Ah, April. It’s a great time of year to be a hockey fan. The first round of the NHL playoffs is always must-watch TV. Who would’ve guessed that Columbus would be up 3-0 on Tampa Bay after the year that they had, or that Jordan Eberle would be leading the Islanders to a 3-0 lead over Pittsburgh? It’s far more competitive in the West. The Sharks vs Golden Knights series has been a blast to watch. The Jets vs Blues and Preds vs Stars series have both been super competitive. Colorado is showing that they can more than keep up with the regular season Western Conference champion Flames… game 3 of that series was highly entertaining!
Obviously, these playoffs would be much more fun to watch if our Oilers had made it, but I’m not here to rub salt in the wound of Oilers fans.
The focus is on next season in Edmonton. That brings me to my 2019 Off-Season Game Plan series where I will be discussing many of the possible moves that the Oilers could make this summer in order to improve next year’s team. I’ve already completed a wrap-up of the draft lottery. Today’s article is about the decisions that the Oilers need to make on players who will be free agents this summer. Let’s get to it!
Tobias Rieder: Rieder was given a one-year deal to prove that he could still produce offence in the NHL. He was looking for a 4-year deal and time with McDavid or Draisaitl. He scored a whopping 0 goals this season. Bob Nicholson regretfully already stated publicly that Rieder will not be re-signed by the Oilers. That is definitely the right decision.
Ty Rattie: I’m on record as saying that Rattie was the most talented fringe winger that the Oilers had this season. He consistently created chances when he was playing with skilled players. I honestly don’t think that he got a fair shake from the coaching staff (under McLellan and Hitchcock) after his injury. He led the NHL in pre-season scoring playing with McDavid, and he had 2 points in 4 games playing with McDavid to start the season before getting hurt in the 5th game of the year. He even got 2 points in his first 3 games after returning from his injury. The offence dried up after that though. It’s hard to be expected to produce a lot of offence when you’re playing on the scarcely used 4th line or being healthy scratched consistently, but that was Rattie’s reality. In limited action with skilled players as the year went on, his lines created chances; but the bottom line is that he couldn’t find a way to produce. I like Rattie and I hope for the best for him, but I don’t think the organization is a fan of his. He can only produce with skilled players, he isn’t a great skater, and Hitchcock didn’t like his defensive game. I don’t know how much he will want to come back after the way Hitchcock handled him anyway. I don’t think that the Oilers will give Rattie a qualifying offer.
Jesse Puljujarvi: There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to our Finnish pizza-loving friend. Puljujarvi had a great summer of training last year, and he came to camp expecting to earn a top 6 role beside McDavid or Draisaitl. It looked as if his skating had improved during the pre-season. However, the season didn’t go as Puljujarvi had hoped that it would. He was healthy scratched for 4 games in a row by Todd McLellan, only to be sent to the AHL shortly thereafter. He got 4 points in 4 games before the Oilers made their coaching change and Hitchcock asked Chiarelli to bring Puljujarvi back up. Hitchcock sang Puljujarvi’s praises at first. Hitch was excited to take responsibility for Puljujarvi’s development. He said that Jesse is the type of player that you need in order to win in the Western Conference, and that Puljujaurvi could be a top 6 forward by the end of January. That’s not how it played out. Puljujarvi was given a limited look on the 2nd line with Nugent-Hopkins and Khaira, and he got one period on the top line with McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins. Other than that, he was on the 3rd line or stapled to the bench.
There was a bit of drama involving Puljujarvi’s agent late in the season. The rumour was that Puljujarvi is unhappy with the Oilers organization and that he wants a trade. I can’t speak to whether or not that is true, but the idea is out there. To further complicate the matter, Puljujarvi was mysteriously a scratch in a game against the Islanders in February. We eventually learned that Puljujarvi had been dealing with a hip injury for quite some time, and that surgery would be required. The surgery only happened after Puljujarvi and his agent sought a 2nd opinion on the injury. The optics of how all of this went down were quite strange.
Regardless, the Oilers have a decision to make on Puljujarvi. They will certainly give him a qualifying offer, thus maintaining his rights. A few things could happen though. The Oilers could sign him to a bridge deal, Puljujarvi could reject the qualifying offer and go back to Finland to play for a season, or the Oilers could trade him. I think that trading him now would not be a good idea because his value is really low and he could still turn into a useful top 6 forward. His development hasn’t gone as we all hoped that it would, but it is still too soon to give up on him. I honestly don’t think it would be a bad idea for him to go back to Finland for a season, but I would be surprised if that were to happen. My expectation is that he will be with the Oilers this fall on a bridge contract.
Jujhar Khaira: Khaira is a rare success story involving an Oilers prospect that wasn’t drafted in the first round earning a spot on the NHL roster. He is an example of what the Oilers need to have happen more often. He’s big, he skates well, and his hands aren’t made of cement. He is a useful bottom 6 player. However, there were times this season where Khaira was placed on the 2nd line. The line with he, Nugent-Hopkins, and Puljujarvi was effective for a little while. Here’s the thing though: he only scored 3 goals this season. He was on pace for 25 points if he had played a full 82-games, but he only played in 60. 25 points puts him somewhere between a great 4th liner and a low-end 3rd liner. I don’t think anyone is expecting Khaira to become any more than a solid 3rd liner. The Oilers are stuck with Milan Lucic who is little more than a 4th liner at this point. They also have Tyler Benson that could potentially come in and play 3LW for the Oilers next season. I believe that the Oilers will only have two of those three on the roster next season. I don’t think that decision will be made until training camp unless they find a way to trade Lucic. That isn’t likely, so I expect Khaira to get a contract for next season from the Oilers.
