Might Edmonton Oilers do their 2020 free agent shopping in a few different aisles?

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Seems like just last week the Stanley Cup was handed out, and the day before yesterday that the NHL Draft finished up.

Oh wait… it was.

Already the league schedule is on fast forward into Free Agent Frenzy™, leaving precious little time to take stock of the current situation. The Draft’s interminable Day 2 actually overlapped Wednesday’s 15:00 MDT deadline for qualifying offers, during which the flat cap and other realities forced the hand of some clubs to cut loose some decent younger players to join the already swollen crop of unrestricted free agents. This group of unqualified RFA’s is by definition a younger subset of the larger group, and one of growing interest, especially in 2020.

Before considering potential signings, we must first establish where the holes are. Let’s take our traditional look at the state of the trimmed down Edmonton Oilers’ roster on the eve of free agent season.


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GM Ken Holland’s least pleasant task on Wednesday was the hard decision to cut loose no fewer than 8 of Edmonton’s 10 RFAs. This is a list where alphabetical order does the job nicely:

  • Andreas Athanasiou, 25, LW
  • Matthew Benning, 26, RD
  • Logan Day, 25, RD
  • Cameron Hebig, 23, C
  • Ryan Kuffner, 24, LW
  • Ryan Mantha, 24, RD
  • Angus Redmond, 24, G
  • Nolan Vesey, 25, LW

The first two names on the list are the only ones from the big league roster. Indeed, Athanasiou and Benning rank #1 and #4 league-wide with the highest qualifying platforms, at $3.0 and $2.0 million respectively. But as we will see, the Oilers simply had no room to manoeuvre with at least one of those qualifying offers.

Still, it had to sting Holland to say goodbye — at least for now! — to Athanasiou, a player he drafted, developed, and ultimately paid in Detroit. After the GM himself moved to Edmonton, he acquired the final stretch of that 2-year, $6 million pact at a significant cost, only to have COVID stop the hockey world in its tracks. The player had trouble adapting, and precious little time to do it as the team played just 9 of its scheduled 20 games after his arrival, then a short play-in series rather than the actual best-of-seven playOFF series it seemed the Oilers deserved.

Alas, that all fell apart. More significant was the enforcement of a flat cap that cut about $4 million from next year’s cap budget. It’s only 5%, right? Except when you’ve already got nearly $75 million committed, it cuts the marginal (a.k.a. “available) dollars from $11 to $7 million, about a 35% reduction. That’ll crimp anyone’s style.


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Let’s take our traditional look at the roster as it stands on the eve of free agency. None of the draft choices are signed yet, and those 8 no-longer-restricted free agents join the 9 fully unrestricted ones at No Fixed Address. That UFA group includes G Mike Smith, C Reilly Sheahan, and LW Tyler Ennis from the big-league roster. Early departures included the retired Mike Green and the deceased Colby Cave, may he rest in peace. It’s been a tough 2020 in Oil Country.

One outcome is a pared-down group of signed players. Just 36 spots are accounted for on the 50-man list, and when the two qualified RFAs presumably get extended that’ll bump to 38. Still leaves a dozen spots for Holland to fill in the coming days and weeks, or more likely, ten and a cushion. Indeed, in 2020 there may be a much larger cushion than that for the minor league side of the list. It’ll be a tough market for AHL-class players until there’s an actual AHL to play in.


The white spaces at the bottom represent open spots for actual NHL players. While the NHL roster is officially limited to 23 + injuries, I prefer to project a roster of 25, allowing for 5 full forward lines and 4 defence pairs along with 2 goalies.

Biggest change here comes at 3LW, Athanasiou’s former spot on the depth chart. In his place is the one player Edmonton recently added to the roster, Jesse Puljujarvi. I know he’s a right winger but it was easier and somehow appropriate to airlift him right into A.A.’s spot. As poorly as the Athanasiou file may reflect on Holland’s record, he did a sharp bit of business with young J.P., waiting patiently while the young Finn recharged his batteries on home soil for a season, then signing him this week to a two-year pact at an attractive cap hit. I for one never figured on a second year, but Holland negotiated it, structured the deal to both player’s and club’s advantage, and in a stroke has added speed, size and skill in a strapping 22-year-old package. While I realize that both players were initially acquired at the cost of valuable draft picks, in one sense this week’s moves at that roster spot were effectively a trade of A.A. for J.P…. plus a tidy $1.825 million in cap space.


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The imbalance of 6 right-shot wingers to 3 lefties is something Holland would like to address. Josh Archibald played a little LW last year, but none of the righties is easily adapted to the port side. Thus the recent rumours of a RW-for-LW trade, with Alex Chiasson most often named. All of Zack Kassian, Archibald, Patrick Russell and Puljujarvi have all been re-signed by Holland in calendar 2020, while the last year of Kailer Yamamoto‘s ELC represents a high-value contract.

Wish list at forward

Definitely one hole at centre, perhaps two if the Oilers plan to move Jujhar Khaira back to the left side if not to another team entirely. What’s sorely needed is a quality 3C, but those are hard to come by. The perfect fit might be the ancient Mikko Koivu, still a defensive ace at age 37. A veteran of 1,028 games, he remains a strong penalty-killer and faceoff specialist. In theory he would form a nice counterbalance for scoring whizzes Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but also a splendid linemate and mentor for his fellow Finn Puljujarvi.  The long-time Wild captain is on the market for the first time, though his asking price and interest in Edmonton are unknown at this point. His offensive production no longer warrants anything close to the $5.5 million he commanded in Minny these past two seasons, but if he’s anywhere close to the $2 million range the Oilers could do a lot worse.

As for wingers, one player of interest is 25-year-old German Dominik Kahun. Draisaitl advocated for his childhood friend when he first came over in 2018, but he signed with Chicago, before moving on to Pittsburgh, then Buffalo in 2019-20. Not qualified on Wednesday, he’s on the move again. Hard to tell why that is, frankly. Kahun has posted very respectable boxcars (138 GP, 25-43-68, +18) in his first two seasons, almost all of them at even strength. Indeed, his 2.11 points-per-60 at 5v5 over his two North American seasons place him in the top 60 among the 340 forwards with 1000 minutes of ice time over that span.


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Then there’s the matter of possible chemistry with Draisaitl. Yes I know this is ancient history, but eye-popping enough to deserve a mention.

Scoring leaders, Mannheimer ERC U16, 2010-11:

Not often one sees a player averaging over 6 points a game, let alone two of them. Regular season and playoffs both. Obviously the then-14-year-olds were miles ahead of their competition so the numbers are largely meaningless, other than the notable fact that Kahun held his own with Draisaitl and then some.

Not saying he would do that in Edmonton, but the guy has been a productive NHLer to this point at under $1 million per season. Surprising Buffalo wouldn’t qualify Kahun after acquiring him at the deadline, but perhaps were worried about arbitration so let him walk. Surely he’d prefer to settle down in one place. No doubt Leon has put in a good word for him again.

Defence & goal

Two big holes here, one in goal and one on the back end. I’ve budgeted for a ninth defenceman, given the recent bad news about Oscar Klefbom who likely faces a major stint if not the entire season on Long Term Injured Reserve. Best balance would be to find a righty, preferably a veteran given the quartet of youngsters on the projected roster. Consider that in the spring of 2019, all four of Ethan BearCaleb Jones, William Lagesson and Evan Bouchard lined up for Bakersfield Condors in the playoffs. Might they all be Oilers in ’20-21?

First there is the business of actually re-signing both Bear and Lagesson, the two RFAs who Holland did qualify and who are clearly part of the plan. The Lagesson contract should be straightforward, but Bear is due for a raise after an excellent rookie season in 2019-20.


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By my reckoning the departure of Benning opens up a spot at 3RD that is apt to be filled by Bouchard, so for discussion purposes I have inserted him directly into the spot. Consider it another trade, Benning for Bouchard + $1.1 million in cap space. Make it close to $3 million in cap room that these exchanges represent, which would still be around $2.5 even if Bouchard earns all his bonuses.

Those kind of marginal savings are critically important. As things stand now, the Oilers have committed $69.5 million in salaries and are on the hook for $5 million in dead cap space, leaving just $7 million available to sign Bear, Lagesson, a goalie, and at least one more roster player. Holland would no doubt like to leave a mil or so in a slush fund to handle in-season injuries, so things are real tight.

Klefbom’s injury has the potential to provide some cap relief, especially if he misses the full season, but the task of replacing him is a tall ask. For now the uncertainty about Oscar makes life tough on Holland.

Wish list at D & G

One depth defender of interest is Slater Koekkoek, who you may remember causing the Oilers lots of grief in the play-in series with his old team Chicago. It’s surprising that they didn’t qualify Koekkoek, a very serviceable bottom-pairing D who managed to keep his head above water with a struggling Blackhawks side. According to PuckIQ, Koekkoek posted excellent underlying results in comparison to all his teammates, comfortably leading the defence corps in such indicators as Dangerous Fenwick, and posting a positive goal differential both years as well.  He too was earning just $925,000 last season, but again perhaps there was a fear of arbitration. The 26-year-old came up through the Tampa Bay system, and while his development was glacial he has done nothing but improve year over year. He’s no threat to replace Klefbom but represents a decent under-the-radar option to shore up the D-corps.


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Lots of options on the netminder front, from the hot rumour of the Oilers pursuing pricey Jacob Markstrom to a bushel of less expensive but fairly capable stoppers further down the UFA list. A thorough discussion of goalies would need its own post, and the issue may well be resolved before I get a chance to write it.

The trade market may yet bear fruit, especially in a season with an expansion draft at the other end of it. My go-to solution is a trade of former Golden Knight James Neal for Marc-Andre Fleury that would exchange punitive contracts while solving at least one problem for both teams. No doubt a far-fetched suggestion, but with Vegas anxious if not desperate to move on from their former franchise player, a creative offer such as this might be worth a shot.

Fleury has two years left at $7 million, Neal three at $5.75, so in this scenario the Oilers would pay a little more in the short term but resolve their goaltending tandem, and ultimately divest the extra year of Neal’s pact in the process. Fleury has seen his stats slide a bit these last couple of years, but part of that was due to excessive workload. Might he bounce back in a shared-crease relationship? I’m guessing yes, but then again I’m just a crazy blogger. Decisions like how to resolve the goaltending situation are why Ken Holland gets paid the big bucks.

Thing is he is going to have to be alert to all opportunities, be they snapping up inexpensive younger players on the rebound like Kahun and Koekkoek, pricier but proven vets like Koivu, or crazy-expensive ones like Fleury if a regrettable contract can be sent the other way. Each move would solve a roster need, the trick will be to squash all of those solutions under the flat cap.


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Non-NHL roster

The 24 remaining spots on the 50-man are simply assigned 4 to each position. Lots of wide-open spaces here, with goal being one of the more crowded spots. The Oilers have 3 young stoppers under contract are expected to add one more vet with NHL experience to fill the organizational #3 role.

As for those under contract, all those italicized and underlined are currently playing in Europe, including 5 guys on the main roster and 11 more on the lower list. In fact Oilers have by far the most players in Europe of any NHL team. Their AHL roster is currently a shell which may remain just that until that loop decides its future. Biggest issue is those three young goalies without a landing spot.

But that’s a problem for another today. On this one, it’s all about finding some solutions from an active UFA market. Stay tuned.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Where do the Oilers go next?

McCURDY: Oilers draft recap, with links to all draft-related posts

McCURDY: Be good for Oilers to hold on to long-time ace RNH

LEAVINS: 9 Things — Nuge, Klefbom, Athanasiou, Benning

STAPLES: Is Tyson Barrie the answer to an injured Oscar Klefbom?

McCURDY: A boatload of Edmonton Oilers rumours

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy


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