COVID-19’s Effect on the Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland made a lot of small, speculative bets last summer, a few which panned out, a few more which still show promise, and he’s going to have to make a lot more as he reduces payroll to fit the new economic reality imposed by the COVID-19 crisis. The possible cancellation of the 2020-21 AHL season has already seen players like Philip Broberg, Joakim Nygard, Dmitri Samorukov, Raphael Lavoie, Gaetan Haas, Kirill Maksimov, Ryan McLeod and Ostap Safin loaned to European teams so that they can play and continue their development.

How will all this affect what Holland will do with the Oilers’ roster and AHL players like Evan Bouchard and Tyler Benson who yet haven’t found a place to play? Already, the Oilers are carrying a 2019-20 cap overage into next season.

Players It Will Affect Negatively

Andreas Athanasiou

Athanasiou never got his feet under him after the trade to the Oilers, either in the regular season or the playoffs. He doesn’t know how to play with his teammates, either in a top or bottom-six role. The Oilers spent two second-round draft picks on him, but they can’t afford to qualify the restricted free agent (RFA) for more than the $3 million he already makes. He will be traded for picks or pieces to fill the holes Holland makes with his other moves.

Kris Russell

Russell is a warrior and a fine 3rd-pair defenceman. The Oilers can’t afford to spend $4 million on that. They are stuck with his cap hit but his actual salary is only $1.5 million a season.

Edmonton Oilers Cam Talbot Kris Russell
Edmonton Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot and teammate Kris Russell celebrate (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

That is a decent price for a veteran reliable third-pairing d-man. He will be in demand by other teams and will be traded, despite his 15-team no-trade clause.

Zack Kassian

He was supposed to be Edmonton’s answer to Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilson, but he doesn’t bring that game often enough to justify his new $3.2 million salary. Holland will try and flip him for a cheaper version.

Darnell Nurse

With a $5.6 million raise this season, Nurse is vulnerable. He is tough, rugged, a leader, loved by his teammates and can rush the puck effectively. His reads and outlet passes leave lots of room for improvement for a defenceman who wants to be paid like a first-pairing player. Holland will succumb to offers and move him.

Riley Sheahan/Jujhar Khaira

One of these players will not be on the team next year, maybe both. I suspect Sheahan prices himself out of Edmonton and Khaira has enough value to get something for him in a trade.

Mike Smith

Smith is toast. There are better bets available for a 1-B tandem with Mikko Koskinen than the 38-year-old Smith. This is a good year for free agent and RFA goalies to pick from.

Alex Chiasson

Chiasson is rugged, can score, a former Cup champ, knows how to win, and has a reasonable $2.15 million salary. Teams will want this and Holland will find a way to use him to fill holes left by dealing other players.

Matt Benning

Benning is the ideal 3rd-pair defenseman, able to move up and down the lineup, physical and able to play on the power play if necessary. But $1.9 million is too high in this economic reality.

Matt Benning Oilers
Matt Benning, Edmonton Oilers, Oct. 21, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As an RFA, Holland will take advantage of outside interest to move Benning to free up money and acquire another player or draft picks for his other moves. Benning will not be qualified and have to settle for a lower salary or be traded.

Adam Larsson

He’s on the final year of a $4.2 million contract. The team desperately needs the grit and heaviness Larsson brings to the team, but injuries have limited both the number of games he can play and his effectiveness in them.

Edmonton Oilers Adam Larsson
Edmonton Oilers’ Adam Larsson (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

He’s still a good player with a specific skill set in demand. Holland will be shopping him around to teams (Hello Leafs?) and hope to replace him with an equally heavy but cheaper option.

Players It Will Affect Positively

Oscar Klefbom

Poor Klefbom has been maligned for not being a true 1st-pairing d-man, but who else in the league has a long-term bargain contract and can effectively play the role? Oscar is going nowhere and his ice time will remain high.

Kyler Yamamoto

The Oilers’ “other” breakout player: driven, a buzz-saw, no quit, talented and still on his entry-level contract (ECL). Has already made head coach Dave Tippett’s plan of separating Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl a success. The only worry is injuries.

Tyler Ennis

Ennis showed great chemistry and effort wherever he was placed in the lineup after he was acquired. Holland will be able to sign him near the league minimum and he’ll be back.

Caleb Jones

Young, talented and Seth’s brother. He is cheap and ready to take a spot on the blue line while still on his ELC.

Josh Archibald

On a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, Archibald will be playing everywhere up and down the lineup. He is a versatile and affordable player.

The Bakersfield (Not Quite) Dozen

Bouchard, Benson, McLeod, Broberg and Lagesson will be given every opportunity to make the team and develop while they’re still on cheap contracts.

… And the Rest

All those after Gilligan and The Skipper in the iconic TV show theme song including Haas, Nygard, Patrick Russell, William Lagesson, et al, are already on bargain short-term contracts and will be asked to show they can do more, much more. Given how much value is now placed on serviceable players on reasonable contracts, not only did Russell recently get a nice new salary for a bubble player, he was given a one-way contract.

Players Who Might Be Affected Either Way

Ethan Bear

Bear’s breakout season was the story of the season for the Oilers. He has fantastic hockey sense, amazing outlet passes and improved his reads and positioning. Drafted in the 5th round, he just might be the Oil’s version of Nik Lidstrom. He’s likely headed for a bridge deal, but he’ll be given every playing opportunity to show why he deserves more. First, he’ll have to prove he wasn’t a one-year wonder. I’d bet on Ethan and go long term.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

The Oilers version of Ron Francis, Nugent-Hopkins is supremely talented and equally responsible defensively; he seldom gets the love and respect he deserves. Holland will find a way to keep him, but he might have to lower his pre-COVID financial expectations to get a longer-term deal.

Jesse Puljujarvi

If Puljujarvi is serious about playing in the NHL next year, he will have to be willing to sign a contract similar to the “And the Rest” gang, certainly lower than Archibald’s. It’s time for the young man to prove it. He could thrive on his return, after success back home in Finland, but he could just as easily stink up the joint. He was immature and un-coachable in his first kick with the Oilers.

Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers
Jesse Puljujarvi (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Playing in your own city and in your native language in a lower league is one thing. Playing in “The Show” is quite another. I suspect Holland moves him for either a proven NHLer or to recoup all the lost 2020 draft picks. I hope I’m wrong, and he kills it, becoming more Aho than Sebastian, except in Edmonton.

Players Going Nowhere

Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl: Are You Kidding Me?

James Neal

Nobody is going to take a solid but ageing player at the end of his career at $5.75 million except in return for something similar. Never mind. Holland won this deal simply by not having to protect Milan Lucic in the Seattle expansion draft. His 19 goals were a bonus. When healthy, he can still chip in offensively. Great hands. Proven winner. A fiery temperament that’s needed to stir this group.

An Old Face Likely to Come In

Sam Gagner

If Holland hasn’t already been on the phone to Gagner’s agent, he should be. He is itching to come back and can play a positive role on this club at the price he’ll command, which will be closer to the league minimum than his former $3.15 million.

The Oilers’ Holland isn’t the only GM in the league having to drastically re-visit and re-tool his roster planning for next season. Holland, however, has always been an incrementalist, tinkering around the edges, striving to make the “whole” more than the sum of the parts. This is exactly what is needed now. He is well-suited to take the team into 2020-21.


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