are you a sniper, a grinder or a tough guy?  Are you three years into your career, or entering your 14th season?  Have you managed to hoist the Cup or are you still dreaming?  Depending on your answer, who you want to play for is going to be different than who I want to play for.  I’m Andy Moog in 1988 and I want to get paid and I want to play for a team with a chance…

I’ve identified a number of reasons a player plays where he does, which I’ve summarized below.  The order of importance will vary from player to player.

I. Team has a good chance at winning the Cup now

In a perfect world, all players would want to win the Cup as their first priority.  If you look at Marian Hossa, he passed up big bucks from the Oilers in 2008 to sign a one year deal with Detroit for a chance to win it now. 

If we look around the league, there are a couple of teams that can recruit on this basis:  Pittsburgh in the East and Detroit in the West.  

II. Team has a good chance of winning the Cup soon

Ahh, to have hopes and dreams.  Wouldn’t it be nice if I could put Edmonton in this bucket?  These are the teams that appear to be on the cusp of greatness and appear to need one or two more parts to go all the way.

Looking around the league, I think Washington, Boston and Philadelphia fit the bill in the East, with San Jose, Vancouver, and Chicago in the West.  Perhaps Calgary is on the list as well, as much as it pains me to admit.   Lots of examples of this in action, with San Jose retaining Blake and trading for Heatley; Vancouver re-signing the Sedins and Luongo, and picking up O’Brien, Samuelsson, while losing Ohlund and Pyatt (who were off to get paid); and Chicago added Hossa and re-signed a bunch of guys.  I could go on, but you get my point.  Having a chance to win is a great way to attract players for the right reasons.

I’m actually going to throw Toronto in this bucket while I think about it.  Yes, yes, the Leafs aren’t going anywhere this year, but having Burke at the helm has created a belief they are going somewhere soon and what better team to help win a Cup then the lowly Leafs? 

III. I’m stuck with the one that brought me to the dance

Looking around the league, and looking at the Oilers, we have a lot of guys in this category.  Until a player hits unrestricted free agency, they don’t have much of a chance to play anywhere else.  Sure there are restricted free agent offer sheets, but these seemed to disappear this offseason as teams worried about a downward trending salary cap.

I’ll also throw in this group the guys who have played with their current team forever and are the face of the franchise.  Jarome Iginla isn’t going anywhere, nor will Ryan Smyth.  Oh, wait, Smitty left and has played for the Islanders, Avs and Kings?  Go Kings!

IV. Money, money, money!

In all honesty, I can’t blame a player for grabbing the cash.  In all likelihood, the player barely has a high school education and he knows he only has a limited time in the league to earn as much as he can. 

If you are a team and you can only attract guys by offering the most money, odds are you aren’t building a team that will be successful.  Are you listening to me Tambellini and Lowe?

V. My family comes first

This group is typically the older set with a solid career in hand.  They love the game, wouldn’t mind a few more bucks and some playoff hockey, but they are no longer willing to do whatever it takes to win it all.  These are the guys who want to play in their hometown or play back where they used to play and where they started their family.  The Rob Blakes, Doug Weights and Mark Recchi’s of the world fit the bill here.

VI.   You stink but I’m just happy to be here

Ahh, the last group of the bunch.  Those guys who are near the end of their careers and are just happy that a team signed them.  As you can imagine, these teams rarely go anywhere fast.  I’m talking to you Islanders, Thrashers, Panthers and Coyotes.  And yes, I’m talking to you Edmonton.

I’m Lost.  How did we get here?

I thought I’d take a look at this year’s lineup and look at how we arrived at the team we have today.  To do that, I thought I’d start with the game 7 Stanley Cup starting lineup from 2006 and make my way to this year’s edition.

