As a shortened and hectic offseason approaches, Last Word on Hockey is looking ahead towards how teams will deal with the reality of a flat salary cap. 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. This series attempts to examine what choices teams may have to make. We’ll operate going from worst to best. Today’s piece focuses on the Edmonton Oilers offseason.
Edmonton Oilers Offseason Primer
The 2020-21 season was supposed to be the Edmonton Oilers best opportunity at making a strong playoff run.
All cylinders were firing for the Oilers and they looked legit in what was considered a weak North Division. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were playing as if they were on rookie mode in NHL21, Darnell Nurse had a career campaign, and expectations were high. But amidst all of the success, general manager Ken Holland stood his ground at the trade deadline and decided not to acquire any help for the impending playoff run.
It was clear that the expectations of the team from the outside did not reflect how the team viewed themselves internally. The Oilers entered their first round series against the Winnipeg Jets as favourites but quickly surrendered after shocking losses at home in the first two games and marathon overtime losses in Games 3 and 4.
There are a lot of important decisions looming for GM Holland and his staff as this franchise defining offseason begins. We saw how poorly last season went with McDavid and Draisaitl playing without a supporting cast. If the Oilers want to get a sniff at a playoff run next season, significant changes have to happen; starting here in the off-season.
Pending Free Agents
All five of the Oilers pending UFA’s were on this year’s opening night roster and all played a major role on the team.
Alex Chiasson was a part of the Oil’s lethal power play with almost half of his points (7 of 16 points) occurring on the man advantage.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is coming off of a an up-and-down season that saw him score almost solely on the power play. It may be the end of an era for the Oilers longest tenured player.
Tyson Barrie impressed in his freshman year with the club and is looking to cash in as he quarterbacked an elite power play. He succeeded at rebuilding his stock after a forgetful stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Behind a legitimate future Norris Trophy winner in Darnell Nurse and Barrie, Adam Larsson was one of the Oilers most important defenceman. He was a staple on the penalty kill and was great in a shutdown role.
Goaltending was the Oilers weakest position this season (and many others), with the 39-year-old Mike Smith being the only bright spot for the club between the pipes.
Salary Cap Outlook
Edmonton is heading into the off season with a nice chunk of change available to them. CapFriendly has them at a $57,562,833 cap hit. Leaving the Oilers roughly $21,345,841 to try and plug a lot of holes throughout the roster.
Major Likely Departures
The Oilers were handicapped from the start of the season with Mikko Koskinen as their number one guy in net. The 32-year-old had a .899 save percentage and allowed 3.17 goals against per game. He stumbled to a 13-13 record for Edmonton. Plain and simple, he was not good enough. His lacklustre play alongside his $4.5 million deal is a real hindrance to the team. Now, no team will be running to trade for the Fin goalie. The Oilers may have to make a move in the Seattle expansion draft and get the Kraken to bail them out. It will likely cost them a first or second round pick. But will give them more cap room to maneuver with and a fresh start in net.
Edmonton’s first overall pick in the 2011 has likely played his last game for the club. Coming into free agency Nugent-Hopkins was carrying a $6 million cap hit and will likely looking for a pay raise; deservedly so or not, he will want a raise. If he was a centre and produced more, it would be close to a fair asking price. But, he was playing solely on the wing and has never had over 20 goals/60 points. Unless Nugent-Hopkins is willing to take a pay cut or stay close to his current cap hit, Darnell Nurse will soon become the Oilers longest tenured player.
Barrie did exactly what he set out to do with his one-year deal in Edmonton; re-gain some value and set himself up for a long-term deal as a number one power play quarterback. He will likely command a four-seven year deal at a higher cap hit than his current $3.75 million. The Oilers want to clear a path for prospect Evan Bouchard, a fellow right-handed shot who is also an offensive threat like Barrie. It was a great tenure for the 30-year-old in Edmonton. Now he should send them a fruit basket for giving him the opportunity to prove himself.
Chiasson is a net-front specialist on the power play and depth winger. That’s about it.
He scored nine goals this season in 45 games. Only four being scored when the Oilers didn’t have an extra skater on the ice. Edmonton badly needs upgrades at the bottom of their roster meaning Chiasson’s three-year run with the organization is certainly over.
In the same sense as the Koskinen move, the Oilers could strip even more cap space without losing a lot on the ice. If GM Holland can work to ship out one-or-both of James Neal and Zack Kassian, he would add another almost $9 million to the Oilers chequebook. Neither Neal or Kassian move the needle for Edmonton which only detracts from the team’s success when they make roughly a combined $10 million. There are cheaper players they can find to fill both roles and it may cost a lot to move them. But, it will work out in the long run.
Major Likely Re-Signings
Edmonton has not had a reliable goaltender since Dwayne Roloson carried the Oilers to the 2005-06 Cup Final. Mike Smith was one of the most reliable parts of last year’s Oilers, his second season with the club. Bringing back a goalie as ‘experienced’ as he is only works if he is not the number one guy. It barely worked this past season and to gamble on it working again would be almost foolish. But, bringing him back as a number two guy who plays 20-30 games makes a lot of sense.
