RALEIGH, North Carolina — Keith Gretzky accomplished what Peter Chiarelli seemingly never could. He won a trade. His first one, as a matter of fact.
This isn’t to say that the Philadelphia Flyers got fleeced when they took Cam Talbot in exchange for Anthony Stolarz. Not at all. The Flyers got the support for young starter Carter Hart that they felt they required, and with Hart’s emergence, the 25-year-old Stolarz became expendable for Philly.
But let’s look at this deal from Gretzky’s perspective, an interim general manager in Edmonton who has inherited perhaps the most mismanaged cap in the National Hockey League today.
Gretzky was under pressure to drop $1.3 million in cap space by Tuesday, to make room for the return of defenceman Andrej Sekera, currently on a conditioning assignment in the AHL. That acute need put Gretzky in a position of weakness, and everyone across the NHL knew it.
Philly undoubtedly offered pending unrestricted free agents Brian Elliott and Michael Neuvirth in exchange for Talbot, but Gretzky held out for the inexpensive and younger Stolarz, who presents an interesting study for the remainder of the 2018-19 season. A pending Group 6 free agent, CapFriendly.com points out that as a 25-year-old with three or more accrued seasons, Stolarz must hit 28 games played this season to avoid UFA status and remain a restricted free agent in Edmonton’s control.
He must play 10 of the Oilers’ final 25 games this season to remain an RFA at season’s end.
So Gretzky dealt away a veteran UFA in Talbot, who surely was not coming back to a team that recently signed Mikko Koskinen to a three-year, $13.5 million deal. And he replaced him with Stolarz, a 25-year-old who they can play for 10 games, decide if they think he can share the net with Koskinen next season and, if the answer is no, cut him loose free of charge.
Stolarz makes $761,000 while Talbot makes $4.1 million, so Gretzky found the $1.3 million worth of cap space he required for Sekera.
“We were able to acquire a younger goaltender and free up cap space which is important for us,” Gretzky said. “Anthony is a big goalie who has played well this season and we are looking forward to having him join the organization.”
Stolarz is 6-foot-6, while Koskinen is 6-foot-7. His stats in Philly this season, behind a team that’s marginally better than Edmonton, show a 3.33 goals against average and a .902 saves percentage. Average numbers, at best.
So the Oilers’ task is to decide if he can be coached into a guy that you can trust enough to share the net with a relatively unproven Koskinen. If not, they’re in the backup goalie market, no different than they were going to be anyhow with Talbot on the move.
It’s Gretzky’s first move as interim general manager, and one that begins to dispel a commonly held — and erroneous — thought process regarding Wayne Gretzky’s younger brother.
If you’re looking at Keith Gretzky and thinking he is in this position because his brother is part of the Oilers’ Old Boys Club, you are sadly mistaken. Keith Gretzky has served as Director of Amateur Scouting for both the Arizona Coyotes and the Boston Bruins, before Chiarelli brought him to Edmonton as an assistant GM.
He has put in his time in junior and college rinks around the world, and as the Oilers’ farm team in Bakersfield reeled off their 14th straight win Friday, the uptick in the farm system is clearly starting to show.
Under Chiarelli, the rest of the organization has been a disaster. But under Gretzky’s watch on the amateur side, drafting and the farm system has vastly improved.
Today, he is simply minding the store until President and CEO Bob Nicholson hires a new GM. Gretzky made it clear when we spoke with him this week, “We need to get rid of money. That’s our biggest thing.”
He always could have created the cap space required for Sekera by dealing a player like, say, Brandon Manning, and attaching a third-round pick to him in exchange for a sixth rounder. But that was a last resort he did not have to resort to.
“That would be the last thing we want to do,” Gretzky said. “That’s our bread and butter for getting better, our picks. I don’t see that being something we have to do.”
Now, with Talbot moved, he’ll focus down on lightening his cap load by moving players with term left on their deals. If he can do that, and actually make his team better, then Oilers fans might experience the winning end of a trade again, something they became unfamiliar with under Chiarelli.
“We want to add wingers,” Gretzky said. “Our defence, I think, is going to be fine, maybe tweak it a bit. But we need forwards. That’s what we need, and we’re looking.”