It was December 2003, and the Edmonton Oilers and then GM Kevin Lowe were in the midst of a contract dispute with a rising young forward. An extension was looking unlikely and with the deadline for re-signing RFA’s soon approaching the Oilers had to make a deal or have the player sit out a year. Lowe searched for a deal, found one but then made a odd request. He commanded that the player pay back his $2.5M bonus to the team or the deal wouldn’t happen.
That player was Mike Comrie. The return was built around Corey Perry.
If you’re an Oilers fan this is a tale that is far too familiar and an example of the ineptitude that has led to the futility of a franchise. The once proud five time Stanley Cup Champions a shell of their former selves. It’s been 12 years and the thought of what could’ve been still gets some fans tied in a knot.
The Back Story
The Oilers drafted Comrie 91st overall in the 1999 NHL draft. If you’re curious some notable names that went after him to end the round were Branko Radivojevic (93rd – Colorado), Chris Kelly (94th – Ottawa), Mathias Tjarnqvist (96th – Dallas) and Brian McGrattan (104th – Los Angeles) early in the 4th round. Comrie had just come off a remarkable year scoring 19 goals and 44 points in 42 games in the NCAA with the University of Michigan.
The scouting report at the time had him pegged as a smaller skill forward with top six potential. His 5’9″ stature was thought to be a knock due to the increasing size and physicality of the NHL. Remember this is back when guys like Derian Hatcher had free reign and the clutch and grab trap game was gaining prominence, or infamy. So Comrie fell to the Oilers, had another solid offensive campaign in Michigan scoring 59 points in 40 games before joining the WHL Kootenay Ice in 2000-01 registering 79 points in 37 games.
Comrie had offense. The Oilers were impressed and he finished the year in Edmonton scoring 22 points in 41 games as a rookie. The following year he exploded onto the scene scoring 33 goals and 60 points in his first full season in the NHL, he followed that with 51 points in 69 games and made his second straight appearance for Canada at the World Championships. He was up for contract renewal and this should’ve been a shoo-in for the Oilers.
The problem however Comrie, then 24, had just completed his entry level deal (ELC) and was asking for a massive contract from the Oilers. This became the rift.
Edmonton being a small market team with an small internal budget was unable and unwilling to meet the number Comrie wanted. The reported base salary was for $1.025M during his three year ELC. Yet the bonuses attached to the contract netted Comrie a total of $5M. Remember this is the pre-salary cap era where there was no rookie maximum deal. In today’s NHL a top rookie will generally net a base salary of $925K with rookie bonuses bringing them up to $3.75M ($11.25M/3 Years). Add up Comrie’s salary and bonuses with inflation today that would be roughly $10.578M over 3 years.
The whole negotiations fell apart when Comrie rejected the Oilers qualifying offer of $1.13M, a 10% increase in salary as outlined by CBA at the time. Without a contract the Oilers held Comrie out of training camp and he requested a trade.
The Ducks Trade
To Anaheim: Mike Comrie
To Edmonton: F Corey Perry, 2004 1st Round Pick (D Ladislav Smid)
Bryan Murray was the GM of the Ducks at this time before moving on to join Ottawa. When the Oilers were unable to come to terms with Comrie and his agent Ritch Winter, the story goes that Murray made an inquiry and Lowe asked for Joffrey Lupul and Andy McDonald. Funny when you look back at this how these two were thought of in higher regard than the future Hart trophy winner.
Eventually Lowe and the Oilers were content with getting Corey Perry, the Ducks 28th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. Perry was the Ducks second 1st round pick, the first was Ryan Getzlaf who went 19th. To add to the package the Oilers would also get the Ducks 2004 1st rounder which turned into Ladislav Smid. It’s interesting how years later two of the guys linked to this deal eventually became Oilers in the Chris Pronger trade in the summer of 2006 (Lupul and Smid).
