Free Agency 2019 Wrap

This is the day where NHL teams overpay players that are about to start declining. Oilers fans will be glad to know that Holland definitely didn’t take the bait on any long-term contracts this summer.

The day wasn’t without action though.

Ken Holland was clear about the fact that he was going to get a goalie via free agency, and he was good on his word. Mike Smith was Holland’s man. Smith has a history of being a very good starting goalie in the NHL. He was routinely relied upon to carry the load as the true number 1 goalie under new Oilers coach Dave Tippett wile they were in Arizona, but the 37-year old had his worst save percentage as an NHL starter with the regular season Western Conference champion Calgary Flames (wow, that hurt to say!).

Smith’s days as a starter are over, but his $2 million cap hit for one season makes him a low risk signing. He can earn up to $2 million more with performance bonuses (which is a non-issue since teams can exceed the cap by 7% including performance bonuses). He can handle a heavy workload if Koskinen gets injured or is simply ineffective. This duo is really streaky. Both Koskinen and Smith are capable of going on runs where they look nearly unbeatable, and they both can look absolutely awful at times. Hopefully they both don’t go cold at the same time, and hopefully one of them is hot at any given time because the Oilers can’t have weak and inconsistent goaltending again this season. I would’ve preferred Curtis McIlhinney at $1.3 million (TB) or Keith Kinkaid at $1.75 million (MTL), but Smith is a good option based on what Edmonton was looking for.

Holland also said that he wanted to build the bottom 6 here. He wants the bottom 6 to play with more pace, and there needs to be more offensive production out of that group. He took measures to remedy the bottom 6 today.

Markus Granlund has completed the Western Canadian trifecta by signing a one year, $1.3 million deal with Edmonton. He was drafted by Calgary (45th overall, 2011), and then he was traded to Vancouver, who did not qualify him this summer. He can play any of the forward positions, but he prefers to play the wing. He’s a 26-year old left shot that scored 19, 8 (53 games), and 12 goals in each of the last three seasons respectively. One element that he can bring to the Oilers is the ability to play on the PK. As an added bonus, Granlund hails from Oulu, Finland, the same home town as Jesse Puljujarvi… here’s hoping that they become friends and that helps Puljujarvi feel better about being in Edmonton.

Tomas Jurco is familiar to Holland. Jurco was drafted by Detroit (35th overall, 2011). His career never really took off in Detroit. His best season saw him get 18 points in 63 games in 2014-15. He has been bouncing between the NHL and the AHL for the last 4 seasons, with the exception of last season where he played 0 NHL games. He is a skilled winger that just hasn’t figured it out in the NHL yet. I don’t see how it will be different here, but time will tell. For 1 year at $750,000, it’s a low risk depth contract.

The Oilers have also agreed to a 1-year, $925,000 entry level deal with Swiss centre Gaetan Haas. There is limited information on him, but he’s a right handed centre that is decent at faceoffs and has good speed. His ceiling would be a 3C this year, and there’s a chance he might not even be an NHL player. Regardless, it will be a cheap, low risk contract similar to the one that 2nd place SHL goal scorer Joakim Nygard got earlier this off-season.

Smith is reuniting with Tippett, and Alex Chiasson is reuniting with the Oilers on a 2-year deal with a $2.15 million AAV. Credit goes to Chiasson for turning a PTO into a league minimum deal last fall, then turning that in to 22 goals, 38 points, and a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. He’s a Stanley Cup champion that is well-liked in the Oilers dressing room, which are both important things.

However, I’m apprehensive about this deal. I don’t expect Chiasson to repeat his performance from last season. He had a couple of months where his shooting percentage was through the roof, and he is benefiting from that. Aside from his streak, he was largely ineffective at even strength for the majority of the season. Realistically, if he can get something close to 12 goals and 25 points like his career numbers seem to suggest that he should, then this isn’t going to be a terrible contract. If he fails to crack 10 goals and 20 points like he has done in 2 of the last 4 seasons, then this will be a bad contract. If he somehow repeats his performance from last season, then this will be a steal. There is a fair amount of risk in this deal, but there were bigger and more expensive risks that Holland could’ve taken today.

The other player that was re-signed today was Jujhar Khaira. He signed a 2-year deal with a $1.2 million AAV. He only had 3 goals last season, but he did look good on a 2nd line with Nugent-Hopkins in short spurts. It’s nice to see a home-grown Oiler drafted outside of the 1st round actually stick around into his mid-20s for once!

