2 months have passed since the Oilers wrapped up their 2007-2008 campaign by finishing 9th in the Western Conference and turning heads around the league in the process with a nearly epic charge at the end of the year. The retrospectives and evaluations have been done and the organization has now laid out its vision for the rest of the off season. The approach to this summer will be remarkably different than the approach the team had going into last summer.
"It's really an important contrast to make," says Head Coach Craig MacTavish. "From a coaching perspective I'm really excited to come back in with the same personnel we had last year. 2 years ago, it was much different. All the coaches were watching playoff series' because we knew we were going to be in the Group 2 (free agent) market. There were a lot of questions and a lot of work to be done. This year I'm happy to stand pat with what we have."
"We were fortunate in a lot of ways that we had a lot of things materialize," continued MacTavish. "You always like to think that there are going to be a few things come through but to have as many things go right as what we had at the end of last year was more than what we would have thought."
The emergence of youngsters like Sam Gagner
, Andrew Cogliano, Kyle Brodziak and Robert Nilsson up front (to name just a few) gives the organization a tremendous sense of optimism for the future. "If the young guys continue to develop, and we have no reason to believe that they won't, then better times are ahead," said General Manager Kevin Lowe.Square peg into a round hole...
The young bodies also complicate things. Going down the roster, the numbers don't add up. There are too many names for too few spots. "It's a simple mathematical equation at this point," says MacTavish. "There are more players than there are positions. They're all good players so there's going to be good competition barring a multiple player deal."
Kevin Lowe concurs. "We look at it and go ok, who's going to be here, because we've got a lot of bodies. Now it's a matter of me and the organization to do the best to manage the assets and improve the hockey team. If that means potentially getting into a situation where we move three or four assets for one or two coming back, that might be a good thing."
So, let's start with some names. Marty Reasoner is an unrestricted free agent and it's no secret that he loves playing in Edmonton. It's also no secret that he's one of the players that Craig MacTavish feels most confident in. "I want Reasoner back for sure," MacTavish told me matter-of-factly. "He's a valuable member of our team. We'd be remisce in a lot of respects not to bring him back. We're hopeful that we can get him signed."
Kevin Lowe acknowledges Reasoner's value, but doesn't have the same cut-and-dry feeling as his head coach. "I've talked to Marty's agent saying we have interest in bringing Marty back but we also have a lot of bodies right now so we have to see what unfolds in the next weeks and months."
Another player in a similar situation is UFA forward Curtis Glencross who quickly became a fan favorite during his couple of months with the team. He caught fire on the 4th line alongside Kyle Brodziak and Zack Stortini and also quickly endeared himself to his teammates. That being said, Glencross has jumped from obscurity to being a fairly marketable commodity on the free agent market and Lowe isn't prepared to give him the moon.
"If his mindset or his agent's mindset is that this is his one kick at really hitting a home run then he's probably going to end up doing it in free agency and not necessarilly with us at this point," Lowe stated.
"It just might work out that he ends up going elsewhere. We certainly have enough bodies here so that's not a concern."
"We like the way he finished the year and we like his enthusiasm. He's a great kid and I think he has upside in his game. But, like I said before, we're piecing a puzzle together and we have higher end guys making more money so we have to find the right number where he can fit into our future and not hurt us in terms of bringing other guys in or retaining other guys."Addition and subtraction...
"If we can add to our team by upgrading our scoring and some of our toughness, we have the assets to do it," says Kevin Lowe. "We don't have to rely on free agency to do it. That doesn't mean we won't be listening or making calls on July 1st."
The main goal for the team is to add a scoring forward, preferably giving up a package of depth players. "When you look at some of the other teams and their situation and our situation there's going to be some very interesting dialogue between us and a couple or three other teams who are looking to shed some salary cap and add some depth," said MacTavish.
"Obviously if we can add a real high end element for a couple real good players then that's a deal we're gonna have to do. Would we like to do a deal like that? Sure, we're in a good position to do a deal like that."
One name constantly being tossed around in trade rumours is that of Restricted Free Agent defenseman Joni Pitkanen. His single year as an Oiler was marred by injuries and numerous trips in and out of the lineup. Craig MacTavish would love to have another year to evaluate Pitkanen, though, before making a decision. "I think that's fair," started MacTavish. "We had a real good discussion with him in terms of what our expectation was for him and whether he had the willingness to work and change some of the aspects of his game. We're not talking about fundamental changes in his game; we're talking about subtle changes in his game and playing the game more situationally. It's just managing those decisions of when it makes sense for him to jump up in the play and when it doesn't."
Another player whose future is uncertain at this point is goaltender Dwayne Roloson. With Mathieu Garon emerging as the #1 netminder and Jeff Drouins-Deslauriers poised to graduate to the big league, it's likely that the team will entertain offers for the veteran Roloson who still wants a shot to play as a #1. "It's a difficult situation for a guy like Dwayne who works so hard and puts so much time into being a number one goalie," says Craig MacTavish. "That discussion will be very important in terms of what our direction is with our goaltending. From my perspective, I'd certainly like to have him back."The model...
If you've been paying attention to the Stanley Cup playoffs, you've seen quite a bit of the Detroit Red Wings. They're a team that starts with a solid defensive posture and mixes in reliable goaltending, a mobile blue-line and some creative forwards. Sound familiar? The Oilers aren't near the calibre of the Red Wings yet, but they are trying to follow in the footsteps of the Big Red Machine. "I think that's fair to say and those parallels are very accurate," says Head Coach Craig MacTavish. "I sure admire the way they play the game and I'd love to be able to play that game; largely we try.
"Going back 2 years ago we knew that we need more mobility on the back end and it all starts from there. We've really done a good job adding those elements in guys like Gilbert and Grebeshkov. I really like the model and like to play a puck possession game and now we have the personnel that can play that type of game. We're not too far away."The heat is on...
What we know for sure is that when the 2008-2009 season starts, expectations will be high. And with high expectations, comes pressure. "What a revelation," says MacTavish facetiously. "Pressure on an NHL head coach. It's business as usual; we'll all be evaluated based on the success that we have. It's a foregone conclusion that if you don't have success for an extended period of time that you'll be looking for elsewhere. That's part of the job. I've lived with it since the day I signed a contract to coach here in Edmonton and I'll be living with it next year. Business as usual from my perspective."
It's business as usual for Kevin Lowe, too. And he's not ready to anoint his team as the next NHL super-power just yet. "We didn't prove anything. We had a nice 20 odd game run and there's lots of optimism but I do know that when the puck drops next October that it's going to be a grind to make the playoffs."You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 8 to 11 on 630 CHED