Yesterday morning I stepped outside to light my barbeque and begin my preparations for the Eskimos annual Labour Day game in Calgary (for me the barbeque was the best part of the day), and I noticed that it didn’t feel like summer anymore. That I was barefoot and standing on concrete helped drive the point home but I think I would have caught on regardless. It wasn’t exactly cold out, not a chill to the winter, but a nip to the air. Still, it was a subtle reminder that summer is all but over and fall is upon us. And in a way, that is depressing because, well, summer is just more fun with backyard beers and patio beers and more beer, but in another way, that chill means the start of a new season of Oilers hockey is now just around the corner. Not a bad silver lining, all things considered.
Soon the team’s rookies will be playing in Penticton. That will be followed by a game versus an all-star team from MacEwan and NAIT, and then training camp will officially open. It’s all right around the corner. Believe it or not, things, actual hockey things, are about to start happening. And I can’t wait. Somehow this offseason, one made shorter by an appearance in the playoffs, two rounds of playoff hockey no less, has seemed even longer than the offseasons which effectively began in February. But while I’m excited to see the puck drop on another season, one that I’m hopeful will see the Oilers build upon the successes of last season, I can’t help but be a little disappointed with the Peter Chiarelli’s work during the offseason.
Getting Connor McDavid’s name on an eight-year extension was great work, no doubt about that, but there has been little else to wow me. The other big contract that the Oilers agreed to this summer was with Leon Draisaitl; like McDavid he signed for eight more years. I don’t love the deal but this isn’t terrible work on Chiarelli’s part either, the truther is somewhere in the middle. If Draisaitl is the player the Oilers think he is, then he can certainly outplay the deal and make the GM look like a genius, but I don’t see that as a guarantee and, based on comparables at least, this would appear to be a big jump over the going rate for players in his situation, and so I’m lukewarm on the deal.
Then there is the extension for Kris Russell – four years at a cost of $4M annually. I think we can all agree that more than enough blood has been spilt over this contract already, and with both sides are fully dug nothing that I say will move the needle at all, so I’ll just say that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s too much for too long and I’ll move on. The big trade of the summer was swapping Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome. Granted it cleared some cap space but so far seems like a lateral move at best on the ice. The same goes for the decision to buyout Benoit Pouliot and bring in Jussi Jokinen. Signing Yohann Auvitu is an intriguing move, the kind of low-risk gamble that I like, whereas giving two years to Eric Gryba is the exact opposite.
I was looking for the Oilers to swing for the fences, so to speak, this summer, and that simply hasn’t happened. Now the good news is that, Russell extension aside, I don’t think any of these moves are going to kill the Oilers in either the short or long-term. And barring disaster – an injury to McDavid, Cam Talbot, or another top-four defenceman while Andrej Sekera is on the mend – the Oilers should still find themselves playing hockey past game number 82 on their schedule. This season though the Oilers goal should be higher than just making the playoffs. This is a team should be competing for a division title, or perhaps even the top spot in the conference, and I don’t see a team that’s built to do those things. Your mileage will vary here depending on how comfortable you are assuming straight line development in the growth of some of the Oilers younger players, specially Draisaitl, Matt Benning, and Darnell Nurse.
Even though his work this summer hasn’t made me stand up and scream, there is still an opportunity for Peter Chiarelli to do something that could help move the Oilers towards a team that can be better expected to do things like challenge for a division title or the top spot in the conference. All he needs to do is find this year’s Kris Russell. No, not Kris Russell the player, we’ve already got one of those, so we’re good there, thanks, but rather a player like Kris Russell. The guy who expected a deal but is still waiting for the phone to ring in September. The guy who probably wanted a multi-year deal but would now just like to play somewhere and cash a regular pay cheque.
For everything written about Kris Russell, one thing that often gets overlooked by those on both sides of the discussion is the fact that the decision to bring in Russell last season was essentially a zero risk move by Peter Chiarelli. From the minute the signing was announced the argument has almost always been about what Russell is as a player, which is a fine and necessary discussion to have, but it’s not the only factor worth considering. And I include myself here, I know I’m guilty of worrying too much about the value of the contract as opposed to what it meant for the Oilers at the time it was signed. A multi-year deal, or even a one-year deal signed in the first week of July, should be looked at differently than the one-year deal that Russell signed last fall.
The reality is, the Oilers had the cap space available to sign Russell, and given the fact that it was October there was little chance that they were going to use that space anywhere else. At $3.1M I would argue that Russell was overpaid last season but that not really the point. If the money wasn’t going to be spent somewhere else, then there isn’t much harm in overpaying a player on a one-year deal. It might matter to Daryl Katz since it’s his money but not you or I. Personally, I would have preferred the Oilers to have handled last summer differently and not been in a situation to be able to sign Russell, or at least not needing to sign Russell, but that’s a separate argument. Bottom line, Chiarelli did do some decent work by adding a low-end #4, high-end #5 defenceman to the roster in October and that shouldn’t be ignored, even if you don’t like what led up to it.
Almost a year later the Oilers find themselves in a very similar situation. Once again, I find myself underwhelmed with the team’s offseason, but the Oilers have the cap space available to add a player that will help move the dial for the club without taking on any real risk. With their roster as it stands, the team would likely start the season with somewhere north of $8M worth of cap space, a number that equates to more than $38M in cap space at the deadline. While it would make for an exciting deadline day, the chances of the Oilers adding anywhere near that much salary at the deadline are likely somewhere between zero and none. It’s one thing to stay a few dollars under the cap just in case, but $8M blows that number out of the water.
Even if you want to reserve $4M for bonuses – McDavid is a virtual lock to collect $2.85M on his own, after that it’s far less certain – there is still enough space available to the Oilers to be able to add $3M-ish to the team’s bottom line without creating any real issues as this would only add about $2M in actual salary. And the worst-case scenario that the team goes over the cap by a couple hundred thousand this season seems insignificant compared to taking a better shot at winning something this season. The window for the Oilers is open now and you only get so many shots, if this is what it takes to take a real shot this season, I don’t see how you can turn it down.
It could be Cody Franson, Jaromir Jagr, or Jarome Iginla that turns out to be this year’s Kris Russell (in the case of the latter maybe a PTO is the right place to start). I’d like to see it be Franson, but all three are names that could, in some way, help the Oilers. Even if they’re not worth every penny they will at least help more than another $3M of cap space on opening night will. In a salary cap league, if you’re a team that can afford to spend to the cap, doing anything less is the equivalent of handicapping yourself to the benefit of every other team in the league. So, I say spend the money now and take a real shot. But whatever you do, please don’t fall in love with this year’s Kris Russell and give him $16M at the end of the season.