Alex Petrovic: The guy hasn’t played an NHL game since February 16. He’s not getting an offer from the Oilers. NEXT!
Anthony Stolarz: The Oilers did not play Stolarz often enough to prevent him from becoming a Group 6 UFA this summer. The Oilers could still re-sign him if they so chose, but I don’t see it happening. There are too many question marks surrounding Mikko Koskinen as the starter for next season. I believe that the Oilers will try to find a more reliable veteran back-up that could step in and start for an extended period of time if needed. Stolarz is not that guy. The Oilers have depth at the AHL level as well. Shane Starrett had a tremendous season in the AHL. They also have Dylan Wells and Stuart Skinner playing professional hockey right now. I just don’t see the need for Stolarz in any capacity. I don’t think the Oilers will re-sign him.
Kevin Gravel: This will be an interesting decision. Gravel was an effective defender when called upon this season, but he is definitely on the outside looking in right now. On the left side, the Oilers have Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Andrej Sekera for the time being. They also have Caleb Jones who appears to be ready for NHL duty next season. He is a left-handed shot that has spent most of the season playing on the right side in the AHL, but he played the left side while he was with the Oilers. Jones played ahead of Gravel while he was with the big club this year. The Oilers also have William Lagesson, Ethan Bear, and Joel Persson that could be 7th or 8th defencemen on the roster next season. The argument for re-signing Gravel is that those other 4 defencemen are young and they need to be playing. Having Jones, Lagesson, Bear, or Persson sitting in the press box doesn’t do anyone any favours. Gravel is a great fit as a 7D. They could also easily trade him if the contract is reasonable and the roster becomes too crowded in September. I would re-sign him and let the chips fall where they may in September.
Alex Chiasson: This will be an interesting decision as well. It’s hard to imagine the Oilers not wanting to re-sign the 4th leading scorer on the team coming off of a career year, and we know Chiasson wants to come back. There are a few factors to consider here. Most of Chiasson’s production came early in the season while he was riding a crazy, unsustainable hot-streak. He scored 13 even-strength goals this season. From December 18 onwards, he only scored 3. He scored 3 of his 8 powerplay goals after December 27. His 22-goal and 38-point season is not likely repeatable. He showed that he can play in the top 6 and on the powerplay, but I believe that it would be a mistake to expect that kind of performance again next season. He reminds me of a better version of Mark Letestu… he had one good year playing on the powerplay, and then he couldn’t repeat it the next season. Chiasson is better than Letestu was, but I see Chiasson as a good 3rd line option that can play in the top 6 for a short time if it is required. He isn’t the fastest player, which could work against him because the Oilers want to become a faster team; but his veteran presence and his leadership can’t be overlooked. I would expect the Oilers to re-sign Chiasson to no more than a 2-year deal to be a buffer to allow Marody and Yamamoto more time to develop.
If the Oilers were to bring back the players with expiring contracts that I have suggested that they will, here is what the forward group could potentially look like:
Draisaitl – McDavid – Kassian
(BLANK) – Nuge – Chiasson
Khaira – (BLANK) – Gagner
Lucic – Brodziak – Puljujarvi
My hope is that blank LW spot will be filled with a meaningful acquisition this summer. It could also be filled by Benson if he continues to trend upwards in the AHL playoffs and in training camp next season. I also hope that blank 3C spot if filled with an acquisition this summer. However, my secondary hope would be that Gagner could be just as productive playing centre as he was playing the wing this season. He has played centre in the past, and he was playing centre for about half of his time with the Marlies this season. He might not have the speed to play centre anymore, but it might be a temporary solution until Ryan McLeod or perhaps even the 8th pick in this year’s draft is ready to jump into that role in 2020. I would argue that all 4 of the RWs that I have listed there are basically interchangeable parts that could all see time on any of the 4 lines next season.
Regardless of how it all shakes down, if the Oilers were to re-sign Puljujarvi, Khaira, and Chiasson this summer without trading any other forwards, that would only leave room for two new forwards. It would basically be the same group from this past season, which wasn’t good enough. 8 of the 11 forwards listed there should be classified as bottom 6 forwards as of this moment in time.
I don’t know who those two forwards would be, but that forward group needs more than two new faces next season based on how this past season went. The new GM might wish to add more new faces than just two. He could let Khaira and Chiasson walk in order to save cap space and create roster spots for young players like Benson, Marody, Gambardella, and Currie battle for. He could trade Puljujarvi or Kassian as well. It might be tougher to move Gagner’s contract, but that could also happen.
I expect Puljujarvi, Khaira, and Chiasson to be re-signed; but nothing is set in stone either.
Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the decisions that the Oilers will be facing with their defence this summer.