Out of Time

The NHL gives every team a finite amount of time to determine whether its draft picks are NHL-ready or not – as a rule, three years of professional hockey for skaters and four for goaltenders. After that, those players become waiver-eligible and any team in the league can take them.

For the Edmonton Oilers, that means decisions need to be made on a number of significant minor-league prospects, or else there is a risk of losing them for nothing.

The List

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As I read the CBA, the following group of players are to be waiver-eligible next season for the first time:

  • Mark Arcobello
  • Curtis Hamilton
  • Roman Horak
  • Anton Lander
  • Andrew Miller
  • Tyler Pitlick

Taylor Fedun would also normally be eligible, but it seems that NHL preseason games don’t count as professional games for the purposes of waiver exemption, and he was injured before playing a regular season or playoff game in 2011-12. By that interpretation, he has another year of exemption from waivers before the Oilers have to worry about someone grabbing him.

What It Means

For some of these guys, this doesn’t really mean a lot. Curtis Hamilton has finally started turning a corner, but he’s fought injuries again too and has an unimpressive track record; it’s probable the Oilers can waive him without worrying about losing him. Andrew Miller is in a similar situation; he hasn’t made the case that the Oilers need to promote him and it’s likely other teams will see things the same way. Roman Horak’s credentials are a little more impressive, but not enough to worry about; every team tries to sneak guys like Horak through waivers. The Oilers have the option of parting with all of these guys as restricted free agents; I expect they’ll be re-signed but it isn’t guaranteed.

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Mark Arcobello is a bit of a concern, but potentially not for the Oilers. He will hit Group Six unrestricted free agency this summer, so it’s entirely possible he won’t be returning to Edmonton.

There are two guys worth worrying about here: Anton Lander and Tyler Pitlick.

Lander is a guy I have talked about at some length recently. At the AHL level he’s a high-end two-way centre; he’s the Barons best penalty killer, plays on the power play and centres a power-vs.-power line. He’s responsible in his own end, a character player and this year he’s emerged as a point-per-game weapon in the minors – despite getting very little help since the departure of Linus Omark.

Lander’s a controversial player because that offence hasn’t been evident in the NHL, but the vast majority of his NHL experience has come on either a terrible fourth line (no pivot on the team has been able to make that line effective) or in 2011-12 when Lander was clearly not ready for the majors. If it were up to me, Lander would see some NHL time with real players after the trade deadline.

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Pitlick is a few months younger than Lander, and a much less impressive player in the minors. What he does have is a nice blend of skills. He has reasonable size (listed at 6’2”, 196 pounds), exceptional speed, a heavy shot and a willingness to finish his checks. He’s a guy whose natural talents might move him to the NHL ahead of some more complete players because he has the speed to keep up while those other guys don’t (Martin Marincin, who has great talent but had rough edges in the AHL, is a good example of this). Like Lander, he’s a good option for trial minutes after the deadline.

Why It Matters

There are a lot of reasons I’m pushing for cameos for both Lander and Pitlick, but the biggest two have to do with my view of NHL fourth lines and the players who inhabit them.

For one thing, fourth lines should be cheap. This is one of the few areas where a team can save itself some money to use elsewhere, so ideally at least two of the three guys on the fourth line should be carrying six-figure cap hits (I have some time for the 10th forward, the guy who moves up in event of injury, being paid at a premium).

Currently, the Oilers’ fourth line of Luke Gazdic, Ryan Smyth and Ryan Jones comes at a cap hit of just under $4.4 million. Assuming modest raises across the board for Pitlick, Lander and Gazdic, that number could be $2.5 million next season; that’s almost $2.0 million the Oilers can spend somewhere else. Edmonton could probably save even more money if they offered one-way deals to Lander and Pitlick; say matching two-year, $650,000 contracts, which would trim another $500,000 off the books.

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The other big point is that the talent gap between ‘first-line AHL player’ and ‘fourth-line NHL player’ is awfully small, and because of that aging curves matter a lot. Ben Eager very quickly went from ‘solid fourth-line player’ to ‘AHL depth option’ and it’s something that happens to a lot of fringe NHL’ers as they get into their late 20’s and beyond.

A team that plans on guys like Lander and Pitlick making the jump isn’t getting Lander and Pitlick as they are now; it’s getting those guys plus whatever incremental improvements they make over the summer and coming into next season. A team signing Ryan Jones isn’t getting him as he is now; it’s getting him minus whatever incremental losses his game suffers over the summer as he turns 30. And given that in the AHL there was basically no gap between Jones and Pitlick, that matters a lot.

