Remapping the Next Three Years

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

In early May, I wrote up a blueprint for what it looked like the Oilers were going to do in order to make this summer a success. I had identified two major additions and one minor addition on defense, a cheap middle six winger, a revamped bottom line including two new centers, and a back-up goaltender as the team's needs, thinking that the roster might look like this:

Mapping

This team looks like it's over the cap, but it's still cap-compliant because the Oilers have so many players with rookie bonuses in their contracts. The moves included removing Ben Eager and Mike Brown via trade or burying them in the minors; removing Eric Belanger via trade or compliance buyout; and acquiring a couple of high-end defenders via trade (and thus likely moving some assets at the draft) or finding a stop-gap solution in free agency.

As of today, the Oilers have assembled enough pieces that they might be done tweaking the roster (there have certainly been some rumblings to suggest that might be the case). Craig MacTavish has followed the blueprint above in some areas, but has also made some significant departures. Here's what the team looks like today:

Three_years

Some areas are similar. MacTavish added a quality back-up in Jason LaBarbera right at the $1M mark, and he didn't make any big-money additions up front (though he tried to add David Clarkson on a ridiculous deal). MacTavish bought out Belanger, but he added to the departures by trading Shawn Horcoff to Dallas and replacing him with Boyd Gordon in a move that will save the Oilers $2.5M in cap space in each of the next two seasons as well as $1M in salary in 2013-14. MacTavish acquired young blueliner Philip Larsen in the Horcoff trade after adding Anton Belov earlier in the summer, both of whom bolster the team's depth on the blue-line. In the biggest (and most recent) move of the summer, MacTavish also bolstered the forward ranks by trading Magnus Paajarvi to the St. Louis Blues for David Perron. So far, so good.

But the rest of what MacTavish has done is less appealing. He didn't add any players to the top of the depth chart on defense, which means that the team is counting on Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry to handle the most difficult minutes and is pushing Justin Schultz into a top four role despite his struggles at the end of last season. Andrew Ference is, at best, a less than ideal bridge player on a one-year deal, but as Ryan pointed out earlier, the contract is way too long and (as we'll see) will lead to problems down the road.

The club is also set to bring five players back from last season's bottom six forwards, two more than I had previously suggested. As Alan pointed out last week, the lack of change is troubling and the lack of depth at center is particularly galling. It's something that's pretty easily improved, and with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins possibly not ready to start the season. In other words, there's more work to be done if this team is going to be really good even just this season.

As we look forward a couple of years, it becomes clear that the Ference contract is likely to be a problem, and that the Oilers were extremely fortunate that David Clarkson decided to sign in Toronto. The next charts shows the depth chart for 2014-15, assuming cap inflation of 5%.

Three_years

The Clarkson deal would have made it very difficult to add in other areas. In what I've constructed, I'm still recommending a top-level defender on the left side, something that just wouldn't be possible with Clarkson in the 2LW slot instead of Perron.

The real trouble is on defense. If the Oilers do add a top pairing defender, it's clear that Andrew Ference is going to get buried on the third pairing, probably on the right side as Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse (it would be unusual for him to spend any more than one more season outside the NHL) move up to the NHL. I think that the top defender is needed for the Oilers to challenge for the Stanley Cup and there's almost no chance that either Klefbom or Nurse will be ready to handle top pairing minutes. But with that defender added, the Oilers clearly have an abundance of young defensemen at their disposal (especially if either Belov or Larsen plays well at the NHL level).

The other big assignment here is revamping the forwards at the bottom of the roster, something that MacTavish has failed to do adequately this summer, but something that shouldn't be particularly difficult.

The next chart shows what 2015-16 might look like, once again assuming cap inflation of 5%.

Three_years

The good news here is that it seems like the young core can be kept together if Hall's contract can be used as a benchmark. The bad news is Ference's contract still buried on the bottom pairing, and the persistent need for a top-level defender. With Nurse and Klefbom slotted to share third pairing minutes once again, I think it makes some sense to explore what one of those two players (probably Klefbom) might get as the centerpiece of a trade, perhaps as early as this summer. If Klefbom, a lower level roster defenseman, and a 2014 first-round pick can net a strong young defender who's proven at the NHL level, I'd find it awfully hard to say no.

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