Roster for Game 7 (names in bold are still with the team)

Goal- Conklin, Markkanen

Defense- Greene, Spacek, Tarnstrom, Staios, Pronger, Jason Smith

Forwards- Horcoff, Samsenov, Harvey, Torres, Stoll, Moreau, Dvorak, Rem Murray, Pisani, Peca, Hemsky, Ryan Smith

Press box- Roloson, Brodziak, Winchester, Laraque, JF Jacques, Petersen, MA Bergeron, Ulanov

Pretty solid lineup, don’t you think?  At this point we were a team that had a chance to win and our offseason showed.  Roloson, Horcoff, Hemsky, Pisana, Stoll, and Tarnstrom were re-signed, while Nedved and Sykora came to play.  Tom Gilbert ended up being a nice find out of the University of Wisconsin.

Then the bombshell.  Chris Pronger wants out.  His wife hates the city and wants to be somewhere warmer.  There’s too much travel out west.  The condoms don’t work right.  On and on the reasons went.  We pull the trade for Lupul and Smid and things would never be the same again.  Spacek leaves, followed soon after by Samsonov, Peca, Laraque, Conklin and Dvorak.

I can’t really overestimate the impact Pronger has had on the team since he left.  The team immediately went from being a contender to a place you didn’t want to play if you could help it.

2006-2007- “What’s that smell?  Success? No, that’s not it.”

We all remember what a disaster this season ended up being.  We were great out of the gate and looked like we wouldn’t miss a beat.  They we stopped scoring and we stopped winning. 

I think I was actually in Edmonton for the game that changed the season.  It was late December and the Avs were in town.  I was pumped up because I was getting a chance to go into the dressing room after the game and meet the players (I love connections!).  We were up 3-1 early if memory serves me and then the wheels fell off.   The game ended up 7-6 Avs and I was left to sit at the bar outside the Oilers dressing room.  Maybe if they let us in we could have cheered them up, but instead they kept the doors closed for a classic chewing out session that didn’t have the intended impact.

The season wound down in heartbreaking fashion with Ryan Smyth traded to the Islanders at the trade deadline over a bit of money.  In that trade was a lesson that the Oilers ought to learn: when you are a team that can’t attract people to play in your city, don’t get rid of great players who love to play for you!   And don’t get rid of good ones like Stolly, Torres, Glencross and Reasoner either!

The Oilers really misgauged the market and thought they’d use Smitty’s cap dollars to bring in someone better and younger.  After a wild attempt at stealing Vanek, they ended up plucking Dustin Penner from the Ducks for 5 years and $21.25 million.  Is it just me, or would you rather have Smitty for 5 years and $27.5 million?

We followed up those awesome moves in the summer by trading away our captain (Jason Smith) and Lupul for Pitkanen and the old but speedy Geoff Sanderson.  We then picked up Garon and signed Souray to a hometown premium contract of 5 years and $27 million.  Sykora, Petersen and Winchester said, “Get me outta here!”, and left town. 

Finally, we re-signed Moreau, Staois, Grebeshkov, Torres, Greene, Pitkanen and Brodziak to very reasonable deals.   We were a team that could go either way….

2007-2008- “The wheels on the bus fall off and off”

If not for the Oilers prowess in the shoot-out, they may have reformed the WHA and forced Edmonton to join.  The season wasn’t nearly as pretty as the near playoff miss might suggest.  Sure there were a lot of injuries, but this wasn’t a team that was going to do any damage in the playoffs.

Following the season we traded Greene and Stoll for Visnovsky and then traded the much cheaper Pitkanen for Erik Cole, who ended up not lasting the 08-09 season.  We also traded Raffi Torres to Columbus for perpetual minor league sensation Gilbert Brule.

Free agency was a bust, with the Oil only able to pick up Jason Strudwick after failed attempts to pick up Jagr and Hossa.  Glencross and Reasoner were allowed to leave and sign contracts paying each player under $1.2 million per season. 

All that was left was for the Oilers new GM Steve Tambellini to employ a strategy of, “If you’ve got them, sign them!”  Gilbert was tied up for 6 years at $4 million per.  Nilsson, Grebeshkov, Pouliot, JF Jacques and Zack Stortini were all re-signed for modest contract amounts.

2008-2009- “At least our new third jerseys look awesome!”

