Barring some ridiculous cold streak, the Oilers will head into 2019 in the thick of the playoff race. January is usually when we really see trade talks start to heat up and right now, there is every reason to believe that this team will be ‘buyers’ in the time leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline, which falls on February 25th.
We saw Peter Chiarelli in a similar position back in the 2016-17 season and the only really big move he made was made swapping Brandon Davidson for David Desharnais. That’s not exactly what I would call “loading up” at the deadline.
I believe that the Oilers made a big mistake not adding a big name at the 2017 trade deadline. They had McDavid and Leon on their ELC’s and they opted not to take advantage of the available cap space.
This year, I don’t think Peter Chiarelli will be as conservative. He can’t be. If this team doesn’t make the playoffs, he won’t have a job. You could argue that just making the playoffs won’t be enough. This team needs to win a round for Chiarelli to be completely safe.
The trade deadline and the time leading up to it will be Chiarelli’s last chance to ensure that he is this teams General Manager past this season.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Peter Chiarelli would love to be aggressive at this year’s deadline, but there are some things standing in his way.
CAP AND ROSTER SPACE
It’s no secret that the Oilers are in trouble when it comes to the salary cap. Once Andrej Sekera returns, they will be right up against it and really won’t have any room to add a body, unless they’re sending a contract back the other way. Even then, moving out a bad contract is not as easy as it seems. I’ll get to that in a second.
They’re also at 48 contracts, which is just two off the limit. Teams rarely like to sit right at 50 contracts, so if the Oilers are going to bring in a body, their likely needs to be one going the other way, regardless of the salary implications.
WHO ARE THE MOVEABLE CONTRACTS?
Would it be nice if the Oilers could pawn off either Milan Lucic or Andrej Sekera? Sure, but that’s unlikely and I’d say it’s near impossible to do during a midseason transaction. Lucic is struggling and Sekera hasn’t been 100% healthy for close to 18 months. It’s probably a non-starter.
They have Ryan Spooner, who was scratched last night against St. Louis. He’s currently sitting at a $3.1 million cap hit and has one more year on his deal. I could see a team being willing to take back some of his money if it’s a part of a package deal for another deal. He’s struggled this season, but some team might see some upside.
I love Zack Kassian, but you can’t deny he makes at least $900k too much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s moved this summer, I don’t think the Oilers would want to deal with the backlash from the fan base, and potentially from within the locker room, if they dealt Kassian just months before a potential playoff run.
Tobias Rieder makes $2.0 million as well and he’s been a little inconsistent this year. He’s an RFA at the end of the season as well. If the Oilers have a player coming back that is an upgrade on him, it might make sense to ship him out and create a little cap space.
On the back end, Kris Russell and Matt Benning both have moveable contracts. I think Russell has actually been really solid this season, so I would hesitate to move him right now. I also know the organization really values him, so I don’t think there’s a scenario where they ask him to waive his no-trade clause.
I’ll be the first one to say that Matt Benning has not been playing good this season. I’ll also be the first one to say that I had very high hopes for Benning coming into this season. We know how hard it is to find offensively gifted right-shot defenseman and I believed Benning could have been a good second powerplay, third pairing option. He hasn’t looked the part this season.
Still, he isn’t close to 200 games played and defensemen never develop in a straight line. I would be hesitant to move him just for cap relief. I still think there’s some potential, but if the Oilers are bringing in a good defenseman and sacrificing Benning is a part of the package needed to make the move, I wouldn’t be too upset.
In short: Ryan Spooner and Tobias Rieder are really the only two contracts from the forward group that I think can be moved. Benning could also be moved if there’s a deal for a strong, top four defenseman.
LACK OF PROSPECT DEPTH
We are slowly starting to see a solid foundation of prospects being built in the Oilers system. On the back end, they have Evan Bouchard, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, and William Lagesson amongst others. Up front, talent like Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, and Ostap Safin make up their AHL core. There are multiple players with NHL potential, but still very few true ‘Grade A’ prospects.
When it comes to adding a piece at the trade deadline, it obviously helps to be loaded with draft picks and high-end prospects. Right now, I’m just not sure the Oilers are in a position where they can sacrifice one of the few good prospects they have.
As far as picks go, the Oilers will likely be staying on the playoff bubble so it’s really risky to move their first-round pick unless they lottery protect it. Even then, they need to keep building up their prospect depth and keeping first round picks goes a long way towards doing that.
They do still own their second round pick and a pair of third-round picks. I could see them dangling those in order to get an upgrade somewhere on their current roster.
If those are the pieces you’re putting on the block, I don’t think you can expect a very high-end return. That brings me to my final point.
WHAT’S THE RETURN?
The Oilers could benefit from both a top line winger and a top-four defenseman, but I don’t think that’s something we could realistically expect at this point. As I laid out above, they don’t have the cap space or the high-end prospect depth necessary to make a deal like that happen. I would say it’s unlikely.
The price to acquire a defenseman is always much higher than the price to acquire a winger, so I believe Chiarelli’s best bet would be to use the few assets that he has on a strong scoring winger.
It will be tough to pull off, but if you throw in Tobias Rieder or convince the other team in the deal to take back Ryan Spooner, you could have the cap space necessary to bring in a body. Package that with a pair of draft picks and maybe a ‘B’ level prospect and you might just have enough to get an impact winger. I’m not saying a star player, but someone who can step inject a little more offence into this lineup.
Regardless of what happens, I’d suspect we’re going to see Peter Chiarelli try to be very active in the months leading up to the trade deadline. Will it result in a move? Only time will tell, but it’s clear that it will be a very difficult task for the Oilers General Manager.