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What if the Oilers don’t get better?

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Yaremchuk
3 months ago
There was a point when I wasn’t that excited for the 2023-24 season. I even wrote that this upcoming campaign would be a pretty boring one to cover from an Oilers perspective and that the only way it would be interesting is if something went wrong.
Well, things have gotten flat-out ugly in Edmonton and now, you can forget about the Oilers winning the Presidents trophy or the Western Conference like most expected. Just getting in as the eighth seed in the Western Conference will be a challenge.
Yes, we love drinking the Kool-Aid here at Oilersnation, but right now, things are looking bleak and have me wondering… what if things don’t turn around this year?
If they miss the playoffs, big changes will be needed, to say the least.
The obvious ones: a new GM will need to be brought in, and a new coaching staff will have to be hired. 
But that probably isn’t going to be enough. They’ll have to make big changes to this core group. 
Ken Holland’s goal when he took over was to turn this team into a perennial Stanley Cup Contender. Missing the playoffs in year five will mean that he failed at doing that.
When a new GM comes in, they’ll want to put their stamp on the roster and that will involve moving out some big contracts but that’s easier said than done with this team.
On the surface, it sounds easy. Trade some players with big cap hits and bring some fresh blood into this locker room but when you dig into who those players could be, you start to see why it could be so complicated.
Outside of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers have three other forwards making north of $5 million per year.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has a full no-movement clause and is signed until he’s 36-years-old. I doubt he’d want to waive that clause and even then, he wouldn’t carry a lot of value as a player who produces the bulk of his offense as a part of a historically good powerplay.
Zach Hyman is probably their most consistent forward outside of #97 and #29, and also has a full no-movement clause. Moving him wouldn’t make a lot of sense.
Evander Kane is the oldest of the bunch and while his contract expires first, considering his history around the league, it’s hard to imagine there being a strong trade market for him.
It’s seemingly impossible to free up cap space from this forward group unless you move on from players like Ryan McLeod, who is their sixth highest-paid forward under contract for next season.
On the blue line, there are some options.
Cody Ceci is an obvious one. His cap hit isn’t egregious at $3.25 million and with just one more year left, he shouldn’t be that hard to move from. At the same time, if you take him out of this lineup, you need to add a top-four defenseman to replace the minutes he plays. That will cost more than $3.25m.
Brett Kulak is another name that could be a cap casualty. I really like him as a third-pairing defenseman and believe that he’s a good number five on a Stanley Cup calibre roster, but at $2.75m, the Oilers could move on from him and try to replace him with players like Markus Niemelainen and Philip Broberg. 
That is one spot.
Now, before you flood to the comments to yell about trading Darnell Nurse for two $4.5 million defensemen, let me just say that idea is incredibly unrealistic in my opinion. First off, Nurse has a full no-movement clause, so he’d have to waive that. Also, remember: if you hate the Darnell Nurse contract, then why would another NHL GM love it?
He’s overpaid, but he’s a damn fine NHL defenseman and he’s been their most consistent blueliner this season. I don’t think trading him as a cap dump makes a lot of sense.
The only way to free up a significant amount of cap space is to trade Jack Campbell and that’s going to be a painful deal.
Getting out of three years of a goalie with a $5 million cap hit who can’t stay in the NHL is going to cost multiple high-end assets.
What’s better: tacking on multiple assets or just buying him out and living with dead cap space for six seasons? I think I might prefer doing the latter and using those future assets to acquire cost-effective NHL players to improve the lineup.
Re-tooling this roster would not be easy and there is no clear path to dumping cap space and also improving our roster.
Do you know what would make this a non-issue? The team finding their game and turning this season around.
Right now, things are looking grim but this is still a very damn talented roster. Things shouldn’t have gotten to this point, but that doesn’t mean they can’t turn around.
The Oilers have made their bed with this group. They need to have success with it.
There’s lots of hockey left and personally, I’d love to look back at this article in January and laugh at the fact that this was where we were at. Here’s hoping.

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