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The Expansion Draft, buyouts, and opportunities to create more cap room

This will be Ken Holland’s first summer with spending money.

In his first two off-seasons since taking over as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, the team was pressed tight to the salary cap ceiling without much room to navigate. The objective of those years was to improve the depth of the roster without signing any debilitating, long-term commitments.

The summer of 2019 featured inexpensive veteran additions in Riley Sheahan and Mike Smith on short-term deals and scratch tickets such as Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco. The summer fall of 2020 saw more depth additions in Dominik Kahun, Kyle Turris, and Slater Koekkoek along with Holland’s most expensive addition to date, a one-year pact with Tyson Barrie.

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This summer, Holland will have significantly more financial flexibility to operate as multiple large contracts are coming off the shelf. Expectations are also much higher after the Oilers put forward another uninspiring performance in the playoffs and were pushed aside much quicker than expected.

But before we get to free agency frenzy, there’s the Expansion Draft. The Seattle Kraken are entering the league in 2021-22 and everyone in the league is going to have to give them a housewarming gift. Well, everyone except for the 2021 Presidents’ Trophy runner-ups, the Golden Knights.

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This year’s Expansion Draft is going to be a little bit more difficult for the Oilers than it was four years ago. In 2017, Edmonton didn’t have to worry about protecting Connor McDavid or Darnell Nurse because they were still on entry-level deals, so fitting everyone important under the standard protection scheme wasn’t a challenge.

The Oilers ended up losing the legendary Griffin Reinhart to Vegas. He never played a game for the Golden Knights and is currently playing in Germany for the Roosters.

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Here’s how Edmonton’s Expansion Draft situation shakes out this year…

Eligible Forwards:

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (UFA), James Neal, Zack Kassian, Alex Chiasson (UFA), Kyle Turris, Josh Archibald, Jujhar Khaira, Jesse Puljujarvi, Tyler Ennis (UFA), Dominik Kahun, Cooper Marody, Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson, Seth Griffith. 

Eligible Defencemen:

Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson (UFA), Kris Russell, Tyson Barrie (UFA), Ethan Bear, Dmitry Kulikov (UFA), Slater Koekkoek (UFA), Caleb Jones, William Lagesson.

Eligible Goaltenders:

Mikko Koskinen, Mike Smith (UFA), Alex Stalock, Stuart Skinner, Dylan Wells. 

Starting with forwards, there are four obvious players to protect. Those are McDavid, Draisaitl, Puljujarvi, and Yamamoto. In net, Skinner makes the most sense to protect given he might actually have a future with the club. On the blueline, Nurse and Bear are no-brainers. Now, this is where you run into a bit of a difficult decision.

Oscar Klefbom missed the entire 2021 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. It’s expected that he’ll be able to play come 2021-22 but there’s no telling at this stage how effective he’ll be. If the Oilers are welcoming back a fully healthy Klefbom, they could be adding a legitimate top-pairing defender to their blueline. Of course, that’s a big if. We have no idea what Klefbom will look like when he returns.

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If Edmonton only protects three on the blueline, they’ll have to choose between Klefbom and Caleb Jones, a skilled young defender who moves the puck well and is on a cheap contract. If you’re Seattle, either Klefbom or Jones is pretty easily your pick from the Oilers. Nobody in that group of forwards outside of the aforementioned four carries the same upside.

The Oilers could opt to take the eight-skater scheme, which would allow them to protect McDavid, Draisaitl, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Nurse, Klefbom, Bear, and Jones. Ultimately, it comes down to whether the team prioritizes keeping both Klefbom and Jones in the fold over losing a depth forward like Jujhar Khaira, Dominik Kahun, Cooper Marody, or Tyler Benson.

Another thing to consider is making a side deal with Seattle. The Golden Knights weaponized their cap room to make a whole bunch of deals back in 2017, taking on bad contracts from other teams in exchange for draft picks and prospects. Here are some examples…

  • Penguins trade 2020 second-round pick for Vegas to take Marc-Andre Fleury.
  • Lightning trade 2017 second-round pick, 2018 fourth-round pick, and Nikita Gusev for Vegas to take Jason Garrison.
  • Blue Jackets trade 2017 first-round pick, 2019 second-round pick, and David Clarkson for Vegas to take William Karlsson.
  • Islanders trade 2017 first-round pick, 2019 second-round pick, and Mikhail Grabovski for Vegas to take J-F Berube.
  • Ducks trade Shea Theodore for Vegas to take Clayton Stoner.

The Golden Knights did very well for themselves making these deals and I imagine that the Kraken will look to do the same.

The Oilers have a pair of problematic contracts that fans are expecting to be bought out. James Neal is paid $5,750,000 annually for two more seasons while Mikko Koskinen has one more year left on his inexplicable contract worth $4,500,000. You might also throw Zack Kassian into this category. He’s paid $3,200,000 for three more years.

Giving Seattle a little treat for taking on one of those contracts would open up cap space while ensuring the team doesn’t lose a decent young player in Jones. But how much is that worth? A prospect? The 2021 first-round pick? Given how tight Holland clung to his first-round pick at this year’s trade deadline I don’t imagine he’ll be willing to part with it now.

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That brings us to the buyout window, which will be Holland’s other opportunity to create more cap room.

The buyout window opens 48 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded and will run to the day before free agency starts, which is scheduled for noon ET on July 28. Holland said in his end-of-season media availability that using a buyout is “very possible.”

Neal seems to be the obvious buyout. When Holland acquired him from Calgary, the real win for the Oilers was that they acquired a contract that wasn’t buyout proof like Milan Lucic’s deal is. Buying out Neal would cost $1,916,667 against the cap for four years. That’s a savings of $3,833,333 for the next two years.

Koskinen is another option, but, given the fact he only has one more year left on his deal, he would likely be easier to trade. The Oilers could possibly retain salary and see if someone wants to take a flyer on Koskinen. It’s unlikely anybody would do so with Neal as he has another year left on his contract.

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If Edmonton can’t find a taker on Koskinen, his buyout would cost them $1,500,000 against the cap for two years. That’s a $3,000,000 savings. Mixed in with Neal, buying both players out would result in the Oilers saving $6,833,333 in 2021-22 and  $2,333,333 in 2022-23 while getting tagged with a hit of $1,916,667 in 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Buying out both players would give Holland about $30 million in cap room to work with this summer. That’s more than enough to make some major improvements to the roster. Next up, I’ll look at some of the players that Holland can sign with those dollars, including ones who are already on the team.

What say you, Nation? Should Holland use buyouts to open up more cap room? Or should he try to get creative with Seattle at the Expansion Draft?