Welcome to July 2nd. The draft is over and the biggest flurry of free agent craziness has come to an end. How do things look for the Oilers?
I’m going to say that things look okay. Some holes have been filled. Other holes remain. New(ish) holes have been created. The team as it exists today isn’t a playoff team just yet, but generally speaking I’m happy with what Craig MacTavish has done over the last few days to help reshape the Oilers roster. I’m not going to say that every move has been an outright winner, but when I take a step back and look at the entire body of work there is a lot to like.
Let’s go through the moves one at a time.
Nikita Nikitin was the first acquisition; he arrived last week by way of a two-year deal worth $4.5M annually. I wouldn’t have given Nikitin $4.5M, at least not without seeing what else you could get for that money on July 1st. That said, he improves the defence and lets the Oilers wait for Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse. Simply put he fills a need. I might have gone through a different process but in the end I can live with this deal.
Then Sam Gagner was traded for Teddy Purcell. For better or worse any depth chart would have listed Gagner was the Oilers second line centre. Trading him creates a hole in the roster at the position where the Oilers lack of depth is most apparent. Is that really a new hole though? I’ve backed Gagner for a long time but I’ve got concerns about him as a second line option. Could he have been moved to the wing? That would have been an option but would he have been better there than Purcell, I’m not sure. All this trade really does is formalize a hole that likely already existed, and in return the team got a little stronger on the right side. You could do worse.
And yesterday saw the arrival of Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot in the first minutes of free agency. Fayne's deal is surprisingly good; four years and $14M for a defender capable of playing tough minutes is not the kind of reasonable deal you expect to see in free agency. I expect more from him than Nikitin and he comes for a $1M less for twice as long. If you’re looking for a homerun move this is it.
The Pouliot contract isn’t quite as good though. $4M a season for five years is certainly an overpayment on term and likely the money side as well. I’d have rather seen three years on this deal but five years isn’t a terrible gamble. Pouliot is a good possession player and will be 28 when the season starts. There is every reason to think he’ll be able to keep playing at the level he’s established for the length of this contract. Is that level going to be worth $4M a season? Likely not, but like Nikitin he fills a need for the Oilers and most importantly we know what we’re getting and we know that he can succeed in his role rather than hoping the player there will. A couple fewer question marks in the lineup will be a welcome change.
The signing of Keith Aulie and re-signing of Luke Gazdic rounded out the day, and while neither is a deal I find exciting, they’re also moves with a limited impact on the team’s future fortunes. Whereas the Fayne and Pouliot deals had a fancy stats feel to them, both of these moves seem to be much more traditional. They’re big bodies, they play with grit, or jam, or sandpaper, or whatever we’re calling it now. I would have filled these roster spots with different players, guys who would contribute in a more positive way, but I think we all expected the team to have a player or two who fit this mould, and as long as there at the bottom of the roster I won’t lose too much sleep over it.
In the matter of a week Craig MacTavish has improved the defence and improved their depth on the wings. That's not bad work. There is still a big acquisition required, a second line centre. This is an absolute must have because as it stands right now that role would likely be filled by Mark Acrobello or Leon Draisaitl, and neither of those is what I would call a desirable option. How MacTavish goes about plugging this hole will more or less define his summer.
If he trades a defenceman like Jeff Petry he’ll be robbing Peter to pay Paul. Sure the top nine might look just fine but there will now be a new hole to fill on the blue line. There are UFAs who would be a nice fit but term could be a concern. With Draisaitl now part of the organization there is likely a plan that has him in the second line centre role in the next two or three years (if that’s a good idea is another issue entirely), so if you sign a centre for five seasons and big dollars you could well be creating some problems for yourself down the road. There are a lot of ways to screw this up.
I like what I've seen from MacTavish so far, I really do, but that could go up in smoke with one wrong step.