The second week of June is upon us. Spring is in the air, and the NHL has crowned its champion. Congratulations to the Washington Capitals on their first Stanley Cup victory, and congratulations to the Golden Knights on a historic run the to Stanley Cup Finals as an expansion team.
Now that the Stanley Cup has been awarded, the focus of NHL teams and their fans will be on the trade market up until the draft on June 22 in Dallas. Throughout the playoffs, I have been outlining the possible strategies that the Oilers could use this summer in my Oilers Off-Season Game Plan series. Now, the time has come for me to propose what I think the Oilers should do this off-season.
Once again, here is the roster based on the current contracts that are signed and the values of the qualifying offers for the RFAs that are likely to return:
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)
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: $11.729 million
Space with $80 million cap: $8.729 million
The team’s needs have been greatly publicized. There needs to be an improvement in pace of play and secondary scoring from the wingers, and the defence needs to move the puck faster. There are three ways that any team can add players: through trades, through the draft, and through free agency.
The new trade rumour that has surfaced since last week’s article on the latest rumours is the possibility that Milan Lucic could get traded. TSN’s Frank Seravalli and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman have both reported that the thought of trading Lucic is at least being discussed. A trade involving Lucic would be incredibly difficult to pull off because of how expensive he is and how poor he was last season. The return wouldn’t be as great as Oilers fans would want. Chiarelli would likely have to take on a bad contract and sweeten the pot with additional draft picks. If Chiarelli can get a Lucic trade done without taking on a different bad contract in return, then its worth doing. I can’t even begin to guess which team would be interested in taking Lucic off of our hands without giving us a bad contract back. I really don’t think a Lucic trade will happen. This article is about how I think the Oilers should look next year, and Lucic would not be on the roster in a perfect world. However, I’m not even going to think about what the team would look like without Lucic because it seems too improbable.
Of all of the rumours that I analyzed last week, there were two that seemed interesting. The first was trading Oscar Klefbom for Rasmus Ristolainen. Ristolainen is a right-handed defenceman that is more offensively inclined that Kelfbom; but trading Klefbom means the left side of the defence would then be Nurse, Russell, and Sekera. That left side isn’t ideal; but Sekera could moved and replaced after this coming season. Ristolainen is also more expensive right now and will only get more expensive as time goes on. Klefbom is on a value deal for another 5 years. That is why I would not do the trade. If Klefbom does get moved though, it had better be for Ristolainen.
The other interesting trade would be acquiring Justin Faulk. I originally speculated that the return for Faulk would be Nugent-Hopkins, but the front-office situation in Carolina seems to have brought the price down. Faulk for Puljujarvi and picks is certainly enticing. Adding Faulk to the current defence group would make the team better instantly… but for how long? In last week’s article about the patient strategy, I concluded that Faulk has 8 years left of his prime, while a defenceman that could be drafted this year would have 13 years of play until McDavid’s prime years end (assuming that it takes 3 years for the 2018 draftee to crack the line-up).
The other aspect of this trade that needs to be considered would be the hole that Puljujarvi’s departure would create on the right side. Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek are the only UFA right wingers that has top six potential (both can play both sides), and I believe that they will each cost about $3 million. Add that $3 million to Faulk’s $5.83 million, and you get $8.83 million incoming. Puljujarvi’s $0.925 million would be the only outgoing salary in this trade. The cost of doing the trade and replacing Puljujarvi would be $7.905 million. Then the Oilers would still need to add a LW, a 13th forward, and give Nurse some extra money. Faulk for Puljujarvi couldn’t happen unless Kailer Yamamoto were to be the replacement for Puljujarvi, given that their cap hits are the same. I would like to see the Oilers be patient with Yamamoto instead of rushing him into the line-up. This trade would force Yamamoto into the line-up too quickly, and there wouldn’t be enough money to get left wingers that will have any sort of impact next year.
Make no mistake about the current state of the Oilers. The team is in the midst of a rebuild. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the young pillars that the team will be built upon. The goal, of course, is to build a team that can contend for the longest period of time. Given Faulk’s age and cap hit, trading Puljujarvi for him just doesn’t make sense.
