Not much has gone right for the Oilers so far in the 2023–24 season, as virtually all aspects of the team are under question. No different is the state of one of their newest players, Connor Brown, who has been held pointless through seven games, and is quickly approaching the 10 game limit where his bonus kicks in.
While the bonus will not affect the Oilers salary cap this season, it will count against the cap next season. Even though the cap ceiling is expected to rise next season, the Oilers are already in a tight spot, needing to re-sign their current players, let alone pursue upgrades, the bill on Brown coming due is still a cumbersome hurdle.
Perhaps more than Brown’s play in particular, the dire straits the Oilers find themselves in has cast a further gloom on all things. All together, the situation between Brown and the Oilers has some wondering if the team should not find a way to keep him from reaching his bonuses by appearing in 10 games. While the current mood around Oil Country might be negative enough to consider anything, this suggestion might be somewhat counterproductive.
Is Connor Brown worth the money for the Oilers?
On one hand, the $3.25M cap hit in bonuses is quite a hefty price for Brown, and escaping such a fee might free up the flexibility for more prudent moves. In its own right this is a significant amount of cap space. While Brown has the reputation to be a reliable contributor, there isn’t much in his resume to think he should be a top 6 forward. The one saving grace for Brown might be that his relationship with Connor McDavid translates into some offensive chemistry that unlocks a higher offensive level.
Perhaps this move was fairly aggressive for a player of Brown’s calibre, not to mention his missing nearly an entire year with a knee injury. While it may be true that Brown is still shaking off the rust from his lengthy absence, and that the Oilers have yet to receive his highest quality of play, at no point has Brown truly been worth his total of a $4M cap hit. To make matters worse, the Oilers are in the middle of their competitive window, with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes. While deferring Brown’s cap cost for this season was industrious, sacrificing next season’s cap space is also quite aggressive in its own right.
Turning 30 in January 2024, Brown is at a precarious point where his game might be on the decline, even before the injury considerations. Unlike teammate Zach Hyman, something of an outlier in his ageing curve, there is little sign that Brown is trending upward. In fact, it’s quite possible that Brown’s best hockey is already behind him, especially given the severity of his injury last season. There are a number of reasons that avoiding Brown’s bonus might be a prudent move.
Oilers salary cap considerations
It might be next season’s Oilers problem to deal with whatever cap bind that the Brown’s bonuses gets the team into. First of all, while slightly unconventional, the Oilers might start to utilise these kinds of bonus structures going forward, like spending with a credit card instead of a debit card, continuing to defer cap dollars to the future.
On top of this, the league’s salary cap ceiling is expected to rise, affording all teams more space to work with. Players and their agents usually express demands in a percentage of the cap as opposed to in dollars, meaning that player’s salaries should rise as a whole as well. This has the side effect of contracts ageing well, fading in terms of cap percentage with each increase to the cap ceiling.
While these mechanisms should help the Oilers to an extent, they will have the added effect of allowing other teams the same luxury, and perhaps for cap dump style trades to become a less expensive option. The unexpected start to the Oilers season shows us that no one knows how the next month will unfold, let alone the next year. By this logic, getting too wrapped up in how the Oilers might deal with Brown’s bonuses next season might be moot.
Should the Oilers move on from Brown?
All this being said, the Oilers moving on from Connor Brown at this point is quite unlikely. First and foremost, Brown does raise the level of the Oilers as a team. Brown is of particular use defensively and on the penalty kill, two areas that the Oilers were hoping to improve upon this season. While he has yet to find the scoresheet, Brown has played well on a checking line with Ryan McLeod early on in the season.
But, given his slow start this season, it is worth raising the question that maybe the Edmonton Oilers should move on from Brown before his bonus kicks in if he steps on the ice this Saturday against the Nashville Predators.