Creating Cap Space WITHOUT Moving Big Contracts

The biggest challenge for the new GM this summer will be the Oilers’ cap situation. The Oilers went over the cap last season due to the injury to Andrej Sekera. The Oilers had one of the highest payrolls in the league last season, and they still failed to make the playoffs.

The cap situation in Edmonton is made even tougher because the team has some big contracts that would be incredibly difficult to move. Milan Lucic’s $6 million AAV with an NMC is the largest such contract. He’s got 4 years left in his deal, and his production has cratered, thus making a potential trade next to impossible barring a miracle. Andrej Sekera’s cap hit is $5.5 million, and he will be a 33-year old 3rd pairing defenceman if the status quo remains. He is coming off of two consecutive years in which he has suffered a major injury, which will be a red flag for any potentially interested team. Kris Russell’s cap hit is $4 million that could be being spent on a higher quality 2nd pairing defender. Both Sekera and Russell have NMCs that will be modified to allow for a trade starting this July, which makes trading them even more difficult. Mikko Koskinen hasn’t fully proven himself as a top tier NHL starting goalie, but he was given a 3-year deal with an AAV of $4.5 million, along with a limited NMC. Brandon Manning’s $2.25 million contract will be tough to move because he had been healthy scratched in Chicago prior to coming to Edmonton, and he finished the season in the AHL.

Sorry to re-hash the past Oilers fans. While the likelihood of any of these contracts being moved is low, I wouldn’t say that moving any of these players is an impossibility. However, the purpose of this exercise is to see if there is a way that the Oilers can create more cap space given the restraints that these contracts provide while still yielding a competitive team.

Here is the list of players that are signed through next season currently:

McDavid – $12,500,000
Draisaitl – $8,500,000
Nugent-Hopkins – $6,000,000
Lucic (NMC) – $6,000,000
Sekera (Limited NMC) – $5,500,000
Koskinen (Limited NMC) – $4,500,000
Klefbom – $4,167,000
Larsson – $4,166,666
Russell (Limited NMC) – $4,000,000
Nurse – $3,200,000
Gagner – $3,150,000
Manning – $2,250,000
Kassian – $1,950,000
Benning – $1,900,000
Brodziak – $1,150,000
Cave – $675,000

Buyouts: Pouliot- $1,333,333; Gryba- $300,000

Total Committed: $71,241,999
Cap Space with projected $83M cap: $11,758,001
Active Roster: 16 players (8F, 7D, 1G); 7 players needed to reach 23 (6 skaters, 1 goalie)
Average cap hit/player remaining: $1,679,714

I did not include players whose contracts expired this past season that are likely to be re-signed because they do not have fixed dollar values as of the writing of this article. Those players are Alex Chiasson, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Jujhar Khaira. Any or all of those three could be included in the group of 7 players that are needed to fill out the roster.

The goal of this exercise is to increase the average that the Oilers can spend on each player that they need to fill out their roster. The way to do that is to replace existing contracts with cheaper players. Of course, these cheaper payers have to be able to produce at a similar rate to the players that they would be replacing. For the purpose of this exercise, I will not suggest moving any of the players with contracts that have deemed to be difficult to move. Those players are Lucic, Sekera, Russell, Koskinen, and Manning.

I will also not suggest making any drastic changes to the core. That means McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Larsson, and Nurse will not be possible candidates for this exercise. I will also exclude Cave from this exercise because his cap hit will be below the new league minimum for new contracts starting next season ($700,000 as per His replacement would likely not equate to any cap savings. That leaves the following group of players that could be moved in order to create cap space: Gagner, Kassian, Brodziak, and Benning.

Gagner was a welcome addition at the end of this past season. The former Oiler’s return brought some excitement to the fan base, and it brought a veteran presence in the dressing room. Bob Nicholson praised Gagner for his character and his leadership. Gagner scored 10 points in 25 games with Edmonton, which is reasonable production for a 3rd liner.

However, the Oilers are facing a bit of a log jam at right-wing. They already have Gagner and Kassian signed through next season. Puljujarvi will likely be back as well, and the AHL is no longer an option for him because he is no longer waivers exempt. The Oilers would risk losing him for nothing by sending him to the AHL. They could also bring back Chiasson, the team’s 4th leading scorer from last season. The way I see it, that would mean having 4 middle six right-wingers on the roster.
The puzzle pieces don’t quite fit together nicely in my opinion.

