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Photo Credit: Jason Franson/Canadian Press

An Overview of Ken Holland’s 2021 Off-Season

It’s time for Ken Holland to put his stamp on the Edmonton Oilers.

Holland’s first couple of years at the helm of the organization have largely been spent dealing with the mess of his predecessor. As a result, Holland’s approach has been fairly conservative as he’s been prioritizing raising the floor of a roster jammed right up against the salary cap ceiling.

A lot of money is coming off of the books this summer so Holland will have a chance to make some significant changes to the Oilers’ roster. He’s now had two years to assess the team and determine what they need in order to get over the hump and become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. After this year’s sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets, that should be clear.

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The Oilers badly need to improve their scoring depth. When Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl weren’t on the ice last season, the Oilers were outscored 52-to-29 at even strength. It was the same deal in the playoffs. Without McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice, Edmonton managed two even-strength goals against the Jets while surrendering five.

In order for the Oilers to become a legitimate contender, Holland needs to construct a roster that can, at the very least, break even when McDavid and Draisaitl aren’t on the ice. As the chart above suggests, this is an area where the Oilers have come up short in the McDavid era, save for 2016-17.

With that in mind, let’s walk through Holland’s off-season, starting with who’s under contract and who isn’t…

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Forwards…

Signed: Connor McDavid ($12.5M), Leon Draisaitl ($8.5M), James Neal ($5.75M), Zack Kassian ($3.2M), Kyle Turris ($1.65M), Josh Archibald ($1.5M), Jesse Puljujarvi ($1.175M), Ryan McLeod (ELC), Raphael Lavoie (ELC), Dylan Holloway (ELC).

UFA: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Ennis, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, Patrick Russell.

RFA: Jujhar Khaira, Dominik Kahun, Kailer Yamamoto, Devin Shore, Cooper Marody, Tyler Benson.

Defencemen…

Signed: Darnell Nurse ($5.6M), Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M), Ethan Bear ($2M), Kris Russell ($1.25M), Caleb Jones ($850k), William Lagesson ($725k), Evan Bouchard (ELC), Philip Broberg (ELC).

UFA: Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, Dmitry Kulikov, Slater Koekkoek.

RFA: Theodor Lennstrom.

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Goaltenders…

Signed: Mikko Koskinen ($4.5M), Alex Stalock ($785k), Olivier Rodrigue (ELC), Ilya Konovalov (ELC).

UFA: Mike Smith.

RFA: Stuart Skinner, Dylan Wells.

All told, the Oilers have roughly $60 million committed to their roster next season, giving them about $22 million to work with. Among others, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, and Mike Smith are unrestricted free agents and Kailer Yamamoto, Jujhar Khaira, and Dominik Kahun are restricted free agents, so a lot of that money could be eaten up simply by bringing last year’s team back.

Mar 3, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Edmonton Oilers left wing James Neal (18) in action during the game between the Stars and the Oilers at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Expansion Draft and Buyouts…

Before anybody is signed to a new deal, Holland will have to give somebody to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.

It seems as though the Oilers are close on a contract with Larsson, but, obviously, they aren’t going to put pen to paper on that deal until the expansion draft has passed because then they would have to add Larsson to their protected list.

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It’s difficult to say exactly how the Oilers will navigate the expansion draft.

If they do the standard 7F/3D/1G protection scheme, they’ll be able to protect depth forwards like Jujhar Khaira and Dominik Kahun along with prospects like Cooper Marody or Tyler Benson. That would also leave them with a choice between Caleb Jones and Oscar Klefbom on the blueline.

We have no idea how Klefbom is going to look after having major surgery but Seattle might be interested in taking a risk. If the Oilers are concerned about their blueliners, they could do their eight skaters protection scheme. That would have them protecting McDavid, Draisaitl, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Nurse, Klefbom, Bear, and Jones.

Another thing to consider is that the Oilers could use Seattle as a way to offload a bad contract, making the protection list moot. Getting out from under James Neal’s contract, which costs $5,750,000 for two more seasons, might be worth a first-round pick. Remember, Edmonton doesn’t have a second- or a third-round pick this year.

