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Holland Takes Right Approach in Free Agency

NHL free agency is not where winning teams are built. How many long-term contracts, in the salary cap era, didn’t end up having buyers remorse? Zdeno Chara (five-year deal), Scott Niedermayer (four-year pact) and Marian Hossa (retired with four years remaining on his deal)? Any others?

Prior to free agency starting, Ken Holland gave a clear outline of how free agency works. “If there is a player you want in free agency, and he is in demand, you either have to give him longer term than you want, or a higher cap it. Hard to avoid it,” said Holland.

For the second consecutive summer, Holland avoided handing out any long-term contracts.

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In 2019 Holland signed Mike Smith, Josh Archibald, Riley Sheahan, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco to one-year contracts. Jurco played 12 NHL games, while Granlund played 34. They didn’t work out, but when sent to the minors they didn’t count against the cap, so they didn’t have much negative impact. They were low-risk signings.

This year, Holland took the same approach. He signed Kyle Turris to a two-year deal at $1.65m AAV and Tyson Barrie at $3.75m for one year. Barrie’s cap hit and his puck moving ability should be great value. Turris would have to play very poorly to not be a value contract.

Tyler Ennis was re-signed for one year at $1 million, and Mike Smith got a one-year contract with a $1.5m base salary, and $500K in bonuses. He will receive $50,000 when he plays 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 games. He needs to play 30 minutes in a game for it to count. He also receives $125,000 if the Oilers win round one of the playoffs and he plays in two games, and another $125K if they win round two and he plays two games.

None of these deals hinder the Oilers long term, and unless you are signing an elite player, I would avoid long-term contracts in free agency every year. The reward is not worth the risk. I’d be willing to bet the St.Louis Blues will not get value out of Torey Krug for the full seven seasons he signed for. He is a good defender, but not elite in my eyes, and the odds his play diminishes in his mid 30s are high.

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I understand the angst from many in Oilersnation regarding the Smith signing. I’m in the same group. His stats were not very good last year. He is 38 years old. I think it’s valid to have concerns. The Oilers value his outspoken leadership and the fact he won the third most games in the NHL during the 2020 portion of the regular season. They felt he was a better option than Jimmy Howard, Aaron Dell and the other remaining UFA goalies. Holland did make offers to Jacob Markstrom, and he wasn’t willing to pay over $3 million for Thomas Greiss. Time will tell if it was the correct choice. I sense that Koskinen will play more games than Smith this coming season, and if he can match his .924Sv% at 5×5 from last year, the Oilers should be in a good spot.

NO LONG-TERM ANCHORS…

Despite an uninspired four games against Chicago, the Oilers were actually a pretty good hockey team in 2019/2020. They still need to improve their 5×5 goals against, but the rest of their game was very solid. I don’t see them as Cup contenders right now, but they are a playoff team, and with limited cap space, Holland wisely didn’t sign any free agents who would hamper his ability to build a more competitive roster in the future.

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Since 2006, the Oilers have had the most day-one signings of all Canadian teams. They’ve signed 47 free agents. How many were impact players? I’ve long argued free agency is not where you build a winner. Outside of a few rare cases, where you bring in a Hall of Fame player like Chara, Niedermayer or Hossa, many signings, especially longer-term ones, end up hurting an organization.

Oilersnation likely cringes thinking about recent longer term signings.

In 2013 they signed 34-year-old Andrew Ference to a four-year deal, $3.25m AAV contract. He played two seasons with the Oilers, and then six games in a third season which he finished on LTIR and remained there for the fourth year. He was named captain, before playing a game with the team, and the entire signing didn’t work out for either side.

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In 2014 they signed Mark Fayne to a four year deal worth $14 million. He played two seasons with the Oilers, and the next two in the AHL.

