The message at the end of the 2008-09 season was clear: "It is a priority to make the Springfield Falcons better via free agency". We're ten days into the feeding frenzy and so far the Oilers have only signed one impact AHL player while the list of available players gets rapidly smaller every day.
Here's a list of the players from the Falcons' roster last season who are currently not part of the team: Tim Sestito (traded to NJ for a conditional pick - a 7th if he plays in 25 NHL games for the Devils), Guillaume Lefebvre (UFA), Tyler Spurgeon (not qualified), Stephane Goulet (not qualified), Charles Linglet (UFA), Shane Willis (UFA), Hans Benson (UFA), Bryan Young (not qualified), Mathieu Roy (UFA), Mike Gabinet (UFA), Sebastien Bisaillon and Danny Sabourin (UFA). That's 12 players of various levels of talent off the roster.
The list of RFA players is also notable: Gilbert Brule (pencilled in for NHL duty), Ryan Potulny, Ryan Stone, Rob Schremp, Devan Dubnyk, Colin McDonald and Liam Reddox. That's another 7 players.
After two years of struggling in the minors, there is a real possibility that Slava Trukhno may choose to stay in Europe. He is still a player the Oilers want to have in Springfield as they believe he may turn the corner under the tutelage of Rob Daum. That said, the last indication I got was that it wasn't a guarantee that the Russian/Dane would return because the phrase "we expect him to come back" was used.
All of the RFA players are expected to be back with the possible exception of Schremp who needs to clear waivers and likely hopes that won't happen. He could also opt to head to Europe for a bigger pay day and a higher-level playing opportunity but my understanding is that his preference is to wait and see if another NHL club plucks him off waivers. Schremp (seen above sitting with Jeff Tambellini at the 2008 AHL All-Star game) recorded just 7 goals last year.
My hunch is that Bryan Young will end up returning on a minor league deal and that the door may not be completely closed for Tyler Spurgeon to do the same thing.
As of Friday July 10th, Edmonton has managed to land two free agents who will make their mark in the minors - one by scoring, the other by scarring.
Chris Minard was an AHL All-Star last year as he racked up 34 goals and 57 points in 54 games. He's not old enough to take up a AHL Veteran roster spot (260 pro games) but he's definitely an impact player and one that I know head coach Rob Daum is very pleased to have in the fold.
"He played extremely well for Wilkes-Barre last year and he was around for [Pittsburgh's] Stanley Cup run," Assistant GM Kevin Prendergast told me, "What he does is score. If he can get his skating up another notch more I think he could actually be a potential call up for us."
Minard is a 6'1, 200 lb left winger although he spent some time at center during his OHL career in Owen Sound, Oshawa and Toronto.
The other newcomer is of far less significance but with his 6'4 and 235 lb frame, Matt Nickerson (left) is expected to provide the Falcons with heavyweight toughness. He'll never be mistaken for a skill player but I'm told he can line up as a forward or a defenceman and that after two seasons in Finland he should at least be able to get around a North American rink as a skater.
Johan Motin, Alex Plante and Milan Kytnar are expected to slide into the line up in Springfield, the two defenders essentially filling the holes left by Roy and Gabinet/Bisaillon/Young. But so far... that's it. 12 players gone from the roster and only 2 free agents and 3 rookies coming in to replace them. I know the organization is still actively shopping but if they can't land some fish into the boat soon, those vacancies are going to end up being filled by ECHL players.
Assuming all of the RFAs do return, the forward lines might look something like this:
Minard - Stone - Potulny
Trukhno - X - Schremp
X - O'Marra - McDonald
Lerg - Paukovich - Kytnar
I know that Edmonton would like to get Charles Linglet back under contract. He had 16 points in 21 games with the Falcons last year and could easily slip onto the second line LW spot, possibly forcing Schremp (if he's back) to the middle with Trukhno on his off-wing.
However, the rest of the forward positions are still needing to be filled and while I know the Oilers are negotiating with a few free agents, top caliber AHL players are being snapped up by the rest of the league:
- Graham Mink gone to Florida/Rochester.
- Darren Haydar, Brett Skinner, Brian Willsie, David Jones and Matt Hendricks are all now with Colorado/Lake Erie.
- Carolina/Albany signed Steve Goertzen.