It’s not about the second round picks spent adding these players, and it’s not about the time spent on their development. It’s about adding cheap help on the upswing rather than expensive help on the decline. The Oilers aren’t going to find better end-of-roster options for less money than Lander and Pitick, so they may as well make use of them.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • bazmagoo

    Well, the Oilers could have built the team around defence and goalie first if that was the plan to begin with. However , they felt the Oiler fans would only support a fast skilled offensive flair type team .Despite the atrocious results our team has faired over the last several seasons one thing has remained constant – sellouts for going the way that they did .
    In retrospect , how many would have preferred to do the rebuild the conventional way and pass up on the young offensive talents we have ? Surprisingly , not very many . They give us what they thought we wanted , but did not perceive such a long period of futility in results area . We are what they built – like it or lump it . Obviously most still prefer it or the building would be far less than capacity each night .

  • Edmonton has had the wrong philosophy for decades, outscore the opposition. The NHL changed Oilers didn’t. You don’t win 6-5 games anymore. Oilers know nothing about playing a two way game. Many hockey people have known this for years Burke Ruff, and many players in the NHL. Oilers won’t be making the playoffs anytime soon unless they change their philosophy and management.

    Firing a coach or GM has not worked well except to give the organization an excuse to say the rebuild starts now. Daryl has not learn’t anything.

    Hint: Get rid of the Old Boys Club.

  • camdog

    The reality is that the Oilers power play for the first time in many, many years has lost the team momentum. Whether from weak shorthanded goals or very poor performances that have changed the tide of a game.

    The reality is also that on 4 on 4 they are exceptionally better than last year. Last season they were last in 4 on 4 goals for, this season they are first.

    One can argue whether it’s coaching that has lead to the changes, one can also argue that other teams have scouted us and adapted. No matter how we and try and spin it we suck.

    On a side note as bad as Whitney was last season, other teams would try and take his shot away. I don’t know many teams that can have a good powerplay without having a shot from the point. This is more on the GM than the coach as far as I am concerned.

  • Zarny

    Lander and Pitlick both need to get a long look after the deadline. I wouldn’t even mind Horak getting some games in. As sick as I am of being a seller, we need to be practical at the deadline. If we can get something for Smyth, Jones, Hemsky or even Gagner then we should do it. I am all for having a young, energetic and cheap fourth line next season. The opportunity is there for Lander and Pitlick, they just have to take it.

    As for Arcobello, I think his window of opportunity has likely closed with the Oilers. He was a great story and I hope that he gets a chance somewhere next season.

  • camdog

    Arcobello reminds of Liam Reddox. Only difference is the fans loved one and didn’t like the other. Personally don’t understand the contrast in how both players were viewed by some Oiler fans.

  • Oilerz4life

    JW, I think you’ve been spending a bit to much time in OKC bro. Sure those guys you’re talking about deserve a shot, but can you honestly see them unseating the entire forth line for 2 mil savings for the Oilers? The salary cap is going up next year and the boys will get evaluated in camp to evaluate whether they’re ready or not.

    Lander is a sure shot in OKC but every time they give him a shot in Edm he comes up a bit short. The players you’re talking about deserve a look no doubt, but to say at this point in their development that they can unseat the entire forth line on an NHL roster is a bit of a stretch I think IMO.

      • Oilerz4life

        Jonathan, I will sleep better at night knowing both Jones and Smyth have moved on….

        Rod from Viking, Smyth’s body is worn out and his desire has left the building. Immensely popular with posters under the age of 40 I think but I’ve never understood his connection with Joe Fan.

        Maybe 20 years of terrible hockey is the obvious explanation.

      • The Last Big Bear

        The Oilers’ average cap hit for the 3rd line this year is coming in at around $9m or so. For example:

        Smyth – Gordon – Hemsky -> $10.2m

        Hendricks – Gordon – Yakupov -> $8.5m

        By comparison, Boston, Pittsburgh, LA, etc, all pay their 3rd lines around $4-5m. That is to say that Edmonton is paying their scrubs DOUBLE what the proven champion 3rd liners are getting.

        Compare this with Calgary’s typical FIRST lines:

        Cammalleri – Backlund – Hudler -> $11.5m (most common) Glencross – Backlund – Hudler -> $8m (likely lineup after trade-deadline)

        The Oilers 3rd liners, who are performing at the level of many teams’ 4th lines, are being paid salaries that are often higher than first and second lines on other teams.

  • Oilerz4life

    Gadzic and Joensu play 4 minutes a game because they are terrible players, revived from other teams scrap heap and have no business being in the NHL.
    Might as well bring back Zack Stortini.

  • Randaman

    Winnipeg wins again.. Nah coaching won’t make a difference!

    PS… any coach that would have Gagner on the last minute of the game on the ice is not too smart.

  • Phuryous George

    Lander is a point per game AHL player with leadership, defensive acumen, faceoff skills and pedigree. If he were on another farm team, we would be drooling all over him as the answer to our woes. I say give him a legitimate chance now that he has matured into the player we had hoped for 2 years ago. He was very poorly managed back then. Thankfully, he had the fortitude to persevere – let’s not screw it up again by getting rid of him or playing him improperly. Give him a defined role and some time with actual NHL players. It make not work but a bird in hand is better…