NHL Free agency begins at 10 a.m. MT Wednesday, and players (if they opt to leave their current teams) like Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri, Evander Kane, John Klingberg, and Darcy Kuemper will command the most money at their positions. Often the top-end UFA players sign for the most money and the longest term. There are rare cases showing otherwise (Taylor Hall one year at $8m), but usually, the top UFAs are looking for term, and near the end of those contracts the players often aren’t living up to their cap hits. That’s the risk of signing long-term deals for players 28-32, but teams do it every summer.
Ken Holland needs a starting goalie, so he will have discussions with Kuemper’s camp, but also Jack Campbell’s, and will try hard to sign one of them. But the Oilers should do most of their shopping this week in the bargain bin department this week.
As of writing this, the Oilers and Kane’s camp aren’t close on a deal. He believes he can get more term in the market. He is hoping to cash in on the best four months of his career. We’ll see what happens on Wednesday. I sense term, not salary, is the bigger gap right now. There is little debate about Kane’s value on the ice. He is a very unique player. He’s skilled, tough, smart and can intimidate. He can play on both special team units and 5×5. He showed what a legit finisher can do when paired with Connor McDavid. But he was also on his best behaviour off-ice, and I sense there is still some concerns if that was only a four-month scenario. Teammates in Winnipeg and San Jose tired of his act. Will that arise again, or has he finally learned from it? I’m not sure four months, when he was in need of a contract, are enough to fully know, and that is why term is the sticking point.
If Edmonton doesn’t reach an agreement with Kane, which seems unlikely at this moment, they need to add a top-six forward, possibly two. No other free agent forwards offer the diverse skill set of Kane. None are as skilled or as tough. He basically neutered Matthew Tkachuk in the Oilers/Flames series. Jay Woodcroft matched him up against the Flames agitator, and Tkachuk wasn’t noticeable in the final four games of the series. Edmonton needed his skilled toughness, and if he leaves that creates a significant void. Especially when you add in Zack Kassian is no longer on the team, and Josh Archibald likely moves on as well. Archibald and Kassian were far from perfect players, but those three were the three most physical forwards on the team.
Before you yell “hitting doesn’t matter,” take a moment to realize it still is a factor in today’s game. Darren Helm, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Nico Sturm, and Gabriel Landeskog all averaged over nine hits/60. Tampa Bay had seven players at nine hits/60 in the playoffs.
Edmonton had six, but three were Kane, Kassian, and Archibald. Dylan Holloway is a physical player, and plays aggressively, but he’s a rookie and shouldn’t be expected to fill the void. Edmonton will need to address the loss of physicality. In 2020 Tampa Bay maintained their skill, but added Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Patrick Maroon and that gave them an element they didn’t have previously. The Oilers can’t just lose the physical presence they had last season.
Kane was a huge addition because he played a lot and was physical. None of the pending UFA options have that, so it will likely be by committee.
Shopping in this department doesn’t mean these players don’t have value. In fact, it is the opposite. You shop here to get good value on your investment. You sign players who will be able to produce stats that match their Annual Average Value (AAV).
Mason Marchment had a breakout season with Florida last year. He will get a significant raise from this $800K AAV. He’s a 6’4″, 210 pounds left shot winger who scored 18 goals and 47 points in 54 games. He had 114 hits (8.97/60). The concern about Marchment is this was his only productive NHL season. He had 10 points in 33 games in 2021, and he’s battled injuries every year in the AHL. He played 44 games in 2018 and 2019 and 30 in 2020. He missed 28 games last year with Florida. Can he stay healthy, and remain productive?
Having lost my father unexpectedly when I was 27, I can relate somewhat to how Marchment is feeling right now. I think he’ll be motivated even more to make his late father proud. Because of his size, skill and 47 points in 54 games, he will garner a lot of interest, but how much term and AAV do you give him? Someone will pay him four years, I suspect, and he likely gets $3.5m AAV. There is some risk/reward due to only one year, and his injury record, but he’s one I’d look at.
Ilya Mikheyev is looking to cash in after scoring 21 goals in 53 games. After two years of struggling to finish, he showed some scoring ability this past season. He has great speed, is a relentless forechecker and very good on the PK. In 2021 he had 107 shots in 54 games, but fired 147 last year in 53 last year. He did average one more minute/game last season. He shot more and scored more as his SH% went from 8.2% in 2020, to 6.5% in 2021 to 14.3 in 2022. Did he finally figure out how to finish, or was last year him figuring out the NHL and feeling more confident? He’s had solid possession numbers all three seasons of his career, so even if the goal totals drop he can still do other things to help your team. I sense he is looking to hit a home run on this contract, and if that is the case he likely isn’t signing with a top contender.
