- Damien Cox, NHL
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"We're going to take three draft picks back, and given Kevin's recent performance, I expect them to be excellent picks."
-- Anaheim GM Brian Burke, August 2007, after deciding not to match an offer sheet from Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe for winger Dustin Penner
For months, it's been a game within the game.
The Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, it's fair to say, have been connected by a tether all season long, with the fate of the Oilers directly tied to the potential riches available to the Ducks in this summer's NHL entry draft.
When the Oilers signed restricted free-agent forward Dustin Penner to an offer sheet last summer, it set off one of the more acrimonious disputes in recent league history -- albeit featuring mostly one-way verbal bombardment -- between Ducks GM Brian Burke and Oilers GM Kevin Lowe.
To this day, the two men do not speak. At the winter GM meetings in Naples, Fla., Burke reiterated that the feud was still very much on, as were the sounds of silence, while Lowe basically continued to shrug, still wondering what the fuss was all about.
Penner's performance this season -- weak early, improved in recent months -- has been carefully watched, and there's no question the successful free-agent heist sent ripples of alarm throughout the industry, causing teams to hustle and sign their own restricted free agents during the season. Understand, if we're still in pre-Penner times, the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Ryan Getzlaf and Jason Spezza still might be unsigned.
But the other juicy element that has been part of the Ducks-Oilers dynamic has been the first-round pick that went from Edmonton to Anaheim in the Penner transaction, along with second- and third-rounders.
For the first five months of the season, it appeared Anaheim seemed destined to land a lottery pick with the Edmonton selection, and possibly might get a shot at the best teenage player in the world, Steven Stamkos of the Ontario Hockey League's Sarnia Sting.
Most defending champs, it's fair to say, don't have that fabulous prize awaiting them as they try to defend their title. Usually, they have only a low draft pick and a long list of teams hoping to pick top players off their roster around the corner.
As winter deepened, the Oilers' situation appeared to grow desperate as, one by one, veteran players were lost for the season with serious injuries. High-scoring defenseman Sheldon Souray, an unrestricted free agent signed by Edmonton last summer, packed it in for the year, as did center Shawn Horcoff, winger Raffi Torres and forward Ethan Moreau.
Horcoff was done at the 53-game mark, yet he still leads the team in goals, evidence of an Oilers attack that seemed destined to remain in hibernation all season as the team plummeted to as low as 14th place in the Western Conference. It also meant the Ducks, with the Oilers' pick, seemed likely to end up with a top-five pick, and therefore, by the draft lottery, a team with a shot at the No. 1 selection overall.
Other teams, of course, have known Edmonton's agony. In 1990, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded their 1991 first-rounder to New Jersey for defenseman Tom Kurvers, then were forced to watch months later as the Devils used the third overall selection to draft Scott Niedermayer.
It happened again to the Leafs six years later, when GM Cliff Fletcher moved the team's 1997 first-rounder to the New York Islanders in a deal that brought former Leafs captain Wendel Clark back for a second go-round. That ended up being the fourth pick overall, which the Isles used to grab goalie Roberto Luongo.
With Penner not doing a great deal in the opening months of the 2007-08 season, it seemed as though the Oilers might end up in a similar position.
As the Feb. 26 NHL trade deadline came and went, the draft selection seemed an obviously useful chip to play for a defending champion, but it also seemed as though Burke attached added value to the selection because of the Edmonton relationship and his poisoned friendship with Lowe, although Burke denied that.
"That pick is in play," he told The Hockey News. "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't listen to any team that expressed interest in it."
Except to Edmonton, right?
"That's correct," confirmed Burke at the Naples meetings.
As the deadline drew closer, Burke vowed he wouldn't move it simply for a rental player, and, in the end, the Ducks kept it amid rumors that if Toronto captain Mats Sundin had agreed to waive his no-trade clause, he might have been the one player for whom Burke would have parted with the Edmonton-acquired pick.
Then something unexpected happened. The Oilers got hot.
It started Feb. 24, two days before the deadline, with a home-ice win over Colorado, and continued the night of the deadline with a 4-3 shootout win over Detroit. Since those two wins, the Oilers have won eight of 10, suddenly thrusting themselves into the Western Conference playoff picture.
And out of lottery range.
As of Thursday,
the Oilers' pick would have been 11th going into the lottery, which means the Ducks, or the holder of that selection, could at best move up to seventh through the lottery because no team can improve its position by more than four slots.
It's certainly preferable, to say the least, than last season's stretch run in which the Oilers won two of their final 20.
While it's still a long shot that Edmonton will qualify for postseason play (it trailed eighth-place Colorado by five points after Wednesday with a big game against the Canucks on Thursday), the Oilers still have a very good chance to move up in the overall standings. Even if they can't make the Western playoffs, they could easily move past three or four Eastern Conference teams into 16th or 17th place.
No matter what, of course, the Oilers will miss out on a prospect. But there's a big difference in the embarrassment of missing out on blue-chippers like Stamkos, defenseman Drew Doughty (Guelph), rearguard Zach Bogosian (Niagara Falls) or defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (Niagara Falls) than those youngsters who will be available after the first six or seven prospects are taken.
Moreover, Penner's looking a lot less like a bust than he was earlier in the season. The hulking winger had only four goals by the end of November, but now is up to 20, and has amassed just three fewer points than he did all of last season in Anaheim with eight games still to play.
That said, he has only three in his past 18, so he's not exactly fueling Edmonton's late-season push. Instead, with so many veterans out for the season, it's been left to youngsters like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert, Kyle Brodziak, Curtis Glencross and Marc Pouliot to deliver the firepower. Goalie Dwayne Roloson, who lost his starting job to Mathieu Garon, has dusted off the mothballs and won three straight, including Tuesday's resounding 8-4 triumph over Phoenix.
"You have to give the young guys a lot of credit," Roloson told the Edmonton Sun. "From the beginning of the year to now, they've really grown."
Two players acquired directly or indirectly through the 2006 trade between the Oilers and Ducks that sent Chris Pronger to Anaheim are also helping Edmonton. Defenseman Ladislav Smid has played in 57 games for the Oilers, while rearguard Joni Pitkanen, acquired from Philly for Joffrey Lupul, the main acquisition of the Pronger deal, has played in 55 games.
For two teams led by men who don't speak, there's a fair bit of business that's gone on in recent years between the Oilers and Ducks that still has an impact today.
The next chapter will be played out on draft day.
As long as Burke doesn't get to walk on stage in the first, oh, 90 minutes of the proceedings in Ottawa on June 20, the Oilers and Lowe should be able to live with it.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
With the fate of the Oilers directly tied to the potential riches available to the Ducks in this summer's draft, Edmonton's late success is adding more fuel to the Burke-Lowe duel.