The Gambit

Jonathan Willis
February 24 2009 09:50AM

chess-pieces

I’ve always enjoyed the game of chess. I can’t claim that I’m especially good at it (although I achieved one childhood ambition and am now at the point where I can play my dad to a standstill), but I like it nonetheless. One of the common terms used in chess is the gambit. For those of you unfamiliar with the gambit, here’s a brief and relatively accurate definition, from Wikipedia:

A gambit is a chess opening in which the first player risks or sacrifices material, usually a pawn, with the hope of achieving a resulting advantageous position.

The gambit is closely related to sacrifice, of which there are many examples. Shot-blocking is an example; the player sacrifices some pain in order to prevent the shot from getting through to the net. Dump-ins are another example; the team sacrifices possession of the puck in order to gain the zone,  or sneak in a line change while the opposition reacts.

If I were sitting behind Steve Tambellini’s desk, the Oilers strategy at the trade deadline would revolve around the principle of sacrifice. As I write this, the Oilers are tied with the Anaheim Ducks for 9th place in the Western Conference. They’re five points out of 5th and six points out of 15th in the West, so they’re just one of eleven teams hoping to snag the bottom four playoff spots. There really isn’t that much differentiating them from any of the other teams in that block; just for example, let’s compare the Oilers’ goals for and against the two worst Western teams (St. Louis and Colorado):

Edmonton: 165GF – 182GA = -17 differential St. Louis: 165GF – 178GA = -13 differential Colorado: 165GF – 186 GA = -21 differential

The lucky teams in those bottom four spots will meet Chicago or Calgary. The unlucky teams will meet Detroit and San Jose. The smart money says that whoever does squeak into the playoffs will get knocked down in the first round.

I know that all bets are off once the playoffs start, any team can win a seven-game series, etc., etc., but the likelihood of any of the bottom eleven teams in the Conference working their way to the Stanley Cup is extremely low. There are arguments to be made for some (Vancouver’s improved substantially, Dallas is only ranked this low because of their bizarrely awful start, etc.), but not for Edmonton. Their location in the standings has been earned; this is the team they are. A fringe playoff team without the horses to do much in the playoffs.

Dan Barnes has a column out today where he argues that Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky could use a legitimate first-line left wing. I completely agree with Barnes that this is an area of weakness, but I disagree with his assertion that the Oilers should shore it up.

I think the Oilers should sell at this trade deadline.

Is scrabbling into the post-season to be first-round fodder enough? I think not. If it isn’t enough, why should this team burn useful assets (draft picks, prospects, and young roster players) for a couple of home playoff games?

If I were in charge, I’d make the following moves:

1. Trade Erik Cole. Erik Cole is an unrestricted free agent who has suffered through the worst season of his career here in Edmonton. Still, he has a strong track record season over season and should have some value to an Eastern Conference team, so it makes sense to move him for something rather than lose him for nothing in the summer. Mike Brophy contended the other day that his poor playoff stats mean his value as a playoff guy is low; but I’d argue that he’s wrong. 23 of Cole’s 25 career playoff games came in his rookie season, where he didn’t score much, the other two came as a surprise comeback from a broken neck en route to a Stanley Cup win. I’d suggest that most GM’s place value on the latter, and recognize the context of the former.

2. Trade Steve Staios. If at all possible, Staios should be traded. He’s a player I’ve always liked, and there’s no questioning his desire, but he’s on a contract with a 2.7-million cap hit until 2010-11. 2010-11, by the way, is when Sam Gagner’s and Andrew Cogliano’s entry-level deals run out, and the cap is slated to drop. If at all possible, the Oilers should get out from under that contract.

3. Trade Ethan Moreau. Most here will recognize that Moreau’s penchant for awful penalties drives me a little batty, but that’s not the principle reason he should be traded. The principle reason he should be traded is that he’s a) 33 years old b) having his first healthy season in three years and most importantly c) signed to a contract with a cap hit of two-million per season until 2010-11. The Oilers aren’t going to win this year, and Ethan Moreau should have considerable value to a playoff team.

4. Trade Rob Schremp. I laid out my thoughts on Schremp the other day; suffice to say that while he is still a prospect, I think a trade would be in the interests of both him and the Edmonton Oilers.

