In the summer of 2007, then-Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe made a pair of bold moves, signing first Thomas Vanek and then Dustin Penner to offer sheets. The Oilers eventually added Penner after much grumbling from the Ducks, but only after the offer sheet to Vanek was matched by Buffalo.
Four years later, we’re finally in a position to know exactly what Lowe would have surrendered, had Buffalo not opted to match the Oilers’ offer sheet. I’ll put it this way: they dodged a bullet.
The contract that the Oilers inked Vanek to was a seven-year, $50.0 million pact. Because of the money involved, had the Sabres declined to match the offer, they would have received the Oilers’ first round draft picks from 2008 to 2011 as compensation. Those picks were as follows:
- 2008: 12th overall (Tyler Myers)*
- 2009: 10th overall (Magnus Paajarvi)
- 2010: First overall (Taylor Hall)
- 2011: First overall (TBD)
*An earlier version of this article mistakenly listed the 17th overall pick, Jake Gardiner, as the Oilers’ choice. Anaheim traded down to 17 from 12, which was the Oilers’ original selection.
Thomas Vanek is a better player than Dustin Penner – but is he better enough to have significantly altered the Oilers’ fortunes over the last four years? Keep in mind that Vanek makes just slightly less than $3.0 million more than Penner.
Thomas Vanek: 82GP – 36G – 28A – 64PTS, -5
Dustin Penner: 82GP – 23G – 24A – 47PTS, -12
The Edmonton Oilers finished three points out of eighth in 2007-08, and it isn’t unreasonable to think that the difference between Penner and Vanek might have been enough to get them into the playoffs. Both played relatively similar minutes (offensive zone starts, good line-mates, middling opponents) though Penner got more even-strength ice-time. Vanek was superb, Penner was awful, and one year in a middling first round pick would have been a small price to play for the playoffs.
Thomas Vanek: 73GP – 40G – 24A – 64PTS, -1
Dustin Penner: 78GP – 17G – 20A – 37PTS, +7
The Oilers finished six points outside the playoffs in 2007-08, and Dustin Penner once again struggled to score while Thomas Vanek potted 40 goals. Penner got less ice-time than Vanek as Craig MacTavish soured on him, but even so I’d argue the gap is big enough that we could pencil the Oilers in at the bottom of the Western Conference playoffs. This would mean the Oilers, two years into the Vanek deal, had passed off two middling first round picks in exchange for two (likely) first round exits.
Thomas Vanek: 71GP – 28G – 25A – 53PTS, +9
Dustin Penner: 82GP – 32G – 31A – 63PTS, +6
There’s no question here. Penner was the better player on an inferior team, and that wasn’t enough to elevate the Oilers from 30th. Not only would they have been worse on the ice, but (at least theoretically) Vanek’s presence would have forced them to spend less money on their roster, meaning the team might even have been less successful. In other words, the Oilers would essentially be in the same spot in 2009-10, except that Taylor Hall would be a Buffalo Sabre.
Thomas Vanek: 80GP – 32G – 41A – 73PTS, +2
Dustin Penner: 81GP – 23G – 22A – 45PTS, -12
The 2010-11 Edmonton Oilers finished six points and 15 goals behind the 29th-ranked Colorado Avalanche. They were 19 points out of 13th in the West, and 19 points away from finishing outside the lottery. The upgrade from Penner to Vanek undoubtedly wouldn’t have been enough to get the Oilers out of the lottery. In the best case scenario, the Oilers would have spent money lavishly in a desperate attempt to climb out of the basement, but that would only have delayed the inevitable rebuilding process.
I’m relatively sure that if the Sabres could go back in time and have less faith in the management skills of Kevin Lowe (and his eventual replacement), they would choose not to match the Vanek offer sheet. While Vanek is a superb player, he is not remotely underpaid, and one first overall pick, one lottery selection and two mid-first round picks would have been fine compensation for his loss.
Edmonton, on the other hand, would have been in terrible shape. They would have enjoyed Vanek’s presence in the line-up, but the plummet to the bottom of the league would have continued almost unabated and they’d be without three of the key pieces (Paajarvi, Hall, this year’s first) to be used in the rebuilding effort.
At this point, it’s probably worth mentioning that Kevin Lowe remains the President of Hockey Operations for the Edmonton Oilers.