That, though, may be a false choice. There is a strong argument that Edmonton should move out two defencemen, in which case both Russell and Davidson might find themselves on the chopping block.
The Need to Improve
Yesterday we talked about the lack of an elite defenceman in the Oilers’ lineup. Obviously finding one would be a big step forward for the team, but is a difficult proposition. Less difficult is improving in areas of definite weakness—for example, by adding a right-shot, puck-moving defenceman to the top-four.
Barring at least one move, however, it’s difficult to find a spot for such a player. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are long-term building blocks on reasonable but expensive contracts. Andrej Sekera is the team’s best defenceman today, and is also signed long-term at a $5.5 million cap hit.
A trade is one possibility. Larsson and Sekera were both acquired by the current GM, making Klefbom the most likely candidate for such treatment. Klefbom has the most varied skillset of the group and my guess is that he’ll ultimately end up being the best of the bunch, so barring a mammoth return I think this would be a mistake.
Sekera is a more plausible trade candidate than Larsson, but he’s also the best of them today and I don’t think Edmonton would get the same return for him anyway.
That leaves pending free agent Kris Russell, whose future remains undecided. Given his age, this summer is probably the best chance he’s ever going to have to get a big contract, one with a high annual value and the security of term. If he re-signs in Edmonton, the Oilers will be committed to four expensive defencemen for years to come.
That doesn’t make it impossible to bring in a top-four defender, but it does make it more difficult. The Oilers could plausibly pay Russell and then run him as a special teams guy and a partner for Darnell Nurse on the third pairing, a move which would bump at least one of Brandon Davidson or Matt Benning off the roster. That probably isn’t ideal, though; given what the years ahead look like, Edmonton will probably need to find economical choices for depth roles and a Nurse/Russell third pairing would be quite expensive.
Cheaper Players in the System
As the Oilers look for cheaper players to populate depth roles, they will undoubtedly turn to their prospects. Options are limited up front, but on the blue line the team has some real choices. Unfortunately, they’ve also run out of time to make a decision. Come next fall, Griffin Reinhart, Jordan Oesterle and Dillon Simpson will all require waivers to be sent to the minors. For Reinhart and Oesterle, clearing them seems unlikely.
Reinhart is coming off an entry-level deal with massive bonuses because he was a No. 4 overall pick, but should be amenable to a much cheaper deal next season given that he’ll be a fourth-year pro who still hasn’t proven himself as an NHL regular. He’s a good fit for an end-of-roster spot in a lot of ways, having played extensively on both the right and left side of the ice. It’s also hard to imagine that he’s fallen so low in the estimation of Chiarelli and co. over the last two years that they would risk him on waivers after paying such a premium to acquire him.
Oesterle’s current deal is a one-year pact with an NHL-minimum cap hit of $585,000. Even if he just signs his qualifying offer he’ll be about as cheap as a defenceman can be, and his speed and puckmoving ability would be welcome assets at the bottom of the lineup.
Even assuming no additions to the top-four, there just isn’t room to add both players to the team. If the status quo holds, Nurse, Davidson and Benning should have the No. 5 – No. 7 spots on the defensive depth chart locked down. If Eric Gryba is sent out there’s room for one No. 8 guy, but most teams don’t like carrying eight defencemen because the No. 8 guy is so rarely used anyway.
Those two pressures put the Oilers in a situation where it probably makes sense to move two defencemen out. There’s a need to continue improving the blue line, which necessitates making space—either via trade, or by not re-signing Russell. There’s also a need to work cheap up-and-coming players into those bottom pairing spots, which means clearing out space or losing those cheap players for nothing next year.
The pressures are undeniable, but mileage is going to vary on how to handle them. In Edmonton’s position, I’d be sorely tempted to find out how much it’s going to cost to rent a player like Kevin Shattenkirk, and then see how that price compares to the expected return on both Russell and Davidson. If it two costs were close, it would allow the Oilers to see how the team responds to the addition of an elite offensive defenceman, while at the same time not mortgaging the future.
That’s a pretty difficult thing to pull off, though. It’s probably easier to just deal Davidson for a need elsewhere (perhaps a third-line forward) and then let Russell walk in the summer.