Outside of those four moves, a number of other players should be considered for new addresses. Dustin Penner is signed long term, and I do like him as a player but it’s fair to ask if he’ll ever deliver value on his contract. Robert Nilsson has had a dreadful season, and while his contract is a bargain if he can perform consistently, the phrase “consistent performance” doesn’t leap to mind in connection with his name. Marc Pouliot’s been in the doghouse for much of the season, but he’s incredibly cheap and has some versatility, so I’d personally keep him as a bottom-six forward. I’d also hang on to Fernando Pisani; given his health woes his value is likely low, and while his contract is expensive it expires next season, at which point it should be possible to sign him for less money.

Finally, one of the Oilers’ top-four defensemen could be trade-bait. It’s probably worth considering that Sheldon Souray is having by far the best season of his career, has a track record of injury, and isn’t getting any younger. That said, Souray’s physical presence is unique in the top-four and would need to be replaced, so I’d guess that if one of the top-four was moved it would be Tom Gilbert.

As for what the Oilers should be looking for in exchange, I’d be happy with prospects and picks, as well as a third-line centre. Typically, checkers are not expensive deadline acquisitions, and the Oilers have been desperate for another veteran centre behind Shawn Horcoff. It’s also worth considering that while the Oilers’ are ranked 8th in their conference in goals for, and 13th in goals against – in other words, while upgrades all over are important, upgrading the team’s ability to prevent goals is probably the most urgent concern.

The moves I’ve outlined help address a current weakness, while at the same time vastly improving the cap situation of this team going forward. I’d say that it’s a better course to take than sending away prospects in a likely futile attempt at a playoff run.  In the big picture, it's far better to jeopardize a playoff spot now than it is to risk this team's ability to contend over the next few seasons.

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 OvenChicken8
February 24 2009, 12:37PM
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knobert wrote:

Who wants to bet they are thinking of bringin Smytty back to do a cup run??

Smyth for Horcoff ;) Get rid of his salary and replace it with Smyth's (3 years at 6MM vs 6 years at 5.5MM)

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#52 raged
February 24 2009, 12:40PM
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@ OvenChicken8: I cant believe how bad that contract is. Wont horcoff be in his mid thirties by then?

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#53 Jack "FMNF" Bauer
February 24 2009, 12:58PM
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I dont see how we can keep Gilbert or Horcoff past the endd of next year.

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#54 Ducey
February 24 2009, 01:01PM
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Willis, you make a lot of sense. I agree 100%.

The Oilers need to look to next year. The D is pretty much set. Replace Staios with Peckham. The core of the forwards is Hemsky, Horcoff, Penner, Gagner, Cogliano, Nilsson, Brodziak. If the Oilers can bring in a #1 star center this offseason, and add some size on the wing, suddenly they look like:

Hemsky - #1 - Penner Nilsson - Horcoff - Gagner Big winger - Cogliano - Pisani Brodziak With the rest of the spots being filled by the usual suspects

Throw in a #1 goalie, start forechecking for a change, and this should be a playoff team next year.

Given all the teams with cap problems, the Oilers will be one of the few teams that can afford to add salary that will have the room. Whether its cold or not, FA's will have to consider Edmonton.

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#55 freeze
February 24 2009, 01:58PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

2. Trade Steve Staios. 3. Trade Ethan Moreau.

I would love it if we could get out from those contracts. WAY too much money for such a marginal return. Let Souray, Horc & Lubo be our veterans in the locker room.

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#56 OvenChicken8
February 24 2009, 02:01PM
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@ raged: It wouldn't be so bad if he (Horcoff) could keep up his scoring pace from last year, but since he isn't that contract is starting to look pretty crappy.

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#57 Jonathan Willis
February 24 2009, 02:52PM
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Tombo wrote:

JW, how likely would you say it is that the Oilers take a run at one of the UFA goalies this summer? While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with it, I could see the Oilers signing Roloson to a one year deal and focusing their efforts on bringing in some help on forward. What are your thoughts on the goaltending situation?

Next season I want to see one of three scenarios: 1) a trade for a #1 goaltender (Huet, Vokoun, etc.), with JDD as backup 2) sign a #1 goaltender in the offseason (Backstrom, Fernandez, etc.) with JDD as backup 3) sign a tandem (any two of Roli, Legace, Labarbera, etc.) and deal JDD.

