Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lowe's Desperate Ploy

The Edmonton Oilers made a tactical decision when they traded Ryan Smyth. They decided that they were not in a position to win now (which was correct) and would be better retooling for the future then re-signing Smyth. For the few games the New York Islanders got Smyth for, they paid a hefty price of Robert Nilsson, Ryan O'Marra and the 2007 first round draft pick (Alex Plante). These are three players who each have a good chance of playing decent NHL careers - all will likely be much longer than the time Smyth stayed in Long Island. There is a reasonable chance that at least one of them will be a frontline player for a long time with the Oilers. This is a strategic move because the Oilers already have a good core of prospects including Andrew Cogliano, Rob Schremp, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Denis Grebeshkov, Slava Trukhno and Devan Dubnyk. There is a good possibility that given a chance, these players could become a large part of the core of the next good Oiler team. The problem is the team completely collapsed after the Smyth trade. This made fans unhappy and less willing to pay for tickets with little chance of seeing their team win. This puts Kevin Lowe's job as Oiler GM in jeopardy.

As a result, Lowe has made a public about face on his plans for the Oilers. He told everyone that he was going to spend the Smyth money on a big free agent. He told everyone that he was going to make a big trade on draft day. Neither of the two materialized. The Oilers thought they had signed Michael Nylander from the New York Rangers (who is unlikely to be the answer to the team's problems anyway), but they were shocked to learn that he signed with the Washington Capitals for less money - after Edmonton announced they had singed him. Here is Tyler Dellow at Mudcrutch hockey with more on this fiasco. Cynically, it looks like a play to make the Oiler fans think they are trying to land that big free agent, but the hockey gods are conspiring against them and they cannot. Practically, it makes a player less likely to negotiate with the Oilers in the future because if they are close to a deal but turn around and sign with another team they might also be the center of a big stink like Nylander.

After failing to sign Nylander, Lowe is even more desperate to make a move (or at least look like he is trying to make a move). So he tries to sign a restricted free agent Thomas Vanek from Buffalo. Vanek may have made second team all star this year, but he is by far the weakest player to make the post season all star teams. It was a very weak year for left wingers. He too is unlikely a good enough player to fix the Oilers ship by himself. The Oilers signed him to an offer sheet of $50 million over 7 years. They did this despite assurance from Buffalo GM Darcy Regier that buffalo would match.

Buffalo is a team that had a good season but is a small market struggling with the high salary cap and liberalized free agency of this CBA they lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency. Even though Vanek will be overpaid under his new contract and even though Buffalo could have four first round picks as compensation (likely relatively early picks in the draft), Buffalo matched the offer almost immediately. They did so because they hope their team can still contend and cannot afford to lose any more players this summer. They did so because the fans might get disillusioned (much like the Oiler fans) to lose another player.

Although this offer for Vanek is large, it was doomed from the beginning. Buffalo has the money on hand (given the loss of Briere and Drury) to match the offer. This deal does not force Buffalo into serious salary cap trouble. This offer was Kevin Lowe's attempt to look like he was doing something to help the Oilers. Something that he should have known was doomed from the outset, but he hopes the Oiler faithful cannot see through it and thinks he is trying but just can't quite get it done due to bad luck.

I think teams will lure away RFAs in this CBA, but it will likely be big market teams stealing from the small and teams forced into salary cap problems that are forced to give them up. The Vanek case is neither and that's why it was doomed.

I think Edmonton has a good young core that might be ready for NHL play, but Lowe and the Oiler fans do not have patience to wait for it. Until then Lowe is flailing around like a madman either unable to do anything significant or trying to look like he is trying to do something significant but unable to. This path will likely lead Lowe to lose his job unless the Oilers far exceed expectations this year. The Vanek offer sheet was doomed from the start. I cannot think too highly of a GM who would pursue such an avenue.

Here is the TSN story on the Oilers offer and Buffalo's match.

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