The Edmonton Oilers should be looking at icing a team capable of contending for the Stanley Cup in 2012-13.
I have my doubts that the team will be in a position to contend at that time.
However, by starting their three star rookies in the same season, the Oilers kicked off a salary clock. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi will all see their entry-level contracts expire in the summer of 2013. Barring a developmental collapse – something I seriously doubt, although I suppose Paajarvi’s not a sure thing at this stage – they’ll all cost a lot more than they do now. Jordan Eberle has surpassed every expectation I had of him; he’s already as good as advertised offensively and a blindingly good player on the back-check, while Taylor Hall seems to grow better with each passing game. As for Paajarvi, it’s difficult to think negatively of him while watching him take the puck to the outside with speed, as he did again and again against Ottawa earlier today.
Hall and Eberle already play with skills beyond their years, and Paajarvi’s physical tools and success in other leagues are impossible to ignore. It’s easy to see those players being key components of a strong team, difference-makers in all three zones. For the rest of this season and even more so for the next two, they’ll do it at a discount rate, their salaries constrained by the entry-level cap.
If they continue on their current pace, they’ll be in line for significantly more dollars when 2013 rolls around. Teams don’t win without a few value contracts, and if the three rookies aren’t on value contracts those will have to be found elsewhere in the line-up. It’s difficult to imagine those cheap contracts coming via free agency; the Oilers aren’t especially good at getting value free agents and NHL players don’t seem to be especially fond of signing with a northern cellar-dweller. It’s also hard to imagine the bargains coming via trade; while it may be possible, in the salary-cap era NHL general managers are loathe to deal away their cheap yet effective options.
There is another route to cheap players, though – the NHL Entry Draft. The Oilers are guaranteed at least one high-end player who will still be on his entry-level contract when 2013-14 rolls around, and they’ve got some nice prospects in the system. Perhaps that’s where the Oilers will find players who can outperform their contracts.
Not only is that’s a long ways down the road, but the Oilers could probably do a lot to convince players like Hall and Eberle to sign reasonable contracts if they experience some team success before their contracts end. A deep playoff run in 2012-13 would allow them to take advantage of the last entry-level year of the rookie trio, and give them a better shot at getting them inked to deals that will keep the Oilers in a position to contend.