As the NHL moves ahead with its Return to Play plan, Last Word on Hockey is taking a look toward the offseason. In terms of building a franchise, the offseason is the most crucial time of the year for front offices. However, due to COVID-19, the short-term future of how this operates has seen sweeping changes. How teams respond to a multitude of changes this fall remains to be seen. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make.
The fourth and final segment of Offseason Primers sticks to the Western Conference, featuring the Pacific Division. Today, the Edmonton Oilers will go under the microscope.
Edmonton Oilers Offseason Primer
Pending Free Agents
The Oilers are in an interesting position, like most other teams who few themselves as emerging contenders. Despite an embarrassing qualifying round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks this past season, the Oilers (rightfully so) will look at themselves internally as a team with playoff aspirations. General manager Ken Holland will have his hands full this offseason as the team boasts a lengthy pending free agent list without the cap space to match.
The Oilers’ unrestricted free agents include Mike Green, Mike Smith, Riley Sheahan, Tyler Ennis, Patrick Russell, Brandon Manning, Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco, Brad Malone, Josh Currie, and Keegan Lowe. Shane Starrett is a Group Six UFA. Some of Edmonton’s youngsters are in need of new deals too, as Andreas Athanasiou, Matt Benning, Ethan Bear, Ryan Mantha, Ryan Kuffner, Angus Redmond, Nolan Vesey, Cameron Hebig, Logan Day, and William Lagesson are all pending restricted free agents.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Oilers have a limited amount of space to maneuver with this offseason considering their expansive pending free agent list. With only $10.15 million in cap space (via CapFriendly), Edmonton will be in tough to manage their squad under the flat salary cap. Holland will do his best to build this team into a true playoff contender.
Major Likely Departures
This is a major departure in name only. The Mike Green era in Edmonton lasted only two games, as he was acquired from Detroit mid-season. The 15-year veteran and two-time Norris Trophy nominee, unfortunately, is likely done in the NHL. After injuries marred him over the past three seasons, his production has dropped significantly. As evidenced by his decision to opt-out of this Return to Play, Green is ready to take a step back from the NHL and prioritize his health first.
Green had a great run in the league, but the Oilers won’t be interested in retaining the veteran’s services.
While he performed well in a depth role, he’ll be one of many cap casualties for the Oilers this offseason. Sheahan is a utility centre, serving a definite purpose in the Oilers’ bottom-six group of forwards. Sheahan tallied 15 points, proving he can still be a fourth-line player in today’s NHL.
He’s an ideal depth forward for a contending team. Cost-effective and reliable, he’ll more-than-likely find a home on the open market.
After an abysmal performance in Game 1 of the Oilers’ Qualifying Round series, Smith may have played himself out of the league. Now 38 years old, Smith has posted subpar numbers in both the past two seasons. Averaging a .900 save percentage over those years, he’s a shell of his former elite playoff glory.
Smith has served as an admirable backup and starter over his 14 seasons in the NHL. After a massive 610-game workload, however, Smith is likely ready to call it quits.
Major Likely Re-Signings
Ken Holland’s Detroit Red Wings connection was apparent at this year’s trade deadline when he acquired Athanasiou. The former 30-goal scorer in Detroit had a rough go of it in an Oilers jersey, however, posting just two points in nine games. His breakneck speed was supposed to accentuate a skilled and speedy offence. However, Athanasiou was never able to actually showcase that ability.
It’s also unwise to read too much into a nine-game sample size. While Athanasiou had a down year overall, the 26-year-old still posts 20-plus goal potential. Edmonton can afford to retain him on a short-term ‘show-me’ deal, which is the most likely outcome. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projection tool (subscription required) projects a two-year deal valued at $3.54 million a season. It brings Edmonton’s cap space down to $6.61 million.
Another trade deadline acquisition by Holland, Ennis has revitalized his career in recent seasons. After disappointing runs in both Buffalo and Minnesota, the former first-round draft pick has tallied 12 and 16 goals in the past two seasons. Ennis is exactly the type of speedy, skilled depth forward that the Oilers need to accentuate their offensive firepower.
After working for close to league-minimum for the past few seasons, Ennis will receive a boost. Evolving-Hockey projects a three-year deal worth $3.10 million a year. It brings the Oilers down to just $3.51 million in cap space.
In Bear’s first full NHL season, he quickly became an impact player on the team’s blue line. The 23-year-old Regina native had 21 points, but played almost 22 minutes a night. He’ll grow into one of Edmonton’s best players sooner rather than later.
He’s not a bona fide top-flight defenceman just yet, however. That works to Edmonton’s advantage, as a bridge deal for Bear should be relatively cheap. Evolving-Hockey predicts a two-year deal valued at $2.80 million a season. The Oilers would have only $710,000 remaining in cap space.
Potential Free Agent Additions
Holland will be hard-pressed to add to his team in this year’s free-agent period. Some necessary re-signings will take up the vast majority of the Oilers’ cap room. Edmonton will need to rely on their developing prospects to take on a larger role next season. It poises to be an interesting 2020-21 for the Oil.
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