Playoffs or Else for Chiarelli This Season? A Look Ahead to Summer 2019

Labour Day has come and gone. There’s a noticeable chill in the air here in Edmonton. It’s a bittersweet time… summer is coming to an end, but training camp for the Oilers is right around the corner! The Oilers’ first pre-season game is two weeks from Monday. Here’s an updated look at the active roster for the coming season:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie ($0.8M)
Lucic ($6M- NMC) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Caggiula ($1.5M) Strome ($3.1M) Rieder ($2M)
Khaira ($0.675M) Brodziak ($1.15M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Aberg ($0.65M) Upshall (PTO)

Klefbom ($4.167M) Larsson ($4.167M- M-NTC)
Nurse (RFA) Russell ($4M)
*Sekera ($5.5M- NMC) Benning ($1.9M)
Gravel ($0.7M) Jerabek ($1M)
Garrison (PTO)

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

Total Cap Hit = $73.844 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million, Gryba- $0.3 million
Buried: Montoya- $0.038 million

Total: $75.482 million
Space with $79.5 million cap: $4.018 million

NMC = No-Movement Clause
M-NMC = Modified No-Movement Clause
M-NTC = Modified No-Trade Clause
PTO = Professional Tryout Offer

Contract information found at CapFriendly.com

This was supposedly an offseason of vital importance for Peter Chiarelli. The Oilers were a massive let down compared to the lofty expectations that they came into last season with after their playoff run in 2017. Some fans were expecting a big trade, whether it was for a top winger to play with McDavid or an elite right-handed offensive defenceman. That didn’t happen. Instead, Chiarelli shored up the overall depth at the wing and defence positions with low impact free agent signings. This strategy has made those Oilers fans who weren’t already skeptical of Chiarelli after he traded Hall and Eberle even more wary. In the minds of many Oilers fans, it’s playoffs or else for Chiarelli this coming season.

There is a good chance that the Oilers won’t make the playoffs this year. However, Bob Nicholson gave Chiarelli a vote of confidence at the end of last season. Nicholson was confident that Chiarelli would get this team heading in the right direction when Chiarelli was hired, and he reiterated that he is confident in Chiarelli’s plan in April. If you go back and read my analysis of what the Oilers would look like with and without Hall or Eberle in 3 years’ time, I pointed out that Nicholson said that good managers think two or three years ahead. With that being said, let’s look at what the Oilers’ contract situation looks like for NEXT offseason:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) Rattie (RFA)
Lucic ($6M) Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi (RFA)
Caggiula ($1.5M) Strome ($3.1M) Rieder (RFA)
Khaira(RFA) Brodziak ($1.15M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Aberg (RFA) YAMAMOTO ($0.925M)

Klefbom ($4.167M) Larsson ($4.167M- M-NTC)
Nurse (RFA 2018) Russell ($4M- M-NMC)
Sekera ($5.5M- M-NMC) Benning ($1.9M)
Gravel (UFA) Jerabek (UFA)
BOUCHARD ($0.925M)

Talbot (UFA)
Koskinen (UFA)

Total Cap Hit = $64.284 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million, Gryba- $0.3 million

Total: $63.914 million
Space with $79.5 million cap: $15.586 million

The 2019 offseason is setting up for some action with trades. The first thing I’ll draw your attention to is the fact that Zack Kassian is the only right winger that is signed for next season. Puljujarvi, Rattie, Aberg, and Rieder will all be RFAs in 2019. Based on his pedigree, it would be safe to assume that Puljujarvi will have a spot on the right side in 2019-20. We can also safely assume that Kailer Yamamoto will be an Oiler in 2019, if not sooner. That leaves Rattie, Aberg, and Rieder to fight for the last right wing position next year. I can guarantee that at least one of those three players will not be an Oiler in 2019-20 due to the impending arrival of Yamamoto. They will all be RFAs next summer, which means that the most likely scenario would be at least one of the three getting traded.

Defensively, Evan Bouchard will almost certainly be an Oiler in 2019-20. The top 6 defencemen when healthy right now are Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse (once he signs his contract), Russell, Sekera, and Benning. They will all be under contract for 2019-20 (with Nurse being likely to sign a two-year bridge deal before training camp). Simple math dictates that if Bouchard is going to have a full-time NHL role in 2019, then one of the top 6 defencemen that are currently under contract will have to be traded.

