With August quickly winding down to a halt, there is not much of the NHL offseason left to work with. Whatever chance teams have to do their business, building their rosters and streamlining them to their goals, goes with it. Of course, with the next pressure point represented by the start of training camp there is not yet much of a hurry, but still, a flurry of transactions lies ahead before the attrition of the NHL’s regular season schedule resumes once more.
The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, have already done a lot of their work. Of course, with the bridge contract of budding star Evan Bouchard signed, one order of business is finished. Without much in the way of negotiating leverage, coming out of his rookie contract, Bouchard has little chance but to accept the short term contract the Oilers have offered. This reality might even linger past the start of training camp, though Oilers fans might remember a similar situation regarding Ryan McLeod heading into last season.
Other than that, the final piece might be adding a final free agent to the mix. The Oilers can barely afford their current roster, so any new players would have to be at or near the least expensive rate possible. However, this alone might not be enough, as it is quite possible that any subsequent signees would have to be able to pass through waivers unclaimed, at least once, to fit within the Oilers season long plans.
With that premise, let’s take a look at some of the remaining UFAs that might fit what the Oilers envision as their finishing touch.
Filling the bottom six void
Already, we’ve seen the team sign Brandon Sutter to a PTO, and though he hasn’t played in the past two NHL seasons, he does fit the criteria the Oilers seem to desire for this final roster spot. In an early July media availability, Oilers GM Ken Holland said outright that the team would seek another forward to potentially add to the group.
The most natural conclusion is that this player would be a bottom-six centre, a defensive presence who can contribute on the penalty kill. This is a role that Sutter is well suited for, given that his game has held up well since he last played in the NHL. It is a bit of a gamble, but as a tryout there is little risk in seeing how Sutter fares in training camp.
There aren’t many other centres here who fulfil this archetype as cleanly, save for perhaps Devin Shore, who might well be brought back once more. Given that the Oilers are familiar with his work, Shore might be an option even beyond the start of training camp.
Jonathan Toews might be the most natural and desirable fit, satisfying all the ideal attributes the Oilers would be seeking and more. That being said, although not officially retired, Toews does not seem likely to play this season. This might mean taking a season or two off, as Sutter did, but it is possible that Toews signs part way through the season.
Other possible centres
Colin White is an interesting candidate here, as a former first-round pick headed into his age 27 season. Though he never quite blossomed into the two-way threat the Ottawa Senators envisioned as part of their core, there might still be some NHL viability left in White. He spent last season buried deep in the Florida Panthers lineup, mostly on the wing, but did manage to go 50% on faceoffs as a more regular centre in the playoffs. There might not be much offensive upside left to White’s game at the NHL level, but he has a reputation of being a responsible defender.
White was pushed down the Panthers lineup by Eric Staal, one of the many veteran options on this list. Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, and Paul Stastny are all similar in that their contributions are less that of defensive specialists. They all might be able to contribute lower in the lineup, but expecting significant penalty killing roles might be overly ambitious. Still, if any of this group is desperate enough to accept a PTO this might be an interesting concept for the Oilers to consider. It might be just as likely that a team offers them an actual contract as they decide to hang up the skates, or even head to a lower league to continue their playing careers.
The elephant in the room is the oft injured Nolan Patrick, who might be a cut above the rest of these centres were he healthy enough to play. Availability has always been the issue with Patrick, however. He does not match the Oilers apparent preference of style, and quite frankly does not seem likely to return to the NHL on a tryout. Perhaps Patrick can return to playing health one day, but at this point it seems an unlikely scenario that he would do so for the Oilers at a minimum cap hit.
Scoring wingers galore
There is a long list of notable unsigned wingers, showing the distinct discrepancy in value between the forward positions. While we expect the Oilers to be pursuing a centre, a winger might still be possible. In fact, due to the players still available, the addition of a winger might completely change the criteria we are using here, meaning it might be best to look at this list in groupings of similar players.
As it stands the Oilers have five bonafide top-six forwards, between Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and Evander Kane. Some might expect that Connor Brown, Dylan Holloway, or even Raphael Lavoie to have some success jumping into the final spot here this season, though perhaps one of these wingers can join that group as well.
Patrick Kane has yet to sign, and made his intentions to join the New York Rangers at last season’s trade deadline quite clear. A renowned (and oft renounced) talent, Kane would likely be picking his team once more. Based on Kane’s choice from last season the Oilers might not be on his radar, though the Oilers do have a theoretical chance as a legitimate contender.
Sam Gagner was rumoured to be signing a PTO with the Oilers, and theoretically might still. Tomas Tatar does have some history with Holland, but this may or may not work in the Oilers favour. Zach Parise, Phil Kessel, and to an extent Josh Bailey, are all past their primes, and might be a hard fit considering their more offensive dispositions and elevated name brands.
While the right player at the right price might still be enough to entice the Oilers here, signing this type of player does seem like less of a priority. Still, the opportunity to play in the Oilers top six might be too good to pass up.
Power wingers available
Holland has routinely targeted big, power wingers during his time with the Oilers, so we should not be surprised if that trend continues this season. This has manifested itself in NHL and AHL roster adds, draft picks, and even tryouts over the past few seasons, sometimes amidst great controversy. This strategy has payed off at times, not so much at others, and not always the way one would have expected.
