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WWYDW: Making the call on the Oilers’ unrestricted free agents

The Edmonton Oilers have 10 players bound for unrestricted free agency this summer. In this week’s edition of WWYDW, we ask our readers which of those players should be brought back, and which should be allowed to depart.

Decisions have already been made on two of those players. Goaltender Jonas Gustavsson is bound for Europe after a disappointing year with the Oilers. Defenceman Andrew Ference played just six games in 2015-16 and none last season in the final two years of his last NHL deal; he is now retired.

That leaves eight other players:

  • C David Desharnais. Desharnais was signed to centre Edmonton’s third line, but ultimately found himself relegated to fourth unit duty in the postseason. He did win 54% of his faceoffs in the regular season, but contributed just four points over 18 games.
  • LD Mark Fraser. Fraser, who turns 31 in September, was signed as a depth option and spent all season in Bakersfield (AHL), putting up six points in 65 minor-league games.
  • RW Justin Fontaine. A veteran of just under 200 NHL games, Fontaine was a trade deadline acquisition by the Oilers who ended up spending the rest of the year in the minors. He’s undersized, turns 30 in November and scored only 41 points over 65 AHL contests.
  • RD Eric Gryba. Gryba played 40 games for the Oilers last season, down slightly from the 53 he appeared in over the course of 2015-16. He also saw his ice-time fall by nearly two minutes per game. He’s big, physical and a right shot but limited ability with the puck has led to him falling into a No. 6/7 role on the depth chart.
  • LW Matt Hendricks. Another veteran who saw his games played and average ice-time fall, Hendricks will turn 36 next month. He’s a defensive specialist who plays aggressive, physical hockey, but he has slowed over parts of four seasons in Edmonton.
  • LD Jordan Oesterle. Oesterle was a college free agent signing by the Oilers in the summer of 2014, and has appeared in 25 NHL games total since joining the organization. He had a career offensive year in the AHL and brings speed and puck skills, but he lacks ideal size and strength for the position. He turns 25 this summer.
  • RW Tyler Pitlick. Pitlick had a breakthrough season in 2016-17, dramatically turning the page on years of unremarkable play at the AHL and NHL levels with eight goals over 31 games. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old couldn’t end one of the ugliest runs of injury I’ve ever seen a player suffer through, playing fewer than 50 games for the fifth consecutive season.
  • RD Kris Russell. I’ve saved the most controversial for last. Russell is undeniably an NHL defenceman and a fearless competitor, but the Oilers will need to carefully weigh where the 30-year-old fits on their depth chart over the long-term before re-signing him. Coming off a high-profile season, he’s going to be highly motivated to secure the first rich, long-term deal of his professional career.

Making the Call

WWYDW is supposed to focus on the reader rather than the writer, so I’ll be brief on my views. Fontaine and Fraser are obviously replaceable. Desharnais slipped out of a top-nine role, and Hendricks slipped outside the top-12; given their age that makes letting them go simple. Pitlick had a crazy shooting percentage year and can’t stay healthy.

The NHL defencemen are a little harder to make a call on. Russell has value, but more as a stopgap than a long-term piece; I think his needs and Edmonton’s interests are at cross purposes. Gryba and Oesterle are both nice options to have competing for an end-of-roster spot; on a two-way deal both are easy signings but on one-way deals things get a little more complicated. Age favours Oesterle, handedness Gryba; I’d prefer Oesterle.

My list of eight ends up being narrowed down to just one or two when all is said and done. What does yours look like?

  • Xtnct

    Let walk Desharnais, Hendricks, Fraser.

    Sign Fontaine for cheap 2way deal to play in minors. If not let him walk.

    Sign Russell but only for 4/5 dman money. If not let him walk.

    Sign Gryba for 7 dman money and 1 year term. If not let him walk. Same for Oesterle. If both sign then at least 1 would have to be 2way deal.

    I think Pitlick resigns for cheap. If not let him walk also.

    None of these players are a big loss. If Russell does not sign then the team must get another #4 type dman. With Sekera injury I think they need 2 more D…. the Russell signing plus ideally another decent RHD. Going with Kleff, Larson, Russell, Nurse, Benning to start is asking for trouble. 1 injury and they’d be cooked.

