Free Agency Preview

NHL free agents have been doing interviews with teams all week as July 1 approaches. All of the buzz is around John Tavares because he could be the biggest star to reach UFA status since Scott Niedermayer over a decade ago.

The Oilers couldn’t be further away from that buzz because the team is strapped for cap space. Earlier this off-season, I examined some cheaper UFA options that the team could target. Now it appears that even those options will be too rich for Chiarelli’s blood.

I was eager to get my projected roster for next season out prior to the draft, and perhaps I pulled the trigger on that a little bit too early. Some things have changed since then that is making the Oilers’ budget smaller than I had anticipated. Matt Benning signed his contract a couple of hours after I posted the article, and the salary cap got set to $79.5 million instead of the expected value of $80 million. A little bit of light has also been shed on the salary expectations for Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome.

So far this week on Twitter, I’ve heard that Nurse is seeking something similar to Michael Matheson’s $4.875 million AAV on a long-term deal. I’ve also heard that he is close to signing a 2-year bridge deal worth anywhere from $2.7-$3.5 million. I don’t know who to believe here.

Capfriendly has a nice Comparables Tool that finds contracts that are similar to the player that you are searching for. I plugged Matheson’s contract into the Comparables Tool, and these are the comparables that I pulled out. They are ranked by their career points per game averages prior to signing their contracts:

Damon Severson (0.34 ppg), $4.167 million, Age 22
David Savard (0.33 ppg), $4.25 million, Age 24
Danny DeKeyser (0.32 ppg), $5 million, Age 26
Jake Muzzin (0.32 ppg), $4 million, Age 25
Oscar Klefbom (0.3 ppg), $4.167 million, Age 23
Adam Larsson (0.27 ppg), $4.167 million, Age 22
Jonas Brodin (0.24 ppg), $4.167 million, Age 21
Simon Despres (0.24 ppg), $3.7 million, Age 24
Darnell Nurse (0.24 ppg), ???, Age 23
Radko Gudas (0.23 ppg), $3.35 million, Age 26
Mattias Ekholm (0.21 ppg), $3.75 million, Age 25
Chris Tanev (0.21 ppg), $4.45 million, Age 25
Michael Matheson (0.2 ppg), $4.875 million, Age 24
Brian Dumoulin (0.2 ppg), $4.1 million, Age 25

I can understand why Nurse would have dollar signs spinning in his eyes when looking at Matheson’s contract. Nurse is a year younger than Matheson was at the time he signed his contract, and he has out-produced Matheson by 0.4 points per game! Based on the analysis of his comparables, Matheson’s contract seems like a gross over-payment.

Nurse’s career production seems to put him in that $3.7-$4.2 million range. It’s interesting to note that Klefbom and Larsson’s career production outpaced that of Nurse upon entering their contracts. Jonas Brodin’s production was the same as Nurse’s, yet he has the same AAV as Klefbom and Larsson. Brodin signed his contract at the age of 21, which implied that Minnesota believed his potential would be higher than that of Klefbom and Larsson. Nurse is 23 years old. Based on his age and his production compared to Klefbom and Larsson, I don’t see Nurse getting up to where they and Brodin are in terms of salary.

I was interested to learn that Radko Gudas’s production was essentially the same as Nurse’s upon entering their contracts. Gudas ended up at $3.35 million, but he signed at age 26. Gudas has never had the same upside that Nurse has, so I can’t see Nurse falling that low in terms of salary.

Mattias Ekholm has established himself in a role in Nashville as a solid top-4 defender. I see Nurse in a similar role for the Oilers going forward. Nurse has scored 0.3 ppg more than Ekholm did upon signing his contract, and Ekholm has an AAV of $3.75 million (which he signed at the age of 25). I can definitely see Nurse getting a bit more than Ekholm.

I can see Nurse landing in the upper end of the $3.7-$4.2 million range that I identified earlier. All of the players on my list received terms anywhere from 4-8 years. My previous prediction of 5 years at a $4 million AAV for Nurse seems pretty close to reality based on Nurse’s comparables.

