The Oilers have a few glaring needs to deal with this off-season and a little bit of wiggle room to try to solve them in free agency. The most important items on the new general manager’s agenda this summer will be scoring wingers, puck-moving defencemen, and a 1B goalie to play alongside Mikko Koskinen.
As things stand right now, the Oilers have about $71 million tied into eight forwards, six defencemen, and one goalie. They have some restricted free agents (Jesse Puljujarvi and Kukar Kharia are at the top of this list) to deal with a few prospects (like Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard) who could crack the team, but it looks like the Oilers will have about $8-10 million to work with in free agency.
As I said, it’s difficult to imagine the Oilers being in on the top tier of free agent forwards on the open market this summer. It would obviously be amazing if the team could somehow find the cap room to make an offer to Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, or Jeff Skinner, but it isn’t realistic. Instead, the Oilers will have to look at the mid-level and under-the-radar forwards out there.
Jordan Eberle: I wrote about this possibility a few weeks ago. Jordan Eberle had a down season on a defensively-oriented Islanders team this year but he silenced his critics with a very good first-round series in the playoffs. Signing up Eberle for a redemption tour would chew up a lot of the open room the team has to work with but he perfectly fills the need of a scoring winger.
Tyler Ennis: While the idea of Eberle coming back is funny to think about, it isn’t very realistic. The Oilers are more likely to sign under-the-radar, cheaper free agents. Tyler Ennis, who scored 12 goals in 51 games with the Leafs last season, would be a cheaper option to add to the team’s top six. Ennis has the speed and tenacity to thrive with Connor McDavid. He was paid just $650,000 last season.
Brandon Pirri: While Brandon Pirri has a lot of holes in his game, he’s always been able to score goals. The Oilers need a winger who can do just that. Pirri played most of 2017-18 in the AHL and racked up 29 goals in 57 games. In the two games he played for the Golden Knights that year, he scored three. This year, he was recalled halfway through the season and scored 12 goals in 31 games for Vegas. He’s always been undervalued and could probably be had for cheap.
Daniel Carr: Another Golden Knight who could be a breakout candidate is Daniel Carr. The Sherwood Park native scored 30 goals in 52 games in the AHL this year but has never really been given much of a chance at the NHL level.
Michael Ferland: Back to the mid-level free agent forwards for a moment. The Hurricanes were expected to deal Ferland at the trade deadline but ultimately kept him around for their playoff run. He’s scored 15, 21, and 17 goals the past three seasons, adds sandpaper to the lineup, and has experience playing as a power forward with Calgary’s most skilled players.
Ryan Dzingel: The Blue Jackets acquired Dzingel when they decided to go all-in at the trade deadline. He has solid for them down the stretch this year but hasn’t done anything in the playoffs. If a good playoff run can boost a player’s value, can a bad playoff run bring their price tag down?
Brandon Tanev: Brandon Tanev quietly scored 14 goals for the Jets last season. That isn’t major production, but it’s very solid for a bottom-six guy who can also kill penalties. He’s basically the player the Oilers thought they were getting with Tobias Rieder this year.
Alex Chiasson: I liked what Chiasson did this year as Edmonton’s bargain bin addition, but I’m skeptical of paying him for a late career year. I think the key is finding next year’s Chiasson rather than paying for last year’s Chiasson.
There are quite a few attractive names out there on the open market when it comes to forwards. I talked about a few interesting names but there are many more I didn’t touch on. If the Oilers move some things around they could probably afford one of Eberle, Ferland, or Dzingel, but given the roster’s lack of depth, they’re better off signing multiple under-the-radar players.
Like with the forwards, the Oilers aren’t really going to be in on the top prizes among defencemen on the free agent market. That means the team isn’t going to sign Erik Karlsson. Is there anybody else out there who can fill that offensive-minded role?
Tyler Myers: It feels like a lifetime ago that Tyler Myers won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year with the Buffalo Sabres. He never evolved into that top defenceman everyone expected he could be, but he’s still a right-handed defenceman who can produce some offence. Given the money he’ll likely command, Myers probably isn’t worth the risk for the Oilers.
Brad Hunt: Here’s another familiar name. Brad Hunt spent a few years in the Oilers organization back during the tanking days but didn’t find much success until he played in Vegas in 2017-18. Hunt put up 18 points in 45 games for the Golden Knights in their inaugural season and could be a cheap power play specialist.
Tim Heed: Despite posting very good numbers in the AHL, Tim Heed hasn’t been able to find a permanent role on San Jose’s blueline. In 2016-17, Heed’s first year in North America, he racked up 56 points in 55 games. There could be a player there and it wouldn’t a very expensive a risk to take.
Ryan Murphy: The former No. 12 overall pick has never been able to hack it at the NHL level. He scored 25 points last year in the AHL in 58 games. Like with Heed, it would be a cheap risk to take to see if there’s anything there.
It isn’t a very inspiring list after Karlsson when it comes to defencemen this year. The Oilers already have a fairly solidified blueline and they’re probably best off to see if an internal option like Ethan Bear, Joel Persson, or Evan Bouchard can be that offensive defender they need.
Signing Mikko Koskinen to a fat contract was a puzzling decision, to say the least. Given how enigmatic he is, the Oilers need to sign a 1B type goalie to split the net with him rather than a cheap, mediocre back-up.
Robin Lehner: Once a highly-touted prospect, Robin Lehner finally had his breakout season last year. Lehner split the net with Thomas Greiss with the Islanders and is one of three Vezina Trophy finalists this year. That said, he played just 46 games, so will teams be comfortable paying him like an ace starting goalie?
Curtis McElhinney: Though he’s always been a backup throughout his career, Curtis McElhinney was excellent for the Hurricanes this year when the team’s goaltending situation was in flux. McElhinney played 33 games and posted a .912 save percentage and has been excellent in the playoffs since Petr Mrazek got injured.
Brian Elliott: Brian Elliott is familiar with splitting the net with another goalie in a 1A/1B format. I wouldn’t expect him to replicate the Vezina-calibre success he had in St. Louis given he hasn’t been great anywhere else he’s played, but Elliott is a steady and consistent option who won’t be expensive.
Keith Kinkaid: This would be the goaltending example of buying low. Kinkaid played a key role in helping a very underwhelming Devils team sneak into the playoffs in 2017-18 when Corey Schneider fell off a cliff. Since then, though, he’s struggled. Kinkaid had an .891 save percentage in 41 games with the Devils last season, but, as I said, it would be buying low to hope Kinkaid could replicate past success.
This is a challenging predicament for the Oilers. They’ve already made the strange decision to dedicate $4.5 million to an unproven goalie and now they don’t have much space to find a capable goalie to share the net. It would be great to sign somebody like Robin Lehner, but the Oilers will likely have to settle for a cheaper option.