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In Ben, We Trust?

January 31, 2014 Leave a comment
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Graham James Holloway/Edmonton Oilers Fans (Facebook Group)
Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens put on quite the show Wednesday night, establishing a new NHL record with his 59-save shutout of the San Jose Sharks in a 3-0 win at Rexall Place. In case you missed it — or you just wanted to see it again to believe it — check out the link below. Either way, this will be seven minutes of your life you won’t want back.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxbPv5bR2fE

Ben Scrivens was nothing short of spectacular on Wednesday night. Some of the saves he was making were ‘cray, cray’ as the kids say these days.

When the final buzzer sounded, the newly acquired Edmonton Oilers goaltender had backstopped an NHL-record 59-save shutout — in a 3-0 blanking of the sharp-shooting San Jose Sharks, no less.

Scrivens was great, but can the Oilers expect greatness going forward?

The final 26 games of this year’s regular season should serve as a decent indicator of whether Scrivens warrants re-signing — as a starter, in a platoon scenario or as a hometown backup.

The Spruce Grove, Alta., product who turns 28 in September is a pending unrestricted free agent, having failed to establish himself as a starter in previous stints with Toronto and Los Angeles. He did show flashes with both franchises — albeit, not quite as flashy as Wednesday’s performance — but he was ultimately relegated to backup duty.

Personally, I’ve been familiar with Scrivens for some time. While working in Lloydminster for the Meridian Booster and covering the AJHL’s Blazers-turned-Bobcats, I first watched Scrivens play during his final junior season in 2005-06.

Even back then, I liked what I saw. As a teenager, Scrivens already had that “IT” factor and when he was on his game — in his zone — he was fully capable of stealing points for his team . . . as Oilers fans came to realize on Wednesday.

The AJHL has produced its fair share of NHL talents from that timeframe, including Mark Letestu (Bonnyville/Columbus), Justin Fontaine (Bonnyville/Minnesota), Matt Frattin (Fort Saskatchewan/Los Angeles) and Joe Colborne (Camrose/Calgary). None have developed into big-time scorers — at least not yet — but Scrivens faced them all in a standout campaign that saw him named Spruce Grove’s Most Valuable Player after also participating in the AJHL All-Star Game and playing a key role in Team North winning the 2006 Viking Cup in Camrose.

Scrivens finished that year with a .921 save percentage, which was a sign of things to come even as he took the road less travelled by going the NCAA route rather than playing major junior.

To that end, perhaps Scrivens was (or still is) a late bloomer, as goaltenders often are.

In four years of collegiate hockey with the Cornell Big Red, Scrivens’ save percentage gradually improved from .911 in 2006-07 to .934 in 2009-10. From there, he turned pro and has maintained a save percentage above .900 in climbing the ranks from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL.

The next step? Solidifying a starting job in the NHL, an opportunity that very well could present itself in Edmonton next season. Based, of course, on how this season ends.

Because, as we all know, one game does not make a career. Not even if it is a career-defining game like the one Scrivens turned in on Wednesday.

In four starts since coming to Edmonton via trade from Los Angeles earlier this month, Scrivens has posted a 2-2 record, but he’s gradually been getting better as he’s settled into his new surroundings. That much is evidenced, again, by an escalating save percentage — going from .879 in his Oilers debut to .926, .971 and, most recently, a perfect 1.000.

There’s essentially nowhere to go but down from that flawless effort, but those numbers average out to .944 and if Scrivens could somehow sustain that kind of save percentage — or anything north of .925 — Edmonton would be crazy not to keep him around in some capacity. That’s assuming he isn’t demanding crazy dollars come summer, or whenever the two sides enter into contract negotiations.

Time will tell what the future holds for Scrivens in Edmonton — short-term and, potentially, long-term. I wouldn’t bet against him becoming the new face of the franchise between the pipes — that is, if he wants to continue calling Edmonton home past this season.

It would also be in the Oilers’ best interests, in my opinion, to find him an experienced goaltending partner that has been an NHL starter in the past. Depth and competition in the crease is never a bad thing, and so long as their roles are clearly defined from Day 1, that partner should only bring the best out of Scrivens and push him to thrive in his new environment.

Any of Martin Brodeur, Tim Thomas or Evgeni Nabokov would fit that bill via free agency. Or if the Oilers preferred a younger backup with the aforementioned platoon potential, then Brian Elliott, Jonas Gustavsson, Thomas Greiss, Anton Khudobin, Al Montoya or even Ray Emery are possible options.