Now that all the dust has settled (for now), here is an updated look at the current active roster for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers after the Sekera buyout and today’s signings:

Draisaitl ($8.5M) McDavid ($12.5M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Khaira ($1.2M) Nuge ($6M) Chiasson ($2.15M)
Nygard ($925,000) Granlund ($1.3M) Gagner ($3.15M)
Lucic ($6M) Brodziak ($1.15M) Jurco ($750,000)
Cave ($675,000) Haas ($925,000)

Klefbom ($4.167M) Larsson ($4,166,666)
Nurse ($3.2M) Russell ($4M)
Jones ($720,000) Benning ($1.9M)
Persson ($1M)

Koskinen ($4.5M)
Smith ($2M)

Active Roster: 23

Total: $70,878,666
Buyouts: Sekera – $2.5M; Pouliot – $1,333,333; Gryba – $300,000
Buried: Manning – $1,175,000

Total Cap Hit: $76,186,999
Cap Space: $5,313,001

The final numbers will change from source to source depending on who they choose to include in their calculations, but you can see that the Oilers have approximately $5 million in cap space. Holland said that he wants to stay about $1.5-$2 million below the cap for flexibility during the season, which is likely a big part of why players like Nyquist, Connolly, and Donskoi are not Oilers today.

Holland hinted that he might not be done yet during his press conference today. He was asked multiple times about trades and about finding a top 6 winger for Nuge, and he said that he’s always looking and he would look to add someone else with the potential to score 20 goals. There’s no guarantee that will happen though.

Holland’s focus on building the bottom 6 is fundamentally flawed in my opinion because the Oilers have too many bottom 6 wingers as it is. I see 11 bottom 6 forwards on the current roster, and only 3 top 6 forwards. The way I see it, the top 6 needs to be built up. If the idea is to rely on Chiasson, Kassian, and Khaira to play in the top 6, then this is a failure.

If the roster remains as it is today, then this is the same “plan” that Chiarelli had last season.

If you’ll recall, I wrote an article when Zykov was picked up on waivers outlining what I believed Chiarelli’s infamous “plan” was. Chiarelli brought in names like Chiasson, Rieder, Rattie, Spooner, and Zykov in hopes that one of them would break out. They were all forwards in their mid-20s with some offensive pedigree that hadn’t truly broken out in the NHL yet. When they were brought in last year, Chiasson was 28, Rieder and Rattie were both 25, Spooner was 26, and Zykov was 24.

This summer, Holland has repeated the same “plan”. He has brought in Granlund (26), Jurco (26), Nygard (26), and Haas (27). The difference is that the names that Chiarelli brought in had more previous offensive success (except for Chiasson, who was surprisingly the one bet that actually worked out). Rieder has multiple NHL seasons above 35 points, Rattie was a dominant scorer in junior and led the NHL pre-season scoring race, Spooner had 41 points in 59 games in 2017-18, and Zykov was the leading goal scorer in the AHL in 2017-18.

Granlund has never scored more than 32 points in a season, Jurco hasn’t scored more than 18 points in an NHL season, and Nygard and Haas have never played an NHL game.

We saw how the “plan” worked out last year, and Holland is trying it again with weaker bets. Most of you aren’t going to agree with the idea of this year’s bets being weaker because we saw how last season played out, but I’m talking about the body of work prior to each player being brought in. Making the playoffs in 2019-20 is highly dependent upon winning more of these low risk bets. I still can’t get over just how much the majority of the Oilers’ wingers regressed offensively last season compared to 2017-18. We have to hope that we don’t have repeats of Rieder, Rattie, Spooner, and Zykov from last season because there is no chance that the Oilers will make the playoffs if whatever plagued them last season rears its ugly head in Edmonton again in 2019-20.

As I said last season, this is the right plan for a cap strapped team though. It wouldn’t have been smart for Holland to give 7 years and $49 million to Anders Lee right now. These cheap contracts for forwards in their prime years that have yet to break out is a more frugal way of finding some production. I’d rather invest a few nickels in to a fledgling stock and watch it soar later on than dump a bunch of money in to an expensive stock and watch it dive. The analogy is even more true for the Oilers right now since they still have a prime example of why signing the big UFA deal can be detrimental on the roster (Lucic).

