There is no foolproof plan to return the Edmonton Oilers to championship glory. No how to for dummies book on fixing the Oilers.
Peter Chiarelli, the recently appointed new general manager, has his work cut out for him in turning this team into a contender again. The fan base is growing impatient, but after winning the draft lottery for the fourth time in a decade, optimism is on the rise again, with many clamouring for a playoff appearance as early as next season.
That will be an uphill battle for Chiarelli and his new coach — expected to be Todd McLellan — but it could be achieved by following this step-by-step process.
Step 1: Draft McDavid
OK, that’s a no-brainer, but it all starts there. Step up to the podium and say the name Connor McDavid on June 26th and away you go. From there, the Oilers have two key holes to fill — a top-flight defenceman and a proven starting goaltender.
Step 2: Trade For Seabrook
Brent Seabrook has one year left on his contract worth $5.8 million and the cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks won’t likely be able to extend him. They are going to need to move some salary out this summer and Seabrook’s name has been bandied about — most recently by Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal.
If he’s available, the Oilers need to be all over that, especially if the asking price is mostly futures. Seabrook won’t come as cheap as Nick Leddy did for the New York Islanders — acquired from Chicago under similar circumstances for minor-league defencemen T.J. Brennan, defence prospect Ville Pokka and the rights to goaltender Anders Nilsson, a restricted free agent who spent this season in Russia.
No, Seabrook will command a significantly bigger return, but the Oilers have the assets to pull off this kind of blockbuster.
To Edmonton = Brent Seabrook
To Chicago = Martin Marincin, David Musil, 2015 1st round pick (16th overall via Pittsburgh), 2015 2nd round pick (33rd overall) and a conditional 2016 1st round pick (if Seabrook re-signs with the Oilers)
ANALYSIS: It is a steep price to pay, especially if Seabrook isn’t willing to stick around in Edmonton, but that is a chance the Oilers have to be willing to take. Marincin and Musil are both former second-rounders who have developed into nice NHL-ready defence prospects, while the Blackhawks would be getting at least two — and quite possibly three — quality draft choices to replenish their prospect pool and remain competitive long-term. If Chicago needs a veteran as part of the return, swap out Musil for Andrew Ference or Nikita Nikitin, whoever the Hawks prefer.
Failing that, the Oilers could offer a similar package for Brent Burns in San Jose — somebody McLellan is very familiar with — though his ability to defend isn’t on Seabrook’s level. For that reason, Burns wouldn’t be worth the extra first-rounder in 2016 and the Sharks probably wouldn’t demand it either. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, also in San Jose, and Boston’s Dougie Hamilton are two other targets to consider. Vlasic isn’t as dynamic as Burns but is the better defender — closer to Seabrook in terms of offering a “complete game” — while Hamilton projects to be the best of the bunch and Chiarelli’s former team, the Bruins, are also facing a cap crunch. Boston has yet to fill Chiarelli’s void, but would his replacement consider that Seabrook package for Hamilton? Maybe, but the asking price might be even higher. Hamilton is a restricted free agent, so an offer sheet could be coming his way, but that’s always a touchy subject.
Step 3: Trade Purcell for Wisniewski
This deal just makes too much sense not to happen. Wisniewski has been a healthy scratch for Anaheim the entire playoffs, stuck behind four young offensive blue-liners in Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Simon Despres. The latter was acquired near the trade deadline — much like Wisniewski — but has proven to be a better fit both in the present and presumably the future given his much cheaper cap hit. The Ducks would also like to re-sign veteran Francois Beauchemin, a pending UFA playing a key role in this playoff run, which will result in at least a slight raise on his $3.5-million salary.
Wisniewski is owed $5.5 million annually for 2 more years. It’s a hefty price-tag, but this guy tied for eighth in scoring amongst all defencemen just two seasons ago. The guys ahead of him were, in order, Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Dustin Byfuglien, Victor Hedman, P.K. Subban, Keith Yandle and Alex Pietrangelo (tied). Wisniewski put up 51 points in 75 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets that year and has amassed 30-plus points in three other campaigns, including 34 in 69 games split between Columbus and Anaheim this past season. He just turned 31 years old in February and has decent size, listed at 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds.