The Oilers need an upgrade at centre on their 3rd line. Gagner has been a centre for the majority of his career, and he spent approximately half of his time with the Marlies last season playing centre. Centre is not the ideal spot for Gagner at this point because he doesn’t have the requisite speed anymore, but it isn’t as if he CAN’T play the position. If the organization believes that Gagner can produce at a 30-point pace while playing centre next season, then I think that keeping him makes sense. Cooper Marody is the only prospect that is close to ready that plays centre, but he doesn’t have the foot speed to play centre in the NHL yet. I don’t see Marody as the solution at 3C.

If Gagner were to slide over to centre, then the Oilers could run with Kassian, Chiasson, and Puljujarvi as their top 3 RW. That would create an opening for a young AHL player to earn a roster spot. Marody ($925,000) or Josh Currie ($687,500) are both right-handed and signed through next season. Both also played in NHL games this past season. Either player could be a cheap and effective 4th line RW next season.

Trading Gagner would have the same effect on the RW depth chart, but the Oilers would need to use his salary on a 3rd line centre. This potential new 3rd line centre would need to be on a short-term contract because the Oilers have Ryan McLeod coming sometime in the next 2 seasons, and they might be drafting a centre with the 8th pick in the upcoming draft. This new centre would ideally cost less than Gagner’s $3.15 million cap hit and be able to produce approximately 30 points as well.

Valtteri Filppula is the only UFA that fits all of the criteria. He is 35 years old, but he scored 31 points in 72 games for the Islanders this season, and his cap hit was only $2,750,000. I can’t see him getting more than that as a 35-year old this summer. His production has been declining slowly over the past few seasons, but he would still be an improvement at 3C for Edmonton.

Erik Haula would be an interesting trade target this summer. He spent the majority of this season on the injured reserve with a knee injury, but he got 55 points in Vegas’s inaugural season. It would be foolish to expect that kind of production from him again coming off of a knee injury, but 30 points would be a reasonable expectation. He has one year left on his deal at a cap hit of $2,750,000. Filppula and Haula are players that the Oilers should be targeting for next season regardless of whether or not they move Gagner, but acquiring one of the two and moving Gagner would open up a roster spot for an AHL promotion and create some cap space.

Kassian is in that log jam at RW as well. He scored a career-high 15 goals this season, and he was only 3 points shy of his career-high of 29. He is big, physical, fast, and apparently smart enough to play with skilled players. However, the Oilers need to take his success from this past season with a grain of salt. He only had 3 points for the season until he got moved up to McDavid’s line on January 2nd in Arizona. He got 23 points in the remaining 43 games. He has never produced anywhere close to that pace in his career. He has always struggled with consistency. While he was effective on McDavid’s line, both Gagner and Chiasson could equal or surpass his total production from last season. Puljujarvi has the potential to do that as well, even though we haven’t seen it yet. Marody or Currie could come up to play on the 4th line to fill his roster spot.

The Oilers could alleviate the log jam at right-wing by simply not re-signing Chiasson. They could also accomplish the same goal by trading Puljujarvi. Choosing any 3 of Gagner, Kassian, Chiasson, or Puljujarvi would open up that 4RW spot for one of Marody or Currie; but opening that roster spot by moving Gagner or Kassian is the only way to create more cap space because those two are signed through next season already. Not bringing Chiasson or Puljujarvi back would simply leave more of the remaining cap space that would be needed to round out the roster available to the Oilers.

As I alluded to earlier, the Oilers need an upgrade at 3C. Brodziak and Cave are 3C and 4C at the moment. Neither one is capable of producing enough offence to play 3C. Honestly, the idea that either one can produce enough offence to even be a capable 4C in the NHL next season is debatable. Keeping Cave as the 4C or the 13th forward makes sense because he is so cheap. The Oilers do have Gagner, but his ideal position is RW now. The Oilers will also likely be bringing Khaira back, but he also appears to be best suited for the wing. Moving Brodziak would create $1.15 million that could be used on an upgrade at 3C such as Filppula or Haula.

The picture up front is fairly muddy at the moment, but the picture on defence is far clearer. For the purpose of this exercise, Benning is the only defenceman that can be moved. Joel Persson ($1 million) and Ethan Bear ($720,000) are right-handed shots that appear to be ready for NHL duty. Caleb Jones ($720,000) is a lefty, but he has played the right side in Bakersfield. Benning is only 24 years old and he has 205 NHL games under his belt at this point. Moving a young defenceman before his prime is a mistake that the Oilers have made many times in recent history, but the difference here is that Benning doesn’t appear to have the same sort of ceiling that Petry, Schultz, and Gustafsson have since reached. Persson, Bear, and Jones could all be upgrades over Benning in terms of mobility and offensive production, and they are all signed to deals significantly cheaper than Benning’s through next season.

