The trees are up and decorated. The stockings have been hung with care. The yule log is in the fire. The elves are working furiously to prepare for Santa’s journey around the world tonight, and the Oilers are in a playoff spot. Ah, what a wonderful time of year!
Speaking of journeys around the world, it has been a long season for the Oilers so far (despite them having played the fewest games in the division to this point). It started with their European excursion, where they beat the Cologne Sharks in exhibition play in Germany, and fell to the Devils to open the regular season in Sweden. Then they returned to North America, only to fall to the Bruins in Boston and narrowly escape New York with a 2-1 win over the Rangers. Then they went to Winnipeg and stole a win after trailing 4-1 through 2 periods.
Connor McDavid set a record by contributing to the team’s first 9 goals of the year. There was a lot of concern in Oil Country about the lack of secondary scoring, among other things. Despite those concerns, those two wins were the start of an 8-2-1 stretch. Things soon came to a crashing halt though. After that stretch, a loss in Washington was the start of a 1-6 stretch that would cost Todd McLellan his job. Enter Ken Hitchcock. The boys seemed to respond to Hitchcock. They started off 9-2-2 under the new bench boss, which was just barely enough to keep pace in the Pacific division race.
It’s been an up and down season, and right now, the Oilers are in a down stretch. They have now lost 4 of their last 5 games, including the last 3 in a row, after losing Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell to injuries in Colorado on December 11. The injuries on the blue line combined with the bottom 6’s inability to contribute on the score sheet is really making life difficult for Hitchcock and the Oilers.
The good news is that Russell is expected to be back really soon, possibly even for Thursday’s game against Vancouver. The other piece of good news is that Andrej Sekera appears to be close to a return. It sounds like he wants to go to the AHL to play a few games just to get his timing back, but the expectation is that he will return to the Oilers in January.
Those two returning from injury will lead to roster movement of some kind.
The Oilers will have to get under the salary cap upon activating Sekera from the LTIR. There have also been a lot of rumours flying around involving Oilers forwards. Peter Chiarelli knows that his job is safe should the Oilers make the playoffs this season… he does not have the same reassurance if the Oilers were to miss the playoffs. He is in a position where he could try to make a splash of some kind to save his job.
Here’s a look at the salary cap breakdown of the current roster:
Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Rieder ($2M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Chiasson ($0.65M)
Lucic ($6M) Brodziak ($1.15M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Caggiula ($1.5M) Khaira ($0.675M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Spooner ($3.1M) Zykov ($0.675M)
Nurse ($3.2M) Larsson ($4.17M)
Gravel ($0.7M) Jones ($0.72M)
Garrison ($0.65M) Benning ($1.9M)
Klefbom ($4.17M)- IR
Russell ($4M)- IR
Sekera ($5.5M)- LTIR
Total Cap Hit = $79.105 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million, Gryba- $0.3 million
Buried: Montoya- $37,500
Total: $80.7725 million
Space with $79.5 million cap: -$1.2725 million
CapFriendly currently has the Oilers at a total salary cap hit of $80.8 million, so they have rounded the value up for display purposes. Another way to state that negative cap space available number is that the Oilers are using $1.2725 million of their LTIR relief.
Kris Russell is likely to be back before Sekera. Activating Russell from the IR will mean that one defenceman will need to be removed from the active roster. The plausible options would be Jones, Garrison, or Wideman. I would guess that Jones would be the one sent down because he does not require waivers to be sent down. Sending Jones down would bring the new total cap hit to $80.0525, which leaves the amount of LTIR space being used to $0.5525 million.
We know that the Oilers will need to be under the $79.5 million salary cap upon activating Sekera from LTIR. That means that should they send Jones down to the AHL once Russell returns, the Oilers will have to shed $0.5525 million in salary in order to get under the cap. That is literally as easy as moving one body out. The question is who will that body be?
It would make sense for it to be a defenceman since Sekera is a defenceman. Moving on from one of Garrison or Wideman would make a lot of sense. Niether one has seen much ice time this season, and neither has inspired much confidence in what little ice time he has had.
There’s no reason that it HAS to be a defenceman that gets sent down though. It is important to have depth at defence for situations like the Oilers are currently facing. Zykov has shown very little since arriving in Edmonton. He could be sent down easily. He would be the most likely candidate to be sent down once Sekera returns in my opinion. Puljujarvi doesn’t require waivers to be sent down, but I doubt that Hitchcock would let his pet project be sent down. Rattie hasn’t found his way into a top 6 role for any length of time under Hitchcock, so there is a rational argument to be made for sending Rattie down too.
The easy thing to do would be to send one of Garrison, Wideman, or Zykov to the AHL. The other possibility that exists is for the Oilers to make a trade or two. We know that the Oilers lack secondary scoring. Hitchcock has said that he needs more participants in the game. In other words, he needs more support than what he is currently getting.
