The heart of free agent season is now over, and the Oilers have made some significant changes. Of the eighteen skaters who saw at least 500 minutes of ice time in 2013-14, seven are now gone. Since the top seven players (Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Andrew Ference and David Perron) will all return, we know that the middle of the order will see a lot of turnover.
Up front, Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell have been added to replace Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth from last year's top nine forwards, and Ryan Jones will likely see his minutes go to internal replacements like Matt Hendricks, Anton Lander and Tyler Pitlick. The Oilers also parted ways with Sam Gagner and seem prepared to hand that job to the recently-drafted Leon Draisaitl. So are they better? Hard to say. Hemsky is likely better than anyone they've signed, and Draisaitl is going to be very raw, so it definitely isn't a given.
On defense, the club has added Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne to replace Nick Schultz and Anton Belov. Philip Larsen, last year's seventh defenseman, has also moved on and will likely be replaced by Oscar Klefbom or Keith Aulie. It seems clearer that improvements have been made here.
Of course, there's still one member of the blue-line that has yet to sign a new contract: Justin Schultz. In an effort to estimate what Schultz might cost, let's take a look at what similar players received after a platform year between the age of 21 and 24 in which the player earned a minimum of 20:00 of ice time per game while scoring between 0.38 and 0.52 points per game:
I highlighted Faulk's numbers because those are his season totals and he signed the extension in the last quarter of the year. Any deal that includes UFA years (the contracts with four or more years) are considered long-term and those that don't are short-term. In a recent interview, GM Craig MacTavish seemed to suggest that the Oilers were looking for a short-term deal. He noted that the two sides were some distance apart because of differing perspectives on Schultz working through the system. Barring an offer sheet, it seems likely that the Oilers plan to get the Schultz deal done in the $2.5M to $3.0M range, though I suppose it's possible the Oilers and Schultz decide to go longer term.
Nevertheless, as we look at Edmonton's cap situation going forward, I'll assume a deal that pays Schultz $3.0M for two seasons. Here's what the Oilers look like heading into 2014-15:
The Oilers are in fine shape in terms of cap space and actually have room to add at center if an opportunity arises. But what about the future? It's actually surprisingly bright, in part because of what they're spending at the top of the lineup. The Oilers are spending 26.1% of their cap space on their top three forwards this season. That number puts them in the middle of the pack for 2014-15:
The average in that chart is 17.051 so the Oilers are about a million more expensive, though given that a large number of the teams spending below the average aren't planning to spend to the cap, the Oilers would be even further down the list if we compared what teams were spending on their top three forwards to their internal budget. With the Oilers having locked the $18M price in for the next five seasons, they should have plenty of room to spend in other areas. Even if the cap rises just 5% for 2015-16, the Oilers should have enough to sign their core players:
Even in a rosy situation where the Oilers get very good seasons from Yakupov, Petry, and Marincin (necessitating raises), there should still be room to sign everyone. When we bump the cap up another 5% for 2016-17, things continue to look good in terms of cap space even if (as we hope will happen) key players have success:
The Oilers haven't built a good team in a long time, and that's certainly been frustrating. But at least they've done a pretty good job of protecting their future. The team is betting a lot on the development of their young players, so it's good to see that, if it works out, they should at least be able to keep the group together even in an environment where the cap only rises minimally.