Here is a look at a potential cap situation that the Oilers could face after taking the discussed measures to create more cap space this summer. This scenario represents the most amount of cap space that the Oilers could reasonably create without trading any of the contracts that would be difficult to move. There are several possible outcomes at RW, but I opted to choose a scenario where the Oilers would trade Gagner for this exercise because he has the highest cap hit of the group. I chose Bear as the replacement for Benning based on the fact that he is the cheapest right-handed option.

Draisaitl ($8.5M) – McDavid ($12.5M) – Kassian ($1.95M)
______ – Nuge ($6M) – ______
______ – ______ – ______
Lucic ($6M) – Cave ($675,000) – Currie ($687,500)

Klefbom ($4,167,000) – Larsson ($4,166,666)
Nurse ($3.2M) – Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) – Bear ($720,000)
Manning ($2.25M)

Koskinen ($4.5M)

Total Committed: $66,449,499
Cap Space with projected $83M cap: $16,550,501
Active Roster: 15 players (7F, 7D, 1G); 8 players needed to reach 23 (7 skaters, 1 goalie)
Average cap hit/player remaining: $2,068,813
Cap Savings: $4,792,500

The Oilers need a top 6 winger. $6 million would be more than enough to land the Oilers a quality top 6 winger. Given the current situation, if the Oilers were to use one of their 7 roster spots that are currently open on a $6 million player, that would bring their average cap hit/player remaining down to $959,667. There’s no way that the Oilers could add a $6 million player given the current cap situation.

However, in the scenario that I have presented, adding a $6 million player would leave the Oilers with an average cap hit/player remaining number of $1,507,214!

Chiasson could be signed for close to that number, or slightly more. Puljujarvi and Khaira should both be under that number next season as well. Those moves would leave the Oilers needing a 3C, an extra forward, and a back-up goalie. For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that those players will be signed for the following amounts:

Chiasson- $1.5 million
Puljujarvi – $1.25 million
Khaira – $1.25 million
Total: $4 million

$1.25 million might even be more than what Puljujarvi and Khaira will get. Those numbers would leave the Oilers with an average cap hit/player remaining of $2,183,500. Now, let’s pretend that 3C is Haula since we know that his $2.75 million is a fixed number. That would leave $3,800,501 for a back-up goalie and an extra forward. There would be more than enough cap space to round out the roster with a quality back-up goalie and an extra forward in this scenario.

Here’s a look at a potential final roster based on this scenario:

Draisaitl ($8.5M) – McDavid ($12.5M) – Kassian ($1.95M)
Ehlers ($6M) – Nuge ($6M) – Chiasson ($1.5M)
Khaira ($1.25M) – Haula ($2.75M) – Puljujarvi ($1.25M)
Lucic ($6M) – Cave ($675,000) – Currie ($687,500)
Marody ($925,000)

Klefbom ($4,167,000) – Larsson ($4,166,666)
Nurse ($3.2M) – Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) – Bear ($720,000)
Jones ($720,000)
Manning ($2.25M)

Koskinen ($4.5M)
Neuvirth ($2M)

Total: $81,211,166
Buyouts: Pouliot- $1,333,333; Gryba- $300,000
Total Cap Hit: $82,844,499
Cap Space with projected $83M cap: $155,501

This is certainly not the perfect roster, but I would call it an improvement over the 2018-19 Oilers.

There are a lot of variables when doing exercises like this. Gagner and Brodziak might not have a lot of value on the trade market. We don’t know what the return for them would be. We also don’t know what the Oilers would have to sacrifice in trades for Ehlers and Haula. That top 6 LW could be someone other than Ehlers. The 3C could be Filpulla or another UFA. The back-up doesn’t have to be Neuvirth.

The point of this was to illustrate that the Oilers are not totally trapped by their big contracts. They can still improve the team without moving any of Lucic, Sekera, Russell, Koskinen, or Mannning.

Now, if they were to utilize the strategy that I’ve presented here along with moving Russell and bringing in a 2020 UFA RD such as Spurgeon like I suggested in last week’s article, they could spark a significant turn-around next season.

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