EDMONTON – Seven new players, the departure of the team’s captain and plenty of unfinished work left Craig MacTavish with mixed feelings after his first day of free agency as the Edmonton Oilers general manager.
The highlight Friday was the addition of veteran defenceman Andrew Ference. The newcomers, however, mostly bring depth to the roster. MacTavish still needs to plug several significant holes in the lineup, beginning with a top-six forward with size.
“We got a lot more depth,” MacTavish said at the end of the day that began with him trading 13-year Oiler veteran and team captain Shawn Horcoff to Dallas for young defenceman Philip Larson and a 2016 draft pick.
“A bittersweet day,” he said of the Horcoff deal. “It’s one of those deals that’s right for both sides. Horc had become a bit of a lightning rod around here. I was the guy who gave him the captaincy, saw him come in here as a young player and really develop into a guy who was a first-line centre on a team that was one game away from winning a Stanley Cup.”
MacTavish said Ference, who signed a four-year contract worth US$13 million, is a key addition to what has been a perennially thin blue-line. Ference will count $3.25 million against the salary cap.
The 34-year-old Edmonton native was a key part of the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup final, though there was no room for him to return to Boston because of salary-cap issues and plenty of young defencemen coming up through the ranks.
Ference joins a defence corps that includes Justin Schultz, Ladislav Smid and Nick Schultz.
“Andrew Ference is a really big piece for us. Our depth on defence we have substantially improved. I’ve had my eye on him all year thinking he would be a perfect fit for our group,” said MacTavish.
“He’s a guy who is a warrior, had great experience, is still playing at a very high level. When I talked at the end of the year about the need for our group to better understand the commitment level necessary to have success, Andrew’s the guy who not only can articulate that, but he demonstrates it by the way he plays.”
In 760 career NHL games, Ference has 37 goals and 156 assists. He was a part of the Bruins’ Cup-champion team in 2011.
The Oilers also signed a pair of former Phoenix Coyotes—centre Boyd Gordon and goaltender Jason Labarbera.
Gordon signed a three-year deal with Edmonton. He has 122 points in 486 games with Washington and Phoenix. He was ranked eighth in faceoffs last season, winning 57.3 per cent.
“Boyd Gordon was a significant signing,” said MacTavish. “With Horc’s departure we needed to find a centreman…he’s one of the best faceoff men in the league. And I like the fact he wanted to sign a shorter term deal.”
Labarbera signed a one-year contract. The veteran backup spent the last four seasons with the Coyotes.
The Oilers also signed forward Jesse Joensuu, who has played 67 NHL games with New York Islanders, to a two-year deal. Minor-league forward Ryan Hamilton and Will Acton also signed up for two years each.
“It’s my first experience through free agent frenzy at the helm,” said MacTavish, who was hired to replace Steve Tambellini in April. “Lots of moving parts, lots of strategy. It was rewarding in some ways and disappointing in other ways. Some players you’re able to land and other players you’re disappointed because you don’t get that opportunity.”
The one player he went after hard but failed to sign was forward David Clarkson, who elected to sign with Toronto.
“I was really disappointed when I heard he was not going to be coming to Edmonton. Really had a good feel for him, thought this guy was an Oiler.”
MacTavish said he isn’t yet finished remaking the Oiler roster.
“There are still a few significant holes. We have some pieces we can try to move to fill some of those holes and we’re hopeful we can do that. Once the free agency frenzy ends there’s going to be teams that have needs and we’ll focus in on those teams to see if we have a fit to try to help us.
“The one thing we didn’t address enough of here is the toughness aspect so we’re going to go back and continue to beat the bushes to try to find that element.”