The post-2006 run was a weird time in Oil Country. We went from watching the Cup run team get torn apart to nearly giving up first-round picks for Thomas Vanek to Kevin Lowe nearly fighting Brian Burke in a barn.
Yeah, wild times. Let’s start from the top.
Days after the heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, Chris Pronger asked for a trade and his wish was granted. The team struggled the following season and heart-and-soul leader Ryan Smyth ended up getting traded away for magic beans at the trade deadline. In under a year, that amazing, lovable team that came one win away from winning it all had been gutted.
General manager Kevin Lowe spent the next few years trying desperately to rekindle some of that team’s magic by looking for major acquisitions. During the 2007 off-season, Lowe dealt Joffrey Lupul and captain Jason Smith to Philadelphia for Joni Pitkanen and Geoff Sanderson. He also tried really hard to make a big splash in free agency. The team apparently signed Michael Nylander to a multi-year deal, but he pulled out at the last second because he didn’t actually want to live in Edmonton.
A few days later, having failed to make a big splash on the unrestricted free agent market, Lowe went a different route. He offered restricted free agent Thomas Vanek a seven-year deal worth $50 million. Vanek was coming off a breakout season in which he buried 43 goals and 84 points for the Buffalo Sabres. But after losing both Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to free agency, there was no way Buffalo was letting their young star go.
Vanek would accept Edmonton’s mega offer, but the Sabres matched it immediately. Afterwards, the Sabres were furious with Lowe, going so far as to threaten that they would sign Oilers’ RFAs in the future if they had the chance.
Lowe finally made his big splash a week later, inking Sheldon Souray to a five-year deal. Later in the summer, he also signed Anaheim Ducks’ RFA Dustin Penner to an offer sheet. The Ducks failed to match Penner’s offer sheet, so Edmonton sent them a first-, second-, and third-round pick as compensation.
Ducks general manager Brian Burke was even angrier than the Sabres’ front office was. Burke referred to Lowe signing Penner as “gutless” and “an act of desperation for a general manager who is fighting to keep his job.” Apparently, the feud got so bad between Lowe and Bruke that the two of them almost met up at a barn in Lake Placid to throw down.
Maybe the two of them can meet up and get this barn fight over with now? There’s nothing else going on. They could stream it for all of us too! I would pay to see this thing finally go down.
Anyways! The real story here is the Vanek offer sheet. If Buffalo had said “no thanks!” and waved goodbye to their young star, Edmonton would have been on the hook for four first-round draft picks. As we know, they gave Anaheim three picks in 2008 as compensation for Penner, who was their consolation prize after striking out on Vanek.
Those three draft picks would be used on Tyler Myers (by Buffalo, ironically, due to a series of pick swaps between multiple teams), Justin Schultz (again, ironically because he ended up signing in Edmonton anyway), and Kirill Petrov (by the Islanders in a confusing swing of deals involving the Oilers re-acquiring their own pick).
So, Myers, Schultz, and Petrov is what it cost the Oilers to acquire Penner. What would have Vanek cost them?
At a glance, that would have been Myers with the No. 12 pick in 2008, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson with the No. 10 pick in 2009, Taylor Hall with the No. 1 pick in 2010, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with the No. 1 pick in 2011. But is it that simple?
Had Vanek ended up an Oiler, he would have slotted in on the team’s top line alongside Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff, replacing Ryan Smyth as the top left-winger. Instead, it was Penner who had to fill that role. Though he ended up leading the team with 23 goals, the Oilers had hoped Penner would build on the 29-goal season he had the year before in Anaheim.
Thanks to a fairly potent offence, fuelled by breakout performances from the team’s kid line of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, and Robert Nilsson, who combined for 41 goals in their rookie seasons, the Oilers finished just three points shy of a playoff spot. Having Vanek, who buried 36 goals for the Sabres that year, on the team rather than Penner might have pushed them over the top.
It was a similar deal in 2008-09. Edmonton was a mediocre team that ended up six points out of the playoffs. Maybe having Vanek in the mix would have been enough to get them in. His 40 goals that season weren’t enough to get the Sabres back into the playoffs, but it would have been a big upgrade on the 17 that Penner buried.
The other thing that really changes here is Edmonton’s appetite to go into a rebuild. If they didn’t have their first-round picks in 2010 and 2011, there’s no way they would have dove into their Oil Change years. Though that rebuild was desperately needed, Lowe likely would have made a whole bunch of wild panic moves to keep the Oilers above water as there weren’t first-round picks to rebuild with.
All told? I think it’s a good thing Buffalo matched that Vanek offer sheet. I bet he would have been enough of a difference to get them into the playoffs in 2008 and 2009, but it wouldn’t have been worth losing four first-round picks.