For some, the idea that major free agents would ever choose Edmonton is as ridiculous as a Steve Tambellini stand-up comedy hour. Those people might be right. Our city, fair though it may be, is no New York or Los Angeles. What chance do the Oilers have of landing a big fish in the off season? Now that the rebuild is [hopefully] nearing its end, Edmonton does have some advantages.
Suppose for a second that you are a player approaching Unrestricted Free Agency. You're old enough that the chances of you having a family in tow are pretty fair, and you probably want to put down roots somewhere. But that's not all you want. The team you go to is going to have to pay you handsomely for your services, and that team must have a chance to win both in the immediate and long-term future.
In this off season, the Oilers might be able to sell someone on all of those things.
Before I continue, it should be said that all 30 NHL teams will be glad to sign the big fish if they can, so the Oilers face an uphill battle as it is. However, only certain teams will be able to fit all the criteria that a free agent will be looking for in order to make a long commitment. Edmonton's status as a winter
hell wonderland works against the Oilers, but now there are some advantages to braving the snow.
For the time being, the Oilers have some cap space. Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins will all be in line for substantial raises in the next two years, but if they aren't wildly overpaid there shouldn't be too much difficulty squeezing them under the cap. After this season almost $1.5 million in cap space will be freed up after Brule's contract and Nilsson's buyout come off the books. Sheldon Souray's buyout cap hit will decrease from $2.4 million to $1.5 million next season before finally disappearing altogether. If Ryan Smyth is brought back his cap hit will certainly fall from its current $6.25 million. Cam Barker and Theo Peckham probably won't be back, which opens up another ~$3.3 million. Additionally, Eberle is the only one of the big three who can expect a raise that's north of $2 million beyond what he's currently taking home (a mere $1,158,333 this year).
More than $21 million in space opens up after this season, with key cogs Dubnyk, Petry, Gagner and Smyth to be signed. The money that doesn't go to Smyth will help to pay for the raises of other three, and dropping Barker and Peckham should cover the rest. So there's a little wiggle room to add a big name on defense, and unlike some teams on internal budgets the Oilers are free to spend to the cap. If a player is good enough it would be worth shoehorning them in, even if the contract is a big one.
The Oilers will be perfectly willing to lay down a lot of years for a big name free agent. Stability is something that every team could potentially offer, however, which begs the question of why a major player would want to roll the dice in Edmonton of all places.
A chance to win?
It seems strange, but in the future the Oilers will be able to offer a chance to win. And it won't just be a chance to win right now; it will be better than that.
The Stanley Cup is probably the most difficult trophy in sports to win - just ask Marian Hossa. Sometimes you need multiple cracks at it to finally get your name engraved. If you've already decided that you are going to commit to one team for a lot of years, that team better give you a chance to win every year. The Oilers are a long way from being a Stanley Cup contender, but they have a lot of rare and quality pieces in place, and should be adding another at this year's draft.
Some players - like Hossa - have been rewarded by going to up-and-coming teams that are not yet any good. Other recent examples include Brian Campbell in Chicago, Sergei Gonchar in Pittsburgh, and Zdeno Chara in Boston.
Naturally, a player like pending UFA Ryan Suter could choose to sign in Detroit where he would eventually replace Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstom. That does have its pitfalls, however. Pavel Datsyuk is still a great player, but he will turn 34 in July. Zetterberg will be 32 at the start of next season, and Franzen will be 33 in December. They are the core of a very strong team currently, but how will the Red Wings fare as those players age over the life of a long contract for a player like Suter? It's a question that every free agent will have to start asking as they mull over their choice of destination.
There are other teams out there with as much or more cap flexibility as the Oilers, some of which are also up-and-coming teams with loads of potential. The point is not so much that Edmonton has become the best option for NHL free agents, but that it shouldn't be at as much of a disadvantage as it once was. If the rebuild is to have any chance of success, that may be pivotal.