Last week, I discussed what I think the Oilers should do this summer. This week, I’m going to take a shot at predicting what Peter Chiarelli WILL do this off-season.
There has been a lot of speculation about what might happen, as there is in every off-season with every team. Some of it is based on inside information, and some of it is based on wishful thinking. I am basing my roster projection for next season on the words that have come out of Peter Chiarelli’s mouth on the record. The press conference that I turned to for this piece was Chiarelli’s season ending press conference. You can’t believe everything a GM says, but until something contrary to what he has said happens, we really have to take him at face value.
Chiarelli admitted that he made a mistake by over-projecting how good some players would be last year. He referred to a group of players as the “94s”: players that were born in 1994. Those players were Jujhar Khaira, Drake Caggiula, Matthew Benning, and Anton Slepyshev. Chiarelli wanted to give those players an opportunity to show what they were capable of last seaosn. Slepyshev has reportedly decided to play in Russia next season. With the exception of Slepyshev, these players are still legitimate NHLers that are worth investing in despite their impact being over-projected last season. Khaira had the best year of the group and he has earned himself a spot as the 4th line centre. He can play on the third line if need be in case of injury. Caggiula did enough to earn himself a 2-year, $3 million contract; which is a bit of an over-spend in my opinion. Benning is an RFA and will likely sign a contract similar to what Caggiula got since the Oilers have spent so much time developing him to this point.
*UPDATE: Benning signed a 2-year, $3.8 million contract mere hours after I posted this article.
Jesse Puljujarvi was another player that Chiarelli over-projected on last season. Puljujarvi was asked to clean up some finer details in his game when he was sent down to Bakersfield at the start of last season. Upon being called back up, Puljujarvi was quite effective for a short period. He lost his confidence somewhere along the way last season, and he had an underwhelming season overall. Chiarelli had high praise for Puljujarvi, and he believes that Puljujarvi will be a good player in this league. The Oilers were lucky and excited to get him with the 4th pick in 2016, and it seems like it’s too early to trade a player they were so high on only two years ago. I don’t see Puljujarvi being traded.
When asked about the situation with Andrej Sekera’s injury last year and if he would handle that situation differently if he could do it again, Chiarelli said that he over-projected how good Benning and Darnell Nurse would be. Nurse had a strong season where he showed tremendous improvement on both sides of the puck, so it was interesting to hear Chiarelli say that he over-projected how good he would be. Nurse is an RFA this summer. Chiarelli’s comment and the fact that Nurse is not eligible for arbitration will make it an interesting negotiation. Chiarelli could offer Nurse a bridge deal with a shorter term and less money, which would allow Chiarelli to have more cap flexibility over the next two years. Since Nurse isn’t eligible for arbitration, he would likely have to accept a bridge deal if that’s what Chiarelli were to offer. Chiarelli could also offer Nurse a long-term deal at a fairly reasonable cap hit. There’s merit to both strategies. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nurse sign a bridge deal, but I do believe that Nurse will get a 5-year, $20 million deal.
As far as a strategy for this off-season, Chiarelli’s most meaningful quote was that he will not “dismantle” the team. He reiterated that sentiment in an interview with NHL.com at the scouting combine by saying that the Oilers are not looking to make a big splash this summer.
He also said that he would not rule out a trade.
When asked if he would definitively say that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be a part of the core of the team in the future, Chiarelli said “yeah, I would say that”. Nugent-Hopkins isn’t going anywhere.
When asked about Milan Lucic, Chiarelli said that he believes that Lucic can get back to being the player he once was. He noted that he liked Lucic’s skating this year after he put some work into it last summer. He said that he has seen Lucic’s work ethic on display in the past and that he expects nothing different this summer. That leads me to believe that Lucic isn’t going anywhere either.
Chiarelli did also say that there were areas in Lucic’s game that weren’t good enough, such as finishing and his defensive zone play. Rumours surfaced last week that the Oilers believe that they can find a trading partner that would take Lucic. The 5 years remaining on his contract, his $6 million cap hit, his NMC (to be modified in 2020-21), and his poor season last year will make moving the contract difficult and expensive. If Lucic were to be moved, then the Oilers would need two middle six left wingers. I would expect that the return in any Lucic trade would have to be a winger with an albatross of a contract similar to that of Lucic. If the return were to be a defenceman, then Chiarelli would have to sign two UFA wingers to play in the middle six, which would be a tall task.