I’m not a huge fan of the platoon blueprint for success, however. More often than not, it blows up in a bad way with a goaltending ‘controversy’ and neither guy ends up performing to their capabilities or the fan base’s expectations. The 1A and 1B concept presents an uncomfortable situation that Scrivens is already well-versed in, having battled James Reimer — and the Toronto media — for the Maple Leafs’ starting status. For everybody’s sake, I would hope Edmonton has learned from others’ mistakes.

I also hope the Oilers are aware of their own blunder in signing an older, sub-par goaltender as a backup, which they did by bringing in Devan Dubnyk’s buddy Jason LaBarbera this past summer. Chalk that up to a rookie error in judgement by MacT, but I see him steering clear of Tomas Vokoun, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Scott Clemmensen and those types this time around.

If it’s determined that Scrivens is best suited as a backup or an understudy of sorts, then perhaps Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller or Jaroslav Halak would be the best bets as free agents. Or, as my blog suggested yesterday, acquiring Cam Ward from Carolina via trade could be a great ‘buy low’ move — granted with a high cap hit, or comparable to what Miller, Hiller and Halak will command on the open market.

At the end of the day, there are clearly several options available to Edmonton in the goaltending department. But, for the time being, the ball is in Scrivens’ court and his play will likely dictate the next move or series of moves.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Rebuilding the rebuilt Oilers in 5 not-so-easy steps

January 30, 2014 Leave a comment
Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, left, and president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe (if still in the picture) have their work cut out for them in transforming the floundering franchise back into a Stanley Cup (or at least playoff) contender. That challenge might not be as daunting as pessimists persist, however, and could be accomplished with just a handful of moves.

QMI Agency
Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, left, and president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe (if still in the picture) have their work cut out for them in transforming the floundering franchise back into a Stanley Cup (or at least playoff) contender. That challenge might not be as daunting as pessimists persist, however, and could be accomplished with just a handful of moves, which I’m about to dictate and dissect in this blog post.

I think we, as Edmonton Oilers fans/followers, can agree that even in the midst of this two-game winning, umm, (streak?), this team needs an overhaul — again.

Yes, it’s time to rebuild the rebuild — at least to some extent.

So, where do we start? Or where should general manager Craig MacTavish be starting?

That’s debatable. Some would argue that championship teams are built from the crease out. Others would insist that defence wins championships. Then there are those who believe run-and-gun firewagon hockey from the Oilers’ heydays can enjoy a resurgence and we’ll simply “outscore” the opposition.

The latter approach clearly isn’t working this season. Either we don’t have enough offence. Or we’ve over-rated the offence we do have. Or the kids carrying the offence are, heaven forbid, still kids and not capable of dominating night in and night out. It’s most likely a combination of all those trains of thought.

Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But for the sake of this blog — and the fact the Oilers have missed the playoffs for eight years running; 2,782 days since their last post-season game if we must do the math — we’re going to construct (or rather reconstruct) Edmonton’s roster in a matter of minutes.

In fact, we’re going to simplify it into 5 easy (or not-so-easy) steps.

A true do-it-yourself model.

Here goes nothing . . .

Cam Ward

Step 1: Acquire Cam Ward

We need a proven starting goaltender and there might not be a better one available. That’s not to necessarily say Cam Ward is available, but I’m assuming he could be had considering his recent struggles and injury-proneness with Carolina and the Hurricanes’ relative success in his absence thanks to the tandem of Anton Khudobin and Justin Peters. If they believe in either of those goaltenders long-term, they may be willing to part with Ward and his $6.3-million cap hit, with two years remaining on this escalating contract that carries annual salaries of $6.7 million next year and $6.8 million for 2015-16.

Ward also comes with a Stanley Cup-winning pedigree, having hoisted hockey’s holy grail in 2006 after beating, ironically, the Oilers in a seven-game series. Ward was the biggest difference-maker back then — yes, even bigger than Fernando Pisani — but, lest we forget, that was 2,782 days ago and he hasn’t accomplished a whole heck of a lot in the 7 years, 7 months and 11 days since then in terms of winning hardware.

Further, Ward is from nearby Sherwood Park, Alta., a suburb of Edmonton, so it would be a homecoming for him and his young family. His wife is from Red Deer. Paired with Ben Scrivens of Spruce Grove, Alta., who would need to be re-signed (preferably at a hometown discount, $1.5 million per year let’s say), Edmonton’s goaltending woes could, finally, become a thing of the past.

This wouldn’t be a cheap risk, but it would be a “bold” move that could come with a very worthwhile reward. Of course, Ward would have to want to come home for this deal to come to fruition as the soon-to-be 30-year-old has a modified no-trade clause.