  • Reg Dunlop

    I think maybe there is more to the Osterle/Gryba debate than age and handedness. 50 plus games experience to 25. 6-4 230lbs to 5-11 185 lbs. Mean streak, desire and ability to defend team mates compared to an AHL level of puck moving ability. Keep both but if only one can be signed, Gryba all day every day. Also, not surprisingly, you seem to be selling Russell short. A stop gap? What player isn’t a stop gap other than McDavid? Every single player other than Connor could be theoretically upgraded. Did Russell steal your lunch money once? Or does his contribution to team success throw such a big monkey wrench into your spreadsheet that you started to question your faith? Take your que from Mendel and ignore results that don’t fit your preconceived notion about what makes a hockey player valuable. You’ll feel better that way when Chia signs Russell for 3 years this summer.

    • Jonathan Willis

      Reg Dunlop wrote: “I think maybe there is more to the Osterle/Gryba debate than age and handedness.”

      Of course there is. There’s also more to Desharnais, Hendricks and the rest.

      Reg Dunlop wrote: “Also, not surprisingly, you seem to be selling Russell short. A stop gap? What player isn’t a stop gap other than McDavid?”

      Oscar Klefbom has six years left on his contract. Adam Larsson and Andrej Sekera have four each. Three of the four top spots on Edmonton’s blue line are spoken for over at least the next 2-3 years, years in which the Oilers are competing for a Stanley Cup. I think that group needs a right-shot puckmover as a complement. Russell does a lot of things well, but he’s neither a right shot nor a puckmover. You’re welcome to disagree on that, but with three spots locked down I wouldn’t be anxious to lock down the fourth when I think the group needs a different skills balance than it has right now.

      As for the rest of your comment, if you want to have a discussion, great. If you want to rant and rave because someone disagreed with you on the internet, that’s your business and I’ll just get out of your way so you can string together assorted noises regarding lunch money and doctrine and preconceptions and anything else you want to project. Have fun.

      • OilerHomer

        I usually disagree with Willis’ abundant pessimism but I think he’s right on the money here. Russell is certainly a stop gap solution to a team that was bleeding out on the back end for many years. With the improvements from Klefbom, Larsson, and Nurse (assuming Sekera can only play half the year) the team needs a legitimate Stanley Cup caliber top 4 defender. I don’t believe that Russell is that guy. Too many times I’ve seen him make the wasted dump out play and its rare he successfully pinches at the board. This Oilers team could be an offensive dynamo and we have to relish it with a back end who can move the puck up controlled.

        I do think Gryba has a build and tenacity that suits our division well but perhaps only our division. I’m not sure he’s a top 6/7 in anything but the Pacific.

      • Heavy Stick

        Seems many prefer the puckmover(relative term) who can play very solid defense. Not many of this type in the league.
        How many times(using %) did Russell/Benning/Klefbom/Sekara make a play where they create possession for us. They block shots but usually lose battles on 50/50 chances.

        What is more important offense or defense?
        Screw the Corsi BS. I’ll err to the defensive side most of the time unless you are talking about Erik Karlsson.
        Regaining control is what starts possession. Losing once you gain it is a different story usually involving forwards. Where do you gain possession? Mostly in your own zone.
        Russell blocked shots but he lost so many battles. This is why they get so many shots AT the net when he’s on.

      • I'm too tall for this @#$%

        I agree with you Willis. With the other 3 top 4 D locked up long term Russel’s spot is where there is opportunity to make a significant improvement to this blueline over the offseason. Not that Russel isn’t a good defenseman, but finding an upgrade on him is really the most direct way to upgrade the top 4 for the team’s Stanley cup window.

      • Reg Dunlop

        Rant and rave? Man, you must lead a sheltered life if you think I was ranting. As for Russell, I guess we will see if he is valued by the nature of the contract he signs.

  • Big Nuggets

    i would sign Pitlick again. he’ll be cheap and has upside. with our center depth i would like us to use some cheap wingers and inflate their value before shipping them off. no need to sign overpriced over the hill veterans abymore. Pitlick could be the next Guentzal.