Larsson isn’t going anywhere because he was the return for Taylor Hall, and he is currently the best right-handed defenceman on the team. Klefbom’s affordable contract is too valuable to get moved at this point. Chiarelli was rumoured to have had his opportunity to move Klefbom this summer, and he chose not to do it. Nurse is going to be an Oiler for the long-term, even though he will be signing a short-term bridge deal soon. Chiarelli was also rumoured to have had an opportunity to move Nurse this summer, and he also chose not to do it. The Oilers have put a lot of time and money into developing Benning, and moving his contract won’t save the team much in the way of cap space. I don’t see him being the one that gets moved, although you could argue that he will be the easiest one to move. That leaves Sekera and Russell as the two most likely options to get traded next summer. According to CapFriendly.com, both of their no-movement clauses will be modified to allow them to be traded next summer if Chiarelli chooses to do so.

Chiarelli signed Sekera to a contract in 2015. At that time, the defence was in a state of disrepair. Sekera was a tremendous upgrade over what the Oilers had at the time, but no one was expecting him to be an elite top pairing defenceman. Oscar Klefbom was mere weeks away from turning 22 years old, and Darnell Nurse was a spry 20-year old prospect. These two young defencemen were drafted with the expectation that they would be the top two left-handed defencemen for the Oilers for the long-term. In 2015, they were not ready to take on those roles. They needed a player that could play on the top pairing until Klefbom and Nurse were ready. Andrej Sekera was that guy. He was signed to a six-year deal at the age of 29.

Chiarelli knew that Klefbom and Nurse would surpass Sekera on the depth chart during the length of his contract, but it was obviously impossible to predict exactly when that would happen. That’s why Chiarelli gave himself an out. Sekera was given a no-movement clause. However, that no-movement clause will be modified next summer. Sekera will have to submit a list of 15 teams that he would accept a trade to. It certainly appears that Klefbom and Nurse have surpassed Sekera on the depth chart already. Sekera’s knee injury played a role in that, but Sekera was playing on the bottom pair last season upon returning from his injury. Sekera is set to miss the vast majority of this season with an Achilles injury, so the gap between him and the younger players should only grow. Giving a six-year contract with a no-movement clause to a player that was never anything more that a borderline top pairing defender was a questionable decision, but Chiarelli was smart to negotiate a modified no-movement clause that kicks in when it does.

Next summer, Sekera will be 32 years old and he will be coming off of two consecutive seasons where he will have missed extended time with serious injuries. With Bouchard primed for a full-time role in 2019 and the development of Klefbom and Nurse, the timing of the modification to Sekera’s NMC is perfect. It makes total sense to move Sekera next summer.

I know a lot of Oilers fans would want to see Russell get traded because they view his $4 million cap hit as an overpayment. I like what Russell brings to the table. I would much prefer to have him than Sekera coming off of his injuries. In my opinion, the only way that Sekera will be an Oiler in 2019-20 is if his contract is unmovable because of its value, his age, and his recent injury history. Trading Russell instead for that reason is a definite possibility though.

The other reason that I’m suggesting that Sekera will be the one to get traded next summer is because of the other players that will need new contracts next summer. Sekera’s cap hit is $5.5 million. Puljujarvi will be getting a raise of some kind. Khaira will need a bit of a raise. One of Rattie, Rieder, or Aberg will likely get a raise as well. The most important contract will be that belonging to Cam Talbot. I anticipate that he will get a new deal worth approximately $6 million per season. 2019 is also poised to be a big free agent market for goalies with names like Talbot, Sergei Bobrovsky, Pekka Rinne, Semyon Varlamov, Mike Smith, and Jimmy Howard all slated to be UFAs. No matter what his name is, the Oilers goalie will be getting a raise for 2019-20. The cap likely won’t go up by nearly as much next year as it did this year. That money has to come from somewhere. Moving Sekera’s $5.5 million cap hit would certainly help the cause.

Chiarelli will have a lot of options at his disposal in 2019 that he didn’t have this summer. To recap, one of the top six defencemen that is currently on the Oilers roster will almost certainly be moved next summer to make room for Bouchard; and at least one of Rattie, Rieder, and Aberg will be moved to make room for Yamamoto. Chiarelli could dip into the growing prospect pool and trade any of Ethan Bear, Ostap Safin, Kirill Maksimov, Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, or Caleb Jones if he really needed to as well. Those pieces could be used to acquire a scoring winger. That would be another reason to move Sekera’s big contract.

I believe that the only way that Chiarelli will be fired before next summer is if the talk in Edmonton next April is about another lottery pick. The Oilers could miss the playoffs, and I believe that Chiarelli would still survive the summer of 2019. Nicholson has faith in Chiarelli’s plan. With all of the players that will be under team control that will become expendable by the conclusion of this coming season, I fully expect the plan is for the summer of 2019 to be the busy and important off-season that everyone thought that the 2018 off-season should’ve been for Chiarelli and the Oilers. If the Oilers still haven’t become a legitimate contender after the 2019-20 season, then Chiarelli will be fired at that point.

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