That rules out big trades as a way to improve the Oilers this summer.
With the goal of building a team that can contend for years to come in mind, the next avenue for player acquisition that I’ll look at is the draft. The Oilers hold the 10th pick in the first round. In April, I suggested that there are four defencemen that are slated to go from picks 4-10: Adam Boqvist, Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes, and Noah Dobson. TSN’s Craig Button had Boqvist falling to the Oilers at 10, which I thought would be unbelievable. Recent rumblings have Boqvist’s draft stock falling, which means that there is a chance that Button could be right. Chiarelli could choose to stand pat and hope that Boqvist falls to the Oilers. He could also choose to trade up. I speculated that Detroit would be the team most willing to trade down so that the Oilers could move up, and recent reports have suggested that Detroit is one of the only teams that might be willing to do so.
I personally don’t care how he does it, but I think that Chiarelli needs to find a way to select Adam Boqvist because he is the most dynamic right-handed offensive defenceman in this draft. It has been a need for this franchise for what seems like forever, and every great team seems to have one. They don’t grow on trees, so Chiarelli needs to take this opportunity to draft one. Yes, Ethan Bear is in the system, but stocking the system up with right-handed offensive defencemen would give the Oilers enviable defensive depth and a bargaining chip for the future potentially. Chiarelli said that any of the defencemen not named Rasmus Dahlin would be 3-4 years away from impacting an NHL team’s line-up. Being patient with a right-handed offensive defenceman will prove to be the best strategy in the long-term. Trading the pick for immediate help is out of the question in my opinion.
Free agency is the other way that a team can acquire players. The top free agents that fit the Oilers’ needs are Ilya Kovalchuk, James van Riemsdyk, James Neal, and John Carlson. Kovalchuk is reportedly seeking something similar to what Patrick Marleau got last year (3 years, $6.25 million per season). I expect Neal to get around $6.5 million, while van Riemsdyk and Carlson should both get at least $7 million. Carlson is out of the question because the Oilers would still need to add a middle six left winger after signing him, which there simply is no space to do. If the salary cap rises to $80 million as was reported it might last week, the Oilers would need to get a little creative in order to be able to afford any of three wingers.
Darnell Nurse would have to sign for an AAV of $2.5 million or less. Zack Kassian would have to be traded. A Kassian trade is certainly worth exploring because $1.95 million for a 4th line winger is a lot. Suitable replacements include Riley Nash, Derek Ryan, Tim Schaller, Drew Stafford, and Alex Chiasson. If it doesn’t happen this summer, it almost assuredly will happen next summer. There would be a budget of $2 million allocated to replacing Kassian and adding a 13th forward. Those moves would leave $7.053 million to sign one of Kovalchuk, van Riemsdyk, or Neal.
Bob Nicholson said that good managers need to plan two and three years ahead. The contracts of Cam Talbot, Jesse Puljujarvi, Ty Rattie, Jujhar Khaira, and Pontus Aberg will all expire after next season. Rattie’s performance next season will likely have a large impact on Aberg’s future with the club. The top three right wingers past next season could be Rattie, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto; or they could be Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, and Aberg. In either case, Rattie or Aberg will require a significant raise should one outperform the other drastically next season. If niether returns in 2019-20, then there will need to be some money thrown at a new right-winger.
Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell both have NMCs that will be altered to allow them to be moved after next season. That would free up $9.5 million in cap space; but they would also need to be replaced. Predicting the values of the contracts of Puljujarvi, Rattie, Khaira, Aberg, and the players that would replace Sekera and Russell is next to impossible at this point… but the values of those contracts with a $7 million addition this summer would put the team in serious cap trouble in 2019-20.
Also, top UFAs are signed right the peak of their careers generally, so a decline in performance has to be expected at some point during the term of the contract. I don’t think the Oilers are in a position to put themselves in another situation like they’ve done with Lucic. They can’t afford to have another expensive, aging player on the roster that fails to produce consistently. I wouldn’t try to sign Kovalchuk, van Riemsdyk, or Neal based on the salary cap implications after next season and the expected decline in their production.
