Oilers Off-Season Decisions
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
By Jason Gregor6 months ago
Change is inevitable in the National Hockey League, and for some Edmonton Oilers players today will be their final day inside the Oilers dressing room as a member of the team.
Let’s start with who will return next season.
Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway will return in the fall. McLeod is an RFA with arbitration rights, but he will have a new contract at some point. Holloway needs to play more minutes next season.
Darnell Nurse, Mattias Ekholm, Vincent Desharnais and Evan Bouchard will be back on the blue line. Bouchard is an RFA without arbitration rights, and the only question surrounding him will be if he signs a short or long-term deal. A short-term deal is most likely based on their salary cap.
Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell will return in goal with a combined cap hit of $7.6m.
Those are 13 players I see as locks to return, which leaves 9-10 roster spots to fill depending on if they have a 22 or 23-man roster.
Apr 25, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN;Edmonton Oilers defensemen Brett Kulak (27) celebrates his goal scored during the first period against Los Angeles Kings goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (70) in game five of the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Constructing the defense is the most important aspect of this off-season. Scoring isn’t an issue. Limiting goals is the Oilers’ main issue.
Brett Kulak was arguably the Oilers’ most consistent defender from start to finish this season. For the second consecutive playoffs he was quite good. Trading him to create room for Philip Broberg is risky because no one knows for certain if Broberg can be as effective. The biggest discussion of the off-season among Oilers management and coaches will be how they project Broberg. Edmonton is in win-now mode, and management has to be certain Broberg will be ready to be a positive contributor in the playoffs.
The Oilers’ defense corps was extremely healthy last season. Kulak, Nurse and Bouchard played 82 games. Tyson Barrie (61) and Mattias Ekholm (21) were traded for each other and combined to play 82 games. Cody Ceci played 80. Their top-five defense slots missed a total of tw0 games. The #6 spot was split between Broberg (46) and Desharnais (36). Marcus Niemelainen (23) and Ryan Murray (13) also played games as the Oilers dressed seven D-men in 34 games.
Defensive depth is key to winning. The risk in moving Kulak to open up a spot for Broberg is if one of Ekholm or Nurse gets injured then Broberg is thrust into a top-four role. He needs to get stronger. I felt he got pushed off the puck too often. However, he also showed he has good positional awareness, and his skating is a major asset. The challenge is: Do they believe his personal development is on the same curve as the Oilers’ championship aspirations? He could become a very solid NHLer, but will it be next year on a competitive team?
The Oilers could keep both Broberg and Kulak and play them as a pair, but it would mean Desharnais moves into the top four and they consider trading Ceci. The question the organization has to ask themselves regarding Ceci is: Do they believe he can play as he did in 2022 or was this past season more a reflection of his skill set? Ceci battled through a nagging injury for much of the season. He is more suited to be a #4 or a #5 defender. So they could play him with Broberg and move Desharnais with Nurse.
Desharnais had two rough games in the playoffs, but after a tough game one v. Vegas, he was very strong in games 2-6. He wasn’t on the ice for a goal against in his 57 minutes of 5×5. Brett Kulak was on for one in his 74 minutes. They were a very solid pair. Desharnais knows he needs to improve his puck skills and he plans on working on those a lot this off-season. He is highly motivated to keep improving, and considering his career trajectory, I’d be confident in saying he will be better next year. His size is a major advantage, and with more experience, I could see him becoming a really solid defender. Playing him in the top four means he faces tougher competition, and until a player constantly faces top players you don’t know for certain how they will respond.
Who remains among Ceci, Kulak, and Broberg? I’d be very hesitant to deal Kulak. I’d look to move Ceci or Broberg before him.
Jan 11, 2023; Anaheim, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers right wing Kailer Yamamoto (56) handles the puck against the Anaheim Ducks in the second period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kailer Yamamoto’s cap hit is too high for the value he gives on the ice. I see him as a bottom-six forward more than a top-six. He can be a complementary top-six forward at times when injuries occur, but on a Cup contending team, he is a bottom-six forward or not on the team. Trading him will be difficult. A team like Chicago or Arizona would take him, but they’d want a draft pick most likely.
The other option for the Oilers is they could buyout Yamamoto. Because he’s only 24 his buyout would be 1/3 of his salary. His cap hit next season would be $433,334 and then $533,334 in 2024-25 according to CapFriendly. Carrying dead cap space is never ideal. The Oilers won’t have the $750K retention from Milan Lucic next season or the $1.5m buyout of Andrej Sekera, but that money essentially goes towards Skinner’s raise.
