NHL Trade Deadline: For Edmonton Oilers, Success Is Relative

Antony TaContributor IMarch 3, 2010

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 27: Sam Gagner #89 of the Edmonton Oilers raises his arms to teammate goaltender Dwayne Roloson #35 in celebration after they defeated the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 in their NHL game at Honda Center on March 27, 2009 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

While the obvious answer to the question "Who is untouchable?" is usually that whomever owns a value contract won't be moved, this isn't always the case.

It all comes down to who the Oilers think has a long-term future with the franchise, and heading into the deadline, it may also come down to who you can sell high with.

For a player like Denis Grebeshkov, Oilers' GM Steve Tambellini got market value in return for his defensemen, as a slew of others (including Andy Sutton) have also gone for a second-round pick in return. However, such a move is also key in that the clearance of Grebeshkov's salary cap hit allows other moves to happen before the deadline on Wednesday.

But it's all relative.

For a player like Tom Gilbert, whose value has fluctuated but is still a quality young D-man, the price has been determined. An Olympian like Denis Grebeshkov who is entering free agency, however, may be in line for a hefty raise.

When guys like Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky are so much harder to move in a cap world, guys like Grebeshkov are expendable as his raw talent is still too raw in that he can be replaced easily by a cheaper player in Taylor Chorney.

By balancing relative value, the organization might be ready to make some tough decisions.

These tough decisions don't include obvious ones like trading troublesome captain figures or getting rid of young players who don't compete at the level of their paycheck. Not to point any fingers.

But Patrick O'Sullivan and Robert Nilsson—these are guys who are experiencing terrible seasons despite being young, promising players who have delivered in the past. At one time, their contracts were deemed reasonable.

When playing on a team whose roster and cap is as badly managed as Edmonton's, sometimes those contracts suddenly become roster killers.

But it's all relative.

O'Sullivan and Nilsson have good draft pedigree and have shown that they can play in this tough league. Their effort is questionable but perhaps they have reached the peak of their potential as supporting offensive players. To think that Nilsson was compared to Peter Forsberg by some on his draft day is questionable now.

But it's all relative.

Compared to the more composed and younger Sam Gagner, players like O'Sullivan and Nilsson drop considerably in value.

And much of it is contextual and not statistical.

Gagner is a player that competes on every night. He wants to be on the team and he wants to see the team play better.

He battles. He fights. He grinds.

Gagner accepts his role on the team at any given time and he's shown this by elevating his play on a line with Zack Stortini early on in the season.

He may be an RFA with an unknown cap hit next season, but Gagner is worth the top dollar that O'Sullivan isn't.

On a list of players who have been in the NHL and are sure to be untouchable, Gagner would be at the top of that list.

Players With Potential Value Contracts Beginning 2010-2012

Sam Gagner
Ryan Potulny
Gilbert Brule
Ladislav Smid
Andrew Cogliano
Marc-Antoine Pouliot
Ryan Stone

These are players who have shown that, given the right conditions, they can produce. They have also shown that even playing on a league-worst 30th-place team is not a situation with a lack of opportunity. A few on this list, such as M.A. Pouliot and Ryan Stone, have been effective enough when healthy, but they spend more time injured than not.

These are players to consider keeping despite certain weaknesses.

However, there is also the problem of moving players that have bad cap hits.

Sometimes, when you're moving in a new direction, you have to "take a hit to make the play," meaning you might have to overpay or sacrifice something to get something.

With the Oilers dealing from a position of weakness, expect them to overpay in a trade at some point.

It's hard to blame them in this situation.

The Role of the Team's Top Wingers

Among the Oilers best value contracts right now are those of Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner, both of whom are outperforming their relative value when healthy.

Whereas this is a new phenomena with Penner, Hemsky has been doing this for a few years now. Are these two players both valuable veterans?

One perspective sees it that Penner is the manifestation of the big power forward that Edmonton has been seeking for years and has not been able to develop in prospects such as Brad Isibister, Dan Lacouture, and Brad Winchester, among others.

Another perspective sees it that Hemsky is a special player whose presence has been missed on a team that plummeted in the standings in his absence.

But it's all relative.

It's arguable that both players are just as valuable to the organization but as leaders in different capacities.

Without Hemsky, the PP looks awful and the transition game has suffered. Gagner has picked up some of the slack but he's still young.

Penner is a leader who tries to act by example and he plays in all situations including the PK. He's not consistent like Hemsky, however, and his play rises and drops in mini-streaks, and this makes him unpredictable and slightly frustrating to watch.

