For most Edmonton Oilers fans, it’s clear the team has some major needs in order to compete for a playoff spot. They need two top-six scoring wingers to play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers also need a right-shooting top-four defenseman that can play on the power play until Evan Bouchard is ready for The Show. Edmonton also needs help in goal as Mikko Koskinen doesn’t give me much faith in his ability to be a full-time starting goaltender.
The Oilers have quite a large shopping list, but unfortunately, they don’t have the funds necessary to buy everything they need at once. The team is going to have to go shopping in the bargain bin until they can clear some cap space. Fortunately, there are some upcoming free agents the Oilers should be able to afford if they manage their cap situation efficiently leading into July. Let’s take a look at the players I think Ken Holland and the Oilers should target during free agent frenzy.
It may have taken Brett Connolly a while to find his footing at the NHL level, but I think he’s found it at just the right time. This past season with the Washington Capitals, Connolly posted a career-high in goals (22), assists (24) and points (46). He’s entering unrestricted free-agency at 27 years of age, still in his prime. Connolly is also coming off a two-year contract with the Capitals that saw him make $1.5 million per year.
Forecasting a contract that Connolly might be looking for is tough. Until this past season, he had never hit 20 goals. To see if the 22 goals he scored was an outlier, I checked out his career shooting percentage. Over the last three seasons, Connolly posted 15 goals on 81 shots (18.5%), 15 goals on 67 shots (22.4%), and 22 goals on 139 shots (15.8%). His overall career shooting percentage is 13.6%, which is pretty close to this past season where he scored his high of 22 goals. This was the first NHL season where Connolly took more than 100 shots on goal. In my opinion, if he is given top-six minutes, there is no reason to doubt his ability to score 20-plus goals for years to come.
To try and figure out his value in a contract, we need to find some comparable players to Connolly. The first player that comes to mind is winger Michael Grabner. He currently has a cap hit of $3.35 million over the next two seasons. Prior to his three-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes in 2018, Grabner had posted seasons of nine, 27, and 27 goals, respectively. His career high in points was 52 with the New York Islanders in 2010-11. Looking at how long it has taken Connolly to grasp his role in the NHL, I would think any length of contract at a value of $3.35 million would be fair. McDavid and Draisaitl need scoring help on their wings, and I think Connolly would be a really good fit for them.
The next player contract to compare with what Connolly should receive, is forward Rickard Rakell with the Anaheim Ducks. Coming out of this entry-level contract in 2015-16, Rakell posted a then career-high of 20 goals, 23 assists and 43 points for the Ducks. He was signed to a six-year contract worth $22.8 million, or $3.8 million annually. Rakell has gone on to have two 30-goal seasons since his extension with the Ducks.
If the Oilers could lock up Connelly for anywhere between $3-3.8 million per year, they would be in great shape.
The next player I believe the Oilers should target is power forward Micheal Ferland. In Ferland’s past three seasons, he has posted 15, 21, and 17 goals, respectively. His past two seasons have also seen him post 41 and 40 points. He is coming off a contract that saw him make $3.5 million over two years, or $1.75 million annually.
Forecasting a contract for Ferland would be similar to Connolly in my opinion. Ferland brings an edge that many teams look for as he can get under the skin of almost any opponent. I also believe Ferland is an underrated skater, so his ability to keep up with McDavid or Draisaitl would not be out of the question. He’s a body the Oilers could also utilize on the power play as a net-front presence.
Targeting Ferland would probably cost the Oilers anywhere from $3 million to $3.5 million per year. Like Connolly, Ferland is only 27 and still has plenty of mileage to go before he slows down. Ferland will be highly sought-after, so if the Oilers find themselves getting into a bidding war for his services, I think they should cap themselves at $3.85 million per year. Anything more should be met with caution.
The last forward I believe the Oilers should target in free agency is their own UFA Alex Chiasson. Coming off a career-year in both goals (22) and points (38), Chiasson is an interesting player to look at.
Chiasson was signed to a PTO in September by the Oilers where he showed very well in training camp. This earned him a one-year contract worth $650,000.
Chiasson rode a crazy shooting percentage in the first half of the season before coming back to Earth and finishing with just five goals in his final 32 games. I believe Chiasson can be effective on the second-line playing about 14 to 17 minutes a night. He was paired with McDavid for a while last season but seemed to slow down as the games progressed due to the increased minutes he was eating.
Chiasson is also a capable power-play producer where he might be well-suited to the second-unit. I really like Chiasson and I believe that he can score between 15-20 goals a year if given the ice-time. Obviously that number might not be high enough as the Oilers need their top-six wingers to produce closer to 25 goals per year to keep up with the rest of the contenders in the Western Conference, but if they could lock him up to a three year deal at an average of $2-3 million per year, I would take that in a heartbeat.
It’s hard not to salivate at the thought of going after a UFA like Erik Karlsson on July 1, but we need to remember that the Oilers shopping list is to find bargains at the right price. Unless Ken Holland pulls off some kind of miracle with the salary cap, Karlsson won’t be coming near Edmonton, nor do I think he would sign here, anyway. After Karlsson’s experience in Ottawa, I’m sure he is going to stay far away from Canadian markets when negotiating his next contract.
