By mid-afternoon of the opening day of free agency, Oilers general manager, Steve Tanbellini, addressed all of the team’s most pressing needs in a single day. Although at first glance the moves look to be nothing more than standard boring checkers moves, these are clearly savvy chess moves by Tambellini. None of the players acquired are game changers, but it definitely makes the Oilers a much different team than the one that went into July.
The day began with the Oilers signing winger, Ben Eager, to a three year, $3.3 million deal. Eager is the prototypical energy provider, and instantly replaces recently departed JF Jacques as a bottom-six winger. Eager definitely has some baggage, as would be expected with a player who is now on his fifth team in five years. But he knows his role and does it well. Eager has 741 penalty minutes in 323 career NHL games, and averages around a hit a game, so he’s definitely not afraid to throw around his 6’2, 230 pound frame, and get under opponents skin. And he’s even got some scoring prowess, as should be expected from the former first round pick. The biggest advantage that Eager brings is his ability to play against any line, and not be a liability at either end of the ice. This should allow Eager to see enough ice time to be effective. Eager also stated his excitement about joining a young, talented roster, and the role he hopes to fill as a leader on the team.
Next was the addition of another bottom-six agitator in Darcy Hordichuk to a one year, $800,000 deal. With the signing of Eager already, and the need for a bottom-six centre much more pressing, I wasn’t a big fan of bringing in Hordichuk. But then he offered up the quote of the day, and really started to win me over: “Hopefully Vancouver’s going out and getting a tough guy, because I’m coming after them. Calgary, too. It’s payback time.” Like Eager, Hordichuk is a 6’1, 215 pound agitator, who averages around two hits a night, and has amassed 1074 penalty minutes over 495 career NHL games.
Then came my favorite signing of possibly the entire first day of free agency, with Edmonton nabbing former third overall pick, Cam Barker, for a minuscule one year, $2.25 million contract. Barker was the first defenseman off the board in the 2004 draft, taken right behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, and has so far failed to live up to expectations due to a combination of poor opportunity and general mismanagement. But at only 25 years old, there’s definitely room to grow for Barker, and he could prove to be a long-term answer as a top four defenseman for the Oilers. And at 6’3, 215 pounds, with 263 penalty minutes in 271 games, and roughly a hit a night, the offensively gifted Barker can definitely make his presence felt on the defensive end as well. And the best part of all was hearing that Edmonton was on top of Barkers’ destination wish list, and he wanted to make sure that a deal got done quickly.
Later came one of the more shocking acquisitions of day one, when center, Eric Belanger, agreed to a three year, $5.25 million dollar deal with the Oilers. This was shocking because of Bellanger’s negative comments towards Winnipeg, and his lack of desire to play there. As a result, even though he was at the top of my wish list of potential free agents, I didn’t picture him as a realistic target for the Oilers. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Belanger stated his excitement to join the team, and really likes the direction that the team is headed. And as an established player in the face-off circle, and his strong two-way game, there could not have been a more perfect player brought in than Eric Belanger.
Tambellini didn’t stop at free agent signings. He went out and traded Kurtis Foster to Anaheim for hulking blue liner, Andy Sutton. The 6’6, 245 pound giant averages around three hits and three blocked shots a game, and has 1105 penalty minutes over 624 games. What’s most impressive about Sutton his his career -25 +/-, despite playing on some pretty bad teams in his career (two years in Minnesota, five years in Atlanta, three with the Islanders, and a stop in Ottawa). Sutton fills a defensive defenseman role, and sticks to the theme of adding big bruisers to the Oilers lineup.
After filling all of the Oilers most pressing needs right of the bat, it’s tough to no get some really high hopes for the Oilers in both the short and long term. Tambellini sent a message to the rest of the league that Edmonton won’t be an easy night on the schedule any longer. They added three legitimate enforcers in Eager, Hordichuk, and Sutton, have hard-nosed competitors in Barker and Belanger, and will be a team with a good mix of size and skill. They shored up their defense with Barker and Sutton, and suddenly it doesn’t look so bad with Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid, and the winner of the Jeff Petry, Taylor Chorney, Theo Peckham, Alex Plante, Colten Teubert camp battle rounding out the defensive corps. And they have the perfect bottom-six centre for that team in Bellanger. With the increase of size and grit, the odds of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing with the big club this year also went up, which only boosts the skill level on that roster.
Despite the increase in size and grit, I think the most important thing that can be taken away from all of this is all of the recently acquired players excitement to join the Oilers organization. It could be a start to dispelling the notion that Edmonton is an unattractive city to play in, and should lead to more players wanting to join the team in the future. Thus is such a trend that goes hand-in-hand with building a strong team with a strong future of being a longterm contender.
The Oilers will still probably finish around the eighth worst in the league, which will be a definite improvement over back-to-back last place finishes. But after that, this team should really grow and be able to springboard their way into the 2013 playoffs, where they should be a mainstay for at least the next decade. It’s a great time to be an Oiler fan.