In the wake of the Edmonton Oilers defeat at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights, emotions of another Stanley Cup-less season are raw. While some might still be lamenting what could have been, the Oilers themselves will have to move on, setting their sights on a better result next season.
For players on the Oilers roster, and for the prospects hopeful to earn an NHL spot next season, this process is about using the disappointment of the season as motivational fuel, putting in an offseason of recovery and training to best prepare for the season ahead. The summer represents a different challenge for Oilers management, though, as GM Ken Holland and his staff will have a number of decisions to make in their efforts to improve the team.
There is a long list of decisions that we know must be made, as well as an even greater number of decisions that might only be made known to us through the selective reporting of NHL insiders. Though each of these decisions will be worth exploring and debating on their own, let’s start by establishing an offseason checklist of items the Oilers will have to navigate this summer.
What will Holland do with the RFAs?
Restricted free agents, to put it simply, are without a contract headed into next season, but still somewhat under team control. The Oilers will have exclusive negotiating rights, or rather the opportunity to match any other team’s offer, on the rare occurrence that another team tries to poach the Oilers players. For the most part, this results in the Oilers possessing a degree of leverage in RFA negotiations, something that Holland is not afraid to use to his advantage, as we saw when he strong-armed Ryan McLeod into a low cost deal last September.
The foremost RFA, and perhaps the most crucial decision of this offseason, is Evan Bouchard. A former top 10 draft pick, the expectations have long been high for Bouchard, though this season saw him come into his own. A rare offensive talent, Bouchard’s production took off after Tyson Barrie was traded, leaving Bouchard to man the best power play unit of all time. Although Barrie is an effective offensive option, Bouchard is a step beyond, with tools that few defencemen around the league can claim.
The question, of course, becomes how much signing Bouchard will cost. The Oilers, like most contending teams across the league, are tight to the upper limit of the salary cap, and every dollar can impact the overall makeup of the roster. Though Bouchard will almost certainly be back in the fold, the two main options lie in negotiating term and cap hit. A shorter deal, often referred to as a bridge deal, might see a lower cap hit in the short term.
Bridging Bouchard would walk him into RFA status on his next deal, this time with arbitration rights. This would give Bouchard more leverage, as arbitration would reward Bouchard’s point production highly. This bridge tactic gives the Oilers short term gain in cap space, but would cost them down the road, as it did with Darnell Nurse.
The alternative is to lock Bouchard up long term. Though the cap hit would be higher out of the gate, something that might be difficult for the Oilers to navigate, it would save cap space in the seasons beyond the two to three years of a bridge deal. Perhaps, a deal that expires as soon as Bouchard is UFA eligible might be on the table. The risk of this play is that team control is sacrificed, but the flexibility that such a deal would provide might be enticing for Bouchard.
Other RFAs on the roster are Ryan McLeod and Klim Kostin. These deals will be less costly for the Oilers, and will likely be on the shorter side. Both have arbitration rights, a process that can strain the relationship between team and player, but an option that gives a deadline for both sides. It is likely that both forwards will re-sign with the team to reasonable cap hits, though the Oilers still need to fight for every dollar.
Outside of the main roster, Raphael Lavoie is an RFA as well. Without any NHL experience, signing Lavoie to an affordable deal is a near certainty. Lavoie was finally able to produce as a top scorer in the AHL last season, a big step in the right direction for the forward. We will be hoping to see another big step, or two, from Lavoie as he has a chance at making the opening night roster for the 2023–24 season.
UFAs may be likely to all stay
The Oilers have a number of unrestricted free agents. These players are free to negotiate with any team that they chose, meaning it won’t be entirely up to the Oilers if they return or not. The four UFAs are all depth forwards: Nick Bjugstad, Mattias Janmark, Derek Ryan, and Devin Shore.
Ryan, Shore, and Janmark had all decided to sign with the Oilers on their last deals, meaning they are more likely to return. Ryan and Janmark were key members of the Oilers lineup, and retaining their services is likely part of the plan for the Oilers. It is highly unlikely that either will see a raise from their $1.25M cap hits from last season. Shore is lower on the depth chart, and might only be worth bringing back on a minuscule cap hit, given his spot as an extra body when the Oilers are at full health.
The most difficult situation to predict is the idea of re-signing Bjugstad. A big body, Bjugstad has some offence but is foremost a contributor to team defence. With centre/winger positional versatility, Bjugstad quickly found himself working his way up the Oilers lineup after being acquired at the trade deadline. While the Oilers would certainly enjoy retaining his services, affording them is another question. The Oilers were able to fit Bjugstad thanks to salary retention, an option that is not available to them now.
