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Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

Can the Oilers afford McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins long term?

The Edmonton Oilers cap situation gets serious next season. Connor McDavid’s mega-extension kicks in then, which will make him the league’s highest paid player at $12.5 million per year, and the Oilers will have roughly $13 million to sign 10 players, including Patrick Maroon, Ryan Strome, Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning, and Mark Letestu.

Conventional thinking is simple: Leon Draisaitl is going to play centre, Chiarelli stated as much when he signed him for $8.5 million per year. That leaves Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the third spot, and $6 million dollars is way too much for a third line centre.

McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins would combine for $27 million, or 36% of this year’s salary cap. Can the Oilers afford that and build a competitive roster around them?

Highest Combined Cap Hit of Top 3 Centers since 07-08

Team Season Centers Cap Hit % of Cap
Pittsburgh 09-10 Crosby, Malkin, Staal 21.4 37
Edmonton 18-19 McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins 27 35
Pittsburgh 10-11 Crosby, Malkin, Staal 21.4 36
Pittsburgh 11-12 Crosby, Malkin, Staal 21.4 33
Pittsburgh 12-13 Crosby, Malkin, Sutter 19.46 32
Tampa Bay 07-08 Lecavalier, Richards, Gratton 16.175 32
Pittsburgh 14-15 Crosby, Malkin, Sutter 21.5 31
Philadelphia 08-09 Richards, Carter, Briere 17.25 30
Pittsburgh 13-14 Crosby, Malkin, Sutter 19.46 30
N.Y. Rangers 07-08 Gomez, Drury, Dubinsky 15.04 29
Dallas 08-09 Richards, Ribeiro, Modano 16.25 28
Pittsburgh 15-16 Crosby, Malkin, Bonino 20.1 28
Detroit 09-10 Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Filppula 15.78 27
Pittsburgh 16-17 Crosby, Malkin, Bonino 20.1 27
San Jose 14-15 Thornton, Pavelski, Couture 18.75 27
Dallas 10-11 Richards, Ribeiro, Ott 15.75 26
Detroit 10-11 Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Filppula 15.78 26

I’m projecting a modest increase of two million for next year’s cap, which would leave the Edmonton trio at 35% of the cap ceiling. Surprisingly, they wouldn’t be the highest paid group of centres since 2008. That distinction goes to the 09-10 Penguins with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, who might be the best group on the list.

There are a lot of really good players here. When you have good centre depth, it tends to cost a lot. Pittsburgh even wanted to keep Staal despite the price on his third contract (10 years, $6 million AAV). Pittsburgh didn’t really care what a traditional third-line centre should make, and that might be an interesting consideration for the Oilers.

Almost all of these teams had some sort of success. Eleven of the teams made the playoffs, with seven of them making it past the first round.

Having this sort of depth at centre is valuable. It’s a huge luxury to have as many options at centers like a Pittsburgh, a Detroit, or a San Jose. Pittsburgh plays Crosby and Malkin together at times, same with Detroit and Datsyuk and Zetterberg. San Jose had a ridiculous amount of centres when Todd McLellan was there, something that could factor into Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli’s roster moves.

McDavid and Draisaitl are signed for the next seven seasons, which should make it more manageable for the remaining four years on Nugent-Hopkins’ contract.

Keeping Nugent-Hopkins also makes it easier to play Draisaitl on the wing with McDavid, or maybe Edmonton gives Nugent-Hopkins a shot on the wing. It’s easier to slide a centre to the wing than to move a winger to centre.

It’s a lot to pay, but that’s the cost of having three really good centres. Finding cheap wingers to compliment your centres is easier than finding good centres. Pittsburgh’s shown that with Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, and Bryan Rust playing significant roles. Meanwhile, Montreal is playing Jonathan Drouin at centre in an attempt to find a top centre.

What’s the alternative?

Sep 30, 2017; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom (25) blocks a shot on net by Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Strome (18) during the third period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers acquired Ryan Strome and clearly feel he’s somewhat capable of playing centre if they started the season with him there. Strome could be a cheap third-line centre that provides a right-handed shot and only makes $2.5 million, although he’s a restricted free-agent after this season.

Maybe they acquire a cheaper centre in return for Nugent-Hopkins if they’re set on clearing out his salary, similar to the Jordan Eberle trade last summer, and they play in the third spot.

Trading Nugent-Hopkins for draft picks or prospects makes signing Maroon and Strome much easier, something that might be difficult without some creative roster management. Maroon’s been effective alongside McDavid, but he’ll get at least $3.5 million on his next contract. Strome’s hasn’t solidified himself apart from one strong season in New York, but might not matter cap-wise if he puts up another ~30-point season. If the choice is between signing either player or trading Nugent-Hopkins, I’d lean towards the 25-year old centre who has shown to be a 50-point player in previous seasons without a generational centre beside him.

I’m not sure there would be a better trio of centers in the league. Pittsburgh’s currently playing journeyman Gregg McKegg as their third-line centre, otherwise Crosby and Malkin are fantastic. Pavelski seems like a full-time winger alongside Joe Thornton at this point. Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler might compare, but Rakell spent the majority of last season on the wing. Colorado once boasted a group of incredible centres, but have since traded away Ryan O’Reilly and lost Paul Stastny to free agency.

