This is (probably) the first post in a series of at least two, wherein I try to make sense of the UFA season, particularly as pertains to the Oilers.
First, a recap (not because you, Dear Reader, don't know this already, more for when I re-read this in a week and say "but wait, didn't they...") - set the stage.
D Jason Smith: 32yo, team captain for the longest period in team history - trade
RW Joffrey Lupul: 24yo in September, once scored 28 goals and was a key return in the Chris Pronger trade, but now looking more like Scott Fraser than anybody else really - trade
RW/C Petr Sykora: 31yo, tied for first in team scoring last year, second in goals scored with 22, two Stanley Cup rings with New Jersey once upon a time - UFA
D Joni Pitkanen: 24yo in September, former 4th overall pick, 39 assists last year gives him more points than Lupul got in total, need I say more) - trade
LW Geoff Sanderson: 36yo, "among active league leaders in games played" according to the press release pretty much says it all: "old dude who used to score a lot and doesn't now, but hey, we ditched Joffrey Lupul") - trade
C Michael Nylander: still a rumour, but probably reliable. Second in Rangers scoring last year, played with a guy named Jaromir Jagr, now no longer required since the Rangers shot the bolt for top-line Cs on Briere and Drury - UFA signing.
The Smith/Lupul for Pitkanen/Sanderson trade reminds me a lot of the trade that brought Janne Niinimaa to Edmonton. That trade was Dan McGillis and a second round pick for the Spazzer. An older, established, tough defenceman due to make more than he's really worth in return for a young, struggling blueliner with undoubted offensive capabilities and a questionable head. For Niinimaa, it was his decision making on the ice; I don't know what the questions surrounding Pitkanen, but they must be big if they're willing to take on Jason Smith (I love the guy, but he's not a top-pairing dman any more) and Joffrey Lupul in return for him.
There's more than one parallel here too, I think: when Edmonton traded for Niinimaa, they were struggling. They were trying to shed salary in return for unproven but talented players - forcing a rebuild. Now they've basically been forced to rebuild. As Lowetide said, Chris Pronger gave them 5 bullets. They got backed into a corner and had to trade him, so they tried an alternative approach - "We know the D sucks, so we'll try to make up for it with offense." Lacking any blueliners who could make a pass with confidence, we all know how that one went. So now, despite Kevin Lowe's words to the contrary, they're rebuilding again. These are the Oilers of about 1997, except with a weaker blueline and no scoring wingers. Oh, and the 1997 Oilers squeaked into the playoffs and knocked off heavily-favoured Dallas. The 2008 Oilers are unlikely to even come within sniffing distance of the playoffs. They play almost half their schedule within the North West Division, and none of those other teams have gotten any weaker this offseason.
Vancouver has a pair of young players ascending in the Sedins, they still have Luongo and Ohlund (and lest we forget, Rory Fitzpatrick). Minnesota's a young team with another year of experience on their strong year last year, and they've finally sorted their goaltending situation; for those who think it's important, they have one of the best enforcers in the West now that Laraque is gone too. Calgary has at least one bullet left in their gun, since Iginla and Kipprusoff are around. They'll lose Stuart and Hamrlik, so they're hoping Aucoin can regain his form, but their blueline's still in decent shape anyway - Phaneuf and Regehr haven't seen a guy yet they won't hit (although neither seems to have seen a guy yet they'll fight afterwards). I think Rhett Warrener's underrated, and the rest don't have to be great anyway. Cory Sarich won't hurt either. Colorado didn't lose anybody major, and they added Ryan Smyth - they won't be contending for the Cup, but they're a decent team. Joe Sakic's getting old but 100 points is still 22 better than Smytty, and both those guys are proven to make anybody they play with better - they ought to be dynamite together, Colorado's answer to Adam Oates and Cam Neely. With Paul Stastny, Wojtek Wolski, and Milan Hejduk all proven, the future is incredibly bright in Denver.
As for Edmonton, there's more question marks than answers on this team. Can Shawn Horcoff regain his form from 2006-07? Is Raffi Torres going to be Todd Bertuzzi of 1995, or will he be Brad Isbister? Can their blueline make a first pass that doesn't wind up in somebody's skates? Is Jarret Stoll's head really back together again, or is he one more hit away from joining Brett Lindros? How well will Fernando Pisani adapt to suddenly being the team's second best RW? Can Robert Nilsson check his hat, or will he and Hemsky combine for more giveaways and a bald coach? Will Ryan O'Marra overcome his injuries, or will he be another player with undeniable talent done in by injuries and an inability to transition to the bigs? Will Patrick Thoreson live up to his nickname, or is he another Scott Fraser without the big payday? With a first line power play unit of Nylander and Hemsky, with Pitkanen anchoring the point, will the Oilers ever get a shot on goal with the man advantage, or will we be wishing again for the days of Spacek and Bergeron missing the net (but at least they shot it)?
Finally and most importantly, where does all this leave the Oilers? Probably finishing last in the Northwest, out of the playoffs by January, and "wait til next year, boys." I'm not going to call for Kevin Lowe's head. He made a poor decision last year, but I'm not sure what he could have done differently. This year, you can say he's not done enough, but at least he's done *something*, and he's standing by his decisions. In the Canadian Forces as a young noncom (or officer), you might be faulted for a wrong decision, but the biggest sin is not making any decision at all. Leadership is making a decision, then looking back only for lessons learned. Kevin Lowe, for all his faults, is a true leader. His decisions over the next year will tell us if he's good, poor, or just the poor schmuck in charge of a sinking ship. Like his picture, is he leading or following? Hard to tell right now. Either way, he's definitely made a decision and he's going to try.
(Photo from Oilers Heritage.)