Holland mentioned in his end-of-season press conference that he would consider using a buyout to free up more cap room. The obvious name here is James Neal, who scored just five goals this season, but there’s also Mikko Koskinen, who had a difficult season in net.

If the Oilers were to buy out Neal, it would cost them $1,916,667 against the cap for four seasons. That’s a $3,833,333 savings in the first two years and then an added cost of $1,916,667 for the two years after that. Elliotte Friedman mentioned on Friday that he suspects Koskinen might be the one that Holland opts to buy out. Koskinen has one more year left at $4,500,000 and would cost $1,500,000 annually for two years if bought out.

Buying out both of them would save Holland $6,833,333 in 2021-22 but the savings would drop to 2,333,333 in 2022-23. Come 2023-24 and 2024-25, Koskinen would be off the books and Neal’s buyout would result in a $1,916,667 annual cost. You obviously would like to avoid having dead money but this isn’t a terrible investment to make. It frees up quite a bit of room in the short-term and the long-term ramifications are palatable.

Mar 15, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (93) skates during the warmup period against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome.

New Contracts and Free Agency…

If Holland pulls the trigger on both of those buyouts, the Oilers suddenly have nearly $30 million in cap room to work with this summer.

None of the restricted free agents will be costly to bring back. Kailer Yamamoto will likely be signed to a two-year, post-ELC bridge contract while Devin Shore, Jujhar Khaira, and Dominik Kahun can be tendered qualifying offers but have arbitration rights. None of the arb-eligible three have put up big numbers in their careers so qualifying offers shouldn’t be a concern.

That takes us to the unrestricted free agents. It looks like Adam Larsson will be back on a deal similar to the one he’s on now, Tyson Barrie will test the free-agent market in search of a multi-year deal, and that the team will try to re-sign Mike Smith. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is up in the air. Apparently, he and the team were close to an extension earlier in the season but it fell apart and the veteran pivot will likely test the open market.

The Oilers have an internal option with Evan Bouchard to replace Barrie but there isn’t anybody who can step in and replace Nugent-Hopkins. Tyler Benson and Cooper Marody have performed well in the AHL but neither has been able to translate that success to the big leagues and it’s unreasonable to expect Dylan Holloway to take on such a role in his first professional season.

If Nugent-Hopkins and the Oilers part ways, here are some names Holland might be interested in on the free-agent market…

  • Mike Hoffman (52 games, 17 goals, 36 points)
  • Taylor Hall (53 games, 10 goals, 33 points)
  • Zach Hyman (43 games, 15 goals, 33 points)
  • Blake Coleman (55 games, 14 goals, 31 points)
  • Tomas Tatar (50 games, 10 goals, 30 points)
  • Alexander Wennberg (56 games, 17 goals, 29 points)
  • Phillip Danault (53 games, 5 goals, 24 points)
  • Derick Brassard (53 games, 8 goals, 20 points)

And then there’s also goaltending. Assuming Koskinen is bought out and Smith is brought back, the Oilers will have to add another goalie to their tandem. Alex Stalock is signed for 2021-22 but doesn’t have much pedigree. His body of work features a .909 save percentage over 151 career NHL games. Stuart Skinner had a strong season with Bakersfield but there’s an obvious risk in expecting a rookie goaltender to break into the league.

Here are some names on the free-agent market for Holland to consider in net…

  • Chris Driedger (23 games, .927 save percentage)
  • Philipp Grubauer (40 games, .922 save percentage)
  • Linus Ullmark (20 games, .917 save percentage)
  • Jonathan Bernier (24 games, .914 save percentage)
  • Tuukka Rask (24 games, .913 save percentage)
  • Pekka Rinne (24 games, .907 save percentage)
  • Frederik Andersen (24 games, .895 save percentage)

I’ll go into more detail about the expansion draft, buyouts, Edmonton’s unrestricted and restricted free agents, and the team’s options on the free-agent market over the next few weeks, but this ultimately serves as an overview of what we’ll be watching from Ken Holland this off-season.

He’s been cut a lot of slack over his first two years at the helm because of the mess he’s had to clean up but Holland will have an opportunity this summer to make this team his own. It’ll be interesting to see what he does with it.