I’ve done a great job forgetting last season already.  I didn’t even bother with a road trip up to Edmonton to see a game.  We had a team of speedsters playing on ice that hasn’t been built for speed since ice guru Dan Craig left town to work for the NHL a few years back.  Hemsky complained about playing defense and MacT complained about pretty much everything else.

Towards  the end of the season we picked up Alex Kotalik and Patrick Sullivan for the soon to be leaving Erik Cole.  Pat Quinn was hired after the season and optimism returned. 

What followed was the gong show of the summer of 2009.  We shipped out Brodziak and replaced golden oldie Roloson with golden oldie Khabibulin.  Kotalik took his show to the Rangers.  Free agent after free agent opted to play elsewhere before ‘splash’, we traded Cogliano, Smid and Penner for Dany Heatley!

You know the rest.  Heatley rejected the trade and ended up in San Jose.  The Oilers would end the offseason by bringing back our favourite son, Mike Comrie.

Ladies and Gentleman, your 2009 Edmonton Oilers!

That brings us to October 3rd, the Oilers first game of the 2009 season.  Lots of bloggers have done a great job of analyzing our chances so I’ll refrain from making this post even longer than it already is.  I think the tone of the past couple of sections will give you a sense of my feelings on the subject.

Pat Quinn had a refreshingly honest take of this year’s team.  Sadly, said Quinn, training camp has only reinforced that while there’s no “I” in team, there is one in Oilers. 

“We have some guys that aren’t leaders that are veterans. They’ve hung around because they know how to play, but we need our veterans to care more about the other people around them,” he said.  “Some guys don’t have time for that. They’re busy with themselves.”  Sounds awesome!  Where can I buy some tickets?

To wrap up this section, let’s look at the 2009-2010 Oilers and how they came to be Oilers (cap hit in parentheses).  I’ll break it down by the reasons a player joins a team I talked about earlier.

I.  Team has a good chance at winning the Cup now – 0 players

II.  Team has a good chance of winning the Cup soon– 0 players

III.  I’m stuck with the one that brought me to the dance– 17 players (including guys traded still on that contract).

Forwards:

Horcoff ($5.5MM) Long time Oiler who re-signed a couple of years ago when he thought we were going places and because we were willing to pay him a tonne of money.  Signed through 2014-2015.

Hemsky ($4.1MM) Similar story to Horcoff, but well worth the money.  Signed through 2011-2012.

O’Sullivan ($2.925MM) Traded from LA last year and signed through 2010-2011.  Not a good enough player to demand a trade out of town.

Pisani ($2.5MM)  Re-signed a couple of years back when it appeared he was about to become a top 6 talent.  Sadly, injuries and illness have prevented his potential from being reached thus far.  Free agent after this season.

Moreau ($2MM) Oh Captain, my Captain!  Long time Oiler wouldn’t be appreciated the same way elsewhere.  Doesn’t play a consistent game that would be attractive elsewhere.  Signed through 2010-2011.

Nilsson ($2MM) Traded from NYI in the Smitty deal and signed an extension while a restricted free agent (“RFA”).  Signed through 2010-2011 but appears to be the odd man out this year.

Gagner ($1.625MM)  Drafted by Oilers and still in his rookie contract.  A keeper to be sure but we may have to pay up as he enters restricted free agency after this year.

Cogliano ($1.1MM) Drafted by Oilers and still in his rookie contract.  RFA after this year.

Pouliot ($825k)  Still with the team who brought him to the dance.  RFA after this season.

Stortini ($700k) Same story as Pouliot but signed through 2010-2011. 

JF Jacques ($525k)  Same story as Zack and Pouliot and a RFA after this year.  Our 1st line left winger is your lowest paid player on the team!

Defense:

Visnovsky ($5.6MM) No matter how many times I see his salary I am always surprised he makes this much.  Traded to Oilers for Stoll and Greene and on his existing contract through 2012-2013.  Anyone else notice that the Oilers went from 5th to 27th in PK last year while the Kings went from 30th to 7th?  I’m just saying…

Gilbert ($4MM) Signed as RFA with the team who brought him to the dance.  Oilers were a bit stuck here as teams were making plays to poach RFAs at the time.  Signed through 2013-2015.

