Call it “The McDavid Effect” — the power of a single teenage
player to turn the fortunes of the Edmonton Oilers. Is it real? We’ve seen new
corporate leadership, team management, and a coaching regime all coincide with
Edmonton winning the draft lottery. Will it extend into free agency?
If not the reason behind all the changes then certainly
just earning the right to draft McDavid seems to have pushed the timeline for
change ahead quite a bit. The Edmonton Oilers have undertaken massive changes
at every level. From the business side of the organization to hockey ops,
everything has been shaken up since the Oilers won the draft lottery and it is
difficult to avoid connecting the dots.
The McDavid Effect is so powerful, it seems, that he is
already responsible for more good in Oil Country than any other single player
in recent history and he hasn’t even played a game! Heck, he hasn’t even
been drafted yet.
But here’s the real test of the McDavid Effect: Can he turn
Edmonton into a desirable destination for NHL free agents?
I’m not going to slag Edmonton, which has been my home for
my entire life. I live here, I went to school here, I bought a home here. However,
we can be very clear about the realities of this situation. The Oilers are a
perennially bad NHL team that goes through coaches more often than I go through
salad dressing (I should probably throw that ranch out by the way). In addition
to that, the city is carved out of a single solid block of ice that only
defrosts long enough to ruin the roads before re-freezing again.
The last 20 years have not seen Edmonton become a great
destination for free agents. Most that come here already have an Edmonton
connection of some kind or are being compensated more than they might in other
markets. UFAs have come here, but we don’t have to lie to ourselves and believe
this was anybody’s first choice. The weather doesn’t help but there are lots of
NHL markets that have undesirable qualities. The number one reason is because the
team is terrible.
If you didn’t have any control over your career from the
time you were a teenager until the time you reach unrestricted free agency in
the NHL, would you willingly throw yourself onto a team that’s going to lose
more than it wins? No, of course not. Not unless that team adds more money or
term than anyone else is willing to give.
But what happens when one of those teams ends up with a
generational talent? What happens when someone lands a Connor McDavid? Can it
change the game for them in terms of free agency?
There’s only been one other prospect in the modern era of
free agency who has come into the league like Connor McDavid, and that’s Sidney
Before his arrival in Pittsburgh the Penguins were largely a
bad joke during the early 2000s. They were a hurt franchise that couldn’t draw
flies and saw most/all of its major talent flee to other markets.
I wanted to look only at UFA signings for the Penguins
before and after Sidney Crosby so I used prosportstransactions.com and narrowed
the signings down to only those that occurred between July 1st and
August 31st in the relevant years. I know there are technically
signings that could have come after August that would technically count but I wanted
to narrow the focus onto those primary deals that get made in the summer.
Things went really bad for the Penguins when Jagr left in
the summer of 2001, even though they still had Mario Lemieux, so let’s start
there. Remember that we are only talking about UFAs though.
The Penguins had a pretty big departure of older players via
free agency that included the likes of Marc Bergevin, Bobby Dollas, Josef
Beranek, Rob Brown, and Garth Snow. Nobody is sure why they employed so many
general managers in playing roles.
Their first and only “big” UFA acquisition was five days into
free agency when they got journeyman defender Mike Wilson. Every other UFA they
signed was destined for the AHL.
The Penguins lost Robert Lang to free agency after a year in
which he was arguably their best center. This was a big loss for the Pens.
They managed to sign journeyman D Steve McKenna (who would
go on to score a career high 10 points that year) and Marc Bergevin, and Alexandre
Daigle came aboard with a tryout contract during the summer.
The Penguins lost more players to UFA status, notably
Alexandre Daigle and Ville Nieminen. There were more but I’m trying to stick
with NHL players (of which the Penguins were short of in this period).
The Penguins convinced Kelly Buchberger to play for them,
presumably by convincing him the offer wasn’t a cruel joke. They used the same
ruse on Mike Eastwood and Drake Berehowsky. All three men would play their
final NHL season with the Penguins that year. So the Penguins at that time
could really only convince the desperate and old to join them. They were
effectively Cougar Life but for NHL players.
On the eve of a season long lockout (not that they knew it
would go that long) the Penguins did sign an older but still very much
effective Mark Recchi. This is unquestionably the best deal and most impactful
player they signed in Free Agency in the bad Penguins years. The Penguins had
just drafted one Evgeni Malkin a couple weeks earlier, but they were a hot mess
on the ice. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Pittsburgh though. They did
lose Toby Petersen to the Oilers. And thus you can see why they continued to
lose for several more years.
The Crosby Lottery was done on July 22nd. The
draft was done on July 30th and on August 1st the free
agency period began. The last time the NHL was operational the Penguins finished dead
last in the standings. They were by all accounts a place where wins went to
die, but they just drafted the most coveted prospect since Mario Lemieux came
into the league. Things changed.
They signed impact defenseman Sergei Gonchar to a five year
deal. Gonchar would be the Penguins’ second leading scorer that season.
They also signed Ziggy Palffy who would leave the NHL for
good after that season but he still produced at a point per game level as a
They finished that initial summer with Crosby by adding John
LeClair who wouldn’t stay in the NHL much longer but did finish with 51 points
that season supporting Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins would add pain in the rear Jarkko Ruuttu and
Recchi would once again come back to the club. They didn’t really lose any
players of note at all, but it seemed the Penguins slowed down in the UFA
acquisitions in the summer of 2006.
The Penguins took a massive leap forward in the standings in
2006-2007 but were undone in the first round by the Senators. However,
they became a 100+ point team in the standings. Once again they saw a boost
in their UFA recruiting.
They signed Petr Sykora, Rob Scuderi (who had become a UFA),
and Darryl Sydor early in free agency. The next big signing was RFA Sidney
Crosby to his next deal.
The Penguins were a loathsome club in the early 2000’s who
lost more useful players to UFA status than they were able to sign. At one
point they were only attractive to those on their last legs as players, but
right after drafting Crosby there was an immediate impact in UFA interest from
established NHL players. They continued to add useful pieces even after the
Crosby Penguins were unable to become winners right away, but they didn’t add
more impact players until the Penguins turned North in the standings.
Can the McDavid Effect turn the Oilers into a desirable
place for NHL UFAs? Hell yes it can, but that initial excitement will only take
them so far. They still need to become winners.
This continues to underscore my personal argument that the
Oilers cannot sit around and wait for things to get better. There is a buzz
around the Edmonton Oilers and Connor McDavid. There are going to be players
who want to play with this kid, play for McLellan and Chiarelli.
There is an undeniable push forward and the Oilers would
have to stand on the brakes to avoid taking advantage of it. Edmonton is a cold
winter city with a decade of losing under their belts, but almost immediately
after the NHL Draft the period when NHL clubs can begin to court UFAs opens up.
There was no reason to believe the Penguins before Crosby could land a player
like Gonchar in his prime. They couldn’t attract flies at the time. Neither
could Edmonton before McDavid.
It can all change in the time it takes for Peter Chiarelli
to finish the sentence, “With the first overall pick the Oilers are
happy to select, from the Erie Otters, Connor McDavid.”