Should They Stay Or Should They Go: Oilers Face UFA Decisions

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Minnesota Wild

The Edmonton Oilers have a number of unrestricted and restricted free agents this off-season that will require decisions. Edmonton has ample cap space and plenty of holes to fill in a free agent market that should provide some value, considering the stagnant salary cap ceiling.

After two years of waiting out the sins of previous management, GM Ken Holland will finally get the opportunity to put his stamp on the Oilers. Every decision he makes will impact the club’s window of contention for a Stanley Cup. Make no mistake, even after their first round sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets, the time to win is now.

Over the next few days, we’ll be looking at the clubs pending unrestricted and restricted free agents. The goal is to determine both if the club should re-sign said player, and if they will re-sign the player.

Today? The unrestricted free agents.

G Mike Smith

Smith had his best season since 2011-12, posting a record of 21-6-2 with a .923 save percentage, 2.31 GAA and three shutouts. After a subpar 2019-20, Smith bounced back in a big way, and was one of Edmonton’s most important players this past season. It’s safe to say, without Smith the Oilers would have been in tough to even make the playoffs.

The issue here is, Smith will be 40-years-old during the 2021-22 season, and history suggests his most recent campaign is an outlier. Smith has certainly earned a new contract, but relying on him to repeat his recent success is likely a fool’s bet.

Holland already admitted that he wants to re-sign Smith, which could still work favorably for the club. If Smith is the 1B goaltender or even the backup, Edmonton should be in good shape.

Smith has earned another deal with the team, and Holland wants him back. Unless negotiations get ugly, or another team steps up, Smith will play a third season in Edmonton.

