One month from today, the Edmonton Oilers and 29 other teams from around the NHL will submit their final protection list for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft. When that happens, the 2021 off-season will go into overdrive. Within the span of ten days, the lists will be submitted, the Expansion Draft will take place, the NHL Entry Draft will occur and free agency will open.
We are one month away from puck drop on the biggest off-season in recent memory for the Oilers. GM Ken Holland’s decisions over the next six-to-eight weeks will shape the future of the Oilers and will likely dictate if this team will compete for the Stanley Cup in the coming seasons.
The Oilers have proven to be a consistent playoff team, making the dance two straight seasons and playing in a poor Pacific Division. The next step is competing with teams like the Vegas Golden Knights. That’s where Holland must get to work.
For the first time in his tenure as Oilers GM, Holland has actual money to spend. He’s got the key pieces in place, a flat cap market and over $20 million in cap space to play with. With a few moves, Holland could have over $30 million to work with to fill out his team.
It’s a good spot to be in for the veteran GM, who has shopped exclusively in the bargain bin over the last two summers.
Today, we’ll take a look at my shopping list for Holland, an annual post here at ‘The Oilers Rig‘ at the outset of each off-season.
Before we can look ahead to this summer, however, we have to look back at the fall. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and August ‘Return to Play’, the NHL draft and free agency were held in early October. On August 24th, I posted my list for Holland to accomplish in the off-season. How did he do?
Holland’s 2020 List:
1. Find a tandem goalie: Holland tried for Jacob Markstrom, but the veteran elected to sign a massive deal with the Calgary Flames. Holland also sniffed around Corey Crawford, who knocked Edmonton out of the bubble, but he decided to sign in New Jersey before retiring in training camp.
The end result? Another one-year deal with Mike Smith, which couldn’t have turned out any better for the club.
2. Add a top-six winger: The Oilers failed to address this position. Andreas Athanasiou was not qualified and then turned down a contract offer from the club only to sign for less in Los Angeles weeks later. Tyler Ennis was re-signed, but spent the season in Dave Tippett’s doghouse and never really got a look in the top-six.
Dominik Kahun was a low-risk bet here, but he struggled to mesh with childhood friend Leon Draisaitl and is almost certainly moving on in the coming weeks. Holland looked in the bargain bin, but never really filled this role and didn’t get what he desired from two cheaper bets.
3. Add a third-line center: The Oilers signed Kyle Turris to a two-year contract, but he proved woefully inadequate for this role. Turris has one season left on his deal, and could spend the season in the AHL. He’s a complete non-factor moving forward, and the club still has no answer at center on the third-line. Ryan McLeod is the future, but likely needs a season as the fourth-line center to make the jump.
4. Solve the Puljujarvi Dilemma: Holland inked Puljujarvi to a two-year contract, and he ended the season on the top line beside Connor McDavid. Puljujarvi’s 15 goals were a career-high, and he replaced Zack Kassian in the top-six. He was a key piece for Edmonton in 2020-21, and will again be relied upon in 2021-22. This was a huge win for both sides.
Holland’s 2021 List:
Last year’s list was small compared to this year’s edition, which nearly doubles in size. The club has taken steps since Holland and Tippett were hired, but there is still work to be done if they want to win their first playoff series since 2017 and compete for the Stanley Cup.
1. Decide on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Ideally, the Oilers and Nugent-Hopkins will come to terms on a contract in the coming weeks. Even though Nugent-Hopkins struggled at five-on-five in 2020-21, he’s still a solid two-way top-six winger who is part of the leadership core, kills penalties and helps the league’s best powerplay.
Ideally, this deal comes in around $5,500,000 per season with a five-year term. Betting on Nugent-Hopkins to fill a top-six left wing slot and bouncing back from 2020-21 is a good bet.
2. Figure out what to do with James Neal and Mikko Koskinen: In an ideal world, both Neal and Koskinen are off the roster by the end of July. Holland admitted that the use of a buyout is likely, and Neal would make the most sense for that.
The team likely needs to get creative via trade to get Koskinen out of town, but could also buy him out if they feel they absolutely need to change their tandem.
3. Add a top-six winger, maybe two: If Nugent-Hopkins leaves, the club will need to add two top-six wingers. That’s not an easy task. Regardless, one of the wingers from this year’s class needs to be on his way to Edmonton, ideally to skate alongside McDavid and Puljujarvi on the left side.
Tomas Tatar, who Holland had in Detroit, is oddly scratched right now for the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs and may need a change of scenery. He’s a strong five-on-five producer who could come on a value deal.
Taylor Hall is likely to re-sign in Boston, but if he hits the market he’s a perfect fit. Mike Hoffman, Blake Coleman, Zach Hyman and Gabriel Landeskog also make a ton of sense, as does Brandon Saad. There are plenty of options in free agency,
If Holland elects to make a trade, Jake DeBrusk is likely on the move in Boston, while the Ducks have been dangling Rickard Rakell for a little while now.
4. Add a bottom-six center: Ideally, this player is a right-shot who can also kill some penalties. Ryan Getzlaf is the dream fit, but the odds are low at best that he would come to Edmonton. Derek Ryan, who had good underlying numbers with the Calgary Flames, could also make sense as a free agent.
Expect to hear the name Brandon Sutter as well, but he struggled at five-on-five in 2020-21.
5. Add a bottom-six winger: In case you didn’t know, Edmonton’s bottom-six was bad in 2020-21. They need at least two pieces here in the off-season. Joel Armia seems like a perfect fit, but he’s having an outstanding playoffs and could price himself out of Edmonton. Pending free agent Barclay Goodrow makes a lot of sense too. It’s unlikely Tampa Bay can afford to re-sign him.
There are plenty of options here for Edmonton. Heck, even Corey Perry on a cheap one-year deal makes sense. Just find someone capable of sawing off the opposition at five-on-five and chipping in some offense.
6. Determine who plays with Mike Smith: Holland admitted he wants to re-sign Mike Smith at his end of season press conference. Let’s assume Smith gets a new one-year deal worth $2,750,000. Who plays with him next season? It could be Koskinen, but odds are Holland moves on from the big Finn.
Two names to keep in mind are Linus Ullmark and Chris Dreidger. Both will be unrestricted free agents and both are young enough to take over as the next guy. Petr Mrazek, a former Holland pick, is also a free agent and would be a solid bet here. Antti Raanta, if healthy, is a good fit too.
7. Figure out the second-pairing left defenseman: This one is almost out of Holland’s hands. In an ideal world, Oscar Klefbom fills this spot and forms a dynamic left side with Darnell Nurse. Klefbom is a total wild card at this point, and counting on him to play next season is far from a certain bet.
If Klefbom won’t be able to play in 2021-22, or ever again, then Holland will need to address this position. Jake McCabe is a perfect buy-low candidate in free agency, while the club sniffed around Jamie Oleksiak at the trade deadline. Dmitry Kulikov, acquired at the trade deadline, could re-sign as well to fill the spot.