|In addition to the newest rookies in the lineup, Sam Gagner is providing an offensive spark; he now has 17 points in 25 games, including a team-leading eight goals. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press).
The Oilers are riding a high right now, having played excellent hockey en route to earning a sweep on their three game Eastern Canadian road swing. The demolition of the Leafs, the comeback OT victory in Montreal, the sweet homecoming for Martin Gerber in Ottawa...it's a fun time to be a fan.
But, let's make no mistake here; the team is likely to continue the roller coaster and, at least for now, it's way premature to expect this success to roll on for the remaining 57 games. This time last year the Oilers rolled home from a five game road swing having won every game, capped off with a comeback win in St. Louis.
I hate to be the Ghost of Season's Past, but the team returned home to lose four in a row and would win just once in their next 21 games. There are too many differences to list between this year and last, but the lesson should still ring true: keep the expectations low. The three wins on the road don't signal the end of the rebuild, as positive as the signs might be.
After last night's game, a caller on 630 CHED's Overtime Openline show referred to the win in Toronto not only as a decisive victory on the scoresheet, but also a victory of ideology. Perhaps an exaggeration based on one regular season meeting, I thought it was still a very intriguing point given the wide variance in how Brian Burke's Leafs and Steve Tambellini's Oilers are going about their rebuilds.
Under Burke's tenure as GM of the Leafs, the team has acquired via trade or free agency seven current roster players with a salary of $3 Million or more (Giguere, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Phaneuf, Armstrong, Versteeg & Kessel). The average age of those players is slightly over 27, essentially meaning that the core group of players that Burke is assembling are by and large in the prime of their career, demonstrating an effort to fast-track the process.
It's a pretty good group, too. Three forwards that fit into the top six or seven on most teams, including an elite goal scorer. Three defensemen that play in the top four or five on most teams, including their captain. Plus, a goaltender with a Stanley Cup pedigree. Problem is, rather than surrounding them with veterans of a similar age to fill in the remaining holes, the team is chalk full of young players to the point that the Leafs end up being the league's youngest team on average at 26.3 years of age.
|Oilers rookie Jordan Eberle vaulted into second place in the NHL's rookie scoring race with a three-point outing vs. Toronto. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press). |
On one hand, the Leafs are assembling the youngest group in the league, asking players like Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak to fill top six roles on the roster with virtually no experience. On the other hand, they're acquiring talent that forces the team into a "win now" type mode so as to not fritter away the prime years of said players. Fact is, unless Toronto's players grow up faster than average, players like Kessel and Phaneuf will be getting paid handsomely to lose.
The Oilers, on the other hand, have assembled a group of young players that are unlikely to challenge for NHL supremacy for a period of years, but that will grow together and hit their prime together, hopefully allowing for an extended window to win when the time does come. Valuing a top five draft pick over a player in his mid-20's and valuing salary cap space as a future asset are 2 philosophies obviously present in Edmonton that are currently not in Toronto.
The Oilers have roughly $10M extra salary cap space than Toronto and have less committed long term (2013-2014 cap has Toronto at $17.4M and the Oilers at $9.5M). That's to suggest that the Oilers will have more flexibility built-in when it comes time for their young players to emerge from their entry level deals, a figure that could be further exasperated if the trends continue on both sides. Also, contrary to the types of moves that Brian Burke has made as GM of the Leafs, the Oilers only have one player in the prime of his career that's signed to a contract given to him by Steve Tambellini (Nikolai Khabibulin
Will the Toronto model work? Is the Edmonton model better? It's obviously too early to tell, but there are distinct differences in asset management between the two models, and it will be interesting to follow the growth of the two franchises in the coming years. In the past, the Oilers have been the poster franchise for demonstrating that contenders are not built on trades and free agency.
Now, the Oilers are building solely from the draft/develop model and, in future years, hope to emerge as the poster franchise for the right way to build a winner.