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Scout’s Week

This week most NHL organizations will have their pro scout meetings. The amateur scouts have had zoom calls with draft-eligible players and will continue those all month preparing for the upcoming NHL draft on July 23rd and 24th, while the pro scouts will meet this week to discuss unrestricted targets as well as trade targets.

Teams will dive deep into their data and reports and discuss, and debate, their offs-season plans. The Edmonton Oilers have some big questions that need answers.

The main priority for Ken Holland and his management team is to get a sense of where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie and Mike Smith are at. Losing all four UFAs would be disastrous.

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Of the three skaters, I sense they are the closest on Adam Larsson, but until a deal is signed there is always the risk he could leave. Remember that Deryk Engelland was a pending free agent in 2017, and Vegas still opted to claim him rather than wait to sign him as a free agent. And Engelland was a Las Vegas resident at the time. There is a risk for the Oilers to wait until after the expansion draft to sign Larsson, because Seattle might claim him. Seattle has a 48-hour window to talk with pending free agents prior to the expansion draft, and their owners are planning to be very aggressive in acquiring players.

Barrie expressed interest in wanting to test the free agent market, but if Edmonton knows they will lose Larsson I could see them pushing to sign Barrie. They’d have Barrie, Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard on the right side. Not ideal, since none are big, physical, defensive defenders, but losing both Barrie and Larsson would be a big blow on the right side. Travis Hamonic is a pending UFA, and he wants to play in Western Canada, so he could be a replacement for Larsson. If the Oilers lose both Barrie and Larsson, maybe they try to sign Dougie Hamilton.

The Carolina Hurricanes have given Hamilton permission to speak with other teams. They likely won’t re-sign him, and by allowing this they might be able to facilitate a sign-and-trade, and not lose Hamilton for nothing. Hamilton is a solid defender. He is excellent offensively, but I don’t think he is as good defensively as Alex Pietrangelo. Hamilton will likely command $7.5m to $8m. Having him, along with Darnell Nurse, would give the Oilers two legit top-pairing defenders, and you could play them on different pairs. It is a bigger cap hit, but Barrie and Larsson cost $7.85m last year. Hamilton and Bouchard would combine for $9m this coming season. The money would work, for the next two seasons before Bouchard needs a raise. The challenge, I’m told, is that Hamilton might not want to play in Canada in a hockey-crazed market. He did like the off-ice anonymity of playing in Carolina. Some players love the hockey market, and others don’t. That isn’t a knock, it is just that some players prefer to not have to eat, breath and sleep hockey.

The Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins’ camp have had positive, cordial conversations, but there hasn’t been any progress. Edmonton has submitted different offers. The challenge is finding the term and salary that both agree with. Nugent-Hopkins would like longer term, and the Oilers are willing to do that, but then the cap hit needs to be lower. RNH is in the same boat as Larsson, in that Seattle could offer more, and there is a slight risk Seattle could claim him in the expansion draft. Will Seattle be as competitive as Vegas right out of the gate? They believe they can and that is the pitch they are going with on free agents.

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Holland and the Oilers are hoping that by the end of the week they’ll have a better sense of where they are at with their free agents. I think Smith is the most likely to re-sign, but if they lose all three of the skaters that creates three large holes to fill. The Oilers have to prepare for that scenario, and that is why this week is crucial. They will draw up multiple scenarios and they must include the worst-case option.

I believe, at this moment, Larsson is the most likely to sign. But things are always evolving, and every GM and agent that I’ve spoken with over the years has said a deal isn’t complete until it is signed. Many GMs and agents have felt confident they would get a deal done, only to have the other side back out. So until a deal is signed, being close doesn’t mean that much to me.

QUICK HITS…

— I see some suggestions that Seth Jones might be overhyped. I’d be cautious with those types of claims, since many of the same people felt Shea Weber for PK Subban trade years ago was awful for Montreal, because Subban was better and Weber’s contract length. Five years later, Weber has proven to be a more consistent player, and he’s been $1.2m cheaper each season. Weber does have five years remaining on his $7.8m AAV contract, while Subban has one year left at $9m.

Jones’ stats haven’t been elite for the past few seasons, that is fair, but he’s still a #1 right defender, and he’s among the top-10 right-shot D-men in the NHL. He turns 27 in October with one year remaining on his $5.4m AAV. There will be many teams interested in acquiring him, and I’m curious what the return will be. I don’t believe the Oilers will be in the mix as Jones would like to play in the United States.

— Is Michael Bunting this year’s Carter Verhaeghe? Verhaeghe signed a two-year, $1m AAV with Florida last summer and he crushed it scoring 18-18-36 in 43 games, so of course people are wondering who is this year’s diamond-in-the-rough. It is important to note that in 2018 in the AHL Verhaeghe had a 14.1SH% with 17 goals on 120 shots. In 2019 he scored 34 goals on 208 shots (16.3SH%). Last season in Tampa Bay he had nine goals on 52 shots (15.8SH%) in 52 games and this season in Florida he scored 18 goals on 107 shots (16.8SH%). His scoring prowess in the AHL was consistent with what he did in the NHL. His 18 goals in 43 games was a surprise, for sure, but his SH% remained rather consistent over the past four seasons.

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Bunting spent five seasons in the AHL. In his last three he scored 23, 19 and 12 goals in 67, 52 and 58 games. His SH% those seasons was 11.9%, 14.5% and 7.7%. This season he scored seven goals in 16 AHL games on 49 shots (14.2SH%) and then was recalled and scored 10 goals in 21 games on 38 shots for a sizzling 26.3SH%. While Verhaeghe’s goal to shot ratio was similar over four seasons, Bunting clearly got on a heater in Arizona. Good for him. He will have loads of confidence heading into next season, but the odds he matches his scoring prowess last season is low. He might be a good low risk bet, but I wouldn’t look for him to produce like Verhaeghe.

— Great news to see the CFL returning in August. Will be fascinating to see how teams match up after a full season off. I love that restaurants are open again, and each day we are seeing more businesses re-open and other things return “to normal.” Hope it continues and more people get the vaccine. Many myths about it have been disproven.

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