Since the Oilers won’t be going after the best UFA defenseman on the market, we need to shift our attention to who else is available. The first notable name after Karlsson is Tyler Myers out of Winnipeg. He is a big right-shooting D-man who can eat top-four minutes every night, but looking at his projected cap hit, I would think the Oilers would be best to avoid the bidding war that will ensue for Myers.
The next player I see available is very interesting. Before some of you shudder at the thought of Jake Gardiner becoming an Oiler, hear me out. Yes, it’s clear that the last two playoff appearances with the Leafs didn’t go so well for Gardiner against Boston. He was eaten alive in Game 7 in 2018 where he was a minus-five in Boston’s 7-4 victory. He also struggled in Game 7 again this past April where the Bruins emerged victorious in a 5-1 win to knock out the Leafs in two straight postseasons.
Despite Gardiner’s struggles against the Bruins, he is actually a very capable top-four defenseman who can chip in offensively. He was instrumental in the Leafs making the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. He is coming off a contract that saw him making just over $4 million per year. With his playoff struggles, I can see his value being lower than maybe it should be.
Take away Gardiner’s last two Game 7 performances against the Bruins, and I see a player that would probably make anywhere from $4.5-5.25 million per year. For the Oilers, they might be able to take advantage of his perceived playoff weakness and nab him for anywhere from $4-4.75 million per year. He isn’t a right-shooting power play specialist that they should be looking for, but he would be a huge upgrade over Kris Russell if they managed to trade that contract before free agency begins.
After Gardiner, I don’t really see any defensemen the Oilers should be targeting. They have many young prospects developing in the minors and junior that will be close to making the leap to the NHL, including Evan Bouchard, Dmitri Samurokov, Caleb Jones, and Ethan Bear. If the Oilers target anyone on the blue line during free agency, it should only be Gardiner, and only if they manage to rid themselves of Russell’s contract beforehand.
Mikko Koskinen was signed to a three-year contract extension by the Oilers on Jan. 21, 2019. Leading up to the contract extension, he was 14-10-1 with three shutouts, a 2.78 GAA, and a .911 save percentage. His contract is worth a whopping $4.5 million per year.
At the time his contract was announced, it was confusing for fans and the media. How can a guy who has never played a full season in the NHL, suddenly be given a starting goalie’s contract? His numbers weren’t even that great at the time of the signing, either. The Oilers put their faith in an unproven netminder that played inconsistently all season. The organization needs someone to push Koskinen, or at the very least, be able to hold their own should Koskinen crumble during the season.
The Oilers have a couple of prospects developing in the minors (Stuart Skinner and Shane Starrett), but they aren’t projected to be ready for NHL action come October. What the Oilers need right now is someone who can push Koskinen every night, and eat minutes should Koskinen struggle under the weight of the starting position. The UFA goalie I would want the Oilers to target is Ryan Miller.
Miller played 20 games for the Ducks this season, posting a record of 8-7-2 with one shutout and a 2.76 GAA to go along with a .912 save percentage. There is some concern that with his age (39), he is near the end of his career and will not be effective in net for much longer. I disagree. It is true that at the age of 39, your career is definitely in its twilight, but when it comes to Ryan Miller, I think he still has some gas left in the tank to give a team that signs him one or two solid seasons in net. That is, if he can stay healthy.
I could see Miller making about $2-2.75 million per season. If the Oilers were to sign him, it would mean they would have two goaltenders who would be combining for almost $7.5 million dollars against the salary cap. That is a hefty amount for a team that is already struggling with their cap management, but Miller could really solidify the net for Edmonton. If Miller played about 35 games and Koskinen taking on the other 47 games, the Oilers might be able to have a dynamic duo that they are confident in playing no matter the opponent.
With rumors circulating that Scott Darling will be bought out by the Carolina Hurricanes, I feel it would be in the Oilers best interest to take a look at him as a potential backup for Koskinen.
Darling has struggled over the past two seasons with the Hurricanes and even stepped away from the team entirely. The reason I would want the Oilers to look at giving Darling a chance is that they would probably be able to sign him to a PTO for training camp and if he outplays Starrett, Skinner and others, could be signed to a near league-minimum contract. Obviously, much of this scenario rests on Darling being mentally fit to compete at the NHL level again.
Darling is a goalie who posted good numbers for the Chicago Blackhawks just three seasons ago. In my opinion, this would be a low-risk, high-reward opportunity for the Oilers at a very low price.
Obviously, in a best-case scenario, Koskinen emerges as a true No. 1 goalie and plays 55-plus games for the Oilers. Realistically, this won’t be the case, so having a proven veteran in Miller come in and hopefully be able to push Koskinen every night will be something I would like to see. Internal competition brings out the best in players, and both Miller and Koskinen would be playing to prove themselves and take over the starting job.
As it stands right now, the Oilers shopping list is bigger than they will be able to afford once free agency begins. However, I do believe that with the players mentioned above, the team can obtain some bargain deals and make themselves better up front, on the blue line, or in net, if they choose.
Ken Holland has his work cut out for him. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes right now with the cap situation he was left to fix, but I have faith. The NHL is full of players who are ready to make an impact and prove themselves. Having a player like Connor McDavid helps too, as you can slot almost any capable winger with him and find production. It’s bargain season in Oil Country. Let’s hope they take advantage of the sales before someone else cuts in front of the line.