The Oilers let some useful pieces go this summer. Kevin Montgomery, the young and still promising defenseman acquired from Colorado at last season’s trade deadline, was one. Others include long-time prospect Colin McDonald, fresh off a 40-goal season in the AHL, as well as a pair of high-profile ‘tweeners in Greg Stewart and Ben Ondrus.
Why wouldn’t the Oilers bring these guys back?
The way league rules are structured, teams have a number of constraints on their ability to retain players. There are roster rules in the AHL governing the number of veterans a team can play, for example – something that virtually forced the Oilers to move a player (they sent away Shawn Belle for Montgomery) once they demoted Zack Stortini to Oklahoma.
Another key rule is the 50-man roster limit. Copper & Blue tracks signed players (one of the side bars on the left shows the list) and right now they show that the Oilers have 49 names under contract, leaving them room for only one more signing, which they would undoubtedly prefer to leave vacant in case of emergency.
(The possibility exists that the Oilers will get more room after training camp – as I understand it, if either Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Martin Marincin is returned to junior, they will not count against the 50-man limit next season.)
That 50-man ceiling creates a certain level of pressure for guys on the bottom end of the prospect pool. A few players in particular face the danger of being cut to make room if they don’t have strong years; I have a list of five guys that I consider especially vulnerable (Taylor Chorney isn’t included because he’s a favourite for an NHL job at this point):
- Ryan O’Marra – Part of the return on the Ryan Smyth trade, O’Marra is entering his fifth season in the Oilers’ organization, and he’s on his second consecutive one-year deal. An extended NHL stint last year is possibly what convinced the Oilers to bring him back one more time, but at some point patience will run out. There’s an opening for a fourth-line centre in Edmonton; O’Marra needs to take it to secure his future.
- Chris Vande Velde – Though a relatively new professional player, Vande Velde has been part of the organization for six seasons already and is from the same draft class as O’Marra. Vande Velde will compete for the same spot as O’Marra, but he has a little more breathing room because he can be sent to the AHL in 2012-13 without counting as a veteran. Even so, a poor performance will put him in jeopardy because of the 50-man limit.
- Milan Kytnar – Kytnar’s younger and has less experience than either of the players above, so his chief trouble is the 50-man limit. He got buried deep down the depth chart last season, and despite some positives that leave me hopeful he’ll be at serious risk of losing his job if he doesn’t advance to more important minutes in Oklahoma this season.
- Hunter Tremblay – Tremblay’s an interesting player. The Oilers signed him out of CIS late last season, but given his age (he’s already 25) and the small amount of offense (just one point in eight combined regular season and playoff games) he added in his AHL cameo, he’s at risk.
- Johan Motin – Motin just hasn’t seemed to make any headway. He’s young, defensemen develop slowly, and it probably isn’t fair that he’s already on the cut line, but he slipped to the ECHL level last season and with all the incoming talent he needs to pick up the pace just to stay where he is.
Each of those players, in his way, brings things that are of interest to an NHL organization. Unfortunately, there’s only so much space, and a player without constant progression soon stops getting contracts with an NHL component.