The problem is that none of the bets that Holland has made are even close to sure things. I would have liked to have seen a player like Nyquist (4 years x $5.5 million with CBJ, which Holland said was a big number for Gus) or even Connolly (4 years X $3.25 million with FLA) because the 4 year term isn’t crippling and the AAVs here were lower than I was expecting them to be, and they would be more likely to produce in a top 6 role than the players Holland signed today. If the goal is to make the playoffs now, then there needs to be another sure thing in the top 6. A sure bet like Nyquist or a medium bet like Connolly would’ve been better in my opinion, but here we are. I also would’ve liked to see a veteran 3C get signed. Holland hinted that he is still on the lookout for a 3C, as he should be. I don’t think any of Granlund, Khaira, Haas, Cave, or Brodziak can play 3C.

The issue last season was that there was only one line that was a threat to score on any given night. The Oilers had to hope that the others wouldn’t get scored on if they wanted to win hockey games. Based on the roster that I see today, I believe that will be true yet again this coming season. There might be a bit more depth scoring next season simply because the depth scoring was basically non-existent in Edmonton last season, but the McDavid and Draisaitl line is still the only line that is a real threat to score.

The scoring hasn’t improved, the defence has essentially stayed the same (Sekera missed most of the last two seasons anyway), and the goaltending appears to be about the same as last year. This could be another long season in Edmonton, UNLESS Holland can acquire that winger that has the potential to score 20 goals like he hinted at.

When he came here, Holland said that he wants to build a team that can be a contender for a long time here. That entails building through the draft, and that takes time. That also entails having roster spots open for prospects when they are ready. Today, Holland talked about his desire to be able to push prospects through the system up to the roster. He talked about how much time he and his staff spent over this weekend trying to project when they think certain prospects will be ready.

They clearly feel that one AHL defenceman is ready to play, or else they wouldn’t have bought out Sekera. Holland also spoke of the importance of having a solid D core, and about how there are two ways to acquire top 4 d-men: draft and develop them, or pay big money for them. They have gone with the former option, which is the better option. Jones appears to be ready now, and Bear and Lagesson aren’t far behind. Persson is close if he isn’t ready. Bouchard, Samorukov, and Broberg will be ready soon as well. With Larsson, Nurse, Russell, and Benning’s contracts all expiring within the next 2 years, there appears to be a bit of a succession plan on defence.

The situation with the wingers appears to be more fluid. All of the external UFA forward signings that Holland made today (and with Nygard) are all only one-year deals. Gagner and Kassian also only have one year left on their deals. Chiasson and Khaira have 2 years left. Nugent-Hopkins also only has 2 years left.

If you look at what is coming in the forward pipeline, Benson and Yamamoto are both entering their 2nd professional seasons, as is Cooper Marody. Benson is the closest of the three, but Yamamoto has already played NHL games in two seasons. I expect both of them to be ready by fall 2020 at the latest, if not sooner. Marody won’t be far behind.

Maksimov and McLeod are both entering their first professional seasons. They will likely be ready a little bit later than the other forwards, but both could be ready in the next 2 years. I would expect the same of 2019 2nd round pick Raphael Lavoie as well. He has a late birthday, which means that he already has 3 years of junior hockey under his belt. He will spend one more year in Halifax, and possibly one year in Bakersfield. His ETA is not more than 2 years though.

Oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned Puljujarvi here yet. Whether he stays or gets traded for another winger that can play or will be able to play soon, that’s another body to account for.

Within the next two years, 11 forward contracts will expire. 7 of those will expire after this coming season. There are 6 forward prospects that I believe will be ready within the next two years. While the moves Holland made today don’t fill me with hope that the Oilers will make the playoffs in 19-20, they will ensure that prospects will not be rushed this season and that there will be space for these prospects to earn roster spots within the next two years. That process will likely start in 2020, unless Benson or Yamamoto surprise us this fall.

Holland had two goals upon being hired here: building a contender for years to come, and making the playoffs in 2019-20. Today’s moves are paving the way for Holland to accomplish the first goal, but they have done little to convince me that he will achieve the 2nd goal.

One thing that Holland said today was really interesting. He was talking about how there are always some teams with cap space, and others that don’t. The ones that have the cap space feast on the ones that don’t have it. He said that “somewhere down the road, we’re going to have cap space and we’re going to make some noise.”

Today just wasn’t that day, but that day is coming soon.

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