Who could be this year’s Mattias Ekholm? Looking outside the rumour mill for upgrades for the Edmonton Oilers

Ryley Delaney
1 month ago
Do you remember the rumours surrounding the Edmonton Oilers and who they were looking at for a defensive upgrade last season?
Names like Vladislav Gavrikov of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Joel Edmundson of the Montreal Canadiens, and Niko Mikkola of the St. Louis Blues dominated the rumour mill. Others, such as Erik Karlsson and Jakob Chychrun, were also repeatedly suggested as game-changers that the Oilers should pay whatever necessary to acquire. 
Yet, well before the Trade Deadline passed on March 3, the Oilers made a deal that nobody was expecting. They dumped Jesse Puljujarvi’s contract to the Carolina Hurricanes and sent Tyson Barrie, Reid Schaefer, and two draft picks to the Nashville Predators for Mattias Ekholm. The veteran defender immediately impacted Edmonton’s blueline, and the team went on an 18-2-1 run to finish the regular season. 
This season, the Oilers have been again linked to a handful of defencemen, such as Sean Walker, Alexandre Carrier, and Nick Seeler. Now that Chris Tanev is off the market following a trade to the Dallas Stars, it’s becoming more and more apparent that the Oilers won’t be making a splash for a top-four defender and will instead look for depth at the position. 
What is evident is that they appear to be interested in adding a third-line centre and a top-six winger. For the former, they’ve been linked to defensive players such as Scott Laughton, Nic Dowd, and Sam Carrick. For the latter, they’ve been linked to scorers such as Jake Guentzel, Pavel Buchnevich, Jordan Eberle, and Vladimir Tarasenko. They’ve also been linked to names like Adam Henrique who can fill both roles. 
If last season was any indication, Ken Holland will keep things quiet and then go out and land his guy. There’s a reasonable chance that the Oilers wind up adding a player or two that hasn’t been discussed at all in the rumour mill. Let’s look outside the box for some realistic upgrades at three different positions for the Oilers.

Mar 5, 2024; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center Cole Sillinger (4) and Pittsburgh Penguins center Lars Eller (20) take a face-off during the third period at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A Third-Line Centre Upgrade…

There’s been no indication that the Pittsburgh Penguins wish to trade him, but perhaps a player like Lars Eller could be on the move? The 34-year-old checks everything you’d want from a veteran third-line centre: Does he have a low cap hit? Yeah, he has a cap hit of just $2.45 million, or just $574,218 on the daily cap hit. Does he have term on his deal? Yep, Eller is signed until the end of the 2024-25 season.
The next question is, does he kill penalties? Why yes, he’s killed 129:22 minutes of penalties, the 28th-most for forwards this season. For context, Adam Henrique is eighth with 154:09 minutes, Sam Carrick is fifth with 162:16 minutes, and Alex Wennberg is 13th with 145:33 minutes. You want your third centre to be strong on the dot, and Eller has a 54.1% face-off percentage.
Has Eller ever won anything of note? You betcha, he won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018, defeating the Vegas Golden Knights.
Eller is everything the Oilers need from a third-line centre, yet his name rarely comes up, if at all. Could Holland look outside the box and trade for Eller instead of Henrique or any third line centre they’ve been linked too?

A Top-Six Winger Upgrade…

The decline of the Washington Capitals has been a sad one, as Alexander Ovechkin only has 17 goals and is on pace for 23 goals, which would be his lowest total – including a lockout year and the pandemic season where he had 24 goals.
Washington’s goal moving forward is for the team to help Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record of 894. Ovechkin has 839 of ‘em in his illustrious career, needing just 56 more to break the record with 186 games left on his contract. This is to say that the Capitals aren’t going to be very competitive and may need to start a rebuild as Ovechkin winds down his career.
We aren’t talking about Ovechkin though, as he has a no-move clause, a $9.5 million deal until the end of the 2025-26 season, and is the face of the Washington Capitals. No, we’re going to look at Tom Wilson.
Consider it: Wilson would require a series haul to acquire and would help set the Capitals up for once Ovechkin retires. This season, he has just 13 goals and 26 points in 59 games. His career-high year came in 2021-22 when he scored 24 goals and 52 points.
However, the 29-year-old right-winger brings another dimension to the game, as he’s one of the most physically intimidating players in the league. Can you imagine him playing alongside Leon Draisaitl with Evander Kane on the left side? That line would do damage, and not just in the goal category.
Admittedly, it’s more of a pipe dream than anything. This season, he has a cap hit of $5,166,666 with a seven-team no-trade clause. Earlier in August, Wilson re-signed to a seven-year deal with a cap hit of $6.5 million, avoiding free agency in 2024 and committing basically the rest of his career with the Capitals. Once that contract kicks in during the 2024-25 season, he’ll have a 14-team no-trade list.
Like I said, it’s a pipe dream, but so was Mattias Ekholm to a lesser extent.

Jan 20, 2022; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Florida Panthers defensemen Radko Gudas (7) and Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) battle for a loose puck during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

A Second-Pair Defender Upgrade…

If you want a mean player, but on defence, look no further than the Anaheim Ducks’ Radko Gudas. A free agent after the 2022-23 season, he helped the Florida Panthers go from the eighth seed to the Stanley Cup Final, falling short to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Instead of chasing a ring, the 33-year-old signed with the Anaheim Ducks for a cap hit of $4 million until the end of the 2025-26 season. This includes a full no-trade clause this season, before becoming a 16-team no-trade list in 2024-25 and a 10-team no-trade list in 2025-26.
Despite being on the third-worst team on the league, Gudas is a +15 in +/-, which isn’t a be all stat of course. However,  the next highest +/- on the team for a player with more than 15 games played is Jakob Silfverberg, who has a +/- of +4.
Gudas has also contributed six goals and 15 points. In goals, he’d rank tied with his hypothetical defence partner, Darnell Nurse, for second on the team for defencemen goals. His points would rank fifth on the team, one back of the defenceman he’d replace, Cody Ceci.
It’s probably (definitely) not going to happen, but like Ken Holland, we need to think outside the box.

So, who do the Oilers end up with?

If I had to guess, where there’s smoke, there is fire. It really seems as if the team will end up with Adam Henrique, who isn’t bad at all. This year, he has 18 goals and 42 points and is on pace for a career-high 57 points and 24 goals. As mentioned in Eller’s section, he kills penalties, but also has a 52.9 face off percentage and a cup run in his career, all the way back in 2011-12 with the New Jersey Devils.
There are quite a few wingers available, but not many suitors. Landing one of Jake Gunetzel, Reilly Smith, Tyler Toffoli, Pavel Buchnevich, or Vladimir Tarasenko would be a nice addition. Every player either than Smith is at least a one-time 30-goal scorer, while only Buchnevich hasn’t won a Stanley Cup.
It truly seems as if the Oilers are satisfied with Cody Ceci as a second-pairing defenceman. He’s good enough, but other than a depth addition (which they seem more likely to do), Ceci would be the Oilers look to upgrade. Of course, plenty of depth defencemen are available around the league, and I compiled a list of them on non-playoff teams.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Oilers do at the March 8 trade deadline, but one thing is certain: they will be making trades. Ken Holland surely won’t stand pat on what could be his final trade deadline as a general manager in the NHL. 

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