Affordable UFAs

Earlier this off-season, I showed you which UFAs that the Oilers should be interested in this summer. Ilya Kovalchuk, James van Riemsdyk, and John Carlson would be the most desirable UFAs for the Oilers based on organizational need. However, the Oilers won’t be able to afford any of those three unless some salary is moved out.

This week in my Oilers Off-Season Game Plan series, I’ll explore which UFAs the Oilers could realistically afford to sign this summer.

Here is the current roster outlook for next season once again:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
LW Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Lucic ($6M) Strome ($3M) Aberg ($0.65M)
Caggiula ($0.874M) Khaira ($0.675M) Kassian ($1.95M)

Nurse ($0.874M) Larsson ($4.167M)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) Benning ($0.874M)
Gryba ($0.9M) Bear ($0.925M)

Talbot ($4.16M)
Koskinen ($2.5M)

Total Cap Hit = $69.941 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million

Total: $71.271 million
Space with $78 million cap: $6.729 million
Space with $82 million cap: $10.729 million

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said that he ideally wants to keep the salary cap as low as possible. Until the true salary cap for next season is revealed, teams will have to plan as if it will be the minimum of $78 million that was projected earlier this past season.

That $6.729 million figure does not include the expected value of Darnell Nurse’s contract. He will be getting more than his qualifying offer. I estimate that he will get somewhere between $2.5-4.5 million per season. That figure also doesn’t include the 13th forward that will have to be added. Assuming that the value of that 13th forward is the league minimum, that would leave $2.453-4.453 million to be used in free agency.

Here are the available players in that price range that the Oilers could be interested in:

Jack Johnson, LD (Columbus)
Age as of July 1: 31
27 G – 9 A –36 P in 78 GP
Previous Cap Hit: $4.357 million
Expected Cap Hit: $3-3.5 million

Johnson is a left-handed defenceman that might be a good option to look at. He can play in the top 4, and he would likely be available at a discounted rate. He could be headed for a pay cut after a few down years in Columbus. He reportedly asked to be traded at the deadline, but no deal came to fruition.

Thomas Vanek, LW/RW (Vancouver, Columbus)
Age as of July 1: 34
24 G – 32 A – 56 P in 80 GP
Previous Cap Hit: $2 million
Expected Cap Hit: $2.5-3 million

He has played for 4 teams in the last 2 seasons; but he continues to produce everywhere he goes. He has been traded to playoff contenders at the trade deadline in each of the last 2 years because he has been a good player on bad teams. He will provide tremendous value for whichever team signs him. He looked pretty comfortable at Rogers Place while scoring a hat-trick against the Oilers in March; perhaps that gives Edmonton a leg up on the field.

Michael Grabner, LW/RW (New York Rangers, New Jersey)
Age as of July 1: 30
27 G – 9 A –36 P in 78 GP
Previous Cap Hit: $1.65 million
Expected Cap Hit: $3 million

Grabner would certainly add speed to the Oilers line-up. He’s proven that he can score consistently, and he can kill penalties. His low assist total is slightly concerning if the expectation is that he will play in the top 6. However, this would be a value signing for whoever signs him.

David Perron, LW/RW (Vegas)
Age as of July 1: 30
16 G – 50 A – 66 P in 70 GP
Previous Cap Hit: $3.75 million
Expected Cap Hit: $4 million

Perron was moved by the Oilers after struggling in his second season with the team in 2015. In his first season with the Oilers, he was actually quite good. He scored 57 points in 78 games. He’s physical, he works hard, he shoots from everywhere, and he is currently a part of the Stanley Cup finalist Vegas team (still feels weird to say) that is widely considered to be one of the fastest teams in the league. I doubt a reunion will happen between the Oilers and Perron, but he’s an intriguing option.

Leo Komarov, LW (Toronto)
Age as of July 1: 31
7 G – 12 A –19 P in 73 GP
Previous Cap Hit: $2.95 million
Expected Cap Hit: $2.5 million

Komarov is coming off of a down season by his standards. He surpassed the 30-point plateau in each of his last two seasons prior to 2017-18. He’s a hard-nosed winger with some speed that can get 25-30 points. Komarov would be a good fit on a third line with Strome.

Antoine Roussel, LW (Dallas)
Age as of July 1: 28
5 G – 12 A –17 P in 73 GP
Previous Cap Hit: $2 million
Expected Cap Hit: $2.5 million

17 points is his lowest total in 5 seasons. He had scored anywhere from 25-29 points in each of the previous 4 seasons. His offensive potential is limited, but he’s fast and he can kill penalties. He would establish himself as an effective 3rd line LW in Edmonton.

Vanek would be the best option as a scoring winger. Grabner and Perron could move up and down the line-up. Komarov and Roussel would be limited to bottom-six roles. Any of the five could be added if Nurse were to sign for $2.953 million or less.