Assuming he’s willing to waive it, what would it take to get Ward? It depends if Carolina is pushing for a playoff spot at the March 5 trade deadline, with Ward still a non-factor in that push, then the ’Canes may want some “win-now” pieces. The Oilers have Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky to possibly satisfy those needs as an upgrade, or as depth, on the wings. But more than likely, Carolina would want a defenceman to address their weakness (which also happens to be Edmonton’s current weakness). Jeff Petry fits that bill, as would have Ladislav Smid before he was dealt to the Calgary Flames for cap space (and peanuts).

Conversely, if Carolina trends downward over the next month and finds itself out of the post-season running, then maybe this deal is delayed until the NHL draft in June. At that point, Edmonton’s first-round pick (which will likely be top 3) becomes extremely attractive. Or perhaps even next year’s 2015 first-rounder instead if Edmonton has its eyes on a 2014 top prospect — cough, Aaron Ekblad, cough. The Oilers have plenty of defensive prospects they could part with in such a deal, including former first-rounder Oscar Klefbom, Dillon Simpson, David Musil, Martin Gernat or Joey Laleggia.

The deal: Edmonton acquires Cam Ward and a conditional 2nd-round pick in 2015 in exchange for Jeff Petry, David Musil and the Oilers’ 1st-round pick in 2015. The condition being that Ward starts more than 50 games for Edmonton in 2014-15; if he doesn’t, the Oilers get the pick.

Tyler Myers

Step 2: Acquire Tyler Myers

This step is a little trickier, especially since Myers seems to be improving since Ted Nolan took over the coaching reins. Myers is a monstrous defenceman — listed at 6-foot-8, 219 pounds (and gaining) — and the Oilers have had a heart-on for him since his draft year in 2008. They reportedly tried to trade up to get him before Buffalo took him 12th overall, with Edmonton settling for scoring winger Jordan Eberle at 22nd. Myers won the Calder Trophy in 2010, but Eberle has arguably had the more successful career to date. That said, defencemen tend to take longer to develop and the Oilers would still likely make that swap in a heartbeat if the opportunity presented itself.

Myers’ contract is also somewhat of a concern, with a $5.5-million cap hit through 2018-19, or for five more seasons. But it was frontloaded and actually declines steadily in annual salary from $5 million next year to $3 million in the final year. With the league’s salary cap expected to increase exponentially over the next few years, this concern really isn’t a concern at all. And Myers, who only turns 24 this weekend, could be a bargain by the end of his current contract. This could be a steal of a deal. Please, nobody tell the Sabres that.

Myers also has Alberta roots, having been raised in Calgary for his teenage years — his Texan father is employed in the oil and gas industry — so he might be warm on coming to Edmonton, not that it’s much worse climate-wise than Buffalo.

Make no mistake, though, Myers won’t come cheap. The Sabres and Oilers have a decent trading history, but Buffalo would want a scoring forward — and preferably one better than Linus Omark (insert link to evil laughter sound clip here). Eberle, who is the same age and has a similar contract ($6 million per, also through 2018-19), immediately comes to mind. But Eberle tends to be a complementary player, and Buffalo may want more of a game-breaker who is marketable to its fan base with the Sabres just starting their rebuild. Hmm, that sounds like Nail Yakupov would fit the bill as a recent first overall pick who played junior just over three hours away from Buffalo in Sarnia, Ont. This could be quite the match, with both teams meeting each other’s needs in a classic 1-for-1 swap. Buffalo already has a ton of top-end defence prospects, including a pair of towering 2013 first-rounders in Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen.

The deal: Edmonton acquires Tyler Myers for Nail Yakupov.

Marc Staal

Step 3: Acquire Marc Staal

The New York Rangers are, strangely, struggling to sign both captain Ryan Callahan and shutdown defenceman Dan Girardi. It’s possible both deals get done before the aforementioned March 5 deadline, but if not, rumours are persisting that the Rangers would move one or both despite their obvious importance to that franchise’s Cup hopes. Part of that hesitation on signing Girardi could come from the fact the Rangers already have $3.975 million committed next year to Marc Staal, a similar-but-three-year-younger defender. If Staal came off the books, it’s likely the Rangers could afford Girardi at that price, though Girardi could command $5.5 million on the open market and will likely get paid one way or the other.

Not coincidentally, the Rangers also just traded for another stay-at-home defenceman in Kevin Klein from Nashville. That is now a strength for New York and one of Girardi or Staal would seem expendable. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.

There’s no guarantee Staal would stay in Edmonton past next season, with some speculation that he’d prefer to join brothers Eric and Jordan in Carolina. But one season, especially a winning one, could be enough to sell Marc Staal on becoming a long-term Oiler.