Related: The Undone Corey Perry Trade
Back to the deal the Oilers were happy with the return and even let the Ducks work out a deal with Comrie and Winter (a trade and sign essentially). Murray and Comrie came to terms on a deal that would pay him $1.65M per year. The catch? Lowe wanted Comrie to pay half the bonuses from his rookie deal a total of $2.5M.
Talk about ego and animosity, a difference over $500K in negotations and neither wanted to meet each other half way on this. Apparently the two sides would try to reconcile later in the fall to no avail.
The deal would fall through and Lowe squandered what could’ve turned into a huge win for the Oilers.
“This is not about vindication, it’s all about the Edmonton Oilers trying to get a deal that addressed today and tomorrow.” – Kevin Lowe
The Flyers Trade
To Philadelphia: F Mike Comrie
To Edmonton: D Jeff Woywitka, 2004 1st Round Pick (F Rob Schremp), 2005 3rd Round Pick (D Dan Syvret)
What the Oilers got in return for Comrie in the Flyers trade that took place was a defense prospect, a 1st and a 3rd round pick. The return looked good on paper but what it actualized to was a disappointment considering neither of the three players ended up having meaningful careers or became impact players for the Oilers.
Woywitka was a former Flyers 1st round pick (27th overall, 2001), who toiled in the Oilers farm system for parts of two seasons before being dealt in the Chris Pronger trade. He never played for the Oilers but bounced around in 278 NHL games between St. Louis, Dallas and the NY Rangers. Woywitka would leave to go play in Germany in 2013-14 season.
Related: Oilers Comrie Must Pay For Trade
The Oilers used the 2004 1st round pick (25th overall) on Rob Schremp who plummeted on draft day. Schremp would go on to have a stellar junior career and earned a considerable amount of hype for his offensive prowess. A lack of skating ability and defensive skill derailed what could’ve been an incredible career. Schremp moved up and down the organization for three seasons in pro before the Oilers moved on from him. He’d gain some traction with the NY Islanders for parts of two years before ending up in Atlanta and then Europe by 2011-12. He made a return to the AHL last year with the Portland Pirates (Florida Panthers affiliate) but will play in the Swiss League next season. His NHL career reads 114 games played and 54 points.
Edmonton picked Dan Syvret (81st overall) with the 3rd round pick acquired from the Flyers. Syvret would captain the 2005 London Knights to a Memorial Cup but never caught on despite being a steady AHL defender. He’d play just 59 NHL games but was a veteran of 644 AHL games scoring 327 points. He bounced between Edmonton, Philadelphia and Anaheim at the NHL level but has played for 11 different AHL franchises. He left to go play in Germany last season.
What Could’ve Been
There are a lot of blunders during the Lowe’s run as GM in Edmonton. The two big ones are 1) the Chris Pronger trade return during the summer of 2006 and 2) the Comrie/Perry trade. There are others but that’s a discussion for another day.
What prevented the Oilers from getting a franchise player was $2.5M, arrogance and ego. You can always ask what could’ve been but here’s what we know happened between Comrie and Perry in the years following the trade that fell through.
Comrie would go on to play just 21 games for Philadelphia before bouncing between Phoenix, Ottawa and the NY Islanders before returning to Edmonton as a UFA in 2009-10. He’d score 21 points in 43 games. Edmonton opted not to re-sign him and he signed a $500K deal with Pittsburgh the following year where he’d play just 21 games and score 6 points.
Comrie would tally 365 points in 589 career NHL games, a number that pales in comparison to the production of Perry. At the end of the 2016-17 season Perry has totaled 330 goals 664 points in 804 games.
Perry can claim being one of the winningest players in hockey history having essentially won at every level. A Memorial Cup, Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals and a World Championship gold medal lead off his team success. He’s also won a Richard and Hart trophy in 2011.
It’s safe to say the Oilers and Kevin Lowe shouldn’t have let $2.5M get in the way of acquiring what would one day become an world class talent.