Option 3 is likely to be the cheapest, and most closely resembles what Detroit does.

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#58 tom
February 24 2009, 02:56PM
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the trade option is off the end boards man, youll never ever trade steady steve, nor ethan moreau although he is the latest captain and souray has a no trade clause....

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#59 reijo29
February 24 2009, 03:20PM
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Guys Horcoff is going no where and neither is his contract. Unless Lowe & Mac T go. Do you guys not listen to the press conferences from the organization when they discuss Horc. He is probably Lowe & Mac T's favorite player. Right or Wrong.

Gags or Coglaino & Viz or Souray need to be dealt for a 1st line LW to play with Hemmer. This reduces payroll, lessens need to make deal to clear up space for Cogs/Gags as only 1 would be left, allows us to sign Grebs, Smid and Brodz Long Term and gives Hemmer the goal scorer he needs. This is likely an Off Season move as that seems to be when Lowe makes his big deals.

Staios has value guys, only issue is finding a team that needs him now and next year and can afford to bury him in the A in the last yr of his deal. He has played very well with Souray since Viz went down.

JW - I have been advocating these 4 moves for months and think we can still compete. I do believe there is a way to be buyers and sellers, based mainly on the return of Pisani & Grebs right around next Thurs (D-Day).

Ideal Deadline Deals (Buyer & Seller) Cole for Tuomo Ruutu Staios for mid round pick Moreau for mid level prospect Schremp for another team's Schremp (1st Rounder who hasn't panned out). Pouliot for Marty Reasoner Nilsson for Young Pittsburgh D-Man (ex.Letang/Goligoski)

Only trade Rollie if we can get HUGE value back (1st Rounder + NHL Ready Prospect (Leino - DET). Trading Rollie would obviously mean sacrificing the season which I don't believe Lowe is willing to do as that would mean his job not just Mac T's would be at risk.

Roster after Deadline would be - 27-10-83 Ruutu-89-34 18-Reasoner-85 13-51-46/33/22 (Brodz takes FO's/Cogs plays Center after draw)

44-77 37-5 43/49-Young D-Man

35 38

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#60 Matt N
February 24 2009, 03:25PM
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MacT and Lowe are feeling pressure. They will not sell and tank the season. I am in fear that some kind of player/prospect/picks for a rental player is going to get made and set the organization back years.

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#61 Mr P
February 24 2009, 04:04PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Tombo wrote: JW, how likely would you say it is that the Oilers take a run at one of the UFA goalies this summer? While I wouldn’t necessarily agree with it, I could see the Oilers signing Roloson to a one year deal and focusing their efforts on bringing in some help on forward. What are your thoughts on the goaltending situation? Next season I want to see one of three scenarios: 1) a trade for a #1 goaltender (Huet, Vokoun, etc.), with JDD as backup 2) sign a #1 goaltender in the offseason (Backstrom, Fernandez, etc.) with JDD as backup 3) sign a tandem (any two of Roli, Legace, Labarbera, etc.) and deal JDD. Option 3 is likely to be the cheapest, and most closely resembles what Detroit does.

If they traded for Huet I would go postal and wipe out all of management with a long range rifle. On the other hand, I might trade Gilbert or Grebber for Pascal Leclaire in some sort of package.

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#62 Soup
February 24 2009, 04:12PM
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Rolie for Johan Fransen (Detroit)? Something both teams need.

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#63 Chris
February 24 2009, 04:25PM
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reijo29 wrote:

Pouliot for Marty Reasoner

You wouldn't have to give up Pouliot to get Reasoner. We have too much invested in Pouliot to drop him for an aging utilty UFA we already cut loose.

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#64 Chris
February 24 2009, 04:27PM
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The next three games will set the stage: win all three and you stand pat. Lose even one of them it's selloff time!

I'm ready to sell now... but the Organization will likley give MacT one last chance.

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#65 Ender the Dragon
February 24 2009, 04:45PM
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Chris wrote:

You wouldn’t have to give up Pouliot to get Reasoner. We have too much invested in Pouliot to drop him for an aging utilty UFA we already cut loose.

