The Oilers have a huge off-season coming up, with over $22 million in cap space being freed up and players to be signed.
They also have the Seattle expansion draft to look forward to and make moves accordingly at the right time. After their first-round exit and the core of the team still young and in their prime, Ken Holland looks to add the right pieces to help push the Oilers over the edge and compete for a Stanley Cup next year and beyond.
First, let’s look at the players who are free agents and moves that could be made before next season. Big names that are becoming UFAs are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($6 million AAV), Adam Larsson ($4.166 million AAV), Tyson Barrie ($3.75 million AAV), and Mike Smith ($1.5 million AAV).
Of those four big names that were impactful players last season, I can only see two, maybe three of them coming back. Larsson and the team are close to a new three-to-four-year deal that will see him earn a little less than $4 million AAV for that period.
With the success that Mike Smith had last year in Edmonton, there is motivation for him to finish his career or at least stay for a few more years with the team on a cheap deal so that Edmonton can go and get a goalie to split time with him and prime him for the future.
Nugent-Hopkins is an iffy one. There has been no noise of progress in contract talks and they have a good young centre in Ryan McLeod who should be a part of their immediate future and slot in on the second line. I see Tyson Barrie as a one-year player for the Oilers because he is going to want more money and Edmonton picked him up due to the free cap space from Oscar Klefbom being sidelined on LTIR.
Other reasons also being that the power play quarterback position was vacant for the year and they wanted to give Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg another year to develop, especially Bouchard, who is a RD and more of a power play specialist.
The Oilers will try to fill the holes on the back end internally and maybe add an impact player externally with the free space they have. I imagine Dmitry Kulikov and Slater Koekkoek to hit free agency, but the Oilers may bring one back on a cheap deal as depth even though I find that pretty unlikely because they already brought back Kris Russel on a one-year deal for $1 million.
On the front end, as the way of depth goes, Gaetan Haas returned to Switzerland on a five-year deal and Joakim Nygard is expected to head back overseas as well. Alex Chaisson and Tyler Ennis are most likely gone as well, as both were in and out of the line-up and Edmonton has young guys ready to jump into the spots that each specialised in.
Chaisson was good in front of the net on the power play, but for a good chunk of the season Jesse Puljujarvi played that position and was effective at it due to his size and tenacity. Ennis is a small and speedy winger who was able to finish on the Senators, but wasn’t able to produce as well when he came over to Edmonton.
Also, a team can’t have too many of those small type players on one team, and the Oilers are already running with Kailer Yamamoto, Josh Archibald and Dominik Kahun, all better players than Ennis at this point in their careers.
Edmonton has a number of RFAs they will have to sign or release, but should sign a lot more than let walk. The upcoming RFAs on the team that they should be looking to re-sign are Dominik Kahun, Kailer Yamamoto, Jujhar Khaira, Cooper Marody, Tyler Benson and Stuart Skinner, all a part of their immediate or very near future.
By the way Jujhar Khaira played this season, it was a huge step forward in his development, proving he can be a forceful centre on the third line by utilising his size in the corners and his power around the net. I would hope the Oilers can bring him back on a fair deal that pays around $2.5 million AAV or under for at least a bridge deal.
Kailer Yamamoto is a lock to bring back and hopefully his down season can give Edmonton the advantage in the number Yamamoto comes in with in contract negotiations. We have all seen what he can do on Leon Draisaitl’s wing, and regardless, he works very hard without the puck, always pressuring the defence and finishing checks.
Tyler Benson and Cooper Marody are players that dominated on Bakersfield’s top line with Ryan McLeod last season and should be competing for a spot in the opening day roster next season. They could even be an efficient third line if the Oilers fill their top two lines and allow those three to play together to see what they have from the chemistry that is already there.
Stuart Skinner is the next goalie in line to be brought up by Edmonton, and though he’ll probably be stuck between being the starting goalie in the AHL and being the first call-up, he will get his chance as soon as the Oilers or Mike Smith decide it is time to move on.
If I was in the Oilers’ management, I would bring back Dominik Kahun on a short-term bridge deal to see if he can develop a little more, and he should still be an RFA at the end of the deal. Plus that German connection should be a boost to both him and Draisaitl in the locker room.
