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Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers aren’t tanking, but they might as well be

What might be best for the Oilers? Another high draft pick. Seriously.

It’s ludicrous to suggest a team with Connor McDavid and a 50-goal scorer should tank the season. You should be gunning for the Stanley Cup, let alone the playoffs, anytime you have a generational talent on the roster. That’s not realistic in a world with the salary cap and a team that was just (mis)managed by Peter Chiarelli for three and a half years.  Somehow after 11 top-ten draft picks, the Oilers could really use just one more. It’s insane that tanking the season might be justified. But Ken Holland and the Oilers might not even need to.

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General managers usually take some time to assess and evaluate before making significant transactions. Holland has been in the game for decades, but he’s not immune to it. Holland’s biggest moves in the off-season were buying out Andrej Sekera and dumping Milan Lucic to Calgary for James Neal. That’s not the same kind of asset bonfire Chiarelli commenced at the 2015 NHL draft, but Lucic for Neal opens up cap space if (when) the Oilers buy out Neal next summer. Sekera’s buyout opened up space immediately, which will be true for 2020-21 as well, but the Oilers will see a 1.5 million cap hit the two seasons after.

Holland didn’t do much in his first summer as Oilers GM. Some of that can be attributed to the colossal damage Chiarelli incurred, leaving his replacement with minimal assets, cap and players, to maneuver.

It’s hard not to see a right wing of Zack Kassian, James Neal, Alex Chiasson, and Josh Archibald and think this team looks more like the 2018-19 Ottawa Senators than the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.

Two thirds through preseason and the Oilers are running Neal and Sam Gagner as their second-line wingers. Are we sure they’re not tanking?

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The Oilers goaltending duo is a 37-year old with a sub .900 save percentage last season and 31-year old with 59 games of NHL experience and a glove hand that belongs in the minors.

Maybe it’s unintentional. Holland could want to assess the situation for a season and let some bad contracts burn a year off before doing major roster repair. If the team just happens to get another top five or top ten pick? Great.

The Oilers need another game breaking forward and those are hard to come by. Chiarelli isn’t a GM anymore so that avenue is unavailable. Maybe one of the 2020 free agents had Oilers bed sheets, but fitting a UFA contract in would require cap management.

The draft is the best way to obtain that sort of player. Sure, it’s no guarantee. Oilers fans know too well that Nail Yakupov and Jesse Puljujarvi were ‘sure things’ and they’re both overseas as the NHL season bears.

There are almost no guarantees, beyond the McDavid’s and Auston Matthews’, but it’s the best shot at elite talent while Chiarelli remains jobless.

The Oilers currently on track to have $24 million in cap space open up next summer with no notable unrestricted free agents. Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning, and Joel Persson are all restricted free agents, however. Nurse will take up a good chunk of that. Persson might deserve a big raise depending on his 2019-20 season. Benning’s a useful third-pairing guy.

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That $24 million doesn’t account for a Neal buyout or a Kris Russell trade. Buying out Neal saves $3.83 million.

Russell’s salary drops to just $1.5 million after a $1 million signing bonus is paid out. Russell’s cap hit will be $2.5 million greater than his salary, which could be attractive to frugal teams trying to reach the cap floor.

Buying out Neal and trading Russell without taking on salary opens up nearly $8 million in cap space.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($6 million) and Adam Larsson ($4.16 million) also enter the last year’s of their contracts. Depending on what their long-term future is with the Oilers, that’s more money potentially in play.

The Oilers cap situation is still tight, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. This summer should give Holland flexibility to alter the roster significantly.

The 2019-20 Oilers most likely aren’t good enough. They don’t look much different from the 2018-19 Oilers, but that’s okay.

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It’s not ideal, but it’s the reality after the disaster that was Chiarelli’s GM tenure. Another high draft pick and significant additions in the offseason is a reasonable path towards retooling the team. Holland isn’t tanking, but he’s not going to say no to a boatload of cap space and a high draft pick next offseason.