The Edmonton Oilers are going to be a competitive team once again this season while also pushing the limit in cap space, as they have nine forwards, seven defencemen, and both goaltenders signed already for a cap hit of $71 million. With the salary cap increasing by $1 million to $82.5 million next season, they have a bit of space to work with to sign their three restricted free agents for this upcoming season and decide who their extras at forward will be.
The cap situation may get tricky a couple years down the line as the Oilers will surely be planning on re-signing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and make sure they have enough space to do so. I’ve mentioned the three restricted free agents: Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Ryan McLeod who will likely continue to get better and demand more money soon. On top of that is Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Stuart Skinner who require an NHL contract after they come off their entry-level deals in the next year or two.
Along with those names, the Oilers will also have to watch, but likely hand out bridge deals to the next batch of talent after that who will eventually fill out the lineup. Once the roster starts getting crowded and their young players start pushing for not only roster spots, but spots higher in the lineup, there are a few trade candidates that should come out of the veterans.
Oilers Will Have 3 Trade Candidates Within 3-4 Years
As far as contracts and age go, the most likely players that will become more expendable are Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman, and Evander Kane.
All three make between $5 million and $5.5 million, so it could become a little pricey for one or more of them down the line if any start to noticeably regress. I’ll start with Kane considering the Oilers got him at a great price right now for a good term. It would have been difficult for general manager Ken Holland to lock him up at anything less than four years since he was looking for security and a certain price point. Any shorter and he would have probably been paid more per season.
Kane was on pace to score over 40 goals last season if he had played the entire regular season, but dominated when he did play with the Oilers during the regular season and playoffs. He is the perfect winger for McDavid who can keep up with him and know where to go to score goals. Four years isn’t bad at all when you also look at Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman who are signed for six and seven more years.
Even if Kane regressed faster than anticipated, his contract will either be more easily dealt with and could cost less to be traded out or moved down the lineup and take up cap space for less time. How I envision this going if any of these players do regress and the Oilers choose to move them down the lineup is how they treated Milan Lucic’s sudden decline, where he played with the Oilers and is now playing for the Calgary Flames.
At the time Nugent-Hopkins re-signed for eight years, I believed it was a hometown discount, and Edmonton doesn’t get very many of those. Comparing what he makes to others of similar skill and age, they saved themselves $1-2 million for a player that is strong defensively, a key to the power play, has chemistry with each of the top two centres on the Oilers and can play wing or centre.
Nugent-Hopkins plays a major role and the Oilers noticeably missed him on their special teams and at five-on-five when he was out with an injury last season. But seven years is a long time for things to change, especially for a 29-year-old. His deal will take him to age 36, and it is almost a certainty he will have declined by then. By that time, the hope is that it won’t be very fast and the defensive side of his game can excel if his offence dries up. The league salary cap will have also raised a significant amount by then, so the $5.125 million won’t take up 6.2 percent of the cap space the Oilers have right now.
Hyman is a workhorse, but the risk of his decline being quicker than the other two players mentioned above is higher, as he throws caution to the wind and will go hard into every puck battle. He has suffered injuries in his career, and when he signed his seven-year deal last summer, everyone knew the risk. The hope was that he would be able to perform at a high level in the first half of his contract before his game caught up with him. Fortunately for the Oilers, his first season was a success and he only missed six games in the process.
Like Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman is key on the penalty kill and power play while being effective at five-on-five to retrieve pucks for either of the two elite centermen the Oilers have. He will hit when needed and is strong defensively as well. With a year less on his deal with the Oilers than Nugent-Hopkins, one year older, and at a higher risk of decline, both of these players would be the two likeliest trade candidates down the line.
Prospects That Could Force the Veterans Out
For Kane to become expendable, his decline will have to be noticeable and there would have to be a replacement in the top six sooner than later. The Oilers’ forward prospects that are close to being NHL-ready are Dylan Holloway and Raphael Lavoie.
Holloway may very well play the entire season with the Oilers, and though he should start out in a bottom-six role, I would imagine it would be on the third line with his skill set. The third line is typically referred to as the checking line but is also a good place for a skilled young player to come in and play. I’ve mentioned in a past article that he has great speed and stick-handling ability while also being compared to Hyman as he works hard and is physical when he needs to be. Holloway may be the biggest threat to Hyman’s spot in the lineup if he develops quickly and Hyman regresses by the time Holloway is in line to get paid.
Lavoie may still need at least another season in the American Hockey League (AHL), but he is progressing and developing. He has spent a season and a half with the Bakersfield Condors and has shown immense talent at times. He is a big presence and has a strong shot that will hopefully translate to the pro level sooner rather than later.
As for some of the high-level prospects the Oilers have coming in a few years, they have Xavier Bourgault, Tyler Tullio, Carter Savoie, Matvei Petrov, and even Reid Schaefer who should be on the team long before the contracts of Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman are finished. That group of prospects includes the Oilers’ previous two first-round picks and three prospects who are turning out to be steals chosen later in the 2020 and 2021 Drafts.
Typically when long-term deals are signed with players who are in their late 20s and early 30s, it is expected to only be good for them for the first half of the deal to get the player and win during that time. If the contract still looks alright past that point, then great. Holland has done better than expected drafting talent at forward that should push for spots in the coming years, and lock down veterans for fair prices to help the team while McDavid and Draisaitl are still under contract. It’s not a perfect strategy, but many teams do it and have success in the process.