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Photo Credit: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

Armchair GM 2020: Putting it all together

Over the past few days, I’ve taken a look at Ken Holland’s upcoming off-season, including Edmonton’s internal free agents, the challenges the organization faces when it comes to the salary cap, and some potential upgrades to the roster on the free-agent market. Now, let’s put it all together.

For this Armchair GM look into the off-season, we’ll operate under the assumption that the salary cap remains stagnant for the 2020-21 season, which seems like a pretty clear bet at this point.

Another thing to consider is compliance buyouts. There’s a very good chance that teams will be getting these get-out-of-jail-free cards, but I’m going to go with what we know right now. We can come back and re-visit this whole thing if/when it’s announced that teams will be given compliance buyouts and what the stipulations are.

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Here’s our roster heading into the off-season…

Forwards: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, James Neal, Zack Kassian, Alex Chiasson, Josh Archibald, Jujhar Khaira, Kailer Yamamoto, Joakim Nygard, Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Ryan McLeod, Kirill Maksimov, Ostap Safin, Joe Gambardella, Raphael Lavoie. 

Defencemen: Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, Dimitri Samorukov, Filip Berglund, Markus Niemelainen, Philip Broberg (Europe).

Goaltenders: Mikko Koskinen, Stuart Skinner, Dylan Wells, Olivier Rodrigue. 

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RFAs: Andreas Athanasiou, Ethan Bear, Matt Benning, William Lagesson, Ryan Kuffner, Nolan Vesey, Cameron Hebig, Logan Day, Ryan Mantha, Angus Redmond. 

UFAs: Tyler Ennis, Gaetan Haas, Riley Sheahan, Patrick Russell, Mike Green, Mike Smith, Brandon Manning, Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco, Brad Malone, Josh Currie, Shane Starrett. 

Projected cap hit: $70,436,167

James Neal
Oct 8, 2019; Uniondale, NY, USA; Edmonton Oilers left wing James Neal (18) celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

First thing’s first, we have the buyout window. Holland, as it stands, only has roughly $11 million to work with this off-season, so we need to open up some more cap room. It’s a difficult decision, but buying out James Neal’s contract makes life a lot easier moving forward. He had a great start to the season and was a weapon on the power-play, but Neal’s production cratered after a few months.

This is where it becomes very, very clear that Holland won the Neal-for-Lucic swap. Lucic has a buyout proof deal and Neal doesn’t, so Edmonton can get out from under a good chunk of his salary. A Neal buyout would cost the Oilers $1,916,667 against the cap for six years, resulting in a $3,833,333 savings for three years.

I would love to keep Neal around to see if he can continue to produce on the power-play, but times are tight right now, and opening up nearly $4 million in cap room is a game-changer.

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Next up, we’ll take a look at our restricted free agents.

Ethan Bear enjoyed a breakout season this year, capitalizing on an early-season injury to Adam Larsson and establishing himself as a top-four defender and a key part of the Oilers’ future. He only has 89 games in the NHL, but I’m going to take a gamble on him much like the Oilers did with Oscar Klefbom a few years back and give him seven years at $4,000,000 annually.

Again, there’s a risk here, but Bear looked like the top-four, right-handed, puck-moving defenceman the Oilers have coveted for years. A bridge deal would be cheaper, but if he continues to improve his game, he’ll be commanding a lot more than $4 million when he’s only a couple of years from unrestricted free agency.

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Andreas Athanasiou represents a difficult conundrum. He’s two years from free agency and he’s coming off the worst season of his career. You could likely buy a few free-agent years now at a discounted price, but he hasn’t had enough time to show he should be part of the team’s long-term future. While Holland knows him well from Detroit, we don’t know how he fits with the Oilers after just a handful of games.

I took my gamble on Bear with a long-term deal, so I’ll give Athanasiou a one-year deal worth $3,250,000 in which he’ll still be a restricted free agent when it’s finished.

Matt Benning was limited to just 43 games due to injury this season, but he’s proved to be a consistently solid third-pairing defenceman during his four seasons in the league. I’ll give him a two-year deal worth $2,250,000 annually. William Lagesson earned a cup of coffee this season in the NHL after a strong season in Bakersfield. He gets a deal close to what Caleb Jones got, two years at $800,000 annually.

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In terms of the minor leaguers, I’ll qualify Ryan Kuffner and Logan Day while letting go of Cameron Hebig, Nolan Vesey, Ryan Mantha, and Angus Redmond.

