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Photo Credit: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

Free Agency: Unlikely Shopping Spot for Ken Holland

Training camp is days away for the Edmonton Oilers, but for fun, let’s skip the season and look ahead to next season. Regardless of how this season plays out, I expect the Oilers will have a fair amount of changes to their roster next season.

Currently they have 12 forwards in the organization who are poised to be UFAs next summer, as well as Brandon Manning and Keegan Lowe on defence and Mike Smith in goal. Defence is where they have a significant amount of RFAs in Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning, Joel Persson, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, William Lagesson and Logan Day, with Colby Cave and Shane Starett rounding out their potential RFA list.

Due to 12 forwards being unrestricted I’ve had many text my show wondering if the Oilers will be major players in free agency next summer.

I’d be surprised.

The main reason is they only have ten players under contract for next season: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, James Neal, Alex Chiasson, Jujhar Khaira, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Mikko Koskinen along with buyout space to Benoit Pouliot and Andrej Sekera and retained salary for Milan Lucic. Those ten rosters spots equal $57.517 million.

If the cap goes up modestly to $83 million next season, that means the Oilers have 13 roster spots to be filled with only $25.483 million to spend.

If they re-sign Nurse for $5.5 million it quickly drops to 12 spots and $20 million.

The only way the Oilers will be players in free agency is if they find a trade partner for Russell or an even more expensive contract.

But, I don’t think sitting on the sidelines and adding value contracts in free agency is a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue, it is a good thing, especially when you consider the potential free agents available next summer.

Today there are 140 forwards in the NHL who are set to be unrestricted next season, and the Oilers have 12 of them: Sam Gagner, Zack Kassian, Markus Granlund, Josh Archibald, Kyle Brodziak, Joakim Nygard, Gaetan Hass, Riley Sheahan, Thomas Jurco, Brad Malone, Patrick Russell and Josh Currie. Only Kassian ($1.95m) and Gagner ($3.1m) have cap hits higher than $1.3 million.

The Oilers won’t be freeing up a lot of cap space.

The most attractive potential free agent forwards are Taylor Hall (29 years old next season), Nicklas Backstrom (33), Brayden Schenn (29), Tyler Toffoli (29), Mikael Granlund (29), Alex Galchenyuk (27), Evgeni Dadonov (31), Jean-Gabriel Pageau (28) and Charlie Coyle (28). Others like Wayne Simmonds (32), Michael Frolik (32), Craig Smith (31), Erik Haula (29) and Melker Karlsson (30) are also solid NHL players.

How many of them will become free agents? The New Jersey Devils are in discussions with Hall’s camp, but I don’t see a contract happening right away. If I was a potential UFA who would have many suitors I’d be patient and see how the season played out before signing prior to July 1st. Hall wants to be on a competitive team, and if the Devils make the playoffs this season their chances of re-signing him increase. If they miss, it’s almost a guarantee he tests the market.

Backstrom is a great player, but the Oilers don’t need another top-six centre. Pageau likely makes the most sense. He’d be an excellent third line centre. The Oilers are expecting a few of their young forwards to be NHL ready next season. Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody and Kailer Yamamoto could fill roster spots next year. I suspect Benson and Marody will play some NHL games this season, but when and how many remains to be seen. Neither were great in the rookie games, but I don’t put too much stock into two rookie games as a measuring stick of whether they are NHL ready or not.

Like this summer, I suspect Ken Holland will be value shopping again next year. He might be able to spend more on one or two free agents, instead of signing five or six, because some of the young forwards should be ready to fill a role next season. But how many of the aforementioned potential UFA forwards would you want to overpay on multi year deals?

UFA D-MEN….

Currently, there are 87 defenders expected to become UFAs in July. Keep in mind, like the forwards, many of those are players who have mainly been in the AHL.