- Dany Sabourin and Drew Fata are now with Providence.
- Jason Krog is back with Atlanta/Chicago along with goalies Drew MacIntyre and Peter Mannino.
- Calgary/Abbotsford landed Jason Jaffrey.
There are good players available for the taking but there are a couple of hurdles in Edmonton's way; a self-imposed budget for the minor league team and the lofty asking price of those talented players.
Alex Giroux (left) led the AHL in scoring last year and is looking to cash in on that with a 1-way contract which would guarantee him in the neighborhood of $500K to play in the minors. He scored 60 goals last year and would definitely take an average team and vault them into excellent status. But paying $500K to a player on the farm, like Mathieu Roy last year, is not something Edmonton wants to do.
Ryan Vesce is a 2-time AHL All-Star and is definitely someone who is high on the list for teams looking to bolster their farm club. However he's after a 2-year deal with a 1-way contract in the second year. He might get it from someone but I find it hard to believe that it would be the Oilers. Vesce is 5'8 and I can't see the big club calling up players that size when their NHL roster has already been deemed too small by the new GM. However, on the farm he might very well be Springfield's captain, that's how highly some in the organization feel about him.
According to NHLPA.com (since removed), Chris Minard is going to be paid $550K by the Oilers this year - I'm not positive but I assume that is a 2-way deal. assuming that's the same ballpark that Giroux and Vesce want to play in (and rightfully so) then I get the sense that it's too rich for Edmonton.
Which I honestly don't get.
AHL contracts do not count against the NHL salary cap right? Is a million bucks too much to ask for those two players who, when added to the mix already in Springfield, would practically guarantee a playoff spot for the Falcons? Isn't having your prospects on the farm surrounded by winners exactly the type of development the organization should be striving for? Isn't that a smart way of spending your money?
I'm told the Oilers are currently sitting at 45 NHL contracts; would not vastly improving the Falcons by signing those two impact players, even if it bumped the contract count to 47, be worth it in the long run?
Obviously if they could get guys like Linglet, Vesce (pictured) and Giroux under minor league contracts that would be the perfect scenario. However, while Edmonton waits for the player demands to drop, the other 28 AHL teams continue to add and the risk increases that the Falcons will miss out completely.
Springfield should be better - a full season of Ryan Stone, Chris Minard and Ryan Potulny might be as good a line as there is in the league. They have the potential to add the above free agent trio to the mix and provide Springfield with a true powerhouse AHL line up, something their fans have not watched in recent memory.
How much better does this forward group look than the one I listed above:
Minard - Giroux - Vesce
Linglet - Stone - Potulny
Trukhno - O'Marra - McDonald
Lerg - Paukovich - Kytnar
x-Schremp gone on waivers
The blueline is again looking very young and could benefit greatly from the addition of an AHL veteran. Jake Taylor is the senior player right now and behind him are Taylor Chorney, Theo Peckham, Cody Wild, Matt Nickerson plus rookies Alex Plante and Johan Motin. Jordan Benfeld may still be allotted for Stockton.
I fully expect Edmonton to add a vet to the mix and won't be surprised if they try and raid one of this year's AHL finalists to do it. Manitoba had Zack Fitzgerald, a defensive defenceman with some size and a +13 rating who is now a UFA. Hershey, the Calder Cup winners, had a young blueline partially led by Dean Arsene (pictured), a big and experienced defenceman that would provide sound leadership for the Falcons. [Edited to remove Staffan Kronwall mention who has already been signed.]
In goal it's going to be Devan Dubnyk's show but as I mentioned before, Aaron Sorochan might be a player to watch at camp in the fall. The former U of A Golden Bear has an opportunity to earn a pro contract and might just end up playing behind Dubnyk in Springfield. He won't be the only free agent goalie at camp though as I expect an un-drafted WHL grad to also be invited in former Portland Winterhawks netminder Kurtis Mucha.
The bottom line is that the Falcons can be much better this year and the only thing right now standing in the way might be... the financial bottom line. The Oilers can either fill their AHL roster holes with expensive impact players that will make a big difference on the standings and in the development of their top prospects or, they can fill the holes with cheaper borderline AHL/ECHL players that will keep Springfield buried in mediocrity.
I've never met or spoken with Darryl Katz before but something tells me he doesn't settle for 'mediocre'.
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