Thursday, April 16, 2009

Who's Next?

With Craig MacTavish clearing out his desk at Northlands Colliseum, it would be incredibly unjust if he were departing the team alone.

Some of the players should, like MacTavish, be finding themselves with new teams next season. Unlike MacTavish, some of them may not be fortunate enough to land on their feet.

Player to leave - Robert Nilsson

After spending two seasons on the Oilers' second line, Robert Nilsson has yet to exceed 10 goals in a season. That would be acceptable from a third-line player. Not from someone with ambitions to play on the second line.

Nilsson has a tremendous skill set. What he sorely lacks is a work ethic to compliment it. Like his father Kent Nilsson, Robbie Nilsson is best described as a "floater" -- someone who would rather give up the puck than take a hit to make a play.

With no Mark Messier on the team to coerce him into playing the gritty, hard-working style that is so necessary for NHL success, Nilsson should be considered a lost cause.

He's a cheerful guy -- he always seems to be smiling, and seems to really enjoy life. But in the NHL you don't reach the 30- or 40-goal plateau -- something Nilsson should be aspiring to, given his skill set -- by grinning your opponents into submission. Players have to be willing to grimace a little bit and fight their way into the slot.

If Nilsson isn't willing to do this, the Oilers need a player who will.

His ideal replacement - Jordan Eberle

Jordan Eberle will do precisely that, and he has a World Junior Championship gold medal that proves it.

When Sam Gagner arrived on the Edmonton Oilers last season, he did so in the wake of a dominating performance at the Canada/Russia Super Series.

Jordan Eberle is coming of a dominating performance of his own at the Juniors, and 74 points (36 goals, 39 assists) for the Regina Pats. To round off his list of accomplishments for the year, he briefly joined the Springfield Falcons and scored nine points (three goals, six assists) in the same number of games.

As his already-legendary goal against Russia in the dying seconds of the semi-final game against Russia demonstrates, Eberle is a clutch player the likes of which the Oilers haven't had at forward since the departure of Mike Comrie.

Player to leave - Dustin Penner

As Don Cherry noted in a recent coaches corner segment, the Oilers have lacked one important thing: grit. The Don argued that the Oilers haven't been a hard team to play against, and it would be hard to disagree with him.

When it comes to grit, it's hard to overlook the presence of a big player who all too often declines to play physically. One of the knocks against Penner is that he doesn't have a pronounced enough mean streak. It's been said that Penner should be the kind of player that an opponent thinks twice about going into the corner with because no one knows what he's going to do.

(In actuality, players should think twice about going into the corners with a player like Penner because they know what he's going to do -- hit them very, very hard.)

Penner was supposed to be the Oilers' prized new power forward -- they certainly gave up enough to get him, and paid him amply. Penner was supposed to be a big-bodied, hard-working player with excellent hands to boot. Instead, Penner turned in one good season -- 25 goals in 2007/08 -- before turning into an extremely disappointing player.

While another chance shouldn't be ruled out based on past success -- that 25-goal season shouldn't be forgotten, nor should his Stanley Cup ring -- a question remains regarding whether or not the Oilers would be able to find a trade partner willing to take Penner off their hands.

His ideal replacement - Ryan Smyth

If the Oilers need more grit from a skilled player, Ryan Smyth fits the bill.

Smyth will do absolutely anything necessary to win a hockey game. And while his will to pay the price to play where ugly goals are scored is his greatest strength, many people all too often forget that Smyth is very skilled player as well. He doesn't do so nearly as often as a Hemsky, but Ryan Smyth can score pretty goals, too.

It would take a very attractive package to convince the Avalanche to part ways with Smyth. Although with Joe Sakic probably set to retire this year, the Avalanche will probably be in need of some skilled forwards, particularly centremen.

While Robbie Schremp has never cracked the NHL as an Oiler, it's hard to believe that a team like the Avalanche wouldn't take a look at his skill set and think he might be worth gambling on.

A Penner-Nilsson-O'Sullivan-Schremp package would provide the promise of a blockbuster, and the Oilers would at least secure considerable insurance should Ales Kotalik decide not to return to the Oilers.

But for the likelihood of this particular deal being possible without requiring a significant portion of the Oilers future in return -- something along the lines of Sam Gagner or Andrew Cogliano -- this is probably just wishful thinking. For all the good it would do, the Oilers would be better off pursuing the Islanders' first-overall draft pick.

At least then they'd be making Brian Burke mad.

Player to leave - Patrick O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan will be a Restricted Free Agent this summer. But with only six points (two goals, four assists) in 19 games with the Oilers, he may not be worth re-signing.

At 5'11" at 190 pounds, O'Sullivan doesn't bring any of the grit to the team that the Oilers sorely need. This is a player who simply has to score, but failed to deliver.

As part of a package deal, O'Sullivan could bring a considerable return.

His ideal replacement - Todd Marchant

With the departures of Marty Reasoner and Jarret Stoll, Shawn Horcoff was left alone as the Oilers' lone reliable face-off man.

One look at the Oilers' face off numbers this year reveals this particular glaring inadequacy in their game.

By adding the 35-year-old Marchant the Oilers would certainly be taking on some age -- generally not the best idea if it can be avoided. But the Oilers would also be adding a surplus of experience (including the Stanley Cup experience they'd be giving up in ditching Penner), and bringing back a player who remembers what it's supposed to mean to be an Oiler.

It would also add another player with clutch play credibility. Marchant's Dallas Stars-killing goal in game seven of the 1997/98 opening playoff round remains the stuff of Oilers legend.

He can probably get back to the 20-goal plateau again if reunited with Ethan Moreau.

Player to leave - Marc-Antoine Pouliot

Pouliot has a tremendous skill set, but seems to be missing something. It's becoming increasingly evident that Sidney Crosby amplified Pouliot's playing ability to a significant degree during their time together in Rimouski. Perhaps the Penguins would be willing to consider a Pouliot/Crosby reunion, or the Wild may want to see if he can help spark the long-expected emergence of his brother Benoit.

But the Oilers shouldn't expect too much in return for this player. He's simply too marginal to be worth making a long-term investment in.

His ideal replacement - Dean McAmmond

A capable face-off man who excels in defensive-zone faceoffs, McAmmond could come in handy for a team with a bad habit of giving up the puck in the D-zone. At 36 McAmmond would continue a trend of adding more age to this team -- himself, Marchant and Jason Strudwick could form something of an old mans' club -- but his solid defensive skills have long been incredibly unappreciated.

In fact, McAmmond has bounced around the NHL as a player who was often probably unnecessary to make the deal. Calgary sent him off to Colorado as a bonus in the Morris/Dury deal, just as the Oilers paired him with Boris Mironov as part of their deal for Dan Cleary and Chad Kilger. He was also victimized by a rule forbidding teams from re-acquiring players they'd too recently traded when the Flames picked up back up at the 2003/04 trade deadline, only to be forced to bench him during their memorable playoff run.

Currently earning $900,000, McAmmond can be secured relatively cheaply. He's also another player who should remember what it's supposed to mean to be an Oiler. With the team in the state it's currently in, that may be as good a reason as any to bring him back.

Player to leave - Robbie Schremp

Parting is sweet sorrow. For many Oilers fans, seeing Schremp depart to another NHL club would be fairly sweet. For those who can appreciate his stellar skill set, it would be sorrowful.

Schremp will be 23 on the day the 2009 free agency period begins. Under the current CBA, Schremp can delcare himself an unrestricted free agent at age 27.

If Schremp hasn't made the Oilers for a full-time gig yet, it may be better to ship him away to a team that will play him. At least then the Oilers will receive something back for this considerable asset.

Oilers fans probably shouldn't be nearly so eager to see Schremp depart, but this is a matter of simple pragmatism. Having an unbelievably talented player like Schremp languish in the AHL doesn't do the Oilers any good. Seeing as how the club apparently won't play him, they may as well trade him.

Regardless of who stays and who goes, Oilers fans should expect the team to look very different next year. More toughness, passion and defensive reliability are sorely needed to temper the team's youth up front.

The Oilers will likely be slightly older next year, but hopefully they'll be ready to reestablish the team identity that has been sorely lacking this season.

Whomever is suiting up for the Oilers next season, fans have the right to expect those players will be willing to work hard for the privilege.

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