The Oilers do need to add one left winger that can play in the middle six though, and they need to do it through free agency. The affordable options are Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner, Antoine Roussel, and Leo Komarov. I personally believe that Chiarelli needs to sign a left winger that can play above Lucic on the depth chart. The best option would be Thomas Vanek. He’s 34 years old, but he has shown that he can produce consistently in the last couple of seasons. The best part of signing Vanek is that he won’t require a long-term contract. I doubt that a team will sign him for more than two years. Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Kirill Maksimov, and Ostap Safin are all prospects that could be left wingers on the Oilers in 2-3 years. Vanek would be a great bridge contract until one of these players proves to be ready.
They also need to add a 13th forward to the existing 23-man roster. Ideally, this forward would be able to play ahead of or even with Drake Caggiula on the depth chart. Caggiula doesn’t seem ready for the grind of an 82-game season yet. It would also be great if this forward could kill penalties when needed. Viable players that could fill this role include Brian Gibbons, Kyle Brodziak, Cody McCleod, Torrey Mitchell, Lance Bouma, Dominic Moore, and Derek Grant. My preference would be Gibbons because he is the best combination of fast, productive, and being left-handed. He can also play centre.
Any changes of consequence to the defence group would involve a big trade, which I wouldn’t do. I would want to make a couple of smaller changes though. First off, I would trade or waive Eric Gryba. When he is in the Oilers line-up, he takes a lot of penalties because he is simply too slow for today’s NHL. He finished last season in the AHL. I would also send Ethan Bear to the AHL for one more year of seasoning. He showed encouraging glimpses during his short time with the Oilers at the end of this past season, but he only got 34 games at the AHL level. He would be best served by having one more year of development in the AHL. That would leave the 7th and 8th defenceman spots open.
My preference would be for Matthew Benning to be the 7th defenceman instead of the 6th defenceman. I’d like to see a veteran bottom-pairing defenceman added that would force Benning to earn his ice-time. Viable options include Kyle Quincey, Nick Holden, and Greg Pateryn. Pateryn would be the best choice since he is right-handed like Benning is.
25-year old Keegan Lowe was just signed to a 2-year deal worth $1.35 million. He could be the 8th defenceman. Should the Oilers feel that Lowe should be in the AHL, other options include Taylor Chorney, Justin Falk, Ryan Sproul, Paul Postma, and Matt Bartkowski.
The only reason to sign Nurse to a bridge deal would be to facilitate a bigger free agent signing. Since signing a $7 million free agent isn’t in the best interest of the Oilers in the long-term, I would sign Nurse to a 5-year deal with an AAV of $4 million. Nurse has the potential to be a top-pairing, shut-down defender that can score around 25 points. He has proven to be as good defensively as Klefbom and Larsson, but he does not have the same offensive upside as Klefbom. For that reason, I’m not giving him quite as much as Klefbom and Larsson are getting. It’s important to let a piece of the core like Nurse know that he has importance to the team by committing to him long-term, which is why I think he should get a 5-year deal. The only problem with that 5-year term is that Klefbom’s contract will expire at the same time, but that’s a small problem that could work itself out before then.
Without further adieu, here is my ideal suggested roster for the 2018-19 Edmonton Oilers:
Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Vanek ($3M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Lucic ($6M) Strome ($3M) Aberg ($0.65M)
Gibbons ($0.8M) Khaira ($0.675M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Nurse ($4M) Larsson ($4.167M)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) Pateryn ($0.9M)
Lowe ($0.675M) Benning ($0.874M)
Total Cap Hit = $76.617 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million
Total: $77.947 million
Space with $78 million cap: $0.053 million
Space with $82 million cap: $4.053 million
Space with $80 million cap: $2.053 million
If the cap were to go up to $80 or $82 million, I would want to keep the extra cap space in preparation for the 2019 off-season where the contracts of Talbot, Puljujarvi, Rattie, Khaira, and Aberg will all expire.
What I think should happen and what I think will happen are two very different things. Next week, I’ll reveal what I think the Oilers will actually do this off-season.