Edmonton - July 6, 2013 - It started with the trading of captain Shawn Horcoff on Thursday evening and continued early Friday morning.
Everyone was expecting Craig MacTavish to be busy on the opening day of unrestricted free agency and the Edmonton Oilers GM did not disappoint.
The organization wasted little time in announcing a trio of the signings, veteran defenceman Andrew Ference, centre Boyd Gordon and goaltender Jason Labarbera.
While Edmonton fell just short of acquiring winger David Clarkson, ultimately losing out to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Oilers did manage to fill some glaring needs with all three signings and also added some much needed organizational depth, later in the afternoon.
There were those who felt Toronto Marlies blueliner Paul Ranger would have been high on the Oilers priority list come July 5th but at least for now, Ranger remains on the open market. Having said that, they did manage to bring in couple of former Dallas Eakins regulars, inking forwards Will Acton and Ryan Hamilton to two year extensions, as well as taking a flyer on Finnish forward and former New York Islanders draftee Jesse Joensuu.
The signing of Acton came as no real surprise, as Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer had hinted at the Oilers having interest in the twenty-five year old, on numerous occasions over the last week or so. From a statistical stand point, nothing jumps out at you about 6' 2" centre but it's believed he could challenge Anton Lander for a fourth line centre/extra forward role at training camp.
As for Hamilton, the AHL veteran is coming off a monster season in Toronto, scoring 30 goals in just fifty-six appearances with the Marlies in 2012-13. At twenty-eight years of age, he is likely being brought in as nothing more than an insurance policy should the Oilers run into injury trouble. That being said, with Edmonton's lack of offence from their bottom six and a possible left wing spot available inside the top six, Hamilton may get a chance to prove his worth come next September.
Joensuu appears to be a bit of a different story, as he was handed a two year/one way deal in the neighbourhood of $950,000 a season. Listening to MacT during the Oilers end of day presser, it sounds as though expectations for the former the second round pick, are for him to become a regular bottom six forward in 2013-14.
They are hoping the 6' 4" and 210 pound winger will bring a better all around game than either Teemu Hartikainen or Lennart Petrell had during their time in Oilers silks. Though that may be a bit of a stretch, as Joensuu has seen action in just sixty-seven games, scoring eight times, since being drafted back in 2006.
Obviously, he has been unable to secure a regular spot with the Isles but the big Finn is coming off a solid campaign with Assat Pori in the Finland SM-liiga, in which he collected twenty-five points in twenty-four games. Long shot? Perhaps but stranger things have happened.
Bringing us to the three key signings of the day. For those of you that read my blog with any sort of regularity, you are aware of my stance on all three guys. In my mind, Labarbera was the ideal replacement for Nikolai Khabibulin and have been hoping for months, that MacTavish would be placing in a call to the thirty-three year old come July 5th. What made the move even better, was being able to sign the veteran tender to a one year deal, for just $1 million.
When it comes to Gordon, everyone expected Edmonton would be in the mix for the faceoff specialist but in my opinion, he was a bit of a long shot. With Horcoff already in place, it seemed like nothing but wishful thinking, that the twenty-nine year old would pick the Alberta capital as his destination. However, that all changed the moment the Oilers placed their captain on the trade block.
Edmonton could now offer both money and opportunity for Gordon to slip into a third line role, something which would have been highly unlikely on a contending team. MacT sweetened the pot even more, offering up a three year deal at a cap hit of $3 million. It was definitely a bit of an overpayment for a guy who produces next to no offence but considering the situation the Oilers are currently in at centre, it was a risk worth taking.
Leaving us with Mr. Andrew Ference. Again, he was a guy I felt the Oilers should and ultimately would target but it was just a matter of where he would slot in on the depth chart. It seemed less likely they would go down the Ference route after signing Anton Belov but he clearly remained on their radar.
At thirty-four years of age, he is clearly on the back half of his career but he sure didn't look out of place on the Boston Bruins backend during their run to the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. The thirteen year vet logged major minutes during the post-season, trailing only Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg in ice time, playing his usual abrasive style of game.
At 5' 11" he is far from a big man but is always willing to engage physically and plays with a mean streak...something no current Oilers blueliner can claim to do, outside of possibly Ladislav Smid. Considered to be one of the better conditioned athletes in the entire league, Ference has always been able to move the puck and even at his advanced age, remains a very good skater.
He will unquestionably allow Eakins to lighten the load on Smid, who has been asked to do far too much in recent years, due to the lack of depth along the blueline. Like everyone else that currently plays D for the Oilers, Ference is not a top pairing guy but his addition should allow them to actually construct three NHL quality pairings, for the first time in ages.
Some will say MacTavish badly overpaid for the Edmonton native, handing him a four year deal at $3.25 million a year, but much like Gordon, it was a risk worth taking and one other teams would have surely jumped at. Let's not forget that both were unrestricted free agents, which is just another way of saying overpaid. It is the nature of the beast and something every NHL franchise has to dip into from time to time.
While these names may not register as "bold moves" for many across Oil Country, they are moves that unequivocally help improve the Edmonton Oilers current roster and overall depth. It might not be the splash some were hoping for but for his first kick at "Free Agent Frenzy" can, Craig MacTavish severed himself and the organization very well.