3 Replacements for Oilers If Nugent-Hopkins Walks in Free Agency

If the Edmonton Oilers choose to let Ryan Nugent-Hopkins leave in free agency, the decision won’t sit well with a good chunk of the team’s fan base. That said, if it’s learned he wants more than he’s potentially worth, what the Oilers do with the $6 million in cap space could turn those who disagree with the decision around rather quickly.

As Elliotte Friedman pointed out during a spot on SN960, it’s not necessarily a bad thing in this flat cap market if Edmonton can find a better uses for that money. The Oilers will be challenged with having to find two top-six left-wingers in one offseason, but there are a few options out there.

Along with players like Blake Coleman, Jaden Schwartz, Taylor Hall and Alex Galchenyuk, here are a few names the Oilers should be keeping tabs on.

Outbid Toronto for Zach Hyman

Friedman was on Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer this past Friday and Stauffer said he could see a scenario where Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Zach Hyman gets $6 million over six years from another team. If that’s the eventual tag for Hyman, Toronto either needs to make a few roster moves to free up cash, or they’ll have no choice but to let him walk.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hannah Foslien)

During his 31 Thoughts podcast, on a couple of occasions, Friedman said he wouldn’t be surprised if one of the team’s that take a run at Hyman will be the Oilers. If Edmonton doesn’t re-sign Nugent-Hopkins, one of the arguments Oilers fans will make is that GM Ken Holland will immediately need to find a player like Nugent-Hopkins if they no longer have Nugent-Hopkins. Hyman is about as close as it comes.

He’s a penalty killing machine and a strong two-way player. He’s excellent in 5-x5 situations and more of a grinder than Nugent-Hopkins. He could find chemistry with Connor McDavid that Nuge couldn’t seem to find on the top line, or Hyman can be effective in any top-nine left-wing role.

$6 million is a huge bump on his current pay, but he might be the most sought-after free agent on the market if he gets there.

Related: Oilers History: The Day Edmonton Saved the Franchise

Trade for Jake Guentzel

With a possible change in direction coming for the Pittsburgh Penguins and more of a focus on physical play, Mark Madden of TribLive.com notes there’s a chance GM Ron Hextall and President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke might contemplate a trade that would move forward Jake Guentzel.

Jake Guentzel Pittsburgh Penguins
Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang is likely to stay together, so Madden suggests that a Guentzel trade could fetch the Penguins a nice return, while shifting the club towards players who won’t be beaten and battered around during playoff time. It seems incredible that the Penguins would be open to trading such a strong scoring threat, but if this actually comes to pass, the Oilers should be making a phone call.

Guentzel is 26, a gifted offensive talent and his cap hit comes in at a similar $6 million. This season he potted 23 goals and 57 points in 56 games. The season prior, he had 43 points and 20 goals in 39 games. In 2018-19, he scored 40 goals to go with 76 points in 82 games. This is a player who is a lock to produce at his salary and consistently more effective than Nugent-Hopkins. If Holland wants a “sure thing”, this guy is it.

The issue here will be what the Oilers have to give up to get him. It’s one thing to replace Nugent-Hopkins with another free agent, but to lose a player, then have to trade a number of assets to get a top-line left-winger means some potentially massive turnover. Remember, this probably isn’t a trade where the Penguins want only futures or draft picks. They want physical players and the Oilers aren’t exactly swimming in a surplus of toughness.

Sign a Motivated Tomas Tatar

It’s highly unlikely Tomas Tatar is back with the Montreal Canadiens next season. The team will have a lot of work to do on their salary cap and Tatar is a pending UFA that is taking up too much salary cap space for a team that won’t be able to sign him and hasn’t used him consistently.

Joel Armia, Shea Weber, Tomas Tatar
Montreal Canadiens right wing Joel Armia celebrates with teammates Shea Weber and Tomas Tatar (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

Back in Februrary of 2020, there were reports in Elliotte Friedman’s 31 thoughts column that the Oilers had kicked tires on Tatar before. He wrote:

I think the Oilers have, at the very least, looked into Tomas Tatar. (Pittsburgh would be another team with interest.) GM Ken Holland knows him very well. Again, though, Montreal feels injuries derailed its season and wants to be competitive in 2020-21. So you’ve really got to move the needle to get the Canadiens’ attention. 

Jason Gregor recently wrote on Oilers Nation that Tatar, “would be ideal on a one-year show-me deal.” Noting he scored 20-29 goals in six of the last seven seasons, his production 5×5 is what really stands out. He was able to be productive without stars like Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl and he’s likely willing to sign a shorter-term contract.

If he accepts a one-year between $3.5 and $4 million — and he might to play with some top-tier talent — the Oilers would have another $2 million to go out and try to find a suitable third-line center — assuming they don’t think Ryan McLeod is quite ready for that role.

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