Oilers Offseason Options Seriously Limited by Keith Trade

For a long period of time, in the era known in the city of Edmonton as the Decade of Darkness, it was an accepted fact that many players simply didn’t want to play here. An arena in a sketchy part of town, winters that last almost as long as the National Hockey League’s full 82 game schedule, and a team that underachieved when it wasn’t failing outright. So the news that a well-known Hockey Hall of Fame-bound player with numerous championships to their name was specifically requesting to come play for the Edmonton Oilers should be exciting, right?

The problem, of course, is that the 2021 version of this particular player, Duncan Keith, is arguably not worth the dollar figures attached to him at this point in his career. He was one of the best defensemen of the 2000s, to be sure, but at $5.5 million for each of the next two seasons, with a full no-movement clause as well, he simply no longer provides value for money. While there were potential routes to a workable trade, Oilers general manager Ken Holland, who everyone knows operates with full autonomy, was neither able to convince the Chicago Blackhawks to retain salary nor take any significant dollars in return. In a summer that could not be more important for the Oilers, this first, big transaction seems to be a misstep.

Oilers Were Expected to Spend in Free Agency

After two years of struggling with the overpayments and buyouts associated with Peter Chiarelli’s reign of terror, Edmonton looked ready to bring in some big pieces to fill out the middle and back end of a roster that boasts two of the game’s best players up front in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Money was going to be spent, and an overpayment here or there wasn’t unexpected, with the end goal being a team that can challenge the Tampa Bay Lightnings of the league for the Stanley Cup. The overpayment has arrived, and the question of whether the team is better for it is certainly up for debate. Looking towards the rest of the offseason, how does this move affect the Oilers’ plans?

Duncan Keith requested a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks, and his longtime team agreed to do so. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Oilers began the day with $16,220,841 of cap space available, plus more from potential buyouts and other events, such as the upcoming expansion draft. Caleb Jones’ $850,000 going out, plus Keith’s $5.5 million coming in, puts the new total available space at $11,532,379 (cap figures courtesy of capfriendly.com). The team needs to fix its situation in net and upgrade its top six while also potentially replacing upcoming free agent players like Tyson Barrie, Adam Larsson, and Dmitri Kulikov. Keith might fill one of those defensive slots, and prospects like Philip Broberg and Evan Bouchard could take a step forward, but the narrative, as the GM told Oiler fans, “you can’t go for it every year” was that this offseason the NHL’s northernmost franchise would be making waves.

Adding more than $4 million cap dollars to the team without clearly improving the roster seems like the wrong approach. And giving up two assets for Keith, when several players with similar or better production could be had for free once the UFA signing period opens up, also isn’t ideal. Here are some upcoming UFA defensemen as of July 28th:

  • Alexander Edler (Age: 35; current salary: $6 million/season)
  • Dougie Hamilton (Age 28; current salary: $5.75 million/season)
  • Marc Staal (Age: 34, current salary: $5.7 million/season)
  • Ryan Murray (Age: 27, current salary $4.6 million)
  • Alec Martinez (Age: 33, current salary $4 million)
Dougie Hamilton Carolina Hurricanes
Dougie Hamilton, who played with the Carolina Hurricanes last year, is one of the more notable names expected to hit free agency. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Far from an exhaustive list, but each of those mentioned above is younger than Keith, and all posted better plus/minus numbers than the 38-year-old defenseman. The money might even have been put to better use signing Barrie to a long-term deal after his comeback season last year in Edmonton, where he posted 48 points in 56 games. Barrie has his defensive flaws, much like Keith, but he’s a known commodity for the Oilers and is nine years younger. The money spent on Keith likely takes Edmonton out of the running for Barrie if they ever had any plans in that direction.

Buyouts Seem Likely for Oilers

By backing themselves into this financial corner only a week into the offseason, it’s likely Edmonton’s management will make the decision to buy out some of their uglier contracts in order to give themselves room to add the other pieces this roster needs. Both James Neal and Mikko Koskinen make more money than they are worth, and the moves would give short term relief, as would buying out Kyle Turris to a lesser degree, but it would continue a trend in Edmonton where the mistakes of the past are visited upon both the present and the future. The team only just finished paying Benoit Pouliot, who last suited up as an Oiler in 2017, this season, and Andrej Sekera will be on the books until the end of 2022-23.

Andrej Sekera Dallas Stars
Andrej Sekera was paid $1.5 million dollars by the Edmonton Oilers this season, while playing for the Dallas Stars. His buyout ends in 2022-23. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For the Oilers to have been unable to spend to the cap for the lion’s share of McDavid’s career is a massive concern, and a James Neal buyout would continue that trend until 2024-25, only a year shy of the Oilers’ captain’s current 8-year deal expiring. Holland’s hesitancy to improve his roster at the most recent trade deadline meant McDavid’s unworldly 105 point season translated into exactly zero playoff wins. All can agree that’s unacceptable and that the team needs to take a step forward in 2021-22. This first move seems more like a stumble. Feel free to add your thoughts below.

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