We didn't 'cut him loose'; he signed for bigger money elsewhere. And he's playing well this year on a craptastic team. We'd need to give something for him; the Thrashers wouldn't just give him away. Yes, he's older, but it would still probably cost a MAP or something similar to get him, and worth the cost at that - IF your goal is to make the playoffs. I like Marty, but I don't know if I prefer him over MAP through next season.

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#66 Colin
February 24 2009, 06:20PM
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Chris wrote:

The next three games will set the stage: win all three and you stand pat. Lose even one of them it’s selloff time! I’m ready to sell now… but the Organization will likley give MacT one last chance.

Let the skid roll....hopefully 4 in a row tonight...

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#67 Clarkenstein
February 24 2009, 06:33PM
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Roli isn't going anywhere... period!! A 40 year old moody, inconsistent UFA is worth Dick all!! The $1.M per game playoff games (all 2 of them) are worth more than anyone they could get in trade. In fact, how much do you want a bet they plan on signing him to (2) One year contracts this summer. You have to understand that the Management group as a whole in the NHL are the most uneducated, incestuous people in pro sports. I would suggest Baseball and Football are 1 - 2 in either order and then basketball. Hockey is a distant fourth and they have proven it over and over again. A guy like Kevin Lowe who has arguably (although barely) turned into one of the biggest disappoinments as a GM in the last 10 years will never make some of those deals because, as others have pointed out, it would prove what bad, bad deals they were. The whole thing is a just a gigantic piss off!!

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#68 Chris
February 24 2009, 06:52PM
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I'm not sold on Pouliot... But we simply can't trade him for Reasoner!

Oilers management delt our 17th overall pick to the Devils in 2003 and grabbed Pouliot at 22nd. So Predergast effectivly passed on Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Patrick Eaves, Patrice Bergeron, and around twenty other players who have out-produced Pouliot from that draft class. What a missed opportunity! You can't necessarily pick the absolute best prospect every time; but C'MON! There was something like thirty superior prospects available! (And this just ONE year after the Niinimaki disaster!) It's a bitter pill to swallow, turning what should have been a quality center like Getzlaf, Parise, or Richards (who could have been playing with Hemsky) into Reasoner: a guy whose contract they could have easily extended. The Oilers are simply "pot committed" to giving Pouliot more time.

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#69 Jonathan Willis
February 24 2009, 07:35PM
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@ Chris:

Could be worse, though. *cough*Hugh Jessiman*cough*

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#70 Chris
February 24 2009, 07:44PM
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@ Jonathan Willis:

2003 may have been the best draft class ever. It's small consolation that the Rangers blew it as bad as we did! Washington is probably not too pleased with Eric Fehr either.

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#71 Drago
February 24 2009, 10:03PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Yeah, but I can’t force myself to wish the Oilers to completely tank the season (which is what trading Roloson would be). The guys I’ve listed aren’t really essential to the team; but there’s no doubt that Roloson is.

I disagree with "the guys i've listed aren't really essential to the team" and then saying that trading Roli would mean the Oilers "completely tanking the season".

Trading Cole, Moreau and Staios is gutting the teams work ethic and toughness, who is there to step in to take those minutes and roles? I approve of trading them, just not saying they aren't meaningful parts of the team.

I honestly believe that if Tambellini comes out and says that he is making trades today to help the team tomorrow and essentially throwing in the towel on the season I would back it. However I have a hard time believing the Troglodytes would buy into it and would just whine and moan even more.

People keep saying its a "sellers market" so if they could get decent returns on Cole, Moreau, Pisani, Roloson, Staios I would be all for it and if they could even find an extremely desperate team close to the deadline wire to take Horcoff or Penner I would jump all over that. Hopefully Tambellini can reverse the trend of some pretty questionable moves made by the GM in the past.

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#72 Chris
February 24 2009, 10:15PM
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Drago wrote:

People keep saying its a “sellers market” so if they could get decent returns on Cole, Moreau, Pisani, Roloson, Staios I would be all for it and if they could even find an extremely desperate team close to the deadline wire to take Horcoff or Penner I would jump all over that. Hopefully Tambellini can reverse the trend of some pretty questionable moves made by the GM in the past

We would need roster players and advanced prospects for these guys or things will get ugly here next year... Do you really want to gamble on the Oilers being able to attract UFA's to fill character roles? (Or selecting good prospects at the draft?)

