Time was spent. Countless hours, game-planning to get the Edmonton Oilers back on track after a forgettable 2-17-1 finish to the 2006-07 season.
Plan A for General Manager Kevin Lowe included about $20 million ownership had promised for free agency, trades, what have you. Lowe chose the high road, speaking optimistically about what was ahead for the Oilers leading up to the opening of free agency on July 1.
"I would think we could have as many as six to eight new faces on the team next year. We're prepared to do that," Lowe said candidly. "Seriously we need to look at practically every position."
With a plan in mind to improve on Edmonton’s NHL-worst 195 goal output, Plan A for Lowe and the Oilers began when he called Nashville’s leading scorer Paul Kariya
and got the impression that Kariya wanted to play in Canada -- and why not Edmonton, he thought? But Kariya chose St. Louis instead.
Atlanta forward Slava Kozlov and New York Rangers center Michael Nylander were next on the Oilers’ wish list. Kozlov was second on the Thrashers scoring list, but he decided early on that he would rather stay in Atlanta.
That’s when Lowe put all his hopes on signing Nylander, who had gained some notoriety the last couple seasons setting up Jaromir Jagr on a consistent basis. Lowe finished the first day of free agency thinking he had a good faith deal with Nylander -- all that was missing was a fax confirming the deal. But Nylander’s agent finally got back to the Oilers a day later, apologized and said his client signed with Washington instead.
Any one of those three would have put a smile on Lowe’s face. But by the time the Oilers’ GM finally heard the bad news about Nylander, important hours of shopping had past and most of the top unrestricted free agents had signed.
As a shutdown defender in the NHL for 19 seasons with the Oilers and New York Rangers, winning six Stanley Cups, Lowe learned a lot of different strategies for being successful. One of those lessons was: If Plan A doesn’t work, you don’t punt, or call to the bullpen for a reliever or change goalies. No, you work harder on Plan B, making it just as appealing as the first plan of attack.
First, Lowe lamented how it shouldn’t be this difficult to get players to come to Edmonton, a city that housed the champion Oilers of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey. And wasn’t it just over a dozen months ago that the Oilers reached Game 7 of the Cup finals against the Carolina Hurricanes?
Part of Lowe’s wish list was at least one puck-moving offensive defenseman, which he acquired less than a week later in a trade with Philadelphia -- getting Joni Pitkanen and veteran forward Geoff Sanderson for captain Jason Smith and underachieving winger Joffrey Lupul.
Plan B then included a bombshell heard from South Florida to Southern California when he signed Buffalo right winger Thomas Vanek, a restricted free agent who had 43 goals last season, to an offer sheet. Cries of foul play immediately came from the Sabres and nearly every team in the NHL with regard to the expensive seven-year, $50 million contract. It didn’t take long for Buffalo to match the offer and send Lowe back to the drawing board.
Not to be denied, Lowe went after another Group 2 restricted free agent -- this time it was Anaheim’s 29-goal left winger Dustin Penner. After days of deliberation, the Ducks decided the five-year, $21.25 million offer sheet was too much to match.
Sabres GM Darcy Regier and Ducks GM Brian Burke both blasted Lowe for raising the salary level for every team, since contracts are often controlled by comparison shopping around the NHL.
Lowe expected the cold shoulder. But, he said, this is all about making the Edmonton Oilers better.
"It's all about winning," he said. "Our building is full. Our fans commit a lot of money to filling that building. They want to see good hockey and see the team win.
"I wasn't trying to spend the money for a bunch of over-the-hill guys, guys looking to grab one more paycheck. It wasn't like we didn't want to spend the money. It's the first time we've ever been in the high-end market. We're in the win-now mode ... we really are, but free agency didn't work for us. Hey, I used all the tools that were available to me as a general manager."
Eventually, Lowe convinced Montreal’s Sheldon Souray, another offensive-minded defenseman who had 26 goals -- best by any blue-liner in the NHL -- to come to Edmonton as well for a five-year, $27 million deal.
Penner and Sanderson up front, plus Pitkanen and Souray on defense. That’s not six or eight new faces to replace face-of-the-franchise winger Ryan Smyth, who was traded to the New York Islanders in February, Petr Sykora, who left as a free agent for Pittsburgh, Lupul and energy reserve forwards Toby Petersen and Brad Winchester.
And that didn’t even include the bad news that the Oilers will lose Fernando Pisani for the first month or so of the season with ulcerative colitis.
|"It's all about winning. Our building is full. Our fans commit a lot of money to filling that building. They want to see good hockey and see the team win."
-- Kevin Lowe
Plans B, C and D had to include the kind of infusion of youth the Oilers needed to use back in 1979 when Gretzky, Messier and Lowe skated right into Edmonton’s starting lineup.
, Andrew Cogliano
, Sam Gagner
, Rob Schremp
, Ryan O’Marra, all these guys have an opportunity to play because they bring something we need, which is offense," admitted Lowe. "It's up to the kids now to show MacT (Coach Craig MacTavish
) they can do it. Personally, I think a lot of these kids are ready to take jobs now."
Nilsson, Cogliano, Gagner, Schremp, O’Marra are all former first-round draft choices (Nilsson and O’Marra coming from the Islanders in the Smyth trade).
The Oilers come into this season with Shawn Horcoff centering the No. 1 line, backed up by Jarret Stoll, who was limited to 39 points last season because he missed 31 games with injuries. In their Stanley Cup Final run two years ago, Horcoff, Stoll, Ales Hemsky, Raffi Torres, Ethan Moreau and Pisani took turns being the hero for the team.
Marc-Antoine Pouliot, another former first-round pick for the Oilers, showed flashes of a younger version of the elusive Hemsky. Kyle Brodziak or J.F. Jacques bring bulk and talent and should get a chance to fill-in for Pisani. And Zach Stortini proved to be a pretty good physical force up front in his short stint in Edmonton.
Dwayne Roloson is No. 1 in goal -- and he’ll get plenty of help on defense from the likes of Souray, Pitkanen, Steve Staios, Matt Greene, Dick Tarnstrom, Ladislav Smid, Denis Grebeskhov, Mathieu Roy and Tom Gilbert.
And whether it’s Plan A, B or C, Lowe’s plans are more of the optimistic nature now after a summer of discontent.
The Oilers’ GM would like to see how well Horcoff and Penner click with let’s say Hemsky. He’s wondering if Nilsson is ready to produce on a line with Stoll and Torres. He knows Gagner has it ... but is he ready for the NHL? Same for Cogliano and Schremp and O’Marra.
One plan that has never changed from the Gretzky, Messier, Kurri days to now is speed and skill in the Edmonton lineup.
The real Lowedown is: It will be exciting to see just how long it takes for this large group of former first-round picks to get the rest of the NHL to start raving about them.
Now that’s the real Plan A now, isn’t it?
|NHL.com's 2007-08 Oilers Season Preview Package:
|Intro | Goalies | Defense | Forwards | Feature | Numbers | Sked | Roster