As far as bad contracts go, Lucic’s isn’t as bad as most others because he is only 30 years old. Lucic still does have the unique skill set of being a massive man that can put up points. It’s a more valuable bad contract than a lot of others. The bad contract that the Oilers take on in return for Lucic should either have a lower cap hit or a shorter term. If Chiarelli can somehow get a team to take Lucic without getting a different bad contract in return, then it will likely cost the Oilers draft picks.
It was reported that Chiarelli wants to make a “hockey deal” for Lucic, which means that he won’t move Lucic simply for the sake of moving him. He won’t add any sweeteners like draft picks just to get a team to take his contract. This feels like a situation where the GM’s expected return for Lucic will be vastly different than what other GMs will be willing to give up. The complex nature of the deal and Chiarelli’s belief in Lucic are why I don’t think that Lucic will be moved this summer. I’d be pumped if Chiarelli could get it done though.
Chiarelli said that there are areas that he needs to fill. That suggests to me that the large pieces of next year’s roster are already in place, and that there are some small spaces that need to be filled. He said that the team needs to play with more pace. That involves thinking quicker and moving the puck quicker. He noted that that starts at the back-end. Chiarelli noted that he might look to “tweak” the defence. When I hear “tweak” combined with the phrase “we will not dismantle this team”, to me that means that none of the core defencemen will be traded. The “tweak” that Chiarelli spoke of will likely come at the bottom of the depth chart.
He’s not trading Larsson because he is the best right-handed defender on the team and he was the return for Taylor Hall. Klefbom isn’t going anywhere because that would qualify as “dismantling” the team and his contract is too good to give up. Nurse’s sharp upwards trajectory makes it hard to fathom moving him. Sekera and Russell both have NMCs, so they’re staying put.
Chiarelli said that he over-projected how good Benning would be last year. He also said that he would handle the Sekera injury situation differently if he could do it again. The only way he could’ve handled it differently would have been to bring in another defenceman.
This year is different because Sekera is healthy. He had a disaster of a year when he did play, and it was clear that his knee was not allowing him to move like he normally would be able to last season. An ineffective Sekera is about as bad as an injured Sekera, so there is still a question of what Chiarelli should do at the bottom of the depth chart. Benning had a good 2016-17 season, but then struggled to start last season. He did improve as the year went on, but he still has only played 135 NHL games. The thing that Benning has in his favour is that he is right-handed. Chiarelli will likely give him a contract similar to what Caggiula got, which I believe would also be an over-payment.
*UPDATE: Benning’s $1.9 million contract suggests that he will be firmly entrenched as the 6th defenceman next season. The Oilers won’t spend that much on him to have him sit in the press box on a lot of nights.
Ethan Bear finished the season last year with an 18-game stint with the Oilers. He showed Oilers fans that he does have a lot of potential, but it was also clear that he has some developing to do before he becomes a full-time NHLer. He only had 34 games in the AHL last year, so he would be better served by spending one more year in the AHL.
Eric Gryba is an interesting case as well. Chiarelli brought Gryba here because he liked how physical he is. Gryba signed a 2-year contract last summer, but he finished last season in the AHL. Having Gryba as the 7th or 8th defenceman for one more year wouldn’t be the worst thing, but a cheaper and more effective replacement could be found.
Regardless of where Gryba slots in on the depth chart, Chiarelli will have to get one more depth defenceman if Bear ends up in the AHL as he should. If Chiarelli learned anything from last year, its that this defenceman needs to be able to step in and take on a significant role in case there is an injury or someone under-performs. Gryba is a righty, so this player will likely be a lefty. Potential options include Jakub Jerabek, Taylor Chorney, and Kevin Gravel.
Keegan Lowe is 25 years old, and he just signed a 2-year deal. At 25 years old, I don’t view him as a prospect that is a threat to crack the top four on the Oilers. He doesn’t need to be developing at the AHL level anymore. He also wouldn’t be well served to sit in the press box as the 8th defenceman in Edmonton for the whole season. If Chiarelli learned from last year as he indicated that he may have, then Lowe will be back in the AHL as well. Lowe will likely be the first defenceman called up next season.
Chiarelli also said that a couple of wingers are on his to-do list. The departure of Patrick Maroon has created a hole at left wing. Iiro Pakarinen and Anton Slepyshev have decided to play in Europe. Mike Cammalleri had positive moments as an Oiler, but he was ineffective on most nights last season. I don’t see him coming back. Caggiula’s $1.5 million AAV suggests that he will start the year as the 4th line left-winger because that is a lot of money to be sitting in the press box most nights. Since Nugent-Hopkins has moved to the wing on McDavid’s line, Chiarelli has to find a left winger to play in the middle six and a 13th forward.