Here is a list of the current Oilers support forwards and how their production this season compares to last season (expressed in points per game):
Brodziak ($1.15M): LY- 0.41, Current- 0.15 ×
Caggiula ($1.5M): LY- 0.3, Current- 0.36 ✓
Chiasson ($0.65M): LY- 0.3, Current- 0.67 ✓
Kassian ($1.95M): LY- 0.26, Current- 0.09 ×
Khaira ($0.675M): LY- 0.3, Current- 0.39 ✓
Lucic ($6M): LY- 0.41, Current- 0.19 ×
Puljujarvi ($0.925M): LY- 0.31, Current- 0.2 ×
Rattie ($0.8M): LY- 0.64, Current- 0.2 ×
Rieder ($2M): LY- 0.32, Current- 0.3 =
Spooner ($3.1M): LY- 0.69, Current- 0.16 ×
Obviously, the big three (McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins) are not included on this list because they have been producing and are not going anywhere. Zykov is not included in this list because he has not played enough games, but he has no points as an Oiler. Of the 10 players on the list, only 3 are producing at a higher rate than last year: Caggiula, Chiasson, and Khaira. None of these three are the problem. Rieder’s production is essentially the same as last year (-0.02 ppg), but it is concerning that he doesn’t have a goal yet. Although his production hasn’t been ideal, he’s not the problem either.
The problem falls somewhere within the other 6 forwards on the list. Before the season started, I outlined who the Oilers would need to rely on for secondary scoring this season. Milan Lucic was one name that SHOULD have been counted on to produce points. The hope was that he would rebound from last year (even if only slightly), but he has somehow managed to cut his point production by more than half this season. It’s a problem that isn’t likely to be solved in season, so the Oilers will have to make do there. Rattie and Puljujarvi were on my list of players that COULD provide secondary scoring. Niether has been able to do so. Rattie had 2 points in 4 games before his injury in game 5, and he got 2 points in 3 games upon returning from his injury. He was producing, but that has since stopped. I believe Rattie’s problem has been opportunity. Chiasson took his spot in the top 6 after the injury, and Rattie hasn’t been able to get it back in limited minutes since then. Chiasson hasn’t cooled off yet (he did briefly, but now he’s going again), so Rattie is stuck. Puljujarvi hasn’t found his confidence offensively yet, but he has started to do a lot of the little things well under Hitchcock. It will come for Puljujarvi, but the lack of production is a problem right now.
I had no delusions that anyone else on the list besides those three would be capable of eclipsing the 0.5 ppg mark, but the lack of production has been crazy this season. Of the 6 forwards on the list to experience dips in production this year, 5 have seen their offensive production cut by AT LEAST half. Puljujarvi’s has dropped by a third.
How does half of the forward group have their production decrease by at least a third from one year to the next? How does almost half of your forward group produce HALF as much as they did the year before? I certainly can’t recall a situation where I’ve seen anything like it before. It’s like there’s a team-wide mental block when it comes to secondary scoring. It’s almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Anyway, Lucic is likely not going anywhere right now due to his contract. I would expect Zykov to get waived before Rattie would. Puljujarvi is likely safe for now because Hitchcock loves him so much. The others whose production has dove this season are Brodziak, Kassian, and Spooner. Brodziak has an established role as a bottom 6 centre that can kill penalties, so he is likely not going anywhere either.
That leaves Kassian and Spooner as the most likely options to be traded out.
Kassian has been linked to Pittsburgh recently, and Spooner has been the subject of rumours ever since he arrived in Edmonton.
Kassian does a lot of good things like killing penalties, destroying guys like Couture with massive hits in the playoffs, and getting Tkachuk to turtle in the BOA; but he’s getting 0.09 points per game for $1.95 million. He has also taken a number of questionable penalties late in games this season. If he could be moved along in a deal that helps get secondary scoring, then it needs to happen.
Spooner comes with a $3.1 million cap hit for the Oilers, but the Rangers retained $900k in the trade that brought him here. He’s getting $4 million for 0.16 ppg. He’s been in and out of the line-up in Edmonton. He’s been up and down the depth chart as well. It seems clear that there isn’t a good fit for him here, which is really unfortunate. $3.1 million could go a long way towards getting ourselves a scoring upgrade though.
The reality of the cap situation is that the Oilers can’t take on more salary in a trade. The dollars going out need to be equal to or greater than the dollars coming in. Kassian and Spooner’s salaries add up to $5.05 million. The other reality is that it is far more likely that the Oilers end up with a rental in any trade made between now and the trade deadline. Here is a list of pending UFA’s that are under $5.05 million that could potentially be available (thank you CapFriendly.com):
Derrick Brassard (PIT)- $3M ($2M retained by Vegas)
Marcus Johansson (NJ)- $4.583M
Mats Zuccarello (NYR)- $4.5M
Wayne Simmonds (PHI)- $3.975M
Jakob Silfverberg (ANA)- $3.75M
Now, I highly doubt any deal would be Kassian and Spooner for (blank). It may take multiple trades and some futures to get any one of these guys on board. Rattie could be traded if there’s more scoring coming in. If Chiarelli wanted to get creative and if Jones continues to play well, Benning could be moved as well. If Kassian, Spooner, AND Benning get moved, then someone like Matt Duchene ($6M) or Artemi Panarin ($6M) could be a possibility as well should they become available. The possibility of a trade happening with the players listed above is more likely based on the numbers.
The Oilers are a team that could definitely make some noise in the trade market over the next couple of months. Their GM likely needs to make the playoffs to save his job, the team has a glut of under-performing wingers, and they have injured defencemen that are poised to return. I’ve discussed the immediate moves that would be possible for Russell and Sekera returning; but Klefbom will return before the trade deadline too, meaning yet another body will have to be moved out. This is a situation that is screaming for some trades to be made. We will just have to sit back and watch the show unfold in the coming weeks.
Until then, I hope everyone out there has a Merry Christmas (or that you have Happy Holidays). I wish everyone a happy New Year, one which will hopefully include an Oilers playoff appearance!