Grebeshkov ($3.1MM)  Signed a bit of a panicky one year deal that pays him pretty solid money for a pretty solid guy.

Staios ($2.7MM)  Signed to stay with the team that brought him to the dance a few years back.  Looked like a solid signing at the time, but Steve stopped using that green stick and stopped trying to get involved offensively.  Someone has to play defense, right?  Right?

Smid ($1.35MM) Signed a two year deal after the Oilers failed in their attempt to trade him. 

Goalies:

Drouin-Deslauriers ($625k)  On the last year of his rookie year contract before becoming a RFA.  I bet he’s pleased at another year of not getting a chance to prove himself!

IV.  Money, money, money!- 2 players (not including guys getting overpaid but here for other reasons)

Penner ($4.25MM) Free agent signing who came when the Oilers mistakenly thought he was Ryan Getzlaf and offered him way too much money.  Signed through 2011-2012.

Khabibulin ($3.75MM)  Signed a 4 year deal in the offseason with the team willing to pay him good money well past his expiry date.

V.  My family comes first– 1 player

Souray ($5.4MM) Signed as a free agent a couple years back from Montreal.  Signed to play close to home and the bucks (though he probably could have gotten the bucks from the Atlantas, Nashvilles and Floridas of the world).

VI.  You stink but I’m just happy to be here– 2 players

Comrie ($1.25MM)  Signed to a one year deal during the offseason when no other team would take him. 

Strudwick ($700k) Signed a one year deal with the team who wants him.

3,000 words in and I finally get to my thesis:  If there is not a demonstrated track record of success or a clear vision for future success, a team cannot hope to attract the talent needed to be successful.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

To recap, I don’t think the Oilers are going anywhere anytime soon.  While they have 17 guys on their team that they brought to the dance, together they are like 24 left feet and 10 right feet trying to do the cha-cha, but instead making ka-ka.  Add to the mix 4 guys around for the wrong reasons and you have a poorly constructed team.

Future success will eliminate concerns over the cold winters, the boredom and the travel, but there really isn’t any reason to assume future success at this point in time.  With that in mind, I have two suggestions which I will look at over the next couple of posts:

1.  Find their inner Brian Burke and clearly define to the world who the Edmonton Oilers are.  If I look at the Leafs, the Flames, the Red Wings, the Flyers and most of the other successful teams and it is clear how they are going about playing the game and trying to win. 

How are the Oilers defined?  I have no idea.  “We’re a bunch of undersized speedsters who aren’t responsible at both ends of the rink and are supported by a bunch of offensive defenseman and questionable goaltending”?

2.  Moneypuck.  If you can’t join ‘em, find a different way to beat them.  The Oakland A’s showed that the market misprices assets and if you know how to evaluate you can built a team with cheap outcasts who add up to something special.

I’m probably most excited about trying to tackle this suggestion.  I’m positive that most teams could do a much better job of predicting talent and constructing their teams.  If the Oilers could get ahead of the curve on this issue, they would have a competitive advantage that would surely lead to success.

Thanks for reading!  Write at you again soon.

The Sports Juice

Ps- I’m probably going to post about once a week for those interested.  Feel free to sign up for the free RSS feed to save the trouble of repeatedly popping by the site to see if there’s anything new!

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5 Comments

Filed under Edmonton Oilers

5 responses to “Why Doesn’t Anyone Want to Play for the Edmonton Oilers?

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  4. That’s just it. It would be one thing if ownership was cheap and running us in the ground. Instead they are paying top dollar to field a team that makes a fan yell at the tv.

    All that said, we’re whipping the Flames tonight!

  5. Hockey Noob

    Hey Jonathan, I’ve added your blog to my ‘Oilogosphere’ list. Good analysis! I agree that the Oilers apparent difficulty in attracting free agent talent primarily results from the organization’s inability to ice a competitive hockey team.

    It’s certainly frustrating as an Oilers fan to see our team spending to the cap for what most predict is still an outside chance of making the playoffs.

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