Grab a coffee and settle into a comfy chair...this is going to be a long one...
The Stanley Cup Final is well underway, which means that the season of roster changes is fast approaching. With the NHL draft (and the flurry of trades that sometimes accompanies it), the buyout window and the UFA and RFA offer sheet signing windows opening up over the next month, this is the time of year where the management of an organization has the most opportunity to affect both the short-term and long-term future of their franchise.
In years past, this time of year has been met with a combination of hope and dread, as we've seen opportunities to sign undervalued players come and go while the Oilers went on signing the Cam Barker, Nikolai Khabibulin and Darcy Hordichuk's of the world.
With the complete overhaul of the organization that appears to be taking place (at least on the surface, and much deeper as well we hope) and the arrival of "Hockey Jesus" with the top pick in the draft, I can't think of a summer that has presented more cause for hope and optimism than this one does.
However, the team still has to actually take action and make the changes necessary to get better. What are those changes exactly?
Well, they can come in a variety of areas and, as lengthy as it might be, we're going to try and take a look at most of them. I'm sure approximately 6% of what I write below will actually happen, but there's some value in exploring what is possible.
Before we get to what players the Oilers may want to add, we should have a quick look at what they need to subtract, or at least make available for trade.
Creating Roster/Cap Space
The first thing to look at here are the pending RFAs and UFAs to decide which ones should be brought back. We've got enough to talk about so let's make most of this quick:
Derek Roy - Let him walk, though a possible option later in the summer if others fall through.
Viktor Fasth - Goodbye
Richard Bachman - With the signing of Laurikainen and Brossoit coming back, Bachman won't be returning.
Jesse Joensuu - How many of you remembered he still had a contract? Gone.
Kellan Lain - Nope.
Brad Hunt - Sure for a 2 way deal. He's got some ability on a powerplay for situational use. Could help Laleggia in the AHL this year. Organizational depth, not a roster spot in Edmonton. (UPDATE: Re-signed as I was writing this)
Tyler Pitlick - Should be inexpensive and he shows well but can't stay healthy. He's earned another contract and a shot in camp.
Matt Fraser - They aren't going to use him in the few areas he can be effective. Let him walk.
Keith Aulie - One way ticket to anywhere but Edmonton.
Martin Marincin - Seems like they've soured on him, but not signing him is bad asset management. Get him under contact and either let him fight for a spot in camp, or use him on the trade market.
Curtis Hamilton - Pains me to say his because I really liked him in the WHL, but he hasn't earned another NHL deal.
Tyler Bunz - Gone. Pretty sure they've already told him based on his twitter account.
Andrew Miller - solid AHL season and potential for a decent depth player. Should be re-signed. (UPDATE: Re-signed as I was writing this)
Brandon Davidson - He's the guy everyone is rooting for and he's pushed his way into the 7/8th Dman conversation.
Frans Tuohimaa - Another one bites the dust.
Justin Schultz - Ah, the great conundrum. I'm going to defer for now because I think they should be taking action before he needs to be qualified.
That's already at least 10 bodies off the 50-man roster, which is a good start, but there isn't really much in there that affects the immediate future of the team in a significant way.
Another way for the Oilers to purge bodies is to exercise the option of a contract buyout. Looking at the roster, there are three names one might consider here. Among the forwards, Teddy Purcell is making $4.5M to play as a bottom 6 forward. Along the blueline, there's aging Captain Andrew Ference and boat anchor Nikita Nikitin.
Of course the best option for these players is to trade them for something of value, but that's just not happening, so really, if they're being traded, you just hope it's a salary dump that doesn't involve taking back an equally bad or worse deal in return. I suspect there's a chance that both Ference and Purcell can be dealt, though I'm not overly confident in that assessment. Overall, I'd try very hard to dump Ference on a young team with cap space. Really Arizona is the best spot by a mile, but there's lots of reasons they may not have interest. Even if you have to retain $1M or so to make the deal happen, I'd do it without blinking.
As for Purcell, the same situation applies, a salary dump, even if salary is retained is acceptable, maybe even preferable, but if he can't be dealt, I'd be very comfortable buying him out for the annual cost of $1.5M over each of the next two seasons. The cap crunch is going to create some opportunities this season and ideally you'd like these three to have the least amount of impact on your financial flexibility this summer as possible.
Optimistically, let's assume we can find takers for Ference and Purcell through trade/retained salary.
For Nikita Nikitin, a buyout is really the only option that makes any sense. That comes with the same $1.5M penalty as Purcell would have for each of the next two seasons.
Now this might sound like a lot of dead cap space, and it is...potentially as much as $4.75M in dead space this season. However, when you compare it to the fact that these three players would account for $12.25M this season and $3.25M next year (only Ference has a 2nd year left on his deal) the benefits far outweigh the costs in my opinion. These are all bottom tier players being paid as if they are much more than that. The other added bonus is that you actually get 3 roster spots that you can fill with more players who can better fill the roles you need addressed on your roster. Can that be done with $4-5M in cap penalties? It's tougher than being clear of these three outright, but yes, it can still be done if the team targets the right kind of players in free agency and trade.