It’s worth the risk for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact Staal would make the perfect partner for Myers and give Edmonton a formidable top pairing for the first time in a long time.

If anybody is willing to take a chance on Ales Hemsky, my hunch is Glen Sather would be that guy. The Rangers’ GM has expressed past interest in the pending free agent, and Hemsky brings some of the skill-set New York lost in sending Marian Gaborik to Columbus. Hemsky could potentially click with Rick Nash and make the Rangers that much more dangerous in the playoffs. Plus, it’s very likely New York is on Hemsky’s wishlist for destinations as a UFA, so if he performs reasonably well, it’s entirely possible he could re-sign with the Rangers in the summer.

That said, Hemsky’s trade value does not equate to Marc Staal’s. The Oilers would need to add something, likely a defensive prospect — of which they have an abundance. I could see Slats wanting Dillon Simpson, the son of former Oilers forward-turned-broadcaster Craig Simpson.

The deal: Edmonton acquires Marc Staal for Ales Hemsky, Dillon Simpson and a 2015 fourth-round pick.

NHL 2013 - Blue Jackets Defeat Hurricanes 5-4

Step 4: Acquire Brandon Dubinsky

The Oilers need to get bigger up front, particularly in their top six. Dubinsky is a 6-foot-2, 216-pound centre that plays big and physical. He turns 28 in April and will be entering his ninth pro season next fall — that makes him an experienced veteran by hockey standards, entering what should be the prime of his career.

Can you tell where I’m going here? Yes, he’s the ideal replacement/upgrade for Sam Gagner on Edmonton’s second line. Gagner is three years younger and might have a higher offensive ceiling or be more talented with the puck, but Dubinsky appears, on paper, to be a better fit for the Oilers.

MacTavish has reportedly been scouting Columbus as of late, and Dubinsky has been on Edmonton’s trade radar in the past when he was with the Rangers. It’s also no secret that Gagner is being shopped ahead of March 5, with his no-trade clause kicking in this summer.

Gagner is in the first of a three-year contract with a cap hit of $4.8 million and an annual salary of $5 million for each of the next two seasons. Dubinsky, like Marc Staal, a former teammate of his, is signed through next year at a cap hit of $4.2 million with a salary of $4.65 million. He, too, would have to be sold on Edmonton going forward, but again it seems like the right kind of a gamble.

Gagner may not be enough to get this deal done straight up, but add in another forward with size who “could” have Dubinsky upside and Columbus probably pulls the trigger.

The deal: Edmonton acquires Brandon Dubinsky for Sam Gagner and Tyler Pitlick.

Thomas Vanek

Step 5: Sign Thomas Vanek

Last but not least, the Oilers will need to replace Nail Yakupov, and to a lesser degree Ales Hemsky. Assuming Vanek doesn’t re-sign with the Islanders before March 5, or before July 1, he will be an unrestricted free agent — and a coveted one at that. The Islanders really want to keep him and he has found chemistry with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, so this could be a mute point sooner than later.

If Vanek reaches the open market, expect Edmonton to be all-in . . . again. Don’t forget the Oilers already signed Vanek once, when he was a young emerging sniper in Buffalo, inking him to a seven-year offer sheet that is now expiring. The fact the Sabres matched that contract is probably a good thing for Edmonton’s sake as the salary figures were ahead of their time, but Vanek is now in his prime and worth every penny.

Vanek just turned 30 years old, so he’s another veteran and he has decent size, listed at six-feet, 217 pounds. He’s a finisher, having twice scored 40 goals on weaker Buffalo teams.

Vanek has a history with Myers and, as mentioned, he previously agreed to terms with the Oilers, so it makes sense that he’d be willing to come to Edmonton. A little known fact is that Vanek, who hails from Austria and will captain his country at next month’s Sochi Olympics, has already called Alberta home. He lived in Lacombe, less than an hour south of Edmonton, as a 14-year-old prodigy, dominating the AA midget ranks before moving on to the USHL in Sioux Falls, S.D., and later the University of Minnesota. Vanek is well versed in cold winters from all his hockey stops, so that shouldn’t scare him away.

Falling short of Vanek, then Gaborik, Devin Setoguchi or, dare I say, Dany Heatley could fill that void as a UFA signing.

The deal: Edmonton signs Thomas Vanek to a 5-year, $35-million contract.

In conclusion . . .

Simple as that, the Oilers are rebuilt (again) and ready to contend for the playoffs, much closer to a Stanley Cup parade than they are today.

