Last week, we considered a long list of unrestricted free agent defencemen and asked which of them the Edmonton Oilers should target this July 1. But if we’re looking at a total overhaul of the blue line, more than just free agency is going to be involved.
What might a total road map for the summer’s blue line moves look like?
The Current Depth Chart
Here’s what the current group looks like.
1. Justin Schultz. A good skating defenceman with excellent vision and skill with the puck, Schultz is young and inexperienced enough to potentially improve. Offensively he lacks a high-end shot, and defensively his reads and intensity could both be improved and he lacks a physical dimension. At this point probably a third-pair defenceman at evens and a top-unit power play option. Discussed in depth here.
2. Oscar Klefbom. A complete defenceman, with exceptional mobility, size and a physical edge and lots of skill with the puck already, despite his tender age. His final offensive ceiling is a bit questionable, and his youth and inexperience mean his defensive game has some holes at the present time. Currently he’s a reasonable No. 3/4 option at evens and a potential contributor on both special teams.
3. Nikita Nikitin. A big defenceman with a heavy shot, Nikitin keeps the play alive in the offensive zone thanks to decent skill with the puck and is quite effective at holding his own in front of the net. He is gaffe-prone, and can look flat-out wretched in transition, where he was burned again and again in 2014-15. At this point he’s probably best-suited to a No. 6/7 role at evens, but can do a lot on the penalty kill and fill-in on the power play. Discussed in depth here.
4. Andrew Ference. An intense veteran defenceman, Ference can take and make a pass, shoot the puck and plays an intelligent defensive game with welcome energy. He’s a little undersized for the defensive defenceman role and seemed to struggle last year adapting to a loss of footspeed. At this point he likely shouldn’t be higher than a No. 5 option at evens, though he’s a good penalty-killer.
5. Martin Marincin. Marincin’s great strength is in transition. He’s gifted with the puck, making one of the better outlet passes on the team, and he uses his long reach brilliantly to defend his own blue line; that combined with excellent mobility make him somewhat unique on this blue line. The trouble is that he has substantial warts; he’s not physical defensively and can look lazy when he gets burned, and he’s unlikely to ever be a big point producer. Ideally, he’s probably a No. 4/5 defenceman at evens at this point and a fill-in guy on both special teams.
6. Mark Fayne. A big, capable defensive defenceman, Fayne has excellent size, the ability to take and make a pass and plays a highly-disciplined, highly-intelligent defensive game. He has no offensive dimension, isn’t a big banger and can be exposed if asked to do too much with the puck. He’s a reasonable No. 4 defenceman at evens and a workhorse on the penalty kill.
7. Keith Aulie. A massive physical defenceman who skates well for a big man, Aulie’s pretty useful in front of his own net. He’s wretched with the puck, even on routine plays, and can get burned in transition defensively. At this point I’m skeptical that he’s an NHL’er on more than a fill-in basis.
Others: Darnell Nurse is the best blue line prospect the Oilers have seen in ages and has no obvious warts save inexperience… Brandon Davidson is a solid stay-at-home option who looked really decent in a cameo last year and must clear waivers to be demoted again… Brad Hunt has great power play ability, but looked incapable of overcoming size and defensive shortcomings last season… Jordan Oesterle and David Musil both have bright points, but both could use more time at the AHL level and both have that time under the NHL’s waiver rules.
Managing the Salary Cap
Via NHLNumbers, the Oilers currently have a little over $37 million committed to their forwards (depending on who they choose as end-of-roster options). To that number I’d add the cap hits of Connor McDavid, assuming that he hits his bonus, and budget an additional $1.0 million to add a cheap free agent to the third line. That takes us to a touch over $42 million.
In net, Ben Scrivens’ contract comes with a $2.3 million cap hit, and I’d probably budget $5.0 million for the addition of a No. 1 (there isn’t much on the field but there also aren’t many jobs available; I can’t imagine even Antti Niemi costing much more than that).