The final way to clear space on the cap and roster is to trade players away either as a player dump or in exchange for a piece you think might be more useful. The Oilers don't have a great deal of desireable assets outside of the really high end players and prospects in the organization. There's not a lot of that "useful but not essential" kind of player in the organization right now. That said, anything is possible for the right return. The most likely names that could find themselves available for trade (in addition to Purcell and Ference) would include Martin Marincin, Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, Anton Lander, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz. I suspect most of those names are still here in the fall, but wouldn't be at all surprised if Schultz and Marincin were gone.
I mentioned earlier that I would circle back to Justin Schultz. I think trading him in the next couple of weeks is the best option here. If you don't deal him before the RFA qualifying offer deadline, then the team has to decide to either offer him another deal at a similar number to last season or let him walk to unrestricted free agency. Neither option is all that attractive. Letting him leave is bad asset management (though good cap management...a bit of a paradox) and if he accepts his QO, that's another 1 year deal that might not be as attractive to potential trade partners who might prefer to negotiate their own terms with him. Making a deal before that deadline arrives might give the team it's best chance at getting a reasonable return for him. You may argue that there's no need to get rid of him, and there is merit in that to a degree, but in my opinion he's too unreliable for the cap hit you'll have to sign him for and another poor season would only further de-value him as an asset. I think they are best served by dealing him while some may still feel he can excel in a better situation. If he can, good for him.
Alright, we've reached the end of the purge! Let's take a quick status check to see where we're at on roster and cap space. We'll assume the $71M cap that is being tossed around. For the sake of argument, I'm leaving all of the "trade bait" players on the roster for now except for Marincin and Schultz because I think the status of those players is most in question...
Completing the Roster
You'll notice a few things from looking at the table above... 1) Look at all the cap space! 2) There are a lot of holes to fill. 3) None of those contracts are overly difficult to manage. (Some aren't ideal, but they're mostly small)
Looking at our table, the team needs a full forward line plus a 4th line winger, 4 to 5 Dmen and a starting goaltender. Oh, is that all? Not to worry though, as some of those spaces will be filled through internal resources. It's not actually as daunting as it sounds. Let's take a look at how things could play out:
The first role to be filled will obviously be the main opening down the middle with Connor McDavid unquestionably being given the chance to play in the NHL as an 18 year old. You would have to think he'll be given the chance to step right into a top 6 role, which is a nice value on an ELC contract, but you have to plan for his bonus structure, which makes it a little less of a steal. There's also the possibility that Leon Draisaitl joins the team right out of camp next year, which would also fill a roster spot. I'm going to suggest though that for a change the team plan for the worst and assume he won't be ready. If he steals someone's job in camp...well, that's just a nice problem to have.
With the majority of the top six roles filled in on the depth chart, the UFA market will actually offer the Oilers a nice chance to exploit a few market efficiencies and get some useful role players for an inexpensive cost without surrendering any of their few decent tradeable assets. Players who provide decent possession numbers and some secondary scoring ability can frequently be undervalued at this time of year which actually helps the Oilers this season because these are the guys they need.
As for specific targets, I think the highest-end player they'll target will be Carl Soderberg. Soderberg has ties to new GM Peter Chiarelli, he produces a reasonable amount of secondary offense and he would serve as a suitable sub-in for McDavid in certain situations if they felt the rookie needed some more protected minutes.
Additional names that would fit the team's needs (since you're obviously not going to land every player you target) would include: Mike Santorelli, Dan Winnik, David Moss, Sean Bergenheim, Jiri Tlusty, Kyle Brodziak, Blake Comeau or Erik Condra.
While unrestricted free agency can address a lot of the team's roster issues up front, fixing the trainwreck that is the back end is likely a much more complicated issue. The removal of Ference and Nikitin would free up some space at the bottom of the depth chart so players can slide down a pairing and play roles that more closely match what is reasonable to expect from them, which is a great start. I think the team fully expects Darnell Nurse to make the team out of camp this season, and while I'm a believer in planning for the worst, I think he makes it too. Having a reasonably capable and inexpensive #7Dman can protect Nurse in that regard though, which is something they should be considering.
The other good thing is that fixing the forward group through free agency would leave most of the team's trade assets to use towards rebuilding the blueline. Some of these holes could be filled by the likes of Martin Marincin and Justin Schultz, or the team could decide to use those players to try to acquire some different pieces that better meet their needs along the blueline.
Then there is the concept of whale hunting for an elite-level top pairing Dman. I have no issue with moving a large forward asset like Nail Yakupov or even Jordan Eberle for the right player, but I suspect it's unlikely to happen. In that instance, "the right player" would need to be someone in the range of Seth Jones, Dougie Hamilton or Jacob Trouba and let's all accept right now how unlikely that is (unless the Oilers go the offer sheet route with Hamilton).
Another option is to target a high-end veteran Dman with only a year left on his deal or who belongs to a team in cap trouble. Names in this area would include Brent Seabrook, Dustin Byfuglien, Dan Boyle or Brian Campbell. These are all players the Oilers could understandably have interest in, but it needs to be noted that these are not players you part with a core piece for. They are aging players who are only under contract for 1 season and will likely require a huge contract to re-sign. Assets like Leon Draisaitl should be completely off-limits in any kind of discussion like this.