What’s more? Wisniewski actually broke into the league alongside Seabrook in Chicago — both were rookies in 2005-06 — and spent parts of four seasons with the Blackhawks. Sure, Wisniewski was suspended eight games for a blind-side hit on Seabrook in 2010 during his first stint with Anaheim, but they were buddies before that incident and Seabrook was even supposed to be in Wisniewski’s wedding party that summer. Not to worry, they have since patched up their friendship and would seemingly welcome this reunion.
So what’s in it for Anaheim? The Ducks won’t be asking for much in return and may have to take what they can get because of Wisniewski’s benching and their need to shed salary in order to retain Beauchemin. Look for Edmonton to express interest in Wisniewski and offer up winger Teddy Purcell in exchange. Purcell has just 1 year left at $4.5 million, so the Ducks would be saving a million dollars to offset Beauchemin’s increase while getting a serviceable second- or third-liner out of the deal. Anaheim isn’t overly deep up front, so coach Bruce Boudreau could certainly make more use of Purcell than he has Wisniewski.
To Edmonton = James Wisniewski
To Anaheim = Teddy Purcell
ANALYSIS: This would be a simple 1-for-1 swap that addresses a need for both teams. Nothing more needs to be said — it just works.
Step 4: Sign Niemi
This might not be a popular move, but Antti Niemi is a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender who only turns 32 in August and won’t cost anything but a seven-figure contract as a pending unrestricted free agent on July 1st. He obviously has a history with McLellan in San Jose, and the Sharks’ former coach stuck with him down the stretch despite falling short of the playoffs. McLellan would have a big say in this step, whether he trusts Niemi to get a new team over the top or whether he’d rather distance himself from the Finn.
Some will argue Niemi is over-rated, but if the Oilers are trading their 16th and 33rd overall selections for a blue-liner, then free agency might be their best bet for a netminder. Niemi is the best — or most established — option on the open market this summer.
That approach seemed to work for the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, who both qualified for the playoffs after signing veteran goalies last off-season. Niemi will probably be asking for something similar to Calgary’s Jonas Hiller (2 years, $4.5 million annually) or Vancouver’s Ryan Miller (3 years, $6 million annually).
Edmonton could afford to offer Niemi a 2-year contract worth $5.25 million annually ($10.50 million total). He might take that or slightly less to follow McLellan to the Oilers assuming their relationship isn’t strained from San Jose’s shortcomings. Keep Ben Scrivens as Niemi’s backup, with a plan to split the starts 50-32. That would give Edmonton a very competent platoon behind a much-improved defence.
Step 5: Bring Back Derek Roy
It is a subtle step, but an important one. Derek Roy had developed great chemistry with former first overall pick Nail Yakupov, who had been struggling and nearing bust status prior to Roy’s arrival from Nashville just as the calendar was flipping to 2015. Their instant connection provided the secondary scoring Edmonton had lacked in the first half of the season and restored excitement over Yakupov’s potential again. The upside is there and that second-half surge might only be scratching the surface, but Yakupov needs a certain kind of centre to generate offence and Roy was proving to be that guy.
Roy is another unrestricted free agent come July 1 and former general manager Craig MacTavish had indicated the Oilers were planning to extend him a contract offer. Whether Chiarelli shares that sentiment remains to be seen, but it would be a wise move. Roy won’t be overwhelmed with offers from other teams, but Chiarelli should still make it a priority to get this deal done before the end of June rather than risk losing him.
Roy, who turned 32 earlier this month, settled for a 1-year, $1-million contract with Nashville last summer. He’d probably sign the dotted line for the same terms this time around, but the Oilers could offer a token raise ($1.5 million) or more job security (2 years, $2 million total) to expedite the process and keep him from entertaining other options.
The Oilers will have to take care of a few other in-house steps, starting by buying out the last year of Nikitin’s deal assuming Chicago wouldn’t want to touch him with a 10-foot pole. He’s owed $4.5 million next season and a buyout would still count $1.5 million against Edmonton’s total salary cap, but it would be worth the $3 million in savings to move on from that blunder by the previous regime.
Justin Schultz needs a new deal as a restricted free agent coming off a 31-point campaign at $3.675 million. Considering that was 2 fewer points in 7 more games than the previous season — plus plenty of power-play time to pad his stats — Schultz won’t be able to ask for much of a raise and should still come in at under $4 million annually over the next 1 or 2 seasons.