Bjugstad has bounced around the league for a few seasons now, and now into his 30s a question of priorities will dictate his decision on where to sign and for how much. Bjugstad could likely command a contract too rich for the Oilers to afford from other teams if he so chooses. The hope should be that Bjugstad enjoyed being an Oiler and believes in the team’s ability to win a Cup, leaving money on the table to stay. Oiler fans should not hold their breath.
Will the oilers need to dump salary?
The Oilers have $77.53M committed to 17 players next season, leaving them with about $5.97M in cap space to re-sign these players or sign new players. Bouchard could easily command more than $6M alone on his next deal. In other words the Oilers have virtually no cap space to work with as it stands currently.
This increases the likelihood of cap related trades, perhaps even to a point of necessity. The process of deciding who stays and who goes can be a difficult one, even before considering what the return might be. Depending on the player being moved out, it might even cost the Oilers assets to free up space.
Simply by weighing cap hits against on ice contributions several candidates present themselves as possible options to move on from. This process should include some understanding of cost, return, as well as finding a player to replace any subtractions.
Nurse is a polarising candidate. His $9.25M cap hit is quite large, but Nurse is still a vital contributor to the team as a player, not to mention as a leader. Though possible, the cost of replacing his services without a drop in quality would be very expensive in its own right. With a no movement clause, a Nurse trade is as unlikely as might be misguided.
Jack Campbell had a rough first season as an Oiler, though his regular season record was strong from a win/loss perspective. Campbell played well in the playoffs as well, and it would be fair to suggest that the team should have turned to him more often against the Golden Knights. Campbell isn’t likely to win a Vezina Trophy, or even be considered among the top 10 goalies in the league, but as a tandem option who can start for stretches, his price tag of $5M is within an appropriate range.
Furthermore, we’ve seen before with the similarly compensated Mikko Koskinen that Holland is willing to stick with a contract that some might see as burdensome between the posts.
There are a couple of mid level defencemen that are popular in cap related manoeuvres, as Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak take up enough cap space to be potential trade candidates. Ceci has likely played over his head during his time with the Oilers, for the most part holding down a top pairing role that few would suggest he is qualified for alone. Still, a veteran right shot with the brains and brawn to contribute on defence Ceci brings a lot to the table. Although there might be better options for such an elevated spot in the lineup, to acquire such a player at a smaller cap hit than Ceci would be near impossible.
Kulak, for his part, brings many of the same qualities to the Oilers lineup that Ceci does. The key differences are in that Kulak plays the left side, and finds himself lower in the lineup. Making $2.75M against the cap, Kulak’s cap hit is far from egregious, though it would be easier to find a player to replace him at less cost than it would Ceci. Still, an Edmonton native who has fit well in the Oilers lineup, and who just signed his current deal last summer, it would be difficult to move off of Kulak. Unfortunately this is the cruel side of business in chasing a Stanley Cup.
A mid level forward might well be in trade talks as well, as Kailer Yamamoto’s time as an Oiler is on thin ice. After a difficult season of injuries, as well as a continued lack of production some fans are preparing for the possibility that the former first-round draft pick might be on the way out. Yamamoto fell out of the top six altogether down the stretch of the regular season and through the playoffs.
It seems less and less likely that Yamamoto will become the legitimate top six forward fans were hoping for. With a cap hit of $3.1M, Yamamoto’s contract is probably too rich for the Oilers to stomach lower in the lineup.
It all adds up to a difficult situation to navigate for the Oilers. To even consider signing Bouchard to a long term deal it would require moving off of a considerable amount of salary, in other words, at least two of Ceci, Kulak, or Yamamoto.
Oilers don’t have a lot of draft capital
Beyond the scope of the NHL’s hard salary cap lies a few more decisions for the Oilers. The team traded away a great deal of draft capital at this season’s trade deadline, but the Oilers still have selections in the second, fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds in this June’s NHL Entry Draft. Of course, there is still a possibility that the Oilers make moves up or down the draft board before their selections are made.
For the time being the Oilers stand to add four players to their prospect pool. Though these “green bananas” will take a while to ripen, maintaining a strong prospect pool is a vital piece to the puzzle in building a healthy franchise. As it stands at the moment Holland and the Oilers front office have done a decent job at drafting players, a trend they will be looking to continue despite their low level of draft capital.
Through it all the Oilers will have to find a way to come back stronger next season. Though the thought of trading away fan favourites for salary reasons or being unable to re-sign players is so prevalent in our charting of the future, opportunities will present themselves for the Oilers to reforge themselves into a stronger team next season. The good news for the Oilers is that they have enough young talent that a large portion of these improvements might come naturally with development and experience.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire