EDMONTON - After rocking the boat a year ago with offer sheets to restricted free agents Thomas Vanek and Dustin Penner, Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe sees smoother sailing ahead this off-season.
In an attempt to rebuild the Oilers, Lowe had NHL waters churning with a failed US$50-million bid to land Vanek from Buffalo before plucking Penner out of Anaheim with a $21.25-million offer sheet - an amount the Ducks chose not to match.
Lowe also landed unrestricted free agent Sheldon Souray with a $27-million, five-year deal and traded captain Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul to Philadelphia for Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson.
While the Oilers missed the playoffs for the second straight season, Lowe doesn't anticipate being nearly as aggressive after his team made a furious 14-5-1 charge in its final 20 games.
"Not that we won't look and try to be active, but we won't go into free agency like we did last year, where we knew we had to bring players in," Lowe said Tuesday.
Last July, Lowe drew the ire of Buffalo GM Darcy Regier with his offer for Vanek before the Sabres matched.
Anaheim's Brian Burke, who gets the 12th selection in the first round this June, plus Edmonton's second-and third-round picks from the Penner sheet, has been verbally sniping at Lowe since the bid.
Given that, and with restricted free agents to sign in Jarret Stoll, Pitkanen, Robert Nilsson and Tom Gilbert, Lowe could see some offer sheets coming his way this time around.
"If a team comes around, like the situation we were in, which to me was very unique, then yes, absolutely there'll be an RFA offer," he said. "Am I concerned about our RFAs? Not one bit. We have lots of (salary) cap room. We know the players we like. If there was one, we'll match an offer, if we choose to. If we think the offer is too high, we'll let them go and take the picks.
"We're in a great position. We have lots of depth in the organization. Having said all that, we've had positive contract negotiations with all those players, so I don't think it's even going to get there."
The Oilers finished ninth in the Western Conference at 41-35-6 for 88 points. They managed that without injured veterans Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Raffi Torres and Souray on the way to settling a franchise record for man-games lost to injury.
Rookies Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano, as well as youngsters like Nilsson and Gilbert, stepped to the forefront. Despite coming up short again, this was no repeat of 2006-07, when the Oilers won just two of their final 20 games.
"I think if we'd have stayed healthy, we had a team that would have been in a position to challenge," Lowe said.
"Our goal going into the season was to try to make the playoffs, and to also be in a development year. We didn't accomplish the playoffs - it was a good effort by the boys - but we had probably our best development year in 12 or 15 years. I can't wait for next year."
As for his focus this off-season, Lowe has enough depth that he'll likely try to make a trade to move up in the first round of the draft. With Anaheim's pick, he'll select no higher than 18th and as low as 30th, based on how the Ducks do in the playoffs.
"We've said that every year and we've had a tough time," Lowe said of moving up in order. "I'd love the opportunity to move up into the top 10.
"We'll see what happens. I think we have the assets to do it. We've built them up over a number of years so, ideally, we'll try to utilize that asset base to improve upon the high-end aspect of our organization."
Lowe might opt to parlay his depth into a top-six forward by way of a trade.
"We were ninth, so there's room for improvement," he said. "Depending on what happens with our numbers, if we end up making a package deal to bring in a player, that would be a new player.
"There'll be a lot less changes. You need some continuity. Players need to play with one another for a while. We're in a position to do that now."