Pain not over yet for Oilers as tough roster decision looms

When you inherit the Edmonton Oilers, as incoming general manager Peter Chiarelli has, you get the bad with the good.

Along with a decent core of young talent comes the fact the team has missed the playoffs for nine straight springs, and is likely to tie a National Hockey League record (Florida) by missing for a 10th time in 2015-16.

Why have the Oilers been this bad? Player procurement.

Bad drafting, bad signing, bad trading. That’s why you have a bad team. Not that complicated, is it?

Chiarelli made a few nice tweaks this past summer, but there was an inevitability that his first training camp would result in some moves that would reflect poorly on his predecessors. This weekend, those moves had to be made.

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Chiarelli placed goalie Ben Scrivens and defenceman Nikita Nikitin on waivers. As of this writing, Nikitin had been assigned to the minors, while Scrivens will have to wait until noon Eastern on Monday to get the same plane ticket.

But the pain is not over yet in Edmonton. Next up will be a decision on Andrew Ference, the Oilers captain who simply has run out of gas as an NHL player.

Nikitin, whose acquisition is owned by former Columbus GM and current Oilers senior vice-president of player personnel Scott Howson, was a complete and total bust in Edmonton. He was handed a two-year, $9-million deal prior to last season, and rewarded his new team by arriving in poor condition, before being hurt much of last season. He is said to be in better shape this fall, but still a wheezing Nikitin appeared the most taxed player on the ice at times during camp.

He simply has not shown an ability to play the game at an NHL level since being signed by the Oilers, and the fitness component speaks to his character. That signing was a total fail by former GM Craig MacTavish and his lieutenant, Howson.

Scrivens was borne of necessity, as the goaltending in Edmonton has been perhaps the 30th best in the NHL during MacTavish’s tenure. Edmonton signed him to a two-year, $4.6-million deal, and this fall he was beaten out at camp by $1 million goalie out of Sweden, Anders Nilsson.

So Chiarelli gulped hard, and buried $6.8 million in salary in AHL Bakersfield over the weekend in Nikitin and Scrivens (once Scrivens clears waivers). Even still, there will be an elephant in the Oilers’ room, and that elephant is wearing the ‘C’ as Edmonton’s captain.

Ference, who Chiarelli had cut loose in his former job as the Boston Bruins GM, was signed by MacTavish to a four-year, $13 million deal that still has two seasons to run (this one and next). The problem is, as training camp comes to a close, Ference’s game does not rank among the Top 6 in Edmonton — despite the fact the Oilers can not claim a defensive corps in the top half of the NHL as far as quality.

The Oilers were quite happy to retain Ference as captain while playing him on the third pairing, relying on his rock-solid conditioning, off-ice habits, and the example he sets as one of the most community-minded players in the game. So what if he’s the sixth defenceman? He’s still one hell of a leader, they would have said.

After training camp however, it turns out that young Griffin Reinhart is ahead of Ference. As is new acquisition Eric Gryba, and every other defenceman on Edmonton’s roster. So now, behind the closed doors of the coach’s office, head coach Todd McLellan is wondering: “Can I have a captain who isn’t in the Opening Night lineup? Who might not dress for more than half the games, if people stay healthy?”

Sure, injuries are inevitable. Especially on the blue-line. But what if Ference’s game doesn’t get any better? Can a player be the captain, then go out there and get walked by younger, faster opponents on a nightly basis?


So, as Phase XII of the Oilers rebuild gets underway — with a 6-1-1 pre-season, we might add — Edmonton is about to have $6.8 million in salary ($4.9 million in cap space) buried in the minors, and another $3.25 invested in a seventh defenceman.

That’s a cool $10 million in salaries for owner Daryl Katz, spent on players that simply can’t make the Opening Day lineup. The good news is, only Ference has two years remaining — Scrivens and Nikitin’s contracts are done after this season.

Good news. They need more of that in Edmonton.

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