Maxime Comtois does fit the power forward mould that Holland seems to covet, as do both Nick and Brett Ritchie, as well as Jesse Puljujarvi, who is perhaps most likely to head anywhere but Edmonton, seeking something of a fresh start. These forwards could fit into an NHL lineup under the right circumstances, though often that is measured by the slimmest of margins.
An interesting player of this ilk is Serron Noel, who has fallen off the radar a bit since graduating from the OHL. From a distance it’s unclear what might have led to this point, that being that Noel is more likely to receive an AHL contract as a flyer than an NHL contract under the same circumstances, but there still might be a worthwhile project.
This group might best fit the Oilers needs for this hypothetical final roster spot, as far as wingers go. So too is it ripe with players who
would likely be value signings for the Oilers. These players should be accepting of and comfortable with the limited role that will be available to them in Edmonton, while still being of enough quality to deliver such.
Danton Heinen stands out as an interesting candidate who has shown some flashes over his career whenever given the chance. Though he has bounced around a bit, playing for three teams over the past four seasons, Heinen has managed to be a positive contributor. Clearly, there hasn’t been enough upside for teams to have kept him around, but Heinen still should have some good hockey left headed into his age 28 season. Heinen has produced more than 15 goals twice in his NHL career, and over 30 points three times including a career high of 47 points during the 2017–18 season.
Tyler Motte’s game does bear some stylistic resemblance to that of Connor Brown, or perhaps Drake Caggiula, a workmanlike winger with a combination of responsibility and tenacity that endears them to fans and coaches alike. Motte has a career high of 16 points, set in 2018–19, so offensive production should not be an area he should be expected to contribute in. Motte can be an effective penalty killer, however.
Austin Watson has a physical dimension to his game that the Oilers might cover in a depth forward. Watson isn’t afraid to block a shot or throw a hit, but does take an awful lot of penalties. At one point there was a lot of concern over the Oilers team toughness, though this seems to have quieted in the Woodcroft era. For those left wanting in this area, Watson might be an ideal choice, though at 32 he is a bit older than most in the group.
Zach Aston-Reese can get in on the forecheck, a popular trait for teams to target recently. Joel Kiviranta has some utility as a penalty killer. Perhaps, even former Oiler Jujhar Khaira could be an option as a depth penalty killer, boasting some faceoff utility of his own. Given how thin the remaining available free agent options at centre are, especially for penalty kill contributors, this group might be one to watch for potential Oiler signees.
A potential gem might be Mason Shaw, who just finished his first NHL season as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Shaw took some faceoffs, and played a little on the penalty kill, but having just 62 NHL games to his career there is still time before we know what exactly Shaw can do at the top level.
Is there a need for a left defenceman?
This is an area the Oilers aren’t likely to address, as they already boast something of an over-encumbered depth of left shot defenders. Still, there are still some options available at this point.
Alex Edler and Jordie Benn are a bit long in the tooth, and might well be done with their playing careers, but had some strong moments last season. Both provide a physical edge, which might be the main reason for their being brought in. Nick Holden and Scott Harrington both provide some defensive ability with less of a physical emphasis. Nathan Beaulieu might have the most upside as a puck mover of this group of veterans.
There are some younger options who likely fall into a category as reclamation projects in both Olli Juolevi and Libor Hajek, though clearly the number of people who believe in their ascending to bonafide NHLers is dwindling. If the Oilers were to sign either player it might be as an AHLer looking to rebuild their identity.
In all, Oilers fans should not expect a move to bring in a left shot defenceman heading into camp.
Right defenceman more likely
If only to balance their numbers, the Oilers are more likely to bring in a right shot defenceman than a left shot. The rarer handedness, right shots are inherently more valuable, especially as defencemen, and this is well illustrated by the number of notable players left unsigned at each position.
Though still far less likely than an addition at forward, there are two players worth keeping an eye on. Former Oiler Ethan Bear remains unsigned, though coming off of a serious season ending injury. More than likely Bear will have more lucrative options for the season ahead than the Oilers can offer. His history with the team could be a reason for a return, but being traded away might just as easily be a reason Bear looks elsewhere if given the chance.
Mark Pysyk might fit somewhere in the mould of a right handed Nick Holden or Scott Harrington, that is a defensive minded depth piece. The Oilers could add Pysyk to bolster their depth should any of their right shot defencemen succumb to injury. At the moment the plan to replace any of the top three right shots would be to use Phillip Broberg on his weak side or call up Phil Kemp. Kemp might be a decent option ready for a look in the NHL, but Pysyk would offer more of a known quantity. At the very least a tryout might allow the Oilers to assess the depth chart and see if Kemp is ready should the need arise.
Adding a goalie is unlikely
Perhaps least likely of all the positions that the Oilers might still be looking to add is in net. With Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell representing a decent tandem at a reasonable combined price over the next four seasons—and with veteran Calvin Pickard as an acceptable third option as well—the Oilers are positioned well in net. Olivier Rodrigue had a nice developmental leap with a strong AHL performance last season, and might even be worthy of a look in the NHL this season on an emergency basis.
Still, there are a few options to consider. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are both in the twilight years of their careers, and might be ready to move onto the next stage of their lives. Michael Hutchinson is a bit younger, more so fitting the mould of Pickard as a goalie with some NHL experience that should be able to pass through waivers.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire