EDMONTON – Having sold fans on the merits of a structured and orderly rebuild the past three seasons, Edmonton Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini isn’t looking for quick fixes between now and Monday’s trade deadline.
While the needs of a 29th-place team that has already finished 30th in back-to-back seasons are many, Tambellini has been preaching short-term pain in the name of long-term gain. That isn’t about to change.
Tambellini’s most pressing matter in the next five days is deciding whether to sign forward Ales Hemsky to a new contract or risk losing him to unrestricted free agency July 1 if he doesn’t trade him.
“A lot of years, the trade deadline can be a distraction and it can be stressful,” said fifth-year centre Sam Gagner. “Not that it isn’t a distraction this year, but it does feel a little different.
“We’re obviously not in the position we want to be, and you kind of expect changes to come, but as a team we kind of know where we stand and we want to continue to grow as a group.”
While the Oilers haven’t made the gains in the standings they hoped for, fading after an 8-2-2 start, the feeling is the team is better in terms of personnel and the rebuild is on schedule.
“The courage to stick with the plan is organization wide,” Tambellini said recently. “We know where we’re going. We know what we have. We know the good things that are happening within the organization.”
With first overall picks Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to show for those 30th-place finishes the past two seasons and 2008 first-rounder Jordan Eberle, Tambellini has some key pieces to build around.
“We’re not a 29th-place team,” said defenceman Ryan Whitney. “I know, how many times can you say that? But we’re really not.
“We’ve had a lot of guys out with injuries and that’s been a factor. We have another draft pick coming and if we can stay healthy . . . We’re looking forward to next year. You don’t need to rush to fix this right now.”
The Oilers have questions in goal. Nikolai Khabibulin is 39 and Devan Dubnyk has yet to prove he’s ready to take the reins. Depth on defence behind Whitney, Ladislav Smid, Tom Gilbert and Jeff Petry is a concern. There could be a big hole to fill on right wing behind Eberle if Hemsky is traded.
That recognized, Tambellini isn’t of the mind he has to address those questions and concerns in the next week, and insists he’s not willing to part with any of his young talent to do it in the name of expediency.
“I think as a manager you always have to be open to listening to any deal that’s out there that you feel can help your organization,” Tambellini said.
“I’ll say again, at no time are we going to be selling anything that is going to hurt our future, what we think is part of our core. If it’s something we feel is going to make us significantly better long-term and short-term, of course, we’ll consider it, but nothing for just a short-term gain.”
Whitney and Smyth have both been traded at the deadline. Whitney was acquired from Anaheim for Lubomir Visnovsky in March 2010. The Oilers traded Smyth to the New York Islanders in 2007 when contract negotiations stalled.
“They’re going to do what’s in the best interests of the hockey club,” Smyth said. If he (Tambellini) feels there are guys available to take at this time, he’ll do it. If he feels he needs to wait, I’m sure he’ll do that, too. All you can do as a player is accept that and compete.
“We’re in a rebuilding stage here with a lot of young guys. We’ve got to keep this young nucleus, but at some point you have to start pressing to become a competitive team.”
Given what Tambellini has said and that the Oilers aren’t in the midst of a playoff push, where adding one more two players might put them over the top, there’s not a lot of outward tension in the dressing room. Most of the questions surround Hemsky.
“Personally, a lot of us are kind of begging Hemmer to sign a two-year or a three-year deal,” Whitney said. “If you do trade him, it’s going to be for the future and it kind of sets us back a little bit.
“He’s a top-six forward who is hard to replace, so that’s the one thing everybody is a little bit nervous about. Everyone really likes him, but . . .”