Jan 11, 2020; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Kris Russell (4) skates against the Calgary Flames during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re headed into free agent frenzy and the salary cap is already really tight. There isn’t going to be much room for upgrades on the open market, so we’ll have to get creative.

A key need for the Oilers this off-season is finding a third-line centre. I mentioned names like Carl Soderberg, Mikael Granlund, and Cody Eakin as possible fits, but fitting them under the cap under these circumstances isn’t going to be doable.

Let’s circle back to the trade deadline. Edmonton and Nashville make all kinds of sense as trade partners. The Oilers need some depth up front and the Predators need depth on the blueline. Nashville boasts a strong top-four, but their revolving door of 37-year-old Dan Hamhuis, Jarred Tinordi, and Matt Irwin on the bottom pair left a lot to be desired.

We’ll ship Kris Russell (with $1 million retained) and Matt Benning to Nashville in exchange for Nick Bonino. The Predators rebuild their third pair and the Oilers get a third-line centre. $5,250,000 is going out and $4,100,000 is coming back in, so we get a slight salary cap savings here.

Feb 29, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) makes a save during warmup against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Again, there isn’t really room to be going shopping on the free-agent market. Instead, we’ll shift our focus to using the remaining cap room we have to keep around the players who are already here.

Tyler Ennis brings speed, skill, and versatility to the lineup and he gelled nicely in his small sample size after being acquired at the trade deadline. After a 16-goal season, he’ll have offers elsewhere, so hopefully, he’ll stick around for two years at $2,000,000 annually.

Riley Sheahan was one of Holland’s scratch tickets from last summer that worked out nicely. While he didn’t provide much offensively, he was a major boon to Edmonton’s improved penalty kill. I would give him the same deal that Josh Archibald got, worth $1,500,000 over two seasons.

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Ideally, we could find a goaltending upgrade in free agency, but there simply isn’t the cap room to do so. That means we’ll stick with what we know and bring back Mike Smith on another one-year deal worth $2,000,000 with some performance bonuses. Smith had an up and down season last year but he’s cheap, a leader in the room, and really upped his play starting in January.

Given that we’ve traded away Russell and Benning, the team needs some veteran depth insurance on the blueline. I’m confident that Lagesson and Bouchard can fill in those two aforementioned roles, but it’s always good to have veteran depth. If Mike Green takes a one-year deal worth $1,000,000, he would be a nice fit for such a role. If not, it isn’t the end of the world and there plenty of veteran defenders who can be signed for cheap.

My big free-agent splash is a sentimental one. I’m bringing back Sam Gagner on a cheap, one-year deal. It would be great to see him finish off his career here and apparently Holland might view him as a possible candidate for a front-office gig after his playing days.

Finally, I would bring back both Gaetan Haas and Patrick Russell for injury call-up depth. They both have NHL experience and would come cheap. We’ll also bring back Brad Malone, Josh Currie, and Shane Starrett for the AHL and cut loose Brandon Manning, Tomas Jurco, and Markus Granlund.

Here’s what our roster looks like now…

Centre: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Nick Bonino, Riley Sheahan, Sam Gagner, Gaetan Haas, Cooper Marody, Ryan McLeod, Brad Malone.

Left wing: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis, Joakim Nygard, Jujhar Khaira, Tyler Benson, Joe Gambardella, Ryan Kuffner, Ostap Safin. 

Right wing: Zack Kassian, Kailer Yamamoto, Alex Chiasson, Josh Archibald, Patrick Russell, Josh Currie, Kirill Maksimov, Raphael Lavoie. 

Left defence: Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Caleb Jones, William Lagesson, Dmitri Samorukov, Markus Niemelainen, Philip Broberg (Europe). 

Right defence: Adam Larsson, Ethan Bear, Evan Bouchard, Mike Green, Logan Day, Filip Berglund. 

Goaltenders: Mikko Koskinen, Mike Smith, Shane Starrett, Stuart Skinner, Dylan Wells, Olivier Rodrigue. 

It isn’t a sexy off-season by any stretch, but it gets the job done. My goal here was more about preserving the team the Oilers have right now rather than making too many major changes. You know the old saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

If it turns out that the league does give teams compliance buyouts, a whole new world of options are opened up and Holland could explore a lot more in free agency, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. What this Armchair GM post outlines is that, despite the salary cap challenges ahead, Holland should realistically be able to keep this post-trade deadline group together for another crack.