Jason Gregor from TSN 1260 speculated this week on Twitter that Strome might look to Bryan Rust’s 4-year, $14 million ($3.5 million AAV) contract as a comparable. I searched Rust on the Comparables Tool and pulled some other comparable players with similar levels of production that signed their contracts from 24-26 years of age:

Cam Atkinson (0.51 ppg), $3.5 million AAV, Age 26
Carl Hagelin (0.49 ppg), $4 million AAV, Age 26
Ryan Strome (0.47 ppg), ???, Age 24
Cody Eakin (0.45 ppg), $3.85 million AAV, Age 24
Tanner Pearson (0.45 ppg), $3.75 million AAV, Age 24
Jakub Silfverberg (0.45 ppg), $3.75 million AAV, Age 24
Bryan Rust (0.44ppg), $3.5 million AAV, Age 26
Mikael Backlund (0.43 ppg), $3.575 million AAV, Age 26
Jean-Gabriel Pageau (0.4 ppg), $3.1 million AAV, Age 24
Lars Eller (0.36 ppg), $3.5 million AAV, Age 25

Strome’s qualifying offer was $3 million for one year. Strome has been out-produced by only 2 players on the list. None of the players on this list had more than 300 NHL games when they signed these contracts. Compare that to Strome’s 340 NHL games. The range of salaries of the players on this list is $3.1-$4 million.

Cody Eakin looks to be the best comparable on the list for Strome because they will be signing their contracts at the same age, their production is almost identical, and they both play centre. Strome has out-scored Eakin, and he has more experience than Eakin did at the time. I will not be one little bit surprised if Strome ends up with a $4 million AAV on this contract.

Now that we have a better idea of what we can expect with Nurse and Strome, here is a look at the roster as it would exist with Nurse and Strome each getting $4 million as I’ve predicted based on their comparables:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Lucic ($6M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
LW Strome ($4M) 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)

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

Total Cap Hit = $73.984 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million, Gryba- $0.3 million

Total: $75.524 million
Space with $79.5 million cap: $3.976 million

Nurse and Strome each signing at $4 million would leave the Oilers with $3.976 million to add 4 players. They need one of those players to be an impactful middle six left winger. In my article on affordable UFAs earlier in the off-season, I speculated that a player like Antoine Roussel or Leo Komarov would be a nice option for $2.5-$3 million. Now, even that is out of the budget for the Oilers.

Besides an impactful middle six winger, they need to add a 13th forward and 2 defencemen to round out the 23-man roster. The odds of the Oilers finding three players at the league minimum to fill these roles effectively are quite slim. They MIGHT be able to do it for $750k per player. $750k x 3 = $2.25 million. If you take that value off of the $3.976 million in expected cap space, then Chiarelli could spend $1.726 on a middle six left winger. I’m going to budget $1.5 million for this winger so that I can add one player at $950k instead of $750k.

Drake Caggiula just signed for $1.5 million. That’s about the level of player that the Oilers can realistically afford to add.

These are the UFA forwards that are worth looking at that carried a cap hit of $750k or less last season:

Connor Brickley, Tommy Wingels, Daniel Carr, Matt Hendricks, Curtis McKenzie, Jimmy Hayes, Zac Rinaldo, Austin Czarnik, Jayson Megna, Alex Chiasson, Daniel Winnik, Luke Gazdic, Brandon Pirri, Logan Shaw, Tom Sestito, Paul Carey, Michael Sgarbossa, Brandon Bollig, Tanner Glass, Derek Grant, Brian Gibbons, Darren Archibald, Harry Zolnierczyk, Seth Griffith, Matthew Peca, Michael Latta, Nic Dowd, Tom Kuhnackl, Scott Wilson, Freddie Hamilton, Alan Quine, Carter Rowney, and Nick Shore.

Of these players, I can see Winnik, Grant, Gibbons, Brickley, and Carey getting raises next year based on their performances last season. Winnik is a bit older and on the slower side, and his 23 points likely puts him out of 13th forward territory. Grant’s 24 points came out of nowhere for him last year, so he will be an over-payment by someone next year. Gibbons has also likely played himself out of the Oilers’ price range, and the Devils would be silly to not re-sign him based on the value he gave them last year.

