Any competent NHL general manager needs to make decisions with an eye on the short-, mid- and long-term. For the Edmonton Oilers, part of that means making rough plans now for next summer’s free agents. This is something that has started already – the David Perron trade saw the Oilers move a significant player prior to his rental season – and needs to continue as the team draws up its game-plan for this summer.
Via NHLNumbers, the following players currently under contract will be unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2016:
- RW/LW Teddy Purcell
- C Boyd Gordon
- LW/RW Rob Klinkhammer
- LD/RD Nikita Nikitin
- G Ben Scrivens
Three of those five names aren’t terribly significant at the present time. Klinkhammer is a depth piece, albeit a useful one, and the Oilers stand a decent chance of signing him to another cheap deal next year if they’re of the mind to do so. If they aren’t, he’s a prime candidate to be replaced by an internal option. Nikitin just completed his second year of playing at the level of third-pairing defenceman; if he’s somehow traded it won’t be a hardship and the only real discussion worth having right now is whether he should be bought out (to which I say “probably”). Scrivens is likely slated for the backup goaltending job; if he rebounds and takes over as starter great but there’s no need to worry about that until such time as it happens.
That still leaves Purcell and Gordon.
Purcell isn’t a popular player in Edmonton at the moment; there are some who have argued that he should be joining Nikitin on the buyout line. Doubtless we’ll see those arguments in the comments section here, too.
But while Purcell is overpaid he has some significant items working in his favour.
Purcell has significant offensive talent. His 34 points in 2014-15 represent his lowest total since his breakout 2010-11 campaign; he managed 36 in lockout-shortened 2012-13. An NHL team can make use of the kind of production that Purcell managed this season and we’re very much seeing him at his worst.
Purcell is useful in a variety of ways. He adds some size to the lineup and that has some value. He was a good match in many ways for both Leon Draisaitl and Nail Yakupov; both players saw their on-ice goal and shot metrics improved dramatically when they played with Purcell. I expect the reason is that Purcell is a limited but legitimate NHL player, with the brains to play at both ends of the ice and a tendency to have the puck stick to him. He’s a decent option for both special teams; he out-produced Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall in terms of per-minute power play scoring and was a regular on the penalty kill. He’s versatile, capable of playing left wing or right wing on any line.
He has his warts. He doesn’t play a physical game despite decent size. He needs to be smart because he isn’t fast. He’s not a natural shooter (despite good skill in the department) by inclination and plays a pass-first game. He’s more of a complementary player offensively rather than a driver. He comes with a $4.5 million cap hit.
On balance, he’s a useful top-nine forward. Barring a total collapse, he’s going to have value as a fill-in piece at the trade deadline, particularly if Edmonton is willing to retain salary, and I expect that’s what happens. He’ll play 40-odd games for the Oilers and then get dealt elsewhere for pick in the 45-90 range.
If that’s the plan, Edmonton needs to be prepared to fill his slot. To me, that means adding a cheap, veteran winger (as mentioned yesterday, someone from the Jiri Tlusty/Lee Stempniak/Sean Bergenheim family) to fill the existing hole in the Oilers’ top nine and then finding an internal candidate to step into those minutes post-deadline. Leon Draisaitl, Tyler Pitlick and Iiro Pakarinen are all obvious internal options.
Boyd Gordon is a popular player in Edmonton, and with good reason. For two years now, he’s taken on some tough minutes and delivered excellent results. The question is what happens as his three-year contract with the Oilers comes to an end.
Gordon’s strengths are obvious. He’s an exceptional faceoff man, one of the very best in the game. Defensively, he’s a wonder; he’s highly intelligent and it’s a rare thing to catch him anywhere other than exactly where he’s supposed to be. He’s not a guy who racks up the hit counts (for the sake of contrast, over the last two years he has 58 hits in 142 games while Anton Lander has 88 in 65 contests) but there’s never been any question of his willingness to grind things out in the corners. He’s hard on the puck. He’s also an excellent penalty killer, and a reasonable playmaker. Despite limited offensive tools he’s a guy who can take and make a pass.
The trouble with Gordon is that he’s a specialist, and a pricy one. He had one goal and four assists in 38 games after Christmas; he’s entirely out of his depth in an offensive role. He’s never scored 10 goals or 30 points in the NHL; he’s never hit 40 points in the minors. He provides roughly the same amount of offensive punch as Andrew Ference. Despite his one-dimensional nature, he makes $3.0 million per season.
On balance, he’s extremely useful as a dedicated penalty-killer and defensive zone man. A head coach can feed him an endless diet of tough minutes, and he’ll saw them off. The question is whether the Oilers want to re-sign him or send him away at the deadline.
Either option might appeal. Working in Gordon’s favour is his impressive performance in the first two years of his deal. Working against him is his age (he’ll turn 32 in October) and the fact that the Oilers might think they have a replacement lined up. With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid in the top two centre spots, and Leon Draisaitl on the way, Edmonton might reason that Lander (good defensively, decent on the draw) can fill Gordon’s minutes more cheaply and without any fear of a drop-off due to age.
Regardless, there’s no reason to anything about the situation now. Edmonton has decent depth down the middle, particularly if (as G.M. Craig MacTavish suggested yesterday) the club re-signs Derek Roy. They can make a final decision closer to the deadline.
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