There are some disappointing names on the Oilers roster right now.
Justin Schultz continues to be played, even as his plus/minus hits double digit negatives for the fourth season in a row and his offence has all but dried up. Andrew Ference doesn’t play, but he keeps taking up that spot on the roster when he could have been bought out over the summer. Nikita Nikitin was recently demoted to the AHL after similarly avoiding a summer buyout.
Why didn’t, and why isn’t, Peter Chiarelli taking more action?
The Reset Year
Back in July, I wrote about the possibility of 2015-16 being a reset year. Chiarelli could have been very aggressive, making those sweeping changes mentioned above. He could also have been very conservative, basically letting the year play out and assessing the players in the organization before making any moves. He chose to chart a middle course:
Instead he’s added some quality players, made some aggressive moves (the addition of Griffin Reinhart at the top of that pile) but so far has avoided forcing the issue in places where he might get burned long-term. The team didn’t walk away from Schultz, instead choosing to hang on to the player who might yet play a key role effectively. It didn’t extend the suffering caused by the Nikitin or Ference contracts by buying out the players. It’s not a course everyone will agree with but it’s certainly a defensible stance.
Retaining Schultz may have cost the team a shot at Cody Franson. The right-shooting Franson, listed at 6’5” and 234 pounds, has 13 points and is a plus player both in terms of shots and in terms of goals for the Buffalo Sabres. I have argued and continue to believe that he could have helped the Oilers, but the more I watch Todd McLellan handle the defence the more I wonder if he would really have been a good fit. McLellan seems to prize mobility on the blue line, and while Franson has many good qualities footspeed is not at the top of that list. With hindsight, I find it difficult to be too critical of the decision to give Schultz one more year, particularly since I expect that Schultz will have some value at the trade deadline.
Retaining Nikitin means that his cap hit will be entirely off the books on July 1; had the Oilers bought him out they’d be hanging on to a $1.5 million cap hit next season. Retaining Ference and buying him out this summer means that a reduced cap hit will be on the books through 2016-17 rather than through 2018-19.
Also worth keeping in mind is that Teddy Purcell was a popular buyout candidate at this point last season. He took action, working with Gary Roberts and Adam Oates, and he’s had a rebound performance (though of course playing with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl didn’t hurt). Is it stretching plausibility too much to think that with a strong offseason Nikitin might have emerged as a serviceable defenceman for Edmonton this year, even if only in a third-pairing role? We know that didn’t happen, but it wasn’t a possibility that could be entirely discounted last summer when the decisions were made.
The big upside, though, was financial. By waiting a year, Edmonton saw a bunch of poor contracts disappear and shortened the length of the buyouts that ultimately needed to be made. Not being aggressive had a downside, of course; from the same piece quoted above:
The downside is that this coming year is likely to be another season in which the team struggles to compete.
Setting Up for Summer
“It’s not that we have time” Chiarelli said last June, “…There’s a lot of steps along the way, there’s a lot of good players here, we’ve got some holes that we want to fill. You do get tempted with some of the players that come across your desk, you do get tempted with moving a little more quickly but there’s a balance there and we have to make sure we maintain it.”
Chiarelli’s measured approach leaves the Oilers with the following players under contract for next season as of right now (don’t worry too much about the line combos, which were just thrown togetherter):
Assuming a Ference buyout, that group costs almost exactly $59.0 million. We don’t know where the salary cap is going to be next year, but even with a flat cap Chiarelli is going to have more than $12 million to play with, and he can go further if he feels like using some of the rookie bonus cushion (it’s not likely that Reinhart, for example, is going to max out his bonuses).
With that money, he needs to re-sign Brandon Davidson and add a couple of goalies, at which point he has basically a full NHL roster. If he can do those things relatively cheaply, he’ll have a bunch of money with which to go shopping in the summer. He’ll have more if one of the Oilers big ticket forwards is used as trade bait, or if his shopping list has some value deals (Travis Hamonic comes to mind) on it.
Just for good measure, given where the Canadian dollar is it seems pretty likely that he’s going to be shopping in an environment like last summer, where most of his competitors have nowhere near so much money to play with (and in some cases will likely be looking to shed dollars).
We’ve already seen much of the cost to Chiarelli’s carefully calculated approach. This summer, we’re going to see how much upside that cost purchased.