For going on 10 years now, a succession of Edmonton Oilers’ general managers have found themselves in the same desultory position at the NHL trading deadline: Obliged to sell off player assets to get help for some future date when their fortunes might finally turn for the better.
The future is inching ever closer – and not just in Edmonton, where the Oilers appear poised to snap a decade-long playoff drought, but elsewhere across Canada. On Friday morning, with less than a week to go until the 2017 NHL trading deadline, four teams in addition to the Oilers – the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames – were all clinging tenaciously to playoff berths in the oh-so tight NHL standings.
Compare that with last year, when not a single Canadian-based NHL team qualified for postseason play, a development that created so much anxiety that it’s a wonder the government didn’t launch a royal commission.
The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. Two years ago, there was a brief flicker of hope. Five teams – the Canadiens, Senators, Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks – all made the playoffs, but only two advanced to the second round, where both Calgary and Montreal were summarily dismissed. Before that, you had to go all the way back to 2003-04 to witness five Canadian teams compete in the postseason. One – Calgary – made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing.
Thankfully, the payoff for last year’s across-the-board blundering was significant in Toronto and Winnipeg, where the Leafs and Jets both landed generational talents (Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine) in the annual NHL entry draft. Edmonton landed its Messiah two years ago in Connor McDavid who, in just his second NHL season, is leading the league in scoring.
In addition to raising hopes for Stanley Cup playoff success, the presence of all these Canadian teams in the playoff mix has also changed how they approach the NHL trading deadline. The Oilers, for example, are shopping rather than selling – for a back-up goalie, for help in the faceoff circle and, maybe if it all falls into place, for experience up front to help mitigate all that raw youth that will be seeing postseason action for the first time.
But knowing Edmonton’s window to compete for a championship is just barely inching open, Oilers’ general manager Peter Chiarelli has made his strategy clear: He is not going to pull out all stops this year, trying to land a short-term fix that might enhance his team’s playoff chances.
Instead, he is judiciously seeking a tweak or two, and hoping the impending return of defenceman Darnell Nurse and the continuing development of top prospect Jesse Puljujarvi in the minors ultimately can give his team a necessary late-season push.
“There are areas we can tinker with, and I think the team deserves it, based on being in the playoff conversation,” Chiarelli said last week. “But we made a lot of moves in the summer [primarily trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson] and they’re coming around. I’d rather see them play out.
“Things can fall in your lap … but I don’t see us being heavily involved in [the rental] market. I just don’t think it’s the right time for this team. Having said that, there are some areas where we can improve, and if you get into the playoffs, you never know. But that’s the approach we’re taking.”
In the salary-cap era, the job of an NHL GM has become increasingly complex, with so many of the decisions needing to be filtered through payroll commitments. The most public manifestation of their jobs involves player trades which, mostly, occur right now, before the trading deadline, and then again in June, in and around the draft.
Last year, both the Canadiens and Oilers made blockbuster deals on the same June 29 day – Montreal shipping P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber and Edmonton moving Hall to New Jersey for Larsson. Nowadays, those types of razzle-dazzle, franchise-altering deals almost always occur in the off-season when GMs with tangible assets to shop can interest all 30 teams in their available players.
The problem at the trade deadline is the list of suitors can be far shorter. Most teams simply don’t have the payroll flexibility or roster depth to add a warm body, no matter how talented.
It’s why, for example, the Colorado Avalanche – who have been listening to offers for two of their good young forwards, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog – are unlikely to deal either in the next few days, unless a team steps up with a bold unexpected offer.
The Colorado player most likely to move is Jarome Iginla, the future Hall Of Famer, who has never won a Stanley Cup championship in a 20-year career and would like one last crack at it before he retires.