Brickley and Carey are definitely worth looking at for the 13th forward spot. They might be a touch more than $750k though. I would also look at Wingels, Carr, Chiasson, and Kuhnackl as reliable players that will come in close to that $750k mark. Kuhnackl and Chiasson have both won Stanley Cups, which might make them more intriguing to a young team like the Oilers.

These are the UFA forwards that are worth looking at that carried a cap hit between $750k and $1 million last season:

Jordan Nolan, Kyle Brodziak, Jared Boll, Riley Nash, Nail Yakupov, Kenny Agostino, Emile Poirier, Shane Prince, Scottie Upshall, Drew Stafford, Josh Jooris, and Tim Schaller.

Of these players, I see Nash, Brodziak, and Schaller as players that will be getting a raise based on their performances last season. Nash has likely played himself out of the Oilers’ price range. Brodziak and Schaller could be considered as players with an outside chance of contributing in a 3rd line left wing role on a value contract.

These are the UFA defencemen that are worth looking at that carried a cap hit of $750k or less last season (RH in bold):

Paul Postma, Dillon Simpson, Patrick Wiercoch, Justin Falk, Tyler Wotherspoon, Cody Goloubef, Michal Roszival, Fredrik Claesson, Ryan Sproul, Dylan DeMelo, Frank Corrado, Kevin Gravel, Matt Bartkowski, and Duncan Siemens.

Ideally, it would make sense to sign one lefty and one righty. Wiercoch, Falk, and Gravel would be fairly safe options for lefties. Fredrik Claesson and Duncan Siemens were both once high-end prospects, and they were both allowed to walk this summer. I would love to see Chiarelli give one of them a chance in the 7th or 8th spot to see if either one can carve out a role. Either one could potentially turn into a cheap replacement for Sekera in 2019 should things unfold favourably. I’d give one of them the $950k that I alluded to earlier on a “show me” deal.

On the right side, Dylan DeMelo’s appearance as an UFA is baffling considering how good he is. I would anticipate the Sharks re-signing him, and he is likely going to be too expensive (unfortunately). Ryan Sproul is a young, mobile defenceman that might be worth giving a look to. Given the presence of Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard as mobile right-handed prospects, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bring Sproul on as a project in the 7th or 8th spot. Paul Postma would be a safe signing as an 8th defenceman that can step in and play in case of an injury.

To summarize, I would sign Kuhnackl as the 13th forward because of his championship experience. I would sign Siemens because he had a nice stint with the Avs at the end of last season, and I would sign Postma because he has proven that he can step in and play if needed in the past. Siemens is from Sherwood Park, and Postma is from Red Deer, so there is a local connection there as well. It doesn’t mean that they will play better than guys who aren’t from Northern Alberta, but it is an added bonus.

Now, let’s focus in on the 3rd line left winger. The following is a list of left wingers that carried a cap hit between $1.5-$3 million last season:

Tobias Reider, Blake Comeau, Jason Chimera, Matt Calvert, Chris Kunitz, and Kris Versteeg.

The budget is $1.5 million for this winger. I’ve included this group of expensive players here because Rieder, Comeau, and Chimera have all been rumoured to be in conversation with the Oilers this week. I don’t see any of them coming here because they will be too expensive.

Chimera is 39 years old and is coming off of a season where he scored 3 goals. He could be the one player in this category that falls into the Oilers’ price range. He can still skate and kill penalties, but the production just isn’t there anymore.

The UFA left wingers that carried a cap hit between $1 million and $1.5 million last year are Cody McLeod and Anthony Duclair.

McLeod just doesn’t have the offensive numbers to support bringing him on to a team that needs depth scoring. Duclair is very interesting to me. He was one of the best players on a Canadian World Jr team that featured Connor McDavid in 2015. He had a strong rookie season in Arizona, but he has taken a turn for the worst since then. Arizona signed him to a 1-year, $1.2 million contract last year, but Duclair requested a trade before the deadline. Arizona obliged by sending him to Chicago, who did not qualify him this week. He could be worth a one-year gamble similar to what Arizona gave him; but it clearly didn’t work last time, so we shouldn’t expect it to work this time.

