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Armchair GM 2020: Upgrades on the free agent market

Though plenty is still up in the air, I think we can say with some amount of certainty that Ken Holland won’t be going big game hunting on the free-agent market this summer.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve walked through Edmonton’s salary cap situation and the internal free agents that they’ll need to deal with over the summer. As it stands right now, there isn’t much wiggle room for upgrades, though that could change depending on whether or not the league opts to give teams compliance buyouts to help compensate for a lower-than-expected cap ceiling.

That said, even if Holland is given a get-out-of-jail-free card or two, it would be a major challenge to fit in a top-tier free agent like Taylor Hall or Alex Pietrangelo. Remember, even if the Oilers have the space to fit them into their 2020-21 salary cap picture, new contracts for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (UFA 2021) and Kailer Yamamoto (RFA 2022) are right around the corner and we could very likely be staring down the barrel of a salary cap that remains stagnant for multiple years.

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Edmonton’s roster has three areas that need some work this off-season. They need a third-line centre, a backup or 1B  goaltender to play with Mikko Koskinen, and they need more depth on the wings, ideally on the left side. Let’s look at some possible players of interest.

Feb 8, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Nashville Predators forward Michael Grandlund (64) tries to screen Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Holland struck out with his gamble on Markus Granlund last summer, but his older brother Mikael Granlund could be a smart buy-low option this year. Once a star for the Minnesota Wild, Granlund has flopped since being traded to the Nashville Predators. He had 49 points in 63 games for the Wild in 2018-19 but put up just 35 points in 79 games over parts of two seasons with the Preds after being shipped to Nashville at the 2019 trade deadline.

The goal with Granlund would be buying low on his poor season and hoping he bounces back to what he was with the Wild, a versatile offensive weapon with a strong defensive game. It was just a few years ago he scored 26 goals, put up 69 points, and finished 13th in Selke voting. The problem with Granlund is that he’s spent more time on the wing than as a centre in recent years.

Another buy-low option is Erik Haula, who has fallen off since his breakout 29-goal season during the Golden Knights’ magical inaugural season in 2017-18. After missing most of 2018-19 with an injury, Haula was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes as a salary cap dump and then he was moved mid-season in another deal with the Florida Panthers.

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All told, Haula put up 12 goals and 24 points in 48 games between Carolina and Florida in 2019-20. Even if that’s all he produces offensively, Haula brings value to a roster with his speed and versatility as he’s a quality option on the penalty kill with solid face-off numbers. The issue here, of course, is Haula’s injury history.

Shifting to more traditional third-line centres, we have the underrated Carl Soderberg. Though his penalty kill time diminished with the Arizona Coyotes this season, Soderberg has been an effective option on the kill for his entire career. He’s a big body that chips in offensively, as he’s scored 17, 23, and 16 goals in the past three seasons.

There’s also Cody Eakin, another old-school style third-line pivot. Eakin had a miserable year offensively between Vegas and Winnipeg, putting up just 15 points through 49 games. That said, he’s more known for his defensive game and he’s just one year removed from a career-high 22-goal and 41-point season with the Golden Knights.

Feb 4, 2020; Newark, New Jersey, USA; Montreal Canadiens left wing Ilya Kovalchuk (17) gestures after scoring his game winning shootout goal during their game against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll quickly gloss over some more forwards who could be fits before getting into goaltenders…

Vladislav Namestnikov is a solid depth contributor offensively who can play all three forward positions. Tyler Ennis is another plug-and-play type who can fit in up and down the lineup, and he’s already familiar with the team. Jesper Fast, as his name suggests, is a good two-way winger who adds speed to the lineup. Conor Sheary once thrived alongside Sidney Crosby, so maybe he could find magic with Connor McDavid. Alex Galchenyuk is a buy-low option who’s fallen off a cliff lately, but there’s still plenty of upside there. Ilya Kovalchuk seems to still have something in the tank and I love the idea of him taking passes from McDavid.

Again, maybe Edmonton gets a couple of compliance buyouts and can quickly open up upwards of $10 million in cap room. It still wouldn’t put them in the running for top names like Hall and Pietrangelo, but it could give them the room to make a splash with somebody like Mike Hoffman or Tyler Toffoli. Regardless, the buy-low and depth names I’ve listed above seem more likely right now.

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Finally, we have this summer’s loaded market for goaltenders. This appears to be a very nice year to be looking for a 1B goalie because there are quite a few names on the open market that can fill into such a role.

I’ll cross off Braden Holtby and Jacob Markstrom off the hop because they’re going to be out of Edmonton’s range financially. The top options after those two would then be Robin Lehner, Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, and Anton Khudobin, all of whom have thrived in recent years playing in 1A/1B roles. Any of those guys would be quality additions, though Lehner might be priced out of Edmonton’s range.

Another name that stands out to me is Corey Crawford. After a 2017-18 season ravaged by injuries and a miserable 2018-19 showing, Crawford bounced back this year, posting a .917 save percentage on a Blackhawks team that was putrid defensively. He’s a bit of a risk because of injuries and age, but Crawford certainly boasts a lot of experience and Stanley Cup pedigree. I always thought of him as an underrated part of those Blackhawks teams.

If all else fails, a reunion with Mike Smith isn’t a terrible option, either. He really turned it on after the turn of the new year and he’s somebody the team and the coach are already very familiar with. The other nice thing about Smith is that he wouldn’t cost the team more than a one-year deal. You’d have to gamble a multi-year deal with the aforementioned names above.

What say you, Nation? Who should be on the Oilers’ radar in free agency this off-season?