Both are equally valuable, and on a team about to enter a major rebuilding, either could be equally expendable depending on how easy or how difficult it is to replace one of them.

Right now, it is hard to see a team with a fractured core trading two of the few key pieces available to build a team around unless the return is right and the trade is beneficial to both teams involved. If the trade is mutually beneficial, don't be surprised to see either player moved.

Am I suggesting the Oilers will trade Penner or Hemsky?

Hardly. I believe the case for keeping them is much stronger than the case for moving them.

But the salary cap era is a harsh one. And sometimes, you have to give something to get something.

If a rebuilding team has a core it believes is crucial to the rebuilding, then it will be others with some value who feels the brunt of the salary-cap-related growing pains.

Who Feels the Brunt of the Cap Growing Pains?

Besides leaders like Hemsky and Penner, players like Cogliano and prospects like Taylor Chorney have implicit value as well. So much has been invested in these players with mixed results, and both have achieved a lot everywhere but at the NHL level.

They too may feel the cruel fate awaiting at the end of a salary cap whip.

But it's all relative.

One man's castaway is another man's treasure.

Brule and Potulny have shown this as successful reclamation projects.

Cogliano may not have established himself in Edmonton yet, but NHL teams know who he is. Defensemen know his speed and scouts know him from his World Junior days.

Cogliano has value despite his mighty struggles.

It's hard to tell right now if Tambellini has a direction for a rebuilt Edmonton. However, in the last few days the trades have shown a glimpse at his strategy.

Matt Marquardt is a huge body with questionable skating but surprisingly soft hands, according to HockeysFuture.

Denis Grebeshkov and Tom Gilbert are comparable players, and so are Cody Wild and Taylor Chorney.

The team is ready to move duplicate skills on the roster for journeymen with variable size and experience to play for the farm team.

This appears to be the initial part of the agenda.

What Tambellini intends to do about the cap issue is still a matter of mystery but at least on the developmental front, role players who will help the farm teams compete are seemingly being added.

Competitiveness Has to Be a Priority at Every Level

Learning a winning attitude on a team with clearly defined roles is the first step to developing players with the same attributes at the NHL level.

This, too, is a crucial step for the team's existing prospect hotshots such as Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson. Sometimes the small moves are the ones that allow the big ones later on, and these depth moves are among them. Tambellini's moves this week have been the right ones so far.

The only problem is the timing: he's a couple years too late.

But it's okay since late is better than never.

However, with the NHL team at an all time low, sometimes hope is the only thing left to sell to the fans like you and I. With so little hockey left to be played in Edmonton this season, I think I'm willing to hold on to that hope a little bit longer.

Just until next season, when we can start to see what comes of these moves.

Maintaining this hope begins with ensuring that the team can develop or acquire players who can compete at any level, NHL or AHL, and play their role effectively.

Wednesday will be the most interesting deadline since Ryan Smyth was traded and that's because this time the outcome is already determined. With the playoffs out of the picture, this deadline will be the context and preview for what will prove to be an even bigger reshaping bound to happen this summer.

Or at least, we hope it is.

But I guess it's all relative.

We hope because we want to see the Oilers draft and develop that franchise player.

Taylor Hall, Tyler Seguin, and Cam Fowler might be that franchise player or they might not be at all.

Whatever the case, it's the team culture that is important.

What Determines a Successful Trade Deadline?

The Oilers assuredly have an agenda heading into the deadline as does every other one of the NHL's 29 teams.

Regardless of the presence of a big name prospect such as Hall, Seguin, or Fowler due to join the franchise this summer, all the moves heading up to that fateful day when they join the organization are just as important.

Maybe even more important.

A successful trade deadline for a team in last place revolves around dumping salary and acquiring assets and picks. I'm sure we all know that by now.

But sometimes it's the unheralded moves that matter too.

Like not pulling the trigger on a trade that doesn't need to happen.

Who the Oilers keep in favor of who they move will contribute to the team culture moving forward and will depend on the answers to questions such as the ones below:

1. Is this Hemsky and Penner's team to lead now?

2. Will Shawn Horcoff have a bounce back season or has the shoulder injury permanently
altered his ability to play?

3. Do the Oilers intend to find Horcoff help in the faceoff circle?

These may not be questions we can answer now.

But this year's trade deadline is a crucial turning point.

Does the team right the ship or head deeper into the abyss?

Stay tuned.


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