    Iwould also resign Oesterle. I feel he gets underrated because everyone is too busy analyzing whether or nor Reinhardt is NHL worthy. seems like many of our AHL defensemen started having success when they were paired with Oesterle. He doesnt have the size but he has the skating so it could balance out. and he’s cheap.

    I would prefer a natural right shooting D in Russel’s spot but it sounds like the GM and the coach have their hearts set on Russel so I guess I can accept their decision.

    I would let the others walk. if we end up needing an extra defenseman then Gryba is fine. He would be on of the last contracts given out this year.

  • Serious Gord

    How about none.

    Pitlick plays too reckless and cannot be relied on. Russel like him or not is going to be asking too much for too long – the oil cannot afford him.

    The oil need to sign cheap long-term depth and/or better players for just one year – maximum two years. Both are difficult to do in a normal year – it’s going to be much harder in an expansion year.

    This is THE problem EDM has going forward and it is what is the key difference between these Oilers and the blackhawks of a decade ago – no young good quality (read: cheap) depth to rely on and to deal to fill other holes.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    Russell apparently wants to play only in Alberta so with the Lames likely losing Wideman and Engelland, he’ll bounce down there and try to help the Lames try to beat us if we don’t re-sign him. beware, oooooo….
    i’d like to see Pitlick come back but if he’s a UFA and there’s interest in him, i could see him signing elsewhere. Gryba may or may not come back but the rest can walk.

  • Dobbler

    Pitlick, Osterle and Gryba should all be available at a price that makes it worth the contract. All three have the potential to be valuable in the coming season, and if they don’t live up to that potential, they’re cheap contracts and can get sent down.
    The question of Russell is contingent on what he can be signed for, and what alternatives are on the market. If we can get him for only a small raise from his last contract, I say we do it. If it’s a moderate raise, then it depends what the free agent market looks like, and what other teams are doing. The only other consideration is if we trade Nuge/Ebs and get a right shot D back. I think Cody Franson is about the only right shot Dman in free agency that is 1) a bona fide NHL player, 2) Won’t cost an arm and a leg, and 3) Isn’t older than the hills. That’s all points in favour of signing Russell. Am I missing someone? Probably am, but hells if I know who.

    I don’t see any point in signing any of the rest. It’ll be sad to see Hendo gone, but retiring at 36 is respectable.

    • vetinari

      Those are my four as well. I would take Oesterle, Gryba and Pitlick on one year deals, preferably on two-way contracts (at least with Oesterle and Gryba), and Russell on no more than a two year deal with a slight bump ($3.25M to $3.5M per season). If Russell is shooting for a four or five year deal, let him walk because I could see another Ference situation developing because he plays the game hard, blocking shots, and a long term contract with him would hold too much risk with respect to injury.

  • Not a First Tier Fan

    Wave goodbye to Desharnais and Fraser.

    Keep Fontaine for minors depth unless he feels he can do better somewhere else. If so, let him go see what’s out there.

    Gryba and Oesterle are keepers, although at low value short term deals. If dollar signs are flashing in their agents eyes then let them walk and explore the market.

    Sign Pitlick for the good karma. He won’t disappoint.

    Throw Hendricks a parade on his way out of town for sure. But unfortunately the Hendricks-train has left the building.

    Leaving Russell. I’ll never understand what the stats guys have against him. From what I saw last year he made the team better. Plus he can play on the left and help compensate for the loss of Sekara for half the season. How many players actually state a desire to play in Alberta? Reward him for this. A 2-3 year deal for $2.5M to $3M per should be perfectly doable. The shorter term will avoid any Ference-like complications.

  • 99 to 97

    I would keep Gryba all day. Right shot, lays the body, isn’t afraid to punch a fool in the face when necessary… A good guy to have available to slot into the line up.

  • I'm too tall for this @#$%

    Resign Oesterle for depth. If Gryba takes the same contract again then resign for depth too. The AHL team neads a veteran forward; Fontaine could be that guy.