So if not a young future star or a seasoned veteran, then where are the Oilers going to re-build their blueline? If you ask me, they should be looking for undervalued players in the 23-26 year old range who have proven they are likely capable of more than the opportunities they've been given. This is what the New York Islanders did so beautifully last off-season and while the players available might not become the next Nick Leddy they do have the potential to become solid contributors to a blueline built around a young core that can move the puck and control the possession game. Of course you're not going to be able to grab all of these guys, but finding a way to grab two of them could completely change the complexion of the Oiler blueline moving forward. Players like Patrick Wiercioch, Jared Spurgeon, Ian Cole, Mattias Ekholm or UFA David Schlemko (who is a bit older at 28). I'd suggest that Martin Marincin fits right in with this group, but the Oilers appear to have soured on him unless the new regime takes a different view on things.
As capable as those players are (and they are), none of them can step in and play top pairing minutes immediately, which is why the Oilers likely should look to the UFA market for one key piece along the blueline. The most popular name is Cody Franson, and he would be a perfect fit if you can get him, but it would be expensive. It sounds like Andrej Sekera is likely to stay in LA, but he would also fit the profile if he goes UFA. Beyond those two there are less ideal matches like Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Christian Ehrhoff or Mike Green who all offer a high level of proven ability in certain areas, but are less well rounded than a player like Franson. Ehrhoff might be the closest to being a complete player at this stage of his career.
If the Oilers can land one top pairing Dman as a UFA and a couple of undervalued NHL blueliners through trade then they have the potential for an actual NHL blueline next season when you toss in Oscar Klefbom and Mark Fayne.
I would also suggest they grab veteran depth defenseman to offer protection for an inexperienced Nurse or the inevitable injuries that happen every season. Reliable inexpensive players like Matt Hunwick, Mike Weaver, Adam Pardy, Raphael Diaz or another young player like Mark Barberio who they might be able to find a way to grab from Tampa Bay would all be reasonable considerations here.
The final piece of the puzzle is to solve the issue in goal. The Oilers obviously need a #1 option to end the chaos of the last few seasons. Your opinion may vary as to whether Ben Scrivens should return as a back-up. It may depend on how they address the top job, but I do believe with a competent blueline in front of him that Scrivens can be a solid back-up in the NHL. That said, if the Oilers offered, say, #33 and Ben Scrivens at 50% of his salary for Cam Talbot and the Rangers would bite on it, then you've got a potential starter in place for less than $3M and likely have room to chase another goaltender who could step in if Talbot doesn't live up to expectations. Alternately, the team could look at a young UFA goaltender like Karri Ramo or Michal Neuvirth (Devan Dubnyk would also fit here, but we know that's not happening. After all, MacT is still part of the Oilers management team).
A third option is to look at veteran UFA goaltenders like Antti Niemi, who of course has a history with new coach Todd McLellan. The final option is to target a veteran goaltender through trade. Corey Crawford might need to be moved due to salary concerns in Chicago, one of Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner are available in Ottawa, Anaheim could make one of their two young goaltenders available, or there is the rumour out there about Kari Lehtonen from Dallas.
Personally I think the contracts for Crawford and Lehtonen are ridiculous not to mention my lack of faith they are actually that much of an improvement. I suspect the cost of Antti Niemi would be in the same range which sours me on that option as well. I'm a believer in Cam Talbot, and personally would lean that way, but I agree adding a solid 1b option like Ramo or Neuvirth as well would be ideal.
That's a Lot of Change...What Would it Look Like?
I hate playing armchair GM because it's impossible to determine actual trades, but in theory, using a random selection of players above (and I'm going a little more to the high-end here to show that it can fit within the cap) the team could look something like this by the time camp opened in September:
Can They Really Do All That?
The answer is yes, though I'm relatively confident there won't be anywhere near this level of change. There is really only one transaction in there (Franson) that is a huge move (beyond McDavid of course). Everything else is either an affordable UFA signing or a small-to-mid level transaction that can be based around assets like Marincin or draft picks. If you don't like the ones I chose at random, great, slot in any of the dozen or so others that I've outlined above as there are many ways to make the pieces fit. The key thing to point out here is that the team does not need to accept the status quo for another season before making substantive change, particularly on the blueline. Improvements can and should be made this summer and that is going to be the expectation to which I hold Chiarelli.
As for what will happen, I suspect they'll:
- Add a forward or two, Soderberg seems like a reasonably plausible guy to add
- Grab a 2nd tier UFA Dman like Michalek
- Acquire a goaltender in one way or another
...and then call it a summer.
That said, the talk of Chiarelli considering an offer sheet on Dougie Hamilton is giving me reason to believe that he might be committed to putting an immediate end to the losing. My low expectations have been drilled into me by a decade of bad management, so I'm actually quite excited about the fact that I really have no idea what they will do in the next month or two. I have no expectation that the Oilers are going to be a great team next year, but there is no reason they should have to be a bad one either. The next month is their chance to take a big step forward. I hope they are finally in a position to take advantage of it.