Decisions will also need to be made on the likes of Matt Fraser, Keith Aulie, Andrew Miller, Brad Hunt, Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton — whether to bring any or all of them back and at what cost. Some of them will want one-way contracts, but they should all come in under $1 million individually and won’t make much difference in the big picture. There will be other dime-store options if they play hard to get. Chiarelli might have a couple of his own depth guys in mind that would be willing to sign for the league minimum or accept two-way contracts. Former Bruins forward Danielle Paille might that fit that bill.
2015-16 Depth Chart
ANALYSIS: Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle looked great alongside Sidney Crosby in helping Canada capture gold at the world championship. McDavid is supposed to be the second-coming of Crosby — and potentially even better — so he should slot in there nicely. There may be some growing pains from the outset, but expect them to be minor as opposed to major.
ANALYSIS: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle were on fire with Benoit Pouliot to end the season, so keeping two-thirds of that line in tact is a good place to start. Nugent-Hopkins is becoming a complete player and a bigger scoring threat in addition to being an excellent playmaker. Pouliot is a big body that skates well and has superb puck possession numbers. Draisaitl got a 37-game audition mostly under Dallas Eakins’ reign but was deemed not quite ready and sent back to junior. He’s been dominant for the Kelowna Rockets, leading them to a WHL championship and earning playoff MVP honours, so expect Draisaitl to return to Edmonton a more polished product. He’s played the wing in the past and would welcome that opportunity at the pro level.
ANALYSIS: Roy and Yakupov have worked magic together, and Lander is finally figuring it out too. Lander was one of Sweden’s better forwards at the worlds, so he could take a big step next season, especially playing alongside these two. Lander is also very responsible defensively, which will help make up for some of Yakupov’s offence-first tendencies.
ANALYSIS: This trio finished the season off together and will likely start as a unit again. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it when it comes to this checking line.
Pitlick(0.725)/C. Hamilton(0.725)/R. Hamilton(0.600)/ Miller(.0675)/Fraser(0.625)/Gazdic(0.800)
ANALYSIS: Those are last year’s salaries for the restricted free agents, but their contracts will remain in that ballpark for next season. Only 2 of those 6 will be on Edmonton’s opening-night roster with the rest bound for Bakersfield (AHL).
Forward Salary = 38.788
ANALYSIS: This would be taking a page from Garth Snow’s game-plan, as the Islanders GM acquired both Leddy and Johnny Boychuk — from Chiarelli’s Bruins — to shore up his top-four without subtracting from the back end. Adding Seabrook and Wisniewski would give the Oilers immediate credibility.
ANALYSIS: This partnership blossomed under interim coach Todd Nelson, so the new bench boss may be inclined to stick with what worked. Klefbom’s emergence makes this a legitimate second pairing on most NHL teams, and fortunately they can be shielded a bit more next season with Seabrook and Wisniewski getting the tougher assignments.
ANALYSIS: If Nurse is ready, he plays — simple as that. Ference still has 2 years left on his contract, but he could be expendable sooner than later if Nurse makes it impossible to send him down to the AHL. Ference is serviceable, so other teams would be willing to take him off Edmonton’s hands if it comes to that. But more than likely Nurse will start out in the minors for some additional seasoning that certainly won’t hurt his development. Fayne’s spot is safe as he’ll continue to be a steady, unspectacular presence next season.
ANALYSIS: Last year’s numbers again, but whoever ends up as the seventh defenceman won’t be making more than $800,000.
Defence Salary = 23.844 with Ference/22.338 with Nurse
ANALYSIS: With that defence in front of them and healthy competition between them, Niemi and Scrivens should be able to win more games than they lose. If that happens, the Oilers should contend for a playoff spot and be playing meaningful games into March at the very least.
Goalie Salary = 7.55
Buyouts = 1.5 (Nikitin)
Total Salary = $71.682 million with Ference/$70.176 million with Nurse
This is a cap team, bumping right up against the projected ceiling, with Seabrook needing an extension — and a sizable raise — for the following year. Gordon and Scrivens would both be coming off the books after next season, which would free up $5.3 million for Seabrook and cheaper replacements for those two.
Those calculations were made with the three extra skaters all at $750,000 salaries, so Chiarelli may have to go even cheaper on that front to ice a legal roster. But providing he follows these 5 steps, the Oilers should take a big step forward next season.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.