They signed Benoit Pouliot to a five-year deal worth $20 million. He played three seasons in Edmonton scoring 34, 36 and 14 points. He was bought out of the final two years of his contract. He re-signed with Buffalo for one year at $1.15 million and he produced 19 points. He didn’t play in the fifth year of his original deal. Edmonton still has one year left on his $1.33m annual buyout.

In 2015 they signed Andrej Sekera to a six-year, $33 million contract. He was very good in the first two seasons. He played 36 and 24 games in each of the next two seasons, before the Oilers bought him out last summer. He has three years remaining on his buyout with a $2.5m cap hit this season and $1.5m in the final two. Sekera signed a one-year, $2 million deal with Dallas last summer, and re-signed for two years at $1.5m this year. He is still a solid NHLer, just not close to a $5.5m player.

In 2016 they signed Milan Lucic to a seven year, $42 million deal. He was good the first year, scoring 50 points, but then the wheels fell off midway through the second season and he finished with one goal in his final 46 games. In his third season he produced six goals and 20 points. Holland traded him to Calgary for James Neal, and retained $750K of his salary.

The best multi-year free agent signing in recent memory was Mark Letestu. He signed for three seasons with a $1.8m AAV. He tallied 25 and 35 points the first two seasons, including 11 in 13 playoff games. In his third season he had 19 points in 60 games before being traded to Nashville at the deadline.

Long-term deals in free agency rarely work. If you are upset that Holland didn’t make a bigger splash in free agency, I think you are overlooking the reality of free agency.

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BARRIE BARGAIN…

The one-year deal for Tyson Barrie has potential to be excellent. He will replace Oscar Klefbom on the first unit powerplay, even if Klefbom is healthy, and that will reduce Klefbom’s minutes. I’ve read a lot about Barrie being a defensive liability. He is not an elite defender, but he is also not the major weakness some are portraying him as.

In his six full seasons in Colorado from 2014-2019, Barrie played the most minutes of any Avalanche player. He was +10 at 5×5 (330GF-320GA), while the Avs were -71 (552-623) when he was off the ice. The 2016/2017 season, when the Avalanche were horrendous. They finished the season dead last, going 22-56-4. They were outscored 194-114 at 5×5. Barrie was -28 at 5×5, but his other five seasons in Colorado he was never a defensive liability at 5×5.

Last year in Toronto Barrie struggled under Mike Babcock. He wasn’t on the first unit PP and at 5×5 he was -12 (12-24). In 23 games he has 0-4-4 at 5×5 and 0-2-2 on the PP.

When Sheldon Keefe took over, the first move he made was putting Barrie on the first unit PP. In 47 games under Keefe, Barrie was +10 at 5×5 (47-37) and he produced 4-17-21 at 5×5 and 1-9-10 on the PP.

How you utilize a player can have a major impact on their overall game. Babcock wanted Barrie to be more of a shutdown defender, while Keefe coached to his strengths. Barrie isn’t a Colton Parayko or any other elite defender, so don’t expect him to be. Coach to his strengths, put him in positions to succeed and his confidence will grow and he almost surely be a plus player at 5×5.

Who Barrie plays with will be interesting. If Klefbom is healthy you could play him with Barrie, but it is my understanding Klefbom is unlikely to be ready to start the season (main reason Kris Russell was not traded), and it is plausible Klefbom could miss the majority of the season.

I could see Dave Tippett starting the season like this:

Darnell Nurse-Ethan Bear
Kris Russell-Tyson Barrie
Caleb Jones-Adam Larsson

But as the season progresses, I could see Jones getting more ice time. I think Jones is ready for more responsibility and having him with Larsson ensures a puck mover in each pair. I could see Russell and Larsson playing together at certain times, but to start the season I’m not sure Tippett will run them as a full-time pairing.

No off-season will lead to 100% agreement, but I believe Holland’s approach in free agency was the best strategy for the Oilers. The Smith signing is the one question mark. They didn’t have the cap space to make a major splash, and even if they did there were very few players I would sign long term in free agency.

What do you think of Holland’s signings?

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