It seems as though Edmonton have finally almost got themselves out of the cap hell that Peter Chairelli put them in when he made some bad signings and trades. As I mentioned, they have $22 million coming off the books, and that’s before they buy any players out.
I’m pretty certain that the Oilers are looking at buying Mikko Koskinen out of his final year at $4.5 million, which would allow them to pay $1.5 million to Koskinen for two more years and save them $3 million more this off-season.
The other player that I envision Edmonton buying out is James Neal. That contract he has is pretty bad for what he brought to the table this season. Last season it was manageable since he scored 19 goals in a shortened season, and even shorter since he missed time.
But Neal has a $5.75 million AAV for two more seasons, which would allow Edmonton to pay him $7.8 million over however many years they like. They would give him a good chunk off that amount for next year since they have so much free money and a couple of important RFAs are due to be paid the year after in Darnell Nurse, Ethan Bear, Jesse Puljujarvi, Ryan McLeod, Caleb Jones, and Philip Broberg.
Andrej Sekera’s $2.5 million the Oilers have been paying him from the previous buyout drops down to $1.5 million for the last two years. Benoit Pouliot’s $1.333 million cap hit from being bought out ends after this season as well.
Who knows who Seattle may take in the expansion draft from Edmonton and what deals may be made, though I don’t see any deals being made to protect anyone left unprotected.
So if we run through who Edmonton may protect, these are my choices. They will protect the 7-3-1 system and the four forwards who are locks are Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, with my choices as the other three important pieces being Josh Archibald, Tyler Benson, Dominic Kahun.
On defence Edmonton has to protect Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear, with the future of Oscar Klefbom unknown with what they will do with him. In the meantime, they have a good young talent in Caleb Jones, so they have a decision to make between the two for that final protected spot with the other most likely being taken in the expansion draft.
Nurse really stepped up and proved he is a number one defence while Klefbom was out, so Klefbom is more expendable now. Klefbom’s health is and has been an issue the past few years and it may be smart to plan for the future around that, with Broberg coming very soon too.
Nurse can play the top power play, and Bouchard and Broberg may also be able to easily slide in there. The goalie position could be complicated if a trade is made before the deadline and Smith signs, but I don’t see both happening that quickly. I see Smith re-signing at some point, but for now he is still under contract with Edmonton, so I see them protecting him.
This is especially since I expect Koskinen to be bought out, maybe not before the draft though. Edmonton is not too worried about Skinner being unprotected too because there are definitely more established goalies that will be unprotected on teams where there really isn’t much else to take.
The last thing I will discuss is who could be good trade and free agent targets this offseason for the Oilers. They are in dire need of some actual depth scoring and a good winger or two for McDavid and Draisaitl, especially if Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t return.
Possible names for forwards to trade for with term are Jake DeBrusk, especially if Taylor Hall wants to re-sign in Boston, and Rickard Rakell since Anaheim isn’t quite ready yet to make moves towards playoff contention. There are many good names in free agency that Edmonton can target, and Edmonton has become a more desirable place to come to since there’s a good possibility if you are a top-six forward that you’ll get a chance to play beside McDavid or Draisaitl.
With all the projected cap space available, the Oilers will be able to sign a high-end free agent if he wants to come to Edmonton, like Hall or by a miracle, Alex Ovechkin or Gabriel Landeskog. Since I don’t see any of those three being available for the Oilers, they should definitely target a middle-six or top-six winger, and possibly a 2/3C.
Zach Hyman, Kyle Palmieri, Jaden Schwartz and Brandon Saad are all players who fit this description while being able to put up points in those roles on their previous teams. Of these four players, I would most like to see Hyman and Saad be targeted because they can score alongside high point producers on their teams in the past.
If they are looking for a middle-six centre, Phillip Danault is the perfect player. He can shut down opposing top lines, play excellent defence and penalty kill. With enough room still available, I would target depth players for the bottom-six like Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Joel Armia or Marcus Johansson, possibly even more than one. Goodrow and Coleman were especially detrimental to the success of Tampa Bay’s playoff run last season.
It will be a very busy and exciting off-season for the Edmonton Oilers and people following with much to do and hopefully some pleasant surprises coming for the team who needs to take the next step with two of the best players in the world on the roster.