The Oilers are heading into an offseason where it is clear that massive changes are needed. They need to add an impact forward, or two, into their top six and even if they can do that, they’re going to be relying on some breakout or bounce-back performances from certain players in their bottom six if they want to compete for a playoff spot.
There are a few problems in the way of the Oilers search to improve their forward group this summer and one of them is a very crowded and expensive bottom six.
There are certain players who the team, and fans, would no doubt love to blast into the sun and some players who they would probably love to have back but may not be able to afford. It’s a complicated matter and while it may seem like a small issue to a team that currently does not have a General Manager, I decided to look into the current situation surrounding the Oilers depth forwards.
MILAN LUCIC: Barring some type of miracle this summer, the Oilers will be welcoming Milan Lucic and his albatross contract to training camp in September. He will be given slotted somewhere into the teams bottom six and will no doubt have a spot on the team assuming he isn’t dealt. Is there a chance he bounces back? Maybe. Would I say it’s likely? Nope.
ZACK KASSIAN: This is an interesting case. Depending on what the Oilers do this summer, Kassian could be depended on to step into the top six and produce with McDavid and Draisaitl like he did at the end of the season. There’s also a good chance that they bring in a skilled winger or two and Kassian gets pushed to the third or fourth line.
SAM GAGNER: Gagner produced fairly well in Edmonton last year. Five goals and five assists in 25 games is nothing to scoff at. Part of me thinks the Oilers could buy him out (easy way to save $2 million against the cap) but there’s a part of me that thinks they value his veteran leadership and versatility. If he stays, he’ll be on the third line, potentially as a centre.
KYLE BRODZIAK: I really wish he was signed to a one year deal, but that’s not the case. There isn’t a trade market for him and while they could send him to the minors without much of a penalty against the cap, I think they’ll keep him around but it might be as the 13th forward.
COLBY CAVE: After scoring five points in 20 games with the Bruins, the Oilers claimed the 24-year-old centre off of waivers. While he only notched three points in 33 games in Edmonton, I actually didn’t mind what he brought to the lineup. He has some decent speed, mixes things up physically, and he makes league minimum which is important for an organization that will be right up against the cap. He’s still fairly young, so I think there’s a reason to believe he can be the team’s fourth line centre next season.
THE FREE AGENTS
ALEX CHIASSON: It will be interesting how the Oilers and Chiasson handle his impending free agency. Will he chase the biggest paycheck possible? Or will he recognize that he’s a good fit here and will he go for more term? If I’m the Oilers, I would entice him with a three year deal with a low cap-hit, something less than $1.5 million. That might be a pipe dream, but if that happened, the Oilers would have a solid, inexpensive middle-six option.
JUJHAR KHAIRA: 154 games into his NHL career, we know what Khaira is. A big body who can inject some toughness and a little offence into the Oilers bottom six. He has the ability to score ten goals, if he’s with a skilled centre he might be able to reach 15. If the Oilers can get him back for around $1 million, I think he would fit in nicely.
JESSE PULJUJARVI: If he isn’t traded, then he will be offered a new contract and will be back in Edmonton next season. He is no longer waiver exempt, so that means the Oilers cannot send him straight down to Bakersfield as they have during the past few seasons. If he isn’t traded, which I think is very likely, then he will be on the team and he will be on either the third or fourth line.
TY RATTIE/TOBIAS RIEDER: I’ll be quick with this point. Neither of these players will be in the organization next season. Rieder didn’t score then got infamously called out by Bob Nicholson, no way they offer him a deal. After starting on McDavid’s wing, Rattie was being sat as a healthy scratch and buried on the fourth line. He’s done here as well.
As you can tell, if all three of the free agents I mentioned above are brought back, then the Oilers will have 11 forwards under contract for next season. Assuming they bring in an outside addition or two, it will be rather tough for a player to make the jump from Bakersfield to the big club on a full-time basis.
Say they buyout Gagner, trade Puljujarvi, or Chiasson doesn’t resign, then there are some very interesting candidates on the farm to slide up to the NHL.
Joe Gambardella and Josh Currie were both in Edmonton for solid stints and each one produced fairly well for a few games. They would both be available to come back at league minimum as well. That combined with the fact that they proved they are at least competitive NHLers bodes well for them.
Then there are AHL rookies Tyler Benson and Cooper Marody. Given how plugged up the bottom six is, I think we’ll see both of these guys head right back to Bakersfield next season. Out of the two, I think there’s a better chance that we see Marody crack the team right out of camp. Kailer Yamamoto will probably start there unless he goes on an absolute heater through the preseason in which case he would be in the Oilers top six.
The point being, the Oilers bottom six is very crowded and I also expect the Oilers to move out a few bodies to allow room for some outside additions and a chance for someone from Bakersfield to crack the team as an inexpensive bottom-six winger.
THE OUTSIDE MARKET
Speaking of the outside market, I’m not going to spend too much time on it, but after a quick glance, I was able to find four names that interested me. Some might be more expensive options, while some might be league minimum or PTO candidates.
Brandon Tanev (WPG): The Jets are entering a summer that will really test their ability to stay under the cap. I wonder if Tanev might be a cap casualty. He had 29 points this past season and could bring some speed to the Oilers third line. Might cost around $2 million though.
Joonas Donskoi (SJS): He’s had three 30 point seasons in San Jose and one very impressive playoff run a few years ago. This year, he’s being healthy scratched in the playoffs. Like Tanev, he might be a little expensive, but I think he could make an impact on the Oilers.
Magnus Paajarvi (OTT): Forget about his past in Edmonton. If the Oilers can get their hands on a reliable bottom six forward who can score at least ten goals a season and also kill penalties, they should be all over that. Paajarvi should only cost around $1 million as well.
Brandon Pirri (VGK): He’s been up and down from the minors this season, but when he’s been in the NHL he’s scored goals. 11 in 30 games to be exact. He’s in the lineup right now for the playoffs and I would imagine Vegas will push to bring him back. The Oilers could offer him a chance to be McDavid’s speedy, skilled, scoring winger. I view him as a more proven Ty Rattie, who just needs consistency.
There are other names out there, but that provides a good glimpse of what could be open in the free agent market if the Oilers either move on from Sam Gagner or Kyle Brodziak or decide not to resign Jujhar Khaira or Alex Chiasson.
The Oilers bottom six seems to be a bit of a logjam right now, but I don’t think that means we won’t see a few fresh faces in the lineup when the puck drops next October. They need to find ways to build a bottom six that can help them win games, which is not something they got in 2018-19.