Maybe Nugent-Hopkins isn’t your prototypical third-line centre, but if the Oilers want to, they can run with all of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins down the middle and have one of the league’s best group of centres, with opposing coaches having matchup nightmares. Spending a little over one-third of the cap for them would be difficult, but it’s been done before.

  • Jordan88

    So we go from, wonder kids, to cap hell in little over 3 seasons. QUICK SIGN JESSE to an 8 year 16 million extension while he still can’t speak english. Ship RNH for a 1st 2nd and 3rd, trade Sekera for a 5th sign strome for 3 years at 3 million per Give Maroon 3-3.8 per year for 3 years. Deal with the d core and plan the parades.

    This is how I won 5 stanley cups in NHL 17 last year!

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    One of the things I’ve heard people say is that Chiarelli has terrible cap management and he put Boston in a bind because of it. Frankly I haven’t heard ANYTHING to suggest that Chiarelli screwed Boston over with the cap. That being said, it is going to be a bit of a challenge, but I have faith Peter will sort it out. I would fault Nuge’s contract on the LTMacT management, but they weren’t supposed to know that McDraisitl would fall into their lap.

    • I don’t want to defend MacT but when he extended Nuge back in 2013 nobody thought we’d get a shot at drafting Draisaitl and nobody at the time(experts,analysts, writers, and fans) would even think of the possibility of us landing that 15 year old phenom in the OHL.

  • TruthHurts98

    So far the PC gamble of not upgrading the RW isn’t working, I’m a bit surprised he didn’t add a better RW option and at least try to upgrade the defense a bit. Maybe it will all sort itself out, but right now Nuge is pretty valuable to this team. I guess it all depends on the return if traded, but PC can’t afford to do another Eberle for Strome swap again or this team will have even less depth.

  • Dr. Merkwurdigliebe

    RNH has looked good so far this year and he might make it tough for the Oilers to trade him. I feel he’s out to prove something. The guy was a #1 pick. If they can keep him, they should.

  • Shredder

    Sounds like McDavid isn’t taking many faceoffs this year. Also, Nuge has shown to have an offensive spark this year. I feel he’s poised for a breakout. Lastly, didn’t we just have an article about a big hole at RW? Until we fill that hole how can we even consider it? Nuge has more value than either Lucic or Maroon, and the right side is only effective with Draisatl there as it stands. Keep the Nuge, he’s an invaluable player.

  • Barenone

    NUGE is making first line money.. but he’s far from that. he’s a weak player that can’t win battles on the boards. he’s an overpaid 3rd line center that needs to go.. the faster the better. he’d be a better fit in the east.

  • Semenko27

    I think nuge will be fine. when his next contract is due he will be offered a better deal for us, and i think he will understand the situation and his options and sign here again.

  • gordo

    by not getting matthew barzal, and matthew tkachuk in the 2015, and 16 draft the oilers seem to have a huge offensive deficit. when we do our math let’s remember lucic is another 6 million dollar guy being overpaid.

  • Dean S

    The contract that was a very poor signing was Milan Lucic. 6.0 M for a winger who can’t skate well enough to keep up with Leon or Connor. He’s 29 yrs old already, and a 7 year deal. What??

  • BingBong

    My guess is RNH will be gone after this year, whether he has a good year or not. With MacD and Drai as our top 2 centers, RNH is overpaid as a 3rd line center. And he can’t play the wing – he’d never win a board/corner battle.
    These are my lines for right now, and when healthy:

    Maroon-MacD-Cags
    Lucic-Drai-Slep
    Jokinen-RNH-Kass
    Pak-Letestu-Strome

    • AJ88

      Take a look at the line up the Oilers have been practicing with the last two days, without Drai (supposedly a minor injury),how would that lineup look if Nuge was also gone. The Oilers would be crazy at this time to get rid of him, many on this site think we have many to fill in behind Nuge, myself, the Oilers are still lacking offensive depth.

  • Rusty

    Chia is still living with some legacy issues with this team. Particularly the Oilers have a ton of contracts in the minors doing nothing. The oilers are almost tapped out at 49 contracts. we have 5 UFA’s coming up at the end of this year. Would it shock anyone if the Oilers just walked from 1-2 maybe even 3 roster players next summer? It would open some roster spots for younger cheaper players like yam and jesse.

    I dont know, just a thought but it would sure make keeping Nuge more realistic if we had some younger, more productive players filling roster spots.
    All this aside i truly believe keeping Nuge 100% hinges on the contracts of Nurse and Benning. if the oilers can get some bargain basement contracts for those guys for medium term while they round off their development, and jump russell and sekera in the depth chart it gives the oilers all kinds of opportunities…namely trading away a combined 9.5 million in combined cap and creating space for guys like Bear, Paigan, and jones to start their careers protected in the bottom pair. Once Chia gets those 2 dealt with the picture for Nuge will come into focus.