The most intriguing defenders are Alex Pietrangelo (31), Tyson Barrie (29), Torey Krug (30), Jared Spurgeon (31), Justin Faulk (29), Sami Vatanen (30), Justin Schultz (30), Travis Hamonic (30) and Jake Muzzin (32).

The Oilers are expecting one or two of Caleb Jones, William Lagesson, Evan Bouchard, Ethan Bear and Dmitri Samorukov to be NHL ready next season. Jones has a good chance of making the team this year, and I don’t see the Oilers making a big splash in free agency. Of the aforementioned defenders, Muzzin and Hamonic are likely the only ones who will sign for less than $5million per season. If the Oilers want to get in on any of those players they will have to trade Russell and/or Larsson. That could happen, especially with Russell.

He carries a $4m cap hit, but is only owed $2.5 million in cash. He has a $1 million bonus due on July 16th, so a trade after that means the team acquiring him would only pay him $1.5 million. His list of teams to be traded to is currently ten, but on May 1st he has to expand that to 15. So the Oilers will be able to trade him to half the league next summer.

The UFA goalie list is interesting. Mike Smith has a one-year deal with the Oilers, while Koskinen will have two years remaining on his deal. How Koskinen plays this year will go a long way in determining what Holland does next summer with his goalies. Shane Starrett has the most pro experience, but it is too early to say if he is a viable option to fill even the back up job next year.

Potential UFA goalies include Brayden Holtby (31), Jacob Markstrom (31), Robin Lehner (29), Darcy Kuemper (31), Corey Crawford (36), Anton Khudobin (35), Cam Talbot (33), Laurent Brossoit (28) and Anton Forsberg (28).

Holtby is the best option and the Capitals likely don’t have the cap space to re-sign him and Backstrom. Edmonton can’t afford him and a $4.5 million backup, so Holland would have to move Koskinen for the Oilers to even consider Holtby. Markstrom had a solid campaign last year, after altering his stance, and if he performs well again I’m sure the Canucks will try to keep him in house. They have cap space to pay him $6 million if need be.

The Oilers goalie situation is the most intriguing for me because it is the most uncertain. Maybe Smith and Koskinen have solid seasons, but maybe they don’t, and then Holland will have to scramble next summer.

Despite talk about free agents every summer, it is not the best place to build your team. Most of the best players in the NHL never test the market, although I’m curious to see if John Tavares doing it will lead to more top players doing it. I won’t be shocked if Hall hits the market, especially if the Devils aren’t in the postseason.

Free agency is 293 days away, and some of the current UFAs will re-sign with their current club, but regardless of who is free on July 1st, Oilersnation shouldn’t expect the Oilers to be big players. And you should be happy about that, as the first week of July is usually where many of the biggest overpays occur.

PARTING SHOTS…

I wouldn’t read too much into the Oilers two rookie games. Prior to those two games I felt the only players with a realistic chance to push for a spot on the Oilers opening night roster were Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody and Evan Bouchard, and nothing has changed in my eyes. I know many are high on Bouchard’s offensive abilities, as you should be, but, on Monday, Dave Tippett outlined the most important area the Oilers need to improve is their goals against.

If Bouchard makes the team it will be playing third pair minutes at even strength. I don’t think he is ready defensively to play top-four minutes just yet, nor should he be. Marody and Benson didn’t dominate in the rookie games, but neither looked terrible either. Marody got banged up on Saturday and I could see him playing it safe last night in Calgary. He wants to be ready for main camp and preseason games next Monday. Playing it safe doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying, just potentially being cautious. NHL veterans play that way in preseason games at certain times.

If none of the three start the season in Edmonton that is fine. A bit more seasoning in the AHL will not hurt them at all.

Hoping young players will come in and be difference makers right away often leads to disappointment. You’ve seen that movie too often in Edmonton. If they earn a spot with solid, consistent play then be excited, but if they begin the season in Bakersfield it just illustrates that under Ken Holland the Oilers will want their young prospects over ripe, rather than prematurely rushing them which has been an ugly constant for the past decade.

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