Interesting news came out Monday that the Oilers had re-signed Andy Sutton to a one-year deal.
You know, “No. 7 defenseman — and this is a No. 7 defenseman on the Oilers — who isn’t very good and gets suspended all the time and essentially could be replaced by any Grade-C prospect the Oilers have kicking around Oklahoma City” Andy Sutton. The rumored payout of that deal is around $1.75 million, which is a lot for a guy like Sutton (see also: a guy who sucks) but since the Oilers won’t be coming within a mile or so of the cap anyway, it ends up not mattering. It’s a typical Tambellini move: One you can’t make much sense of and ultimately doesn’t much help the team.
But it was all the stuff GM Steve Tambellini had to say in the wake of that signing, and all that he didn’t say, that was more interesting than anything.
It was interesting because it was the third or fourth player who were rumored to be hot targets for the trade deadline but whom their GMs have pulled off the market by signing them, but the first that was truly baffling. Why re-sign Sutton, who by the way is currently 37 years old, when the more pressing concern is (or at least should be) getting Ales Hemsky locked up long-term instead? As was pointed out on Oilers Nation, this might be an issue of loyalty more than anything else.
Tambellini has made a big thing of being overly aggressive in signing guys who express a desire to play in Edmonton. That’s almost reasonable, given that, if “wanting to play in Edmonton” were a skill that translated onto the ice, it would be as rare as Steven Stamkos’ ability to seemingly breeze to 50-goal seasons. In addition, he seems to value guys who understand “the team’s direction,” even if it currently seems kind of nebulous and poorly-considered. Near as I or anyone else who’s watching with an impassive eye that the Oilers’ “direction” is to be really bad in perpetuity. Despite Tambellini’s protestations that the Oiler’s aren’t as bad as the stats or standings show, anyone who takes even the most cursory look at things like their shooting percentage (they’re very safely in the top third of the league) or any other “underlying” numbers that are used to determine whether a team is performing at, above, or below the levels they’re supposed to, will find that the Oilers are actually just as bad as their performance this year shows.
If anything, it shows that the Oilers impossibly hot start was just that: Impossible. Certainly, given how Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk have performed since then, that scorching October is the only reason they’re not in a more serious shoving match with Columbus for what would be their third-straight 30th-place finish.
And that’s what makes all this talk about “direction” so difficult to understand. The direction seems to be — and correct me if I’m wrong here — “Taytay, Ebs and The Nuge will score a billion goals” and then the speaker just kind of trails off and gets a distant look in his eye and mutters something about how Chris Pronger ruined everything and walks away. There’s no contingency outside of sitting back and letting these kids become superstars at some point in the indeterminate but probably near future. Guys are signed to play fill-in roles seemingly willy-nilly based on qualifications not entirely related to hockey so much as their willingness to nod cheerfully about whatever Tambellini outlines as the team’s future when negotiating a contract.
And all this goes without getting into the fact that Tambellini has entered into only the most preliminary talks with Hemsky and his agent about a new contract, despite the forward’s expressed desire to stay unless the Oilers are unwilling to accommodate him. As he points out, we’re down to just two weeks for the team to figure out if they want to go forward with him. On the one hand, it’s pretty easy to understand Tambellini’s trepidation to commit a good amount of money to Hemsky for the next few years given that the kids are going to want to get paid in a big way within that time, and that he is injury-prone, and not exactly producing like the Ales Hemsky of old this season. Of course, his current shooting percentage would also have to double to get anywhere near his career average, and his performance since returning from a shoulder injury has been more or less on par with Jordan Eberle’s, but, you know, GOALS and whatever.
People in Edmonton have made a big thing out of Hemsky wanting out of town regardless of him saying the right things about staying, and if the situation holds as-is in the next two weeks, he might get what is perceived to be his wish. Of course, the Oilers would also be selling him when his value is at an all-time low. Hemsky is ultra-talented and a mere 28 years old. Yes, he’s played 70-plus games just four times in his career, but he’s also traditionally close to a point per game. And this is on the Oilers, not exactly a murderers’ row in terms of point production over the last several years. Top-six forwards don’t just fall out of the sky, and as Oilers fans should have learned by now that it takes a lot of really bad hockey to get guys like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle. They need look no further than the development of Magnus Paajarvi, who looked for all the world destined for a top-six spot by now early last season and is instead shuttling back and forth between the AHL and NHL, producing very little in the way of points.
It’s hard to envy Tambellini’s job, given how poor his team is and has been, but he’s not making it any easier on himself signing mediocre guys to too-big deals because they’re willing to pay him some sort of lip service with respect to seeing some obscured genius the GM is working with while letting mildly-unhappy but immensely talented players — the likes of which Edmonton has no ability to attract — twist in the wind.
If only Hemsky told Tambellini he really understands the team’s direction. We wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.