March 4, 2003
Can Oilers make rent-a-player deal in the next 8 days?
By DAN BARNES
When the term "rent-a-player" gets tossed around the NHL, it's not
supposed to land near here.
The trade-deadline rental arrangement, usually involving the exchange
of skilled youth or draft picks for a veteran defenceman who plays 25
minutes a night or a forward who scores 25 goals a year and earns more
than $3 million annually, is the stuff of Detroit, Colorado, Toronto,
St. Louis, Philly, New York and Dallas. A transaction like that
epitomizes how the rich tinker with their lineups in preparation for
the playoff run. They cover the last couple of pay periods on another
big ticket in the hope that he's the last piece of the Stanley Cup puzzle.
In Edmonton, particularly at this time of year, the Oilers are merely
puzzling. Winless in forever; dealing with injuries to core players
Ryan Smyth, Jason Smith, Mike Comrie and Mike York; suffering through
a prolonged slump with goalie Tommy Salo, they are hardly one man away
from catching fire. Unless self-immolation counts.
So it is with a certain amount of incredulity that we consider Oilers
GM Kevin Lowe's hopes and/or prospects for a rent-a-player deal in the
next eight days. It sounds like a game he shouldn't be able to play;
one with rules that run counter to small-market economics, the
dollars-and-sense reality which forms the basis for everything Lowe
does with his payroll.
However, if somehow he finds short-term room in the budget for
somebody like Chris Gratton, and he's willing to give up youth or a
rare commodity like Georges Laraque, one supposes it's not impossible.
"The rent-a-player thing, it's tough to say we need anybody like
that," said winger Dan Cleary. "It depends who it is, if it could
help. Maybe we are one player away. Who knows?"
They are a precious few more ties and losses away from being punted
out of the eighth and
final playoff spot, that we know for certain. Their bumbling has
allowed Nashville, L.A., Phoenix and Chicago to make a game of it down
to the wire. The Oilers have done this to themselves by gagging on
leads. And they will tell you that they aren't waiting for Lowe to
save them by making a big trade. They will tell you they have enough
talent, when healthy, to compete.
"I don't see anybody in our locker-room waiting for somebody to come
in and save the day," said Cleary. "Our lineup is short four solid
players. When we get a healthy lineup, we're as good as whatever is
out there. We know that. I think everybody out there knows that."
On Monday, everybody in the room was at least saying it.
"We know (a big trade is) not the answer," said defenceman Janne
Niinimaa. "If somebody does feel that way, it's wrong. This is what we
have, nobody is going to save us. Anything like that, that might creep
in at a time like this, is unacceptable. The answer is in the mirror:
'What can I do to get us going?' "
Sure, it's an admirable stance. But Lowe is asking himself the same
thing and he's a few years removed from being able to do it on the
ice. It's the general manager's job to deliver the pieces of the
puzzle to the coach and time is running out on Lowe's ability to do it.
But Oiler fans shouldn't give up hope altogether because Lowe has some
expendable assets and the popular Laraque is foremost among them.
Despite the fact he has been ineffective as a physical and offensive
force for much of the year, the really big men in this game hold their
If Lowe could wrangle a second-line scorer out of a non-playoff,
preferrably non-western team for Laraque, it might be enough to shake
up the roster, something he didn't manage last season.
Lowe dealt Tom Poti for York prior to last year's deadline. It
didn't pay off in any major way until this season when York became an
incredibly valuable member of an inconsistent forward corps.
That swap was done out of necessity -- Poti was a target for the
boo-birds at Skyreach Centre late in the season -- while Lowe has no
such problem this year as the crowd has taken to booing every Oiler
off the ice.
There should be no safety in those numbers and there should not be an
Oiler sitting on his hands waiting for some help.
"It's impossible to play that way. You can't play hoping that Kevin is
going to make a deal to save this hockey club," said Anson Carter.