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#73 troyboy
February 24 2009, 11:07PM
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@ Jonathan Willis

I love it. let's tank another season so we can get more draft picks..... is this the 90s again? First... what are you telling all your young players? We could make the playoffs, but we can't beat the team we will face in the first round so screw it let's give up.. Second... worst case scenario we lose 4 games and we are out... But all those young guys get a feel of what NHL playoff hockey is all about. The emotions, the intensity, that is worth years of playing regular season games. There is a great motivation to get there again next year. Ask Kovie if it is worth it? He has had 4 playoff games in his career. All this crap about if we can't win the whole thing then let's sell the farm is just that...CRAP. Turning the team over to the kids without any vetrans to guide them is a risky proposition, especially with this particular coaching staff. A trade or two might be in the works but the team is finally looking like it has three lines, If they would keep taking their foot off the gas when they have a lead they should be in good shape. With our upcoming schedule 6th place isn't out of reach. Imagine that Oilers and Flames in the first round of the Playoffs. That would be Unbelieveable!!

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#74 EMAC
February 24 2009, 11:11PM
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Anything can happen in the playoffs, even if we can only manage one goal. If Roloson is hot and we play an effective trap, despite being Pronger-less, an upset could happen. Maybe my memory is foggy, but didn't Roli get us past Ana, Det and SJ? Even though the team may not be as good, who's to say it can't happen again. Staios is expendable, but giving away Moreau and Roli would be pulling the plug. And Gilbert is going to be a stud next year, I wouldn't even dare trade him.

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#75 alphah
February 25 2009, 05:39AM
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Management is going to buy, but they are only going to be sending out prospects/players that they are ready to part with. If nothing good can be had for our junk, then nothing good will be had. We will probably trade for Pouliot, Schremp and a can of beans for Marty Reasoner and a 7th

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#76 99thOilfan
February 25 2009, 06:17AM
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Another great read.

I think a Cole move, and then we are done.

History show Oilers, may make a small move, but all "big" moves get done in off season.

Of Course, Tambo may have a "itchy" finger, and may pull the trigger and do something big and splashy !!! Schremp for ....

* Sigh *

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#77 B-rad
February 25 2009, 06:29AM
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Chris wrote:

I’m not sold on Pouliot… But we simply can’t trade him for Reasoner! Oilers management delt our 17th overall pick to the Devils in 2003 and grabbed Pouliot at 22nd. So Predergast effectivly passed on Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Patrick Eaves, Patrice Bergeron, and around twenty other players who have out-produced Pouliot from that draft class. What a missed opportunity! You can’t necessarily pick the absolute best prospect every time; but C’MON! There was something like thirty superior prospects available! (And this just ONE year after the Niinimaki disaster!) It’s a bitter pill to swallow, turning what should have been a quality center like Getzlaf, Parise, or Richards (who could have been playing with Hemsky) into Reasoner: a guy whose contract they could have easily extended. The Oilers are simply “pot committed” to giving Pouliot more time.

well played sir.

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#78 Jonathan Willis
February 25 2009, 08:59AM
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troyboy wrote:

@ Jonathan Willis Second… worst case scenario we lose 4 games and we are out… But all those young guys get a feel of what NHL playoff hockey is all about. The emotions, the intensity, that is worth years of playing regular season games. There is a great motivation to get there again next year. Ask Kovie if it is worth it? He has had 4 playoff games in his career.

It's interesting that you bring up Kovalchuk. Those four playoff games, as you may recall, came after Don Waddell made a few trades to improve his team's depth. those trades were:

1. Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik 2. Glen Metropolit, and 1st, 2nd and 3rd round draft picks for Keith Tkachuk

How's that working for Atlanta?

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#79 doggie-style D
February 25 2009, 12:46PM
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I agree we need to be sellers going into the deadline - doesn't matter if we do slightly better before then.

This team should get rid of big, fat salary cap numbers and average players, with not enough up-side

1 Pisani 2 Roloson (not because of salary - because of age and suckage 3 Staios...sure, why not 4 Cole, not because of his salary but because of what he could bring with so little 'sellers' this time

Just my humble opinion...oh, and the most important thing the Oilers could do for their future is: Get rid of MacTavish, for all of the Oiler fans who grew up watching a GREAT team and now have an AVERAGE (and boring, very boring) team to cheer for EVERY year.

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