What does a flat cap mean for the Oilers?

Over the last week, we have been hit with a lot of news regarding the NHL’s return to play. We now know that Edmonton and Toronto will be hub cities, we know the CBA will be extended, we know that NHLers will likely be returning to the Winter Olympics. There are plenty of things to be very happy about. There are also some things to not be particularly thrilled about. For Oilers fans and GM Ken Holland, the fact that the salary cap will be staying flat for the next few seasons is far from ideal.

We’ve known all year that the Oilers wouldn’t have very much cap space this offseason but there was also an expectation that the ceiling would go up a little bit and things would be manageable. They probably wouldn’t have had the money to go get a big-name free agent or anything like that, but they likely would have had enough money to sign Ethan Bear to a long-term deal, take care of their other free agents, and add a solid third-line centre.

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Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed. If the cap does indeed stay flat for the next two seasons, the Oilers are going to be in a little bit of trouble. The good news is that a lot of other teams will also be in trouble, but still, Ken Holland will have to get creative over the next few summers.

Holland and his fellow GM’s won’t be getting any help either. With plenty of teams in cap trouble and the league not going to give out any free buyouts, shedding salary will be harder than ever.

As it sits right now, the Oilers are expected to have $10.1 million in cap space this offseason. With that money, they’ll have to take care of a handful of free agents.

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UFA: Riley Sheahan, Tyler Ennis, Patrick Russel, Mike Green, Mike Smith
RFA: Andreas Athanasiou, Ethan Bear, Matt Benning, William Lagesson

For the sake of this article, allow me to throw some numbers out there. I think a new deal for Athanasiou will likely come in around $3 million. Bringing back Riley Sheahan will probably cost around $1 million. Considering the number of free agent goaltenders and the cap situation, Mike Smith shouldn’t cost more than $2 million. I could see a short-term deal for Ethan Bear costing around $2.5 million. On a one year deal, Matt Benning will likely make around $2.25 million when you consider what his qualifying offer would have to be.

Add all of those up and you’re at $10.75 million. The Oilers don’t have enough cap space to even do what I view as the bare minimum this summer. Even if they wanted to upgrade their third-line centre, give Ethan Bear a longterm deal, or bring back Tyler Ennis, they couldn’t afford to. So what options does Holland have? Well, there are some players he could try to deal off.

In the past few months, I’ve talked about trading forwards like Alex Chiasson and Jujhar Khaira. While I see value in both of those players, there’s no denying that they’re both slightly overpaid.

Khaira is an inconsistent even-strength player but is an excellent penalty killer. However, if you think you can replace him with a player making around $900k, then that might be an easy way to save $300k and I don’t think you’d have a hard time trading a player like Khaira. With that being said, he’s pretty low on the list of players I would be looking to move.

Chiasson brings value on the powerplay and is a decent third-line winger. However, that’s exactly what James Neal brings to the table. You don’t need both. If you can find a team that’s looking for veteran scoring help, trading Chiasson for nothing more than a mid-round pick is a smart play.

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The team could also look into buying out James Neal. This is something that’s been floated around since the day the Oilers acquired Neal and while I’ve been against it in the past, now that we know the cap won’t be going up for a few years, I’m more open to it. 

Neal has a cap-hit of $5.75 million for the next three seasons but if you buy him out, it becomes a $1.9 million cap hit for the next six seasons. While I hate the idea of having six years of dead money, I do love the idea of quickly saving $3.8 million for the next three seasons.

If they use that money this offseason, it might give them enough wiggle room to re-sign Tyler Ennis (replace Neals spot in the lineup) and maybe even have enough to upgrade their third-line centre. That is a very tempting trade-off, but I hope Ken Holland uses this strategy as an emergency plan. If all else fails, then you buyout Neal but he should do everything in his power to improve this roster without having to buy someone out.

One way he could do that is to look at the team’s defence. Kris Russell is the clear option to be moved, but that won’t be an easy task. Russell has a 15-team no-trade clause, so he has some control over where he goes. On top of that, he carries a $4 million cap hit so there will be a long list of teams who simply cannot afford him.

The one thing that might help the Oilers move the veteran defender is his actual salary. While his cap hit is $4 million, his actual salary (after signing bonuses) is just $1 million. So if there is a team out there who has cap space, but wants to save actual dollars, Russell would be a perfect fit. A team like Florida or New Jersey might be the best option for that.

Some people have tossed around the idea of trading Adam Larsson, but I’m not sure if that’s a move I’d make. He can handle top-four minutes and is a good partner for Oscar Klefbom. Not sure I’d be moving him just to get rid of $4 million.

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One defenseman who might fall victim to the Oilers cap situation is Matt Benning. While I really like Benning as a player, he’s going to be an RFA and the Oilers will need to make him a qualifying offer north of $2 million. That might be too much money for a third-pairing defenseman, especially when the team has Evan Bouchard sitting in the AHL. 

If Holland can move Russell and keep Benning around, that’d be the best-case scenario, but if they can’t move the veteran, then they might have to make Benning to address another area on the team. Benning is a young, right-shot defenseman with some offensive upside and while those are all reasons to value having him on the Oilers, they’re also reasons for another team to want to acquire him.

If Holland can find a team out there with a young third-line centre, it might make sense to trade from a position of strength (young, right-shot defensemen) and fill a hole elsewhere. If that happens, maybe they could look at bringing back Mike Green on a cheap deal to be their insurance policy if Bouchard isn’t quite ready.

There will be plenty of moves for Holland to consider but with the cap staying flat for the next few seasons, this coming offseason might be one of the most unpredictable in recent memory.