Note: This is the first in what I hope will become a series of “What If” based articles.
To put it mildly, Kevin Lowe’s tenure with the Edmonton Oilers has been unsuccessful. To put it less than mildly, you might purchase a billboard in Edmonton to call for Lowe’s firing, which Edmonton fans actually did. With all those negative opinions, every terrible move Lowe ever made or was involved in has been picked over many times by now. However, one item that gets less attention is a move that Lowe ALMOST made.
On July 6th, 2007, the Buffalo Sabres matched a 7 year, 50 million dollar offer sheet from the Edmonton Oilers on then-RFA Thomas Vanek. If the Sabres did not match the offer, they would have received Edmonton’s next four first round draft picks in compensation. Vanek was coming off a breakout sophomore season in which he got 84 points and played in all 82 games. The Sabres had recently lost stars Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency, and were trying to stem the outflow of talent.
Knowing what we know now about the futures of Vanek, the Oilers, and the Sabres, there can be no doubt that Vanek’s general decline in play and the Oilers continued mismanagement would have made this deal disastrous for the Oilers. However, disastrous isn’t exactly a huge divergence from what would actually occur in Edmonton. The most significant consequence to come from this alternate history would have been an unbelievable stacking of the Buffalo Sabres.
First, let’s look at Vanek’s decline itself. Some may have been suspicious of Vanek’s breakout season, in which he almost doubled his rookie totals, but no one can deny that the young player looked talented. However, the 2006-07 season ended up being a career peak for Vanek, who would never reach those heights again. The very next season, Vanek declined to 64 points, a total he repeated one season after that, although is less games. In 2009-10, Vanek’s production dipped further, dropping to 53 points in 71 games. 2010-11 was a resurgence of sorts, as Vanek briefly approached PPG status again, but he soon returned to his middling results.
Of course, all of this occurred with the Buffalo Sabres. Could Vanek have performed better on the Oilers? Possibly, but probably not. Conveniently, we have an easy comparable for Vanek’s potential experience in Edmonton: former Anaheim forward Dustin Penner, who the Oilers signed to an offer sheet after failing with Vanek. Penner was, and remained, no doubt a much less skilled player than Vanek, but the roles and opportunities Penner received in Edmonton are comparable with what Vanek would have got.
Penner’s career was in a similar place to Vanek’s, except that Penner had a breakout rookie season instead of sophomore. Unlike Vanek, Penner somewhat maintained his production thereafter, but seemed to plateau. A terrible 2008-09 season was followed by a huge upswing to 63 points in 82 games for Penner in 2009-10, but that proved to be an anomaly as Penner settled into his average production of about 0.5 PPG. Decent production, but not what Edmonton gambled for when they made the offer sheet.
Who was Penner playing with? A general mix of struggling youngsters and less than competent vets. Ales Hemsky was his most skilled linemate, and Shawn Horcoff provided some skill and experience. Sam Gagner, Patrick O’Sullivan, and Gilbert Brule all spent significant time with Penner, and each was a once-lauded prospect that fizzled out. It does not look like Vanek would have had much support in Edmonton had he signed that offer sheet.
At least in the real world, Edmonton fans could soon take solace in the fact that these failures led to high draft picks and future stars like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. However, in the “Buffalo Doesn’t Match” universe, the Oilers don’t receive these picks, they forfeit them to the Sabres. It does not look likely that the Oilers would improve much if at all with Vanek instead of Penner, so those picks would likely remain just as high. Imagine, a world in which the Oilers sucked as bad as they did in reality, but never received endless high picks to compensate them? Truly, the darkest timeline for Oilers fans. They would have to wait until Connor McDavid’s arrival to even come close to beginning a rebuild.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the Buffalo Sabres. First, let’s establish that the Buffalo Sabres are a better drafting team than the Oilers. Not by a ton, but the difference is significant and will matter in our final assessment.
The Oilers’ drafting woes during this time are widely documented and briefly noted above, so I won’t go into too much detail here. During that same time period, the Sabres drafted players such as TJ Brennan, Paul Byron, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Zack Kassian, Brayden McNabb, Marcus Foligno, Mark Pysyk, and Joel Armia. Not a stable of stars, but many regular NHL names there. It’s probably around average NHL drafting, compared to Edmonton’s decidedly below-average picks.
Remember, the Sabres would retain their own draft picks in addition to the Edmonton picks they picked up. Without Vanek, the Sabres’ picks may have even been higher, so we will look at those possibilities now. From 2008-2011, the Sabres drafted Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Zack Kassian, Mark Pysyk, and Joel Armia with their first round picks. It is a somewhat hit or miss group, although all are NHL players. However, with a difference of a few draft spots, Buffalo could be sitting on much more of a gold mine.
In 2008, the Sabres could have really tanked without Vanek, and picked up one of Doughty or Pietrangelo. Even if they only gained a few spots, they could be looking at someone like Mikkel Boedker. However, even the results Buffalo actually got, Myers and Ennis, were great returns.
In 2009, the Sabres drafted a bit of a dud in Zack Kassian, but a few spots could have gained them a useful defenseman like Ryan Ellis. A couple spots in 2010 could exchange Mark Pysyk for Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko, or Nick Bjugstad. In 2011, Joel Armia could be Sven Baertschi or JT Miller instead.
However, this group of picks is highly speculative, and still nothing compared to the treasure trove that would have come from Edmonton’s picks. To keep things as accurate as possible, we’ll assume that the picks are in the same spots, but that the Sabres could take different players if they so chose.
With the 2008-2011 first rounders, Edmonton drafted Colton Teubert, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall. Two busts, and two great players. However, all could be improved upon. Instead of Teubert, the Sabres might have looked at a more skilled defenseman named Erik Karlsson. Instead of Paajarvi, how about Dmitri Kulikov? Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was a fine pick, but the Sabres might have preferred Gabriel Landeskog. You can’t go wrong with Taylor Hall, but if the Sabres got Tyler Seguin instead they might be even happier.
I realize all of the above is highly speculative and that history would not play out exactly this way had the Sabres not matched the Vanek offer sheet, but this provides a snapshot of the sheer amount of assets that would have come the Sabres’ way. This is one move that could have paved the way for a Buffalo dynasty.
Would it be worth giving up Thomas Vanek to receive Karlsson, Kulikov, Landeskog, and Seguin, as well as some upgrades on their own first rounders? Without a doubt. The Oilers dodged a bit of a bullet here, but the Sabres missed an enormous opportunity.