Buying out Yamamoto would create $2.666m in cap space next season, and then they’d $533K in 2024-25. The Oilers could sign two depth forwards with the $2.66m. It makes sense. It sucks for Yamamoto, but another team would sign him. He is an NHL player. He’d be good value at $1.5m. I’m sure the Oilers will test the trade market first. Would they be interested in a package involving Yamamoto and Broberg (who will have trade value) to land a RW or a defender?
Warren Foegele had a solid season. He played quite well in the playoffs, especially the Vegas series. Foegele played through a wrist injury for the past four months. He had it taped every game and it limited his range of motion. To get full value on his $2.75m cap hit, Jay Woodcroft needs to use him on the penalty kill. Foegele was a very good penalty killer his first three seasons in Carolina. He can kill penalties, but he hasn’t been used on the PK. If they won’t use him on the PK, then it is more challenging to get value on his cap hit. I’d keep him, but he isn’t a lock to return.
Nick Bjugstad, Derek Ryan, and Mattias Janmark are all unrestricted free agents. I don’t see all three returning. Bjugstad has signed two consecutive one-year deals worth $900K in the past two off-seasons. He signed with Minnesota in the summer of 2021 and Arizona last year. He was very thankful to Bill Armstrong for signing him in Arizona and giving him a chance “to love the game again,” he said when he arrived in Edmonton. The victory over LA was the first playoff series win of his career. He turns 31 in July and wants to be on a competitive team. He scored 17 goals this past season, and he’s a right shot who can play wing and centre. A bad team will pay him $2m, but if he signs with a competitive team he likely will need to sign for less. His return could depend on if he wants to test free agency.
Ryan had an excellent season. He turns 37 in December, but he doesn’t have a lot of miles on his legs. He’s only played seven seasons in the NHL. His combined testing results in training camp last fall had him ranked in the top five. Even if he slows down a bit, I’d re-sign him for his smarts and his skill. If he ends up being your 12th or 13th forward your team is solid. I’d guess Edmonton will only want to sign him for one year unless he agrees to a two-year deal with an AAV of $900K. His family likes Edmonton and his kids are involved in school and playing sports. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t return.
Janmark is an interesting case. He rarely made any noticeable mistakes with the puck all season. He’s reliable, but the publicly available analytics didn’t favour him. He’s a solid bottom-six forward. If they re-sign Ryan and Bjugstad, is there a need for him? If Bjugstad opts to sign elsewhere, then I’d sign Janmark. You know what you are getting.
I’d expect Devin Shore to sign elsewhere. His teammates love him, but I have to think he’d like to go to a team where he has a chance to play more.
Klim Kostin is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. He made league minimum $750K. He scored 14 goals and 26 points in 69 regular season and playoff games. That is very good production for a player who only averaged just over 9:30 of playing time per game. Kostin is physical. He can skate. He likes to fight, and he has an excellent shot. The challenge will be what he and his agent ask for. I’d expect he will file for arbitration, which means he could command at least $1.5m, and possibly more. Head coach Jay Woodcroft didn’t seem to trust him defensively, which is why his TOI was so low, so that will be a factor in signing him. If the GM likes him, but the coach doesn’t completely trust him, then it will be difficult to justify signing him if he won’t play. The internal discussion among the coaching staff and management likely will determine if he signs.
If he re-signs, I expect it will be before the qualifying deadline. If they qualify him, he can file for arbitration, and the past two summers we have seen teams let young RFAs go, simply to avoid the arbitration process.
I think Foegele returns along with Bjugstad, Ryan and Kostin return while Janmark, Shore and Yamamoto move on.
That gives the Oilers 11 forwards. Rapheal Lavoie will come to camp and compete for a job. He requires waivers and after his strong second half after recovering from a knee injury, I suspect he will be on the roster to start the season. This is a hugely important off-season for him. His size and shot make him and intriguing prospect.
The other wildcard in the organization is Noah Philp. He had a solid season in Bakersfield. I could see him getting a few games during the season when injuries occur, but I suspect the Oilers will sign at least one, possibly two, unrestricted free agent forwards to low cap hits.
I’m most interested to see what the organization decides on Yamamoto, Ceci and Broberg.
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