Sheldon Souray’s fall from grace has been almost absolute. A season ago he was admired by the vast majority of Oilers fans, respected for his powerful shot, surprisingly good defence, and perhaps most of all for a nasty streak which demonstrated itself time and again. Now, he finds himself an outcast, reviled by many of those same fans, and struggling to stay healthy in the American Hockey League.
Souray’s reversal of fortune stems back to his unwise decision to blast Oilers management, in particular general manager Steve Tambellini:
“It’s not a players thing. It’s not a fans thing or a city thing. It’s a management thing. They’ve given up on me, and it’s a two-way street.”
Its difficult now to imagine that Souray was unaware of the drastic consequences his words would have for both himself and the team, but reading Mark Spector’s article again, it almost seems that Souray didn’t know:
Tambellini will be actively peddling Souray this summer, something he couldn’t do at the trade deadline because of the hand injury. Souray would welcome a trade, but realizes he may have to open the season in Edmonton if Tambellini can’t find a satisfactory deal. "I still have two years left on my contract. I made a commitment to come here when other guys wouldn’t," he said. "But you talk about Prongs (Chris Pronger) and guys like that, and it should raise an eyebrow when players who leave town are skipping out with a smile on their face."
Steve Tambellini played his cards close to the vest over the summer, but as training camp approached he acted, barring Souray from joining the team. Souray was waived, went unclaimed, and eventually found himself playing in the American Hockey League. As a final insult, Souray – who had been given a letter by the Oilers back in 2008 – was not even assigned to the Oilers AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, lest he contaminate the locker room there. Instead, he was banished to Hershey, to play out a year of his contract at full price for a team completely unconnected to Edmonton.
The decision went over well. In some ways I think the ghost of a previous #44 helped the team here; the memory of Chris Pronger leaving town still resonates today, and the idea of sticking it to Souray was met with broad support by fans.
Despite that, it left the Oilers in a bad position on the ice: the defence corps was all too thin even with Souray in the line-up. For 2010-11, a year where an unfinished roster was bound for a low finish before the puck even dropped, this wasn’t a primary concern. And while he’s been injured this season – though not ineffective, despite wishful comments from some fans to the contrary – there’s no doubt in my mind that he would bolster the current roster.
Somewhere Between Raising Hell And Amazing Grace
Regardless of whether one blames management or Souray’s camp for the current predicament, Oilers fans have now seen the best and the worst the relationship can produce. There’s no going back to the way things were when Souray first joined the team, but at the same time the current battle is in the best interests of neither the player or the team. It may not be exactly the place William Kenneth Alphin had in mind when he penned the words above, but both parties need to get their relationship to that place.
Put plainly: the Oilers are in trouble. ‘Rebuilding’ is a comforting label for ‘lots of losing,’ and while the talent a lottery team can pick up is undeniably tantalizing, it doesn’t guarantee that the team will be able to pull themselves out of the cellar once they find a home there. Recent history gives us the Islanders and the Thrashers, but there are plenty of other historical examples of teams that had much more trouble pulling out of the dive than they had getting into it. For a team like that, wasting a quality player like Souray in the minors is practically a sin: if they aren’t going to use him, they need to put him in a position where he can gain some value. That won’t happen in the minors, and even if by some chance it did the Oilers would need to try and sneak him through re-entry waivers – something else that probably wouldn’t happen. Still, even the loss of Souray on waivers beats spending $9 million (hey, look – 9% of that $100 million Katz is going to put toward a new arena!) for him to play for somebody else’s farm team.
While the Oilers aren’t gaining any benefit from the current situation, Souray’s not precisely sitting pretty either. Sure, he’s pocketing an NHL paycheck, but little kids don’t dream of growing up to ride a bus around in the minor leagues, either. There is also the not-insignificant fact that Souray’s contract ends after next season. When the summer of 2012 rolls around, Souray’s going to be in a much better position to demand a high-end salary if he has a healthy and effective NHL season under his belt than if he’s spent two seasons toiling in the minors.
The best case scenario for both parties is obvious: they each swallow their considerable pride, work together despite their differences, and move on to the mutual advantage of both. Pride put Souray where he is now, and pride has done more than enough damage to the Oilers’ franchise over the years – for instance, there was that time Kevin Lowe didn’t bring in Corey Perry because he wanted to teach Mike Comrie a lesson. It’s time to let go.