The UFA left wingers that made less than $1 million last year that could rise to the Oilers’ budget this summer are Daniel Winnik, Derek Grant, Brian Gibbons, Kyle Brodziak, and Tim Schaller.

Winnik and Grant’s production likely won’t continue to be as high as it was last year, so I would avoid them.

Gibbons might be too expensive, but he would be a great fit for what we need because of his wheels. Like I said earlier, NJ would be silly not to re-sign him.

Brodziak got 33 points this past year. It was the first time he has surpassed 25 points in 6 years. It would be foolish to expect Brodziak to get 33 points again, but he skates well and can kill penalties. He has spent most of his career playing in St. Louis and Minnesota, teams that have been known for their defensive abilities, so we know that Brodziak can defend. The worst-case scenario here would be that Brodziak could play 4th line centre and Khaira could play 3LW. A return to the Oilers for Brodziak could very well be in play.

Schaller got 22 points in his 2nd NHL season. Schaller was a reliable player for Boston last season, and it’s hard to believe that he would be any different in Edmonton. The Oilers have Kirill Maksimov, who had a great season in the OHL last year and showed well at this week’s development camp. Tyler Benson is primed for his first full professional season in Bakersfield this year. The same goes for Cooper Marody, who also showed well at the development camp. While there is no guarantee that any of these prospects will make the Oilers in 2019, any of the three could do just that. Schaller is younger and will likely be wanting a multi-year deal, whereas Brodziak could conceivably take a one or a two-year deal. For that reason, I’d be more inclined to go with Brodziak than Schaller.

After all of that, here is what I think the roster could look like after free agency:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Lucic ($6M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Brodziak ($1.5M) Strome ($4M) Aberg ($0.65M)
Caggiula ($1.5M) Khaira ($0.675M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Kuhnackl ($0.75M)

Nurse ($4M) Larsson ($4.167M)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) Benning ($1.9M)
Siemens ($0.95M) Postma ($0.75M)

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

Total Cap Hit = $77.844 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million, Gryba- $0.3 million

Total: $79.474 million
Space with $79.5 million cap: $0.026 million

A lot of people are frustrated with Chiarelli’s cap management. Signing Koskinen, an older goalie with 4 games of NHL experience from many moons ago, to be the back-up at $2.5 million is a big risk. Montoya is a proven NHL backup that consistently puts up respectable numbers, and he only costs $1.06 million. Buying out Eric Gryba is costing the Oilers $0.3 million in each of the next two years. It’s minimal, but Chiarelli could’ve just let the contract expire with no cost next year. Those two moves have cost the Oilers $1.36 million in cap space that could’ve been used on a winger.

The budget for a winger was $1.5 million according to my math, so the extra $1.36 million would’ve added up to $2.86 million. That may not have even been enough for Roussel or Komarov. It might’ve been enough for Rieder, Comeau, or Chimera; but I don’t see any of the three as a big enough upgrade over Brodziak for us to worry about missing out on.

I have the Oilers being under the cap by $0.026 million in this scenario. That isn’t enough space to house Gryba’s additional $0.6 million that he would’ve been using up. That would’ve given the Oilers a budget of $0.9 million to use on a middle six winger, which simply isn’t enough.

Sure, Chiarelli’s cap management isn’t as stringent as it could’ve been, but it isn’t THAT big of a deal when you look at the options the Oilers could have with the extra space “wasted” by Chiarelli this year on Koskinen and buying out Gryba.

Also: I don’t see room for Eberle under the cap on the roster as it sits right now… do you?

The basic premise of my roster projection for this coming year remains the same. The team will be banking on an improvement from pretty much everyone in order to make the playoffs. They did it in 2016-17, and I believe that they can do it again this coming year. It doesn’t promise to be an exciting off-season for the Oilers. It’s gutsy of Chiarelli to not be tempted to make a big move of some sort after last season’s disaster and with the pressure that is on the team to make the playoffs next year.

However, that could all change at the drop of a hat. That’s what’s fun about this time of year!

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