Chicago won’t be qualifying Dominik Kubalik or Dylan Strome. Both are options as complementary top-six forwards. Strome had 51 points in 58 games in 2019 and scored 22 goals and 48 points in 69 games last season. He and McDavid were teammates in Erie in the Ontario Hockey League, so McDavid knows his personality, but I’m not sold that junior teammates and friends is enough to sign the player. I’m more interested in what he’s done at the NHL level. He’s had two really solid seasons, had a decent 2020, but struggled during in 2021. He averaged 0.74 points per game in 2019, 2020 and 2022. That is good production. He doesn’t have the edge Kane has, but he has top-six skill.
He made $3.6m last season with an $3m AAV, and a one or two-year deal with a $2-$2.5m AAV could benefit both sides. It gives Edmonton a solid player, and gives Strome the opportunity to produce and earn a bigger contract in the future. The challenge for me is does Strome compete hard enough regularly?
Kubalik made $4m last season with a $3.7m AAV. He scored 30 goals in his first season with the Blackhawks, but his goal totals have dipped each year since. He talked 0.44 goals/game in 2020, then 0.30 in 2021 and 0.19 last season. His points/game were 0.68, 0.67 and 0.41. I think Kubalik is a better finisher than Strome. If I had to pick between the two I’d go with Kubalik. And I think he might come cheaper.
Rickard Rakell had 33 and 34-goal seasons in 2017 and 2018, but he’s produced 18, 15, 9, and 20 in the past four years, while scoring 43, 42, 28, and 41 points. He’s a right-shot, which Edmonton has a shortage of, and he has shown he can be a complementary winger, with the potential to produce more. He turned 29 in May and had solid possession numbers last season. He could help the second unit PP if needed. He’d be a prime target for a short-term deal for me. He made $3.8m with a similar AAV last year, and shouldn’t command more, likely less if he wants to be on a competitive team.
Frank Vatrano has scored 24, 16 ,18 and 18 goals the past four seasons, all of them in Florida, except for 22 games when he was traded to the New York Rangers this season. He isn’t physical, but he’s competitive and he’s a very smart player. He scored 36 goals in 36 AHL games in 2016 and was recalled to Boston. He’s scored 24 and hovered around 20 the past two seasons while playing 56 and 71 games. His AAV and salary were right around $2.6m last season. He could get a raise, but likely not a significant one if he wants to sign with a competitive team. I’ve heard he is willing to sign in Canada, which is a bit different for many American UFAs.
Mattias Janmark could help the bottom six. He has signed three consecutive one-year deals, with Chicago, Dallas and Vegas. He can kill penalties and he’s been consistent offensively producing 25, 21, 24 and 25 points the past four years. Nothing spectacular, but a solid bottom-six forward. None of his analytics stand out, positively or negatively, and who he plays against is mainly middle-six and fourth line players as you’d expect. His contract has gone down slightly each of the past three years from $2.3m to $2.25m to $2m. He likely signs for under $2m on another one-year deal.
What about Max Domi on a one-year, show-me deal? Since scoring 72 points in 2019, he’s dipped down to 44, 24 and 39. Would he want a chance to show he can produce again? Or can he produce 50+ points again?
I don’t see any of these players as long-term deals. They aren’t elite, but possess solid attributes, and could help. The key is not overpaying them in salary or term.
Holland might have no choice but to sign a longer term, with higher AAV for either Darcy Kuemper or Jack Campbell, but unless they find common ground with Kane, I don’t see any forward who should command a long-term deal, or even a really high salary. I don’t think Claude Giroux would come to Edmonton. He turns 35 during the season and he’s never had to travel much. Philadelphia travel is vastly different than Edmonton.
There are other quality forwards available ranging from Andre Burakovsky, Andre Copp, Nino Niederreiter, David Perron, Ondrej Palat, Ryan Strome and Vincent Trocheck, but I sense they could sign for $4.5m or more. Edmonton would be better off signing two quality players at $3m AAV than one at $5m.
Edmonton got tremendous value last season from Mike Smith and Evander Kane when you look at their AAV. Ken Holland will need to sign a few players who can give Edmonton similar value per AAV this off-season.
Who would you want him to sign?
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