Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland did himself a huge favour this past week by signing defenceman Darnell Nurse to a two-year bridge deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $5.6 million. The contract has been a hotly debated topic within the Oilers fanbase, which was compounded by reports that Nurse’s camp was seeking upwards of $8 million per year on a long-term deal.
Many, including myself, thought the negotiations would last long into the summer months. It seemed as though both the team and the player were so far apart in their demands that it was guaranteed to become a volatile situation.
That, as we now know, has not been the case and it affords Holland and the rest of Edmonton’s management team some much-needed flexibility heading into the summer.
The Oilers cap situation is much more clear as the team prepares to head into a very important offseason. If we assume the NHL salary cap rises to $83 million (an estimated $1.5 million increase from the current 81.5 million) and that the Oilers don’t add any players with term at this year’s deadline, the team will have about $15 million in cap space to play with.
Now that the big-fish is out of the way in Nurse, what are the other issues that present themselves to the Oilers?
While Nurse proved to be the biggest restricted free agent in need of a contract before this week, that honour now falls upon Ethan Bear.
Bear is undoubtedly the surprise story of the season for the Oilers. The 2015 fifth-round draft pick has bounced between the American Hockey League and NHL the past few seasons but looks to have found himself a permanent spot on the big club.
After making the team out of training camp, Bear has been a staple on Edmonton’s blue line. His astute hockey IQ makes him one of the club’s smartest defenceman in the defensive zone and he has shown some encouraging offensive flashes. Add that to the fact that he averages more than 20 minutes of ice-time per game at the age of 22, the Oilers might have themselves a special player.
A wise move by Holland would be to get Bear locked up to a long-term extension this summer. If we take a look at some comparable contracts around the league we can get a good sense at what Bear’s next NHL contract might look like.
The most popular comparable that is used in reference to Bear comes from Edmonton’s provincial rival in Calgary. The Flames recently signed defenseman Rasmus Andersson to a six-year deal with an AAV of $4.55 million after he spent just one and a half years as a full-time NHLer. He has garnered a grand total of 33 points in that span over the course of 132 NHL games.
To contrast that with Bear, who has 22 points in just 73 career NHL games, you have yourself a pretty decent comparable. If I were to make a guess right now I would probably peg Bear’s next contract at an AAV of $4.25 million for the next 4 seasons.
This would bring Edmonton’s total cap-space down to about $10.5 million. Some other RFAs who might be signed, but nowhere near the AAV of Bear, are Matthew Benning, William Lagesson, Colby Cave and Joel Persson.
The next crop of players that will be at the forefront of Holland’s mind this summer is his group of pending unrestricted free agents. Headlining this year’s crop are forwards Josh Archibald, Riley Sheahan, Sam Gagner, Gaeten Haas, Joakim Nygard, and goaltender Mike Smith.
Archibald and Sheahan are the most likely to return to next season’s team, as speculation from Edmonton media seems to point to the duo being signed sooner rather than later.
I don’t think multi-year deals should be on the table for either of these players. They have started to finally produce at a consistent rate these past few months but were practically invisible before that. They are valuable role players and perform exceptionally well on the penalty kill but I find it hard to give them anything more than a one-year term. Think about the regression of Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson as references to why two-year deals for role players can be a bad idea. (from ‘Edmonton Oilers trade list from Jujhar Khaira to Adam Larsson: Who might move at the 2020 deadline?,’ Edmonton Journal, 01/24/2020)
As for money, I believe both players will be looking for a slight raise. I could see Sheahan upping his salary from $900,000 to something like $1.1 million, while Archibald goes from $1 million to $1.2 million.
Mike Smith is the next most important player on that list and I don’t see him returning. Smith has put up a very nice season for a 37-year-old goaltender but I don’t see the Oilers betting on him again when there are better, younger, options available in free agency.
Gagner, Haas and Nygard are all players that have been useful at some point this year but, as it stands, it’s hard to get a real idea of where the organization stands with them. It is equally possible each player signs on for another year or each one is let go to test free agency. I can’t quite get a handle on them just yet.
Roster Holes to Fill
After all the internal players have been dealt with there is still some additional work needed for Holland come free agency. If we are to assume that all of Bear, Sheahan and Archibald sign for my speculated amount the team will have a total of $8.3 million (pending any trades) to fill out the rest of their roster.
If we are to believe that no changes are made to the core roster that means that Holland would have to fill the following holes with that money:
- Top-six winger
- Third-line center
- Backup goaltender
- Two depth forwards
It seems like Holland will be hard-pressed to fill all these holes without making a few moves to open up more cap space. Perhaps a trade involving Kris Russell could open up enough space to go all in for a player like Mike Hoffman or, better yet, facilitate a reunion between Taylor Hall and the Edmonton Oilers?
Both these moves might seem unlikely but they are helped significantly by the fact that the team now has Nurse signed on a reasonable deal. Holland’s ability to maneuver Nurse’s camp down from their $8 million asking price has afforded the team that much more freedom in deciding its fate come this summer.