Given all that, the Oilers would still have their first-round pick in June, and should be able to select either Aaron Ekblad or Sam Reinhart — both of whom could be ready to make the NHL jump next season.

Past that, the Oilers will also need to fill some depth roles, with 3 to 4 forwards and at least one defenceman. A couple of those holes will likely be filled from within, but there could also be free-agent options.

As a depth defenceman, I would like to see Edmonton sign Keith Aulie, who was paired with Myers in the 2009 world juniors but has yet to find a permanent NHL home. He’s big — listed at 6-foot-6, 228 pounds — and a shutdown type that could play alongside the emerging Martin Marincin in a sheltered third-pairing role. If not Aulie, then perhaps the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Anton Belov sticks around in that capacity.

At forward, I have penciled in Ryan Jones, Jesse Joensuu and Luke Gazdic as players who seem to have earned Dallas Eakins’ trust and admiration. Those three could be back, and, of course, Ryan Smyth might have another year left in the tank. But I think they could find a bigger, grittier and, most importantly, younger version of Smyth to play with Boyd Gordon and, presumably, Jones on a third line. Referencing capgeek.com’s list of UFAs, I’d like to add one or two of Nikolai Kulemin, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau and David Moss — in that order of preference.

If all those transactions came to pass, Edmonton fans could be welcoming this team to the ice in October:

Forward

Taylor Hall-Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Jordan Eberle

David Perron-Brandon Dubinsky-Thomas Vanek

(Kulemin/ Downie/Comeau/Moss)-Boyd Gordon-(Ryan Jones)

(Jesse Joensuu)-Matt Hendricks-(Luke Gazdic)

Defence

Tyler Myers-Marc Staal

Andrew Ference-Justin Schultz

(Anton Belov/Keith Aulie)-Martin Marincin

Goal

Cam Ward

Ben Scrivens

Obviously, if Ekblad/Reinhart and-or 2013 first-round defence prospect Darnell Nurse force their way onto the roster, we would have to make room for them. But that’s a nice luxury to have, as opposed to forcing the issue and pressing youngsters into roles they aren’t yet ready for.

Long story short, the future is still bright in Edmonton and could become so much brighter with a handful of realistic moves between now and next season.

Your thoughts?

Categories: Uncategorized

Firing squad missing mark in targeting Oilers’ Lowe

January 30, 2014 1 comment

Lowe Must Go editLowe as we go editFire Lowe Sign editImage

Kevin Lowe has to go? Does he really? Says who? . . . Not the boss, apparently.

There’s an ongoing Facebook and billboard signage campaign to oust the Edmonton Oilers’ president of hockey operations. The social media page ‘Kevin Lowe has to go’ has racked up more than 14,000 Likes from the NHL team’s loyal-turned-loathing fan base, and sports radio shows have been fueling that fire for weeks as well. Its momentum — or perhaps Lowe’s own conscience — prompted the five-time Stanley Cup winner to approach Oilers owner Daryl Katz offering to take a sabbatical, which was promptly rejected. And rightfully so.

Sure, Lowe has had a big hand in the Oilers’ eight-year-and-counting playoff drought, but the pitch-fork-carrying headhunters should probably find a better target. Preferably somebody responsible for the franchise’s day-to-day results.

Realistically, Lowe could take the fall here — willingly or otherwise — but I fail to see how his departure would change the culture of the dressing room or right the on-ice ship.

Don’t get me wrong, Lowe made his share of unsettling moves during his prior stint as general manager that steered this once-flagship organization towards the iceberg it has been repeatedly ramming into in recent years. But at this point, the best course of action is likely to stay the course with this old-boys club in hopes that Lowe, rookie GM Craig MacTavish and new-kid-on-the-block coach Dallas Eakins can restore the Oilers to their past glory from the dynasty days.

Patience is key in this case, and the wheels do appear to be in motion to right those wrongs — even if they are moving painfully slow by the supporters’ (and season-ticket-holders’) standards.

The core group of young players — specifically first overall picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, fellow forward Jordan Eberle and sophomore blue-liner Justin Schultz — are making strides.

There’s forward progress on the prospect front as well, with the defensive pipeline shaping up quite promisingly with Martin Marincin, Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse enjoying strong seasons.

Add in another top 5 — in all probability, top 3 — pick in this June’s entry draft and the Oilers should start trending upwards next fall. Keyword, of course, being ‘should’ — and that ‘should’ also have happened this winter, so time will tell.

If we are still in the same boat when the calendar flips to 2015, then I wouldn’t want to be Lowe — or Katz, for that matter. Until then, I’ll keep clinging to the bandwagon.

Categories: Uncategorized