There is a lot of trust and familiarity on both sides and Smith likely won’t need a big contract. He only made $1.5 million this last season. So a new deal around that mark would be perfect for both Edmonton and Smith. The Oilers get a reliable backup and Mike Smith gets another kick at the cat to try and win the Stanley Cup.
At the time of the Taylor Hall–Larsson trade, it seemed that the Oilers had lost the trade 100 percent. Looking back with hindsight, Edmonton got the type of defenceman they needed then and need to re-sign now. Larsson is not the guy to chip in offensively and the Oilers don’t need that, they have their offensive guys.
Larsson has anchored the Oilers second pairing for the past couple seasons and mans the penalty kill. He is a guy they need to keep. Currently, the 28-year-old made $4.16 million and could look to get a pay increase if he wanted. The Oilers have the cap space but if he took around his current cap hit over three-five years it would be a win-win.
(RFA’s) Kailer Yamamoto
Yamamoto had a down 2020-21 season with only eight goals and 21 points in 52 games alongside Draisaitl. He’s looking at a bridge deal from the Oilers as he continues to build upon past seasons and come into his own. It would be hard to not bring him back and play him alongside Draisaitl as they have seemed to gel well together so far.
Potential Free Agent Additions
I have already wrote once on the impact Hyman has on the Maple Leafs and how he would be a fit for the Oilers. With rumours circling that it may be too difficult for them to retain the 29-year-old, the chance has opened up for Edmonton to get McDavid a winger that will make him even better.
Hyman is an amazing top-six forward who has the ability to retrieve the puck and play in the gritty areas at an elite level. He can contribute offensively and is just as effective on the defensive side of the puck as he is the other. Hyman also kills penalties and would fill a role alongside McDavid that resembles that of Chris Kunitz’s with Sidney Crosby. If Hyman can excel McDavid’s game like Kunitz did for Sid just imagine how much better McDavid will be; if that’s even possible. It may cost somewhere in the ballpark of $4-6 million over four-six years but if it propels the best player in the game even more, does it matter?
As skilled as McDavid and Draisaitl are, the Oilers still need a shutdown third-line centre to balance the lineup. Phillip Danault has been fantastic for Montreal these playoffs. He was able to shutdown the likes of: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Mark Scheifle, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. Now he’s not an offensive threat but much like Larsson, he doesn’t have to be. Danault’s value to the Oilers would be that of a 50 goal scorer. Not because he’ll pot that many but because he’ll score 15-20 and prevent guys from scoring 30 goals. The only concern is ensuring that the Oilers don’t over pay for one good playoff run. The 28-year-old currently makes a hair more than $3 million and will look for an increase. If the Oil could get him in a range of $4.5-6 million over four-six years they would definitely have the best centre core in the NHL.
If the Oilers are going to commit to a defensive mindset, they might as well go all in. Bringing in a guy like Martinez on the backend would elevate the d-core to new heights. Simply put, the guy eats pucks for breakfast. He has seven seasons with over 100 blocks and has been a staple on both Los Angeles’ and the Golden Knight’s penalty kills when he donned either jersey. His presence alongside Larsson and behind Nurse would give Edmonton a strong core. The Oilers might have to stretch his current $4 million cap hit into something with a six over three-five years to make it work.
If they can’t land Martinez or have cleaned the couches out of every penny and can afford it, Oleksiak would put this team over the edge. The big rig has made a name for himself following the Dallas Stars run to the Cup Final last season. He is not an offensive threat by any means with 72 points in 369 games. But, he is fantastic at being what he is: a defenceman.
He fits in well on the penalty kill and brings a physical—but effective—presence to the Oilers that they lack. Oleksiak could slide in alongside Larsson on the second pairing as well to also create that shutdown pair. His current cap hit is only $2.1 million so even if he raised him to $3.5 million, it wouldn’t break the bank. Instead, it would open the door for him to break some bones in a orange and blue jersey.
If the Oilers are serious about winning they need to prove it to the team and the fans. And that starts in net. Why not bring in a guy like Andersen, who is looking to prove that he is a number one guy, and solidify the net minder position? Last season was a struggle in Toronto as Freddie battled injury and inconsistencies before losing his starter job to Jack Campbell. When he was on his game, he was easily a top-five goalie in the league.
With an improved Oilers d-core in front of him Andersen could either use the Oilers as a one-to-two year ‘prove me’ scenario and rebuild some of his value. Or, Edmonton could sign him to a longer term deal and bet that he returns to his best form. Either way, this is a potential match that could help both sides and could start as a short-term deal with a future extension. Andersen currently makes $5 million. The Oilers could likely get him on a deal close to that AAV over a couple years deal to start.
Honourable Free Agent Mentions:
This last season for the Oilers was simply a disappointment. There are some big changes coming and hopefully, some hard lessons this offseason. The Edmonton Oilers’ future success will depend on if they improve their roster right now; while they can still afford to do so. This is the greatest opportunity they’ve had to immediately improve their franchise since they drafted a smooth-skating kid out of Erie in 2015. And he isn’t getting any younger.