Lucic staying put means that he will be the second line left winger behind Nugent-Hopkins. That means the left winger that Chiarelli brings in will be a 3rd line left winger. Leo Komarov and Antoine Roussel would be the best UFA options. Both are comparable players, but I believe that Roussel would be slightly cheaper, so I would lean towards him.
Kailer Yamamoto had a strong finish to his junior season after a 9-game stint with the Oilers out of camp last year. I believe that while Yamamoto is likely close to NHL-ready, it would be a mistake to rush him into the line-up. Especially if you consider that the right side has experiments Ty Rattie and Pontus Aberg on it already.
Caggiula can play centre if he absolutely has to in case of an injury, so I would expect the 13th forward to be a winger. Connor Brickley, Jimmy Hayes, and Tanner Glass would be good options to consider.
The only question that I’ve left unanswered is about what the Oilers will do with the 10th overall pick. During his season ending media availability, Chiarelli said that there is a “cluster of D” that he likes that are slated to go around where the Oilers are picking. In his interview with NHL.com at the scouting combine, Chiarelli said that “we’re going to get a good young player in this draft”. He also said that he would be open to moving the pick. He said that the teams ahead of Edmonton have different positional needs, which could mean there is an opportunity to move up. In my 2018 NHL Entry Draft Preview, I speculated that Detroit would be the team most likely to trade picks with Edmonton. Later reports have since confirmed that Detroit is one of the few teams that might consider trading down in this draft. If this pick is traded, then it will be to move up in the draft. That will definitely be discussed, but I’m not certain that it will happen.
The “cluster of D” that Chiarelli referred to likely includes Adam Boqvist, Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes, Noah Dobson, and Ty Smith. In his scouting combine interview, Chiarelli said that there are three or four players at different positions that are at the same talent level. He then said that they usually pick the best player available. The players from other positions that he could be talking about include Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Oliver Wahlstrom. Kotkaniemi is a versatile two-way centre, and we have enough of those. He could also go to Montreal with the 3rd pick. Wahlstrom is a right-handed sniper, which wouldn’t be the worst thing to add if he’s still available at 10… but so is Jesse Puljujarvi. Barrett Hayton is another centre that could go around where the Oilers are picking, and Joel Farabee is a left-winger similar to Johnny Gaudreau and Kailer Yamamoto. I don’t see either of those players being picked in the top 10.
In April, Chiarelli admitted that a right-handed offensive defenceman that can run the powerplay is a need for the Oilers. He went out of his way to say that just because there is a need for one, it doesn’t mean that a player that fits the description is available immediately. He also noted that he may draft by positional need. There are very few elite offensive defencemen in the NHL today, and even fewer of them are right-handed. This is an incredible opportunity to draft the long-coveted offensive right-handed defenceman. Boqvist, Bouchard, and Dobson are the righties that are available in the top 10. Boqvist is the most dynamic of the three, and his draft stock seems to be falling from being a top 5 pick to right around where the Oilers will pick. I believe that the Oilers will select Adam Boqvist with the 10th overall selection.
With that, the time has come for me to reveal my projected roster for the 2018-19 Edmonton Oilers:
Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Lucic ($6M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Roussel ($2.5M) Strome ($3M) Aberg ($0.65M)
Caggiula ($1.5M) Khaira ($0.675M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Nurse ($4M) Larsson ($4.167M)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) Benning ($1.9M) *Roster updated to reflect Benning’s contract
Chorney ($0.9M) Gryba ($0.9M)
Total Cap Hit = $77.944 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million
Total: $79.274 million
Space with $79.5 million cap: $0.226 million
As you can see, there really aren’t a lot of drastic changes from last year. The improvement will likely be coming from within. Chiarelli doesn’t believe that the Oilers are as bad as they were last year, or as good as they were the year before. A lot of players that had great years in 2016-17 had poor years last year. It is totally reasonable to expect the performance of those players in question to progress to the mean. There are fewer fringe players like Slepyshev and Pakarinen that will need ice time, which will add consistency to the line-up and take some stress away from the wingers. The addition of Roussel gives the team more speed and another player that can kill penalties.
That concludes my Oilers Off-Season Game Plan series for 2018. Stay tuned to Oil Drops for more content leading up to the draft, free agency, and beyond