On Wednesday, the Edmonton Oilers placed left wing Luke Gazdic on waivers, clearing a roster spot for defenceman Brandon Davidson to come off injured reserve. It couldn’t have been an easy decision for the team, but it was the right one.
The #Oilers have placed Luke Gazdic on waivers for the purpose of assignment.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) February 3, 2016
A Nearly Perfect Enforcer
Rewind ten years and there’s very little doubt that Edmonton would have found a way to hang on to Gazdic, who has been close to a perfect fit for the enforcer role.
As a fighter, Gazdic is in the league’s top tier. Of his four fights this season, hockeyfights.com has him down as winning three and drawing the other. In 22 previous regular season bouts, he has an impressive 13-5-4 record.
I’ve seen criticism that Gazdic doesn’t fight enough, but I don’t buy it; only 17 players in the league have more fights this season. Anyone who watched the Oilers during the Georges Laraque years knows that it can be hard for a heavyweight to find willing opponents, and that’s become increasingly true as enforcers have disappeared from the game. Most of the players ahead of Gazdic on the fighting list are more in the Matt Hendricks mould—hardnosed regulars who have a longer list of potential opponents.
Gazdic’s game has also improved over his time in Edmonton. He’s a limited player but it’s not like the quality of the fourth line falls off a cliff when Gazdic subs in for a Rob Klinkhammer or Lauri Korpikoski. He and Anton Lander have lousy on-ice goal numbers together (due in part to the lack of offensive output the two bring) but are actually above 50 percent by shot differential—they may not be able to finish but the line hasn’t been hemmed in its own end of the rink.
The trouble is that the role Gazdic has worked toward over his entire NHL career is disappearing from the game. No matter how good he is in that slot, as other fighters disappear from the majors it becomes harder and harder for the Oilers to justify keeping him around. So when a roster crunch occurs, as is happening now, he’s vulnerable.
Edmonton had to choose between Gazdic and Lander, and in the battle of specialists these days, faceoffs/penalty kill trump pugilism.
Unfortunately the business of the game only allows you a 23-man roster. We’ve made some decisions right now on the players that we’d like to have on the roster. I still consider Luke part of our team. We’ve had a number of players that have gone down there—either started the year or appeared down there—and come back better players. Luke needs to play; it’s been a while since he’s been in the lineup, he needs to play a little bit. I think you’ll see Luke back in our lineup and on our roster as the year goes on.
Near the end of his post-practice press availability, Todd McLellan was asked about the decision to waive Gazdic. He set it up more as a ‘see you later’ than ‘so long’ scenario, and it’s entirely plausible that if Gazdic goes unclaimed he may well find his way back to Edmonton. In a scenario where the Oilers move out a number of rental players, it would be easy enough to bring Gazdic back.
It’s not impossible that Gazdic is picked up from the waiver wire, though most of the NHL’s other teams are likely to see things the way the Oilers do. More likely, he’s passed over and finds his way to the farm, as Arizona’s John Scott did earlier this season.
The question is what happens this summer. Gazdic is a restricted free agent, with his two-year, $800,000 contract coming to an end. It’s unlikely the Oilers would qualify him at that rate, though one wonders if they’d be amenable to a two-way deal which would keep him in the system. Then again, Bakersfield already has its share of rugged left wings (Mitch Moroz, Kale Kessy and Braden Christoffer may not be true enforcers but all have some aptitude in the area) and there are only so many spots in the lineup.
One wonders a little about that trio, too, in particular Moroz. It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Gazdic and the player most like him in the Oilers’ system; the two have practically identical production at the same age:
- Moroz, age 21 season: 30 games, six points, 0.20 points/game
- Gazdic, age 21 season: 72 games, 17 points, 0.24 points/game
Moroz had better junior numbers, so there may be some untapped potential in that regard. He’d do well to find it soon.