Combining those figures, we end up with $49.4 million in total dollars committed elsewhere, leaving $22.1 million or thereabouts for the defence, assuming that the salary cap this season comes in at $71.5 million. Here’s how the current group stands:
- Nikita Nikitin: One year at $4.5 million cap hit
- Justin Schultz: RFA. Qualifying offer is one year at $3.675 million cap hit
- Mark Fayne: Three years at $3.625 million cap hit
- Andrew Ference: Two years at $3.25 million cap hit
- Darnell Nurse: Three years at $1.744 million cap hit
- Oscar Klefbom: One year at $1.244 million cap hit
- Martin Marincin: RFA. Qualifying offer is one year at $851,000
- Keith Aulie: RFA. Qualifying offer is one year at $840,000
- Brandon Davidson: RFA. Qualifying offer is one year at $704,000
Assuming the first seven names on that list are all on the opening night lineup, the Oilers would be spending $18.9 million on the group. That means that after the first $2,200,000 any additions must be paid for either by subtractions from the above list of defenceman or from sacrifices made at forward or in net.
In my view, the Oilers must find a way to do at least two things:
- Add two top-four defencemen.
- Subtract two of Nikitin, Ference and Schultz to open roster space and cap room.
There are several ways to achieve those aims.
If the Oilers want to go to free agency and just spend money, it’s easy enough to buyout Nikitin and walk away from Schultz. Two quick decisions, and the team has cleared just under $7.0 million in cap space and opened up two roster spots.
Alternatively, the Oilers could look at making trades.
There’s some upside to this, in addition to the obvious one of bringing in a return for an asset like Schultz or Ference. Free agency is going to be expensive and it will be difficult to be sure that the Oilers can land even one quality defenceman, never mind the two that they probably should be targeting.
Who might the Oilers target? Dion Phaneuf, Brent Seabrook and Dustin Byfuglien have all been mentioned as possible targets; to that list we can probably add Ducks newcomer James Wisniewski who has been a healthy-scratch in the postseason. Of that quartet, Seabrook seems the least likely to move, given that Chicago has other options and wouldn’t be looking to take any salary back.
The trade that comes to mind for a player in this range is the one Anaheim made for the Wisniewski at the deadline:
- Anaheim acquires Wisniewski and a third-round pick in exchange for Rene Bourque, prospect William Karlsson and a second-round pick.
This is where the Oilers’ lack of good but not great prospects really burns them; there’s nobody in the system in Karlsson’s range save perhaps Bogdan Yakimov. Is Ference plus Yakimov in the same range as Bourque plus Karlsson? What about Schultz and a lesser prospect, someone like David Musil or Jujhar Khaira? Do either of those tandems plus Montreal’s second-rounder fetch a player like Wisniewski plus a third-round pick back?
Whatever the deal, it’s likely that the Oilers will still need to add another defenceman via free agency, as we considered last week. It’s a shame that the Oilers so mishandled Jeff Petry, who would fill that second-pairing defenceman hole, but it’s too late to change that now. Something in the $5.0 – $6.0 million range is likely here if the Oilers are targeting one of the (relatively) big names out there.
What does it look like when all is said and done?
In my view, the plan should be to put holdovers Fayne and Klefbom in the top-four of the restructured defence. Klefbom is already the best left-shooting defenceman on the team and should only improve; he’s not a great fit for a tough minutes role at this point but he should be useful if the other tandem does the heavy lifting. That’s where Fayne comes in; he has history in that role and if he’s paired with a competent puck-moving veteran to do the heavy lifting he should be okay as a shutdown defender.
The depth chart might look something like this:
- [Free agent addition] – Mark Fayne (the shutdown tandem)
- Oscar Klefbom – [trade addition] (all types of minutes, offensive work whenever possible)
- Martin Marincin – [Andrew Ference or Justin Schultz] (mop-up minutes)
- Brandon Davidson
The key thing here is deciding on the holdovers. Fayne and Klefbom are obvious. Marincin is frequently mentioned as a trade candidate, but the nice thing about him is that he’s going to be cheap and he’s a reasonable option to move up in event of injury; at this point it makes sense to keep him if possible. I’ve penciled Davidson in as the No. 7; he’s cheap and serviceable and this assumes that Nurse isn’t ready for full-time NHL employment out of camp (if he is, it’s easy enough to waive Davidson and bump Marincin into the No. 7 slot).
Ideally, the Oilers are able to move Ference in a package for another defenceman. Schultz is younger, a right shot and has considerably more upside. However, it may be that it’s impossible to make the deal for another defenceman, even based around the No. 16 pick, without including Schultz over Ference.
Given the plan I’ve laid out, the Oilers would spend between $9.7 million and $10.1 million on holdovers (depending on whether Schultz or Ference is traded, respectively) and $1.5 million on a Nikitin buyout, leaving between $10.5 and $10.9 million to play for the two new additions.