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An early look at Ken Holland’s 2020 off-season

Now that we have a general idea of where the NHL’s salary cap will be set for the 2020-21 season, we can start to look ahead to the work Ken Holland has in front of him this summer.

Reports are indicating that the NHL’s upper limit will fall between $84 million and $88.2 million. I would lean towards assuming that, as per usual, that figure will end up in the middle of those two projections, likely leaning towards the lower number. For now, we’ll assume it ends up at $86 million, which would mark a substantial raise from this year’s $81.5 million cap ceiling.

The cap going up is a good thing for the Oilers. I mean, it’s obviously good for just about every team, save for the few out there who are rebuilding and struggling to reach the salary cap floor, but it’s a particularly nice boon for Holland to have slightly more wiggle room to work with this summer.

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Per PuckPedia, the Oilers have roughly $69 million tied up in financial commitments for 2020-21. That would give Holland about $17 million to work with. Here’s what Edmonton’s depth chart looks like, with each player’s contract status in mind…

Andreas Athanasiou (RFA) – Connor McDavid ($12.5M) – Tyler Ennis (UFA)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ($6M) – Leon Draisaitl ($8.5M) – Kailer Yamamoto (ELC)

Josh Archibald (UFA) – Riley Sheahan (UFA) – Zack Kassian ($3.2M)

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James Neal ($5.75M) – Gaetan Haas (UFA) – Alex Chiasson ($2.15M)

Patrick Russell (UFA), Jujhar Khaira ($1.2M), Joakim Nygard ($875k), Tyler Benson (ELC)

Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M) – Adam Larsson ($4.166M)

Darnell Nurse ($3.2M) – Ethan Bear (RFA)

Caleb Jones ($850k) – Kris Russell ($4M)

Matt Benning ($1.9M), William Lagesson (RFA), Mike Green (UFA), Evan Bouchard (ELC)

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Mike Smith (UFA)

Mikko Koskinen ($4.5M)

The majority of the team’s core is already signed into next season, but Holland will have some housekeeping work to do…

  • Ethan Bear’s entry-level contract expires at the end of the season and, given how well he’s played this year, there will surely be conversations about locking him up to a long-term deal. The Oilers dove into giving Oscar Klefbom a long-term deal after under 100 games in the league. Doing the same with Bear might be the right play.
  • Andreas Athanasiou, one of Holland’s trade deadline pick-ups, will also be a restricted free agent this summer. He’s currently making $3,000,000 on a two-year that was signed ahead of the 2018-19 season. Next year will represent Athanasiou’s final year of team control before he can hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. I imagine Holland will avoid a one-year deal that walks Athanasiou right into free agency, so a two- or three-year contract will put him in line for a raise on his current $3,000,000 cap hit.
  • Depth players Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald, Tyler Ennis, and Gaetan Haas will become unrestricted free agents. All of them are players I would be happy to see back with the Oilers next season. Sheahan and Archibald have been huge for the team’s penalty kill, Ennis has fit in seamlessly since being acquired at the deadline, and Haas is quality organizational depth.
  • Holland will need to find another back-up goalie for next season as Mike Smith becomes a free agent. Smith could be brought back for another year, but it’s a risky proposition as he turns 38 years old in March. A name like Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin, or Robin Lehner would be pricer than Smith, but would be a more secure option in a 1A, 1B tandem with Mikko Koskinen.
  • A priority for Holland this summer will be clearing out some dead cap room. Kris Russell has one more year left on his contract at $4 million and the Oilers have enough depth on the blueline to move on from him. Alex Chiasson, Jujhar Khaira, and Matt Benning are also names we could see moved in order for Holland to open up more cap room. There’s also James Neal, who has a $5,750,000 cap hit for three more seasons. Buying out Neal this summer would result in a six-year cap hit of $1,916,667.
  • On July 1, Holland will also be able to start discussing contract extensions with players who can become free agents after the 2020-21 season. The main player here, of course, is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who can hit the open market for the first time in his career just over a year from now. The complicated issue regarding RNH’s next deal is the Seattle expansion draft. If Holland locks him up now, Edmonton will have to protect him from Seattle come June 2021. If they wait and sign him after that, they could leave him exposed, protect somebody else, and just re-sign him after the expansion draft when he becomes a free agent. I doubt Seattle would use their pick on RNH just to get a week-long window to negotiate with him before he can become a UFA. A lot can and will change between now and then, but protecting eight skaters (McDavid, Draisaitl, Yamamoto, Benson, Klefbom, Nurse, Bear, and Jones) and waiting to sign RNH might be the way to go.

With all that in mind, let’s do some hypothetical general manager work…

  • Ethan Bear gets a six-year deal worth $4.25 million annually.
  • Andreas Athanasiou gets a two-year deal worth $4 million annually.
  • William Lagesson gets a two-year deal worth $850k annually.
  • Riley Sheahan gets a two-year deal worth $1.5 million annually.
  • Josh Archibald gets a two-year deal worth $1.5 million annually.
  • Tyler Ennis gets a one-year, $2 million deal.
  • Gaetan Haas gets a one-year, $850k deal.

If the salary cap ceiling ends up in the middle of the projected figures of $84 and $88.2 million, Holland will have roughly $17 million to work with this summer. Those above deals would cost the team around $15 million, so Holland can fairly easily get his housekeeping work done with the salary cap room already available.

But making upgrades to the roster will involve shedding some salary. Given that Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto are due for raises ahead of 2021-22, I doubt Holland will go big game hunting this summer. Some upgrades can come from re-signing players acquired at the trade deadline while others can come internally as Benson and Bouchard break into the league.

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In my mind, Holland’s most important external upgrade will be adding another goaltender. As I mentioned earlier, adding a goalie like Jaroslav Halak or Anton Khudobin to a two- or three-year deal would be a safer bet than rolling the dice on another year of Smith. Whether it comes from dealing away players like Russell or buying out Neal, Holland will have to make moves in order to clear cap room to do so.