Jack Johnson is an interesting option on defence. Chiarelli said that he wants to find defencemen that can move the puck faster, and that he would be open to adding left-handed puck moving defencemen. If he were to be added, then either he or Sekera would have to play on the right side ahead of Benning. Adding the extra defender in Johnson would allow Bear to develop in the AHL.

All of these players listed above would fill needs, but none of these would be earth shattering moves for the Oilers.

So how can the Oilers create more cap space this summer to facilitate a bigger move?

Lucic, Sekera, and Russell are not going anywhere due to their NMCs. Get those ideas out of your heads Oilers fans!

The move that would create the most space would be trading Zack Kassian. Replacing him with a winger making the league minimum of $650k would create $1.3 million in cap space. Kassian brings a lot of good things to the table, but $1.95 million is a lot for a 4th line winger.

Eric Gryba spent most of last season in the AHL, and he has one more year left at $0.9 million. Ethan Bear would likely benefit from more time in the AHL since he only got 34 games down there last season. Replacing both of those players with players making the league minimum would create $0.525 million, which would bring the new hypothetical total $1.825 million in newly created cap space.

If Nurse were to sign for the lowest expected value of $2.5 million and a 13th forward were to be signed for the league minimum after making the above moves, then the maximum potential amount of cap space that the Oilers could have to spend on a free agent would be $6.278 million. There are two players that could be signed for that approximate price point: Rick Nash and Mike Green.

Nash proved that he can still play this past season, but a team will over-pay for the production that they will get from him.

Green was effective last season, but he only played in 66 games. He also recently had cervical spine surgery. At 32 years of age, Green could be on the verge of a decline. He could be an expensive injury at important position waiting to happen, which is not a risk that the Oilers are in a position to take.

I expect both of Nash and Green to sign for less than $6 million. Keeping Gryba and Bear on the roster would still leave $5.753 million in cap space after trading Kassian. Gryba and Bear likely wouldn’t have to be moved in order to accomodate Nash or Green, but you can still see that squeezing every penny possible would still not allow Chiarelli to sign Kovalchuk or Carlson.

In my previous article on the potential UFA options that will be available in July, I outlined a group of three top left wingers that I expect to sign for a minimum of $6.5 million: James van Riemsdyk, Evander Kane, and James Neal. Nurse would have to sign at $2.22 million or less for the Oilers to be able to get a $6.5 million man on the roster after adding the newly created cap space. However, it’s unlikely that any of the big 3 left wingers that I named would accept $6.5 million (even if Nurse were to sign for less than $2.22 million).

In order to have a chance at making any of these scenarios happen, all of Kassian, Pakarinen (13th forward), Gryba, and Bear would need to be replaced with players making the league minimum. The odds of the Oilers finding four effective players at the league minimum to replace those four bodies are slim to nil.

If Johnson were to be signed for $3.5 million, Bear were to be removed from the active roster, and a 13th forward were to be signed for the league minimum, the Oilers would have $4.378 million to use on Nurse and a left winger. Even if Nurse were to sign for $2.5 million, the remaining $1.878 million wouldn’t be enough for any of the wingers mentioned above. In other words, signing Johnson would prohibit the Oilers from making any sort of tangible improvement to the wingers through free agency.

However, trading Kassian could change that situation. Adding Kassian’s departing $1.95 million to the $4.378 million in cap space that would exist after signing Johnson would leave $6.328 million in cap space. If Nurse were to sign for $2.5 million, there would be $3.828 million to spend on a replacement for Kassian and a left winger. Perron would not be affrordable in this scenario; but any of Vanek, Grabner, Komarov, or Roussel could be signed with a minimum of $828k left to be spent on a replacement for Kassian on the 4th line.

Here’s how the roster could look after those changes:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Vanek ($3M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Lucic ($6M) Strome ($3M) Aberg ($0.65M)
Caggiula ($0.874M) Khaira ($0.675M) Chiasson ($0.8M)
Pirri ($650K)

Nurse ($2.5M) Larsson ($4.167M)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Johnson ($3.5M)
Sekera ($5.5M) Rusell ($4M)
Gryba ($0.9M) Benning ($0.874M)

Talbot ($4.16M)
Koskinen ($2.5M)

Total Cap Hit = $76.642 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million

Total: $77.972 million
Space with $78 million cap: $0.028 million
Space with $82 million cap: $4.028 million

In this scenario, the Oilers will have added a top four offensive defenceman in Jack Johnson. They will also have added 3 new wingers. 3 out of 13 players represents almost a quarter of the forward group, which would be significant change (even if two of those new wingers would see limited ice time). This scenario would be the best possible realistic outcome from free agency this summer for the Oilers.

It would become possible by making one trade. I respect Kassian and what he has done as an Oiler, but if moving him can create enough cap space to make the team better then I believe that he would need to be moved.

If the Oilers are active in the free agent market this July, don’t expect there to be a massive signing because the money just isn’t there. If the cap were to go up to $82 million though, anything would be possible.

Next week, I’ll dive deeper into some of the trade rumours that have been circulating in Edmonton so far this off-season.

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