Monday, June 8, 2009

The Edmonton Oilers - How NOT To Be Seen (in the playoffs)

(Editor's Note: Detroit should be here, but the Stanley Cup Finals have yet to conclude and the remaining two games may influence what Detroit does in the off-season.)

Edmonton Oilers Prolegomena - Penned In

Brian Burke still has night sweats about August 2nd, 2007 - Kevin Lowe signed his rookie left-wing Dustin Penner to a 5 year, 21.25 million dollar deal, setting off a public feud that has yet to officially end. Burke's Ducks would receive a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick in compensation, and the rest of the league earned a lot of articles about how much Burke and Lowe dislike each other. The deal is now looked at as a sad joke - Penner has scored 40 goals in his two seasons in Edmonton and his name is synonymous with 'bust'. Ex-coach Craig MacTavish called him weak, out of shape, a slack-jawed f*ggot, and who knows what he called him behind closed doors. Looking back, could this deal have made sense at the time?

Dustin Penner's career is beyond strange. He never played junior hockey. In 2001-02, hockey-reference lists him playing in something called the NJCAA at something called MSU-Bottineau. As all of you know, this is Minot State University-Bottineau, in the town of Bottineau, North Dakota, pop. 2336, approximately ten miles from the Canada-US border. Not many people could have expected Dustin Penner to be winning a Stanley Cup five years later. Penner transferred to the University of Maine in 2003, where he was 7th in scoring. Ducks scouts must have noticed something in him, because he signed with the Ducks after just one collegiate season. His pro debut was inauspicious; he notched 10 goals in 77 games. It was the next season where Penner's career absolutely exploded - he scored 39 goals in 54 minor league games and added 54 assists on top. He also managed a beastly 251 shots on goal, or 4.64 shots per game - only Alex Ovechkin had more than that in the NHL this year. Penner's performance earned him a shot on the big club later in the season, where he impressed in the playoffs as a 23 year old willing to hit anything that moved. Next season he scored 29 goals in the NHL with limited ice time, and helped the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup - although in the playoffs his numbers in the playoffs are decidedly average, only tallying 3 goals in 21 games. It was known that Burke was going to have trouble re-signing him in the off-season, and Brian was twiddling his thumbs when Lowe swooped in with his outrageous offer.

The question is - could Kevin Lowe have expected Penner to repeat that extraordinary AHL performance in the NHL? If Penner manages to get 4 shots on goal per game in the NHL, he's at least a 30 goal scorer. However, Penner did manage to generate 2.49 shots/game in 2006-07 for the Ducks, while only receiving 2:55/game of power play time and 14 minutes per game overall. What if those increased to 4 minutes/game of power play time (consistent with the top LWs in the game) and 18 minutes of ice time? Assuming an average rate, this works out to 3.20 shots/game, assuming a shooting percentage between 10 and 12 (say, 11), this is still only 29 goals - the same 29 goals Penner scored in 2006-07. Kevin Lowe must have assumed that Penner would get better, that his shots/time on ice would increase in the NHL as well, but how much better can a player get than posting 84 points in 57 minor league games as a 23 year old?

A deal like this is strange - for it to be advatangeous to Edmonton, Dustin Penner has to essentially beat out the value that the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round picks might've provided. Think of it this way: if Penner scores, say, 35 goals in his first season in Edmonton, he provides $X in value to the Edmonton Oilers above the 4.25 million dollar cap hit. That $X over the course of his career has to be greater than the potential $Y that players on entry-level contracts can provide, plus the $Z that RFA players provide over UFA players. In other words, Penner's value above his contract price has to be better than both comparable UFA players and the value that rookies might've added to the Oilers. What makes this more interesting is that the better Penner performs, the better his team does, and thus the lower in the draft the Ducks select. Of course, Penner hasn't even come close to making up for his contract, on the open market he would likely fetch something like 3 million/season now.

The Oilers should understand the danger of presuming - Dustin Penner looks like a magnificently talented hockey player, he can make ferocious hits, he's got tremendous straight-ahead speed, and he's got some hands around the net. Watching him in 2006-07 and looking at those stats, one thought of Neely and Lindros and Leclair - truth is, he's a slightly worse Erik Cole (or is he - advanced statistics are highly favorable towards him), and Edmonton is going to have a hell of a time relieving themselves of that contract.

Edmonton Cap Situation

Man, I Have No Idea What's Going On: It's no surprise that you can't spell 'Towelie' without the letters 'LOWE', because Kevin Lowe also has no idea what's going on. He's already got at least 44 million committed to next year's team, a team that's missed the playoffs the last two seasons. The most goals any current Oiler has scored in a season is 29 goals, by Penner. Put another way, Sheldon Souray had 26 goals in a season, that ranks second in most goals scored in a season by a current member of the Oilers. This team has literally no wiggle room for 2010-11 either - there's room to add a goalie and that's about all.

What About Gagner and Cogliano: Both look to be solid young players, but neither really built on their freshman season. That's not to say they are plateauing, just that for Edmonton's sake they'd better get better. Gagner has yet to turn 20 - it may be several years before he is a star player.

Isn't Lowe Working on an Unlevel Playing Field, Though? To be fair, after Chris Pronger left Edmonton because his wife didn't like it, the city is perceived to be somewhat like Siberia - it's not somewhere players voluntarily go, it's somewhere they get assigned. This forces Lowe's hand to try to lock up his current players, because there's no guarantee if they escape that he can lure anyone else to the Fortress of Solitude that is Northern Alberta.

2009-10 Projected Lines





The Oilers will no doubt pursue a trade this off-season. With Nilsson and Penner overcompensated, they may try to move either one for virtually air to free themselves up to sign other players. They may also try to move Sheldon Souray - he is injury-prone and is not the best player in the defensive zone. Denis Grebeshkov may be non-tendered or he may also go play in the KHL.

Free Agent Discussion


Martin Biron (4/16) - Biron has posted save percentages of .918 and .915 in the last two seasons, and he thinks he should be paid like a top goaltender. It remains to be seen whether he will be.
Dwayne Roloson (2/5) - Roloson also had a .915 save percentage, he's getting on in years but seemed to have a little comeback last season. A worthwhile place holder.
Nikolai Khabibulin (2/5) - It's unknown whether Khabibulin will stay here or depart for the KHL, as he was rumored to before last season, but he has a Cup ring and a .919 save percentage last season.
Craig Anderson (2/3) - Anderson is a gambler's choice - .911 career save percentage, .928 as a member of the Panthers. Is he a worthwhile starter in the NHL? It should be a team like Edmonton that tries to find out.

Conclusion: Edmonton proves the old adage about a fool and his money. Admittedly, it is not high on NHL players' favorite cities to play, but Lowe has painted his team into a corner where they are not very good, and they don't have much hope of getting better. Edmonton is also a cautionary tale about teams who have unexpected playoff success - their run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 was one of the more unlikely in postseason history, but to Lowe it was the near-zenith of a grand plan that was so smart that he could articulate it if he could even begin to know what he was talking about. As a result, Lowe has been locking up the members of that team to long-term deals as though they were incredibly special, when most of them are average for their position. Edmonton is another franchise caught in a holding pattern - they've chained themselves to an average team: one that should compete for the playoffs some seasons and will fall out of the playoff race in other seasons. We won't be hearing many a capella renditions of Oh Canada in the Stanley Cup Finals in the near-future.

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