Talent can be found in the most unusual places. Sports history gives us many examples of teams adding talent at little cost. Green Bay’s Packers of the 1960s, the Whitey Herzog Cardinals baseball team 82+ and hockey’s NY Islanders from 1974-83 are all great examples of finding talent buried in other organizations or the deep minors.
The NY Islanders of the early ’70s kept adding qualified hockey players via the draft, trade, WHA, everywhere. They overdrafted the WHL, but used every Canadian junior league and Europe when the opportunity presented itself. The NYI seemed to win out all the time; an example was John Tonelli–originally stolen from the clutches of the NHL two years before he was draft eligible by the upstart WHA–he was eventually drafted much lower in his eligible year by the Islanders. Had Tonelli been a normal graduating junior he would have been selected much higher, but the Islanders showed some faith in the big man’s future.
Incredibly, a year later one of the WHA’s strongest franchises on the ice–the Houston Aeros–folded and the Islanders swooped in to grab him. As a historic footnote, at the time of the Tonelli signing the Islanders were in terrible financial condition, and in today’s NHL one doubts if they would have had the wherewithal to make the signing.
The Islanders found players everywhere, and serve as an excellent example of how to procure talent. GM Bill Torrey had some outstanding help–Gerry Ehman among them–and delivered a cluster of talent 1973-80 that the NHL has rarely seen in its history.
This fall, the Oilers are showing some signs of having scouting staffs that can procure talent outside the typical avenues. Here are some examples:
- C Eric Belanger, value free agent signing. Has a huge chance to trump his contract and could be the best free agent acquistion of ST’s career as Oilers GM.
- C Anton Lander, drafted outside the first round and forced his way onto the roster at age 20. Twenty of the 39 picks who came before Lander made their NHL debut before the Swedish C, but his skill set suggests he will have greater value than many of them should he deliver on promise.
- R Lennart Petrell, a Euro free agent who could end up being a quality free agent signing.
- D Taylor Fedun, a fine prospect whose injury flushes a season. Still, the Oilers aggressiveness with college kids is a very good sign for the future.
- D Corey Potter, a minor leaguer who has put in lots of time in the AHL in an effort to secure just this opportunity. He could deliver beyond expectations and comes at zero risk.
The Oilers added a bunch of guys (RNH, Smyth, Eager, Hordichuk) over the summer beyond this group, but I think the 5 men listed represent a renewed effort to look under every rock. A journeyman free agent ideally suited to team need (Belanger), a second round pick properly developed grabbed an NHL job at least half a year early (Lander), a quality European free agent who can help in a specific area (Petrell), a college grad (Fedun) and a minor league free agent who also addresses need (Potter).
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Whitney Herzog always treated talent like it was readily available and Bill Torrey held on to his draft picks and spent them wisely. The Oilers have improved their amateur scouting staff since Stu MacGregor took over the lead job, and with signings like Belanger, Petrell, Fedun and Potter the organization is showing signs of returning to a previous time. A time when Finland, canadian colleges and projects were the norm for training camp in this town.
The day Edmonton signed Lennart Petrell it didn’t appear above the fold, below the fold or near the fold. I don’t think most Oiler fans thought he’d be a late cut let alone make the opening night roster. No wonder, since the Oilers as an organization have had so few pro free agents from Europe come in and force their way up the roster over these past few seasons.
Steve Tambellini’s process is not swift, but there are signs that the lessons offered by the past have not been wasted on him. I don’t know that he’ll survive another losing season–the inertia over addressing this blue is baffling–but the foundation is there and there are some good signs.