August 21 2009 11:00AM
There’s a feeling, often voiced around these parts, that free agents don’t want to play for the Edmonton Oilers. The reasons offered are varied – anything form the weather, the nightlife, Kevin Lowe, the travel, Ritch Winter, or even being on an NHLPA blacklist.
Mike Comrie really started it all.
When the local product first broke into the league with the Oilers, first as a rookie in midseason and then for the following two years as the Oilers’ de facto first-line centre, he was roundly praised by the fan base.*
After his trade request - for unknown reasons - he was lambasted by that same fan base and saw his reputation run through the mud** locally. Kevin Lowe subsequently dealt him to Anaheim for Corey Perry and a first-round draft pick… only to quash the deal after failing to extort 2.5-million in bonus money from his star centre. Comrie was subsequently dealt to Philadelphia for Jeff Woywitka and the draft pick who turned into Rob Schremp.***
After Comrie followed a string of other rejections – including a ton since the lockout in the form of Mike Peca, Jaroslav Spacek, Michael Nylander, Marian Hossa, Chris Pronger and most recently Dany Heatley.
Back to Comrie. Jim Matheson recently asked Comrie about the perception that nobody wants to play in Edmonton. Here’s what he said:
“I don't think that's true. There's different mentalities to every organization and every city ... everybody has a different situation. Maybe a kid from a small town in Western Canada might not like playing in Manhattan.”
We look at that list of rejections, and we can see that Comrie’s statement rings true. Peca publicly blamed the travel schedule. Spacek supposedly felt the same way. But that’s something that could easily be said about teams like San Jose, Vancouver, Calgary and Dallas – indeed, half the Western Conference.
Michael Nylander, meanwhile, actually agreed to a deal with the Oilers (4 years, 5.5-million per season)**** only to have his wife balk at living in Edmonton, leading him to back out of the deal. For what it’s worth, he now says he’d like to come play in Edmonton.
Marian Hossa turned down a mammoth deal with the Oilers in favour of a one-year contract with Detroit. Many complained that this was another symptom of the problem – ignoring the fact that Hossa also rejected Pittsburgh, a team he’d gone to the Stanley Cup final with the year before. Hossa wanted to win a Stanley Cup more than anything, and his decision to pursue one with Detroit has cost him both on the ice***** and in the pocketbook, as he signed a long-term deal in Chicago for far less money than Edmonton offered a year ago.
Pronger fits into the Nylander category; a player whose personal circumstances dictated a need to live elsewhere. Would things have worked out differently if he’d been in Calgary or Ottawa for 2005-06? It seems doubtful.
Most recently we have the example of Dany Heatley. Heatley, as readers will recall, previously demanded a trade from Atlanta. After being dealt to Ottawa, Heatley had some good years, got a shiny new contract, and then saw things go south this past season. He demanded a trade, and because of his no-trade clause was able to limit the number of teams he would accept being dealt to. Bryan Murray played hardball with him and dealt him to Edmonton, only to have Heatley dig his heels in and refuse a deal.
It really isn’t a reflection on Edmonton – particularly if Heatley didn’t include Edmonton in the list of places he was willing to be moved to.
None of this is to say that the Oilers have difficulty attracting free agents. But the difficulties they have are less connected to a distaste for the city then they are to the team’s lousy record over the last decade – and those difficulties are shared by every other lousy team out there.
Just this summer Atlanta, for example, made a serious play for free agent forward Manny Malhotra – reportedly offering a multi-year contract at 2MM per season. Malhotra, who remains unsigned, declined to make the deal because, well, it’s Atlanta.
Meanwhile Florida – a team blessed with good weather and a decent travel schedule – has seen franchise cornerstones Roberto Luongo and Jay Bouwmeester refuse to sign extensions, and has been forced to deal both of them. The reason? Those two players apparently like the idea of winning more games than they lose.
Besides, it isn’t like the Oilers’ don’t have players who wanted to play for them. Ryan Smyth was shipped out of town after the Oilers wouldn’t pay him 5.5-million per season**** (he later signed with Colorado at a 6.25MM/yr cap hit). Free agents like Petr Sykora, Jan Hejda and Marty Reasoner were put on the back-burner or ignored entirely, and that’s to say nothing of Georges Laraque. Sheldon Souray and Nikolai Kahbibulin both followed the money and signed on as free agents.
The point is this: if Edmonton wins games, then it will be an attractive destination for free agents. Detroit, after all, signs whoever they want at below market rate, and it isn’t because of the beauty of the city. If, on the other hand, Edmonton remains mired in mediocrity, there will be no compelling reason for free agents to sign there. That’s really the bottom line.
*For proponents of various theories (“players never have their best seasons in Edmonton”, or “Craig MacTavish is an idiot I wouldn’t hire to coach a Grade 3 ball hockey game”) Mike Comrie has never bettered the 33 goal/60 point season he recorded as a sophomore under MacTavish. The Oilers remained in the playoff chase to the bitter end with a centre depth chart consisting of Comrie, Marchant, Horcoff, Reasoner and Pittis. Todd Marchant’s 34 points was the second best total among the centres, and only he and Comrie broke the elusive 23-point barrier.
**One of the least charming attributes of certain portions of the Oilers’ fanbase is its tendency to make up, believe and spread the vilest possible rumours about players who have fallen out of favour. We saw it with Comrie, we saw it with Pronger and I’m sure we’ll see it again. It’s not a good thing.
***A dodged bullet, that one. I mean, really, this team almost got stuck with Corey Perry and Anaheim’s 9th overall pick (Ladislav Smid). Fortunately, the team instead chose to grab Woywitka and the 24th overall pick – a fine decision. Can you imagine how poorly a 6’3”, goal-scoring winger would fit in the current top six?
****If you haven’t caught on yet, footnotes is the theme I’m running with today. In any case, for everyone complaining about Shawn Horcoff earning 5.5-million per season, imagine how you’d feel if the Oilers had given that money to Nylander instead. He’s scored 37 and 33 points the last two seasons in Washington. And since we’re on the subject, wasn’t 5.5-million what Ryan Smyth wanted from the Oilers? It’s just not a good number for Kevin Lowe.
*****I’m struggling to remember who won the 2009 Stanley Cup.