The Edmonton Oilers woke up Wednesday morning with a big hole in their defense. After seemingly being close to a new contract with pending UFA defenseman Adam Larsson as recently as two weeks ago, the Oilers saw Larsson sign a four-year contract worth $16 million with the Seattle Kraken.
Now, Edmonton is without their top shutdown defenseman. They are also down a top-four defenseman, one who was trusted with difficult assignments and viewed as part of the core by GM Ken Holland and coach Dave Tippett.
Holland knows that he’ll need to replace Larsson. He also knows it is unlikely that he’ll be adding a star rearguard to do it. Those dreams of Dougie Hamilton signing with the Edmonton Oilers? Let’s put those to bed right now. It’s unfortunately not going to happen.
Holland is likely going to have to look at lesser options on both the trade and free agent fronts.
“We won’t be big game hunting on the backend if you’re talking about an eight-million-dollar defenseman,” Holland said at his pre-draft media availability on Thursday. “Part of what I have to factor in is, obviously, Darnell Nurse is an unrestricted free agent. In a flat cap, whether the cap is $81.5 (million) next year or $82.5, I look at the players on our team right now. Ethan Bear is a restricted free agent a year from now, Jesse Puljujarvi is an unrestricted free agent a year from now, Darnell Nurse is an unrestricted free agent a year from now. I just can’t go out and spend all this money.”
That means Oiler fans will need to temper expectations when it comes to replacing Larsson. The player brought in over the next little while won’t be able to completely fill the hole. The club will need a combination of that player, Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard to get the job done. That means a step forward for Bouchard and a return to 2019-20 form for Bear.
“The big game hunting is going to be term. It’s not only going to be cap numbers, it’s going to be big term,” Holland continued. “I have to factor that into whatever decisions I make. I can’t just go to $81.5 and have all that $81.5 tied up in the summer of ’22. Darnell is at a $5.6 cap number today, Ethan’s at a $2 million cap dollar today, Jesse’s at a $1.75 cap number today. Internally, I have to make sure I have some money set aside that’s going to come off the books as I look towards the summer of ’22. We will not be in big game hunting mode on defense.”
The Oilers could turn to a free agent like Travis Hamonic. A veteran shutdown defenseman, Hamonic has for years preferred to play in Western Canada and has previously had interest in joining the Oilers. He isn’t likely to command much term or money.
There is also the trade route, which Holland admitted at the end of his availability he has begun to explore. TSN’s Darren Dreger connected the Oilers to Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres earlier on Thursday. The insider said that the club has “kicked the tires” on Ristolainen, who has one year remaining on his contract. The Anaheim Ducks also were shopping RHD Josh Manson around the trade deadline in April, and could explore a trade again in the coming days.
Regardless of the path chosen by Holland and his staff between now and training camp in just under two months time, the Oilers will be making an addition or two on defense. Holland admitted as much.
“I don’t have an answer for you, and maybe I’ll have an answer for you a week from now when we go through free agency,” Holland said when asked about the difficulty of replacing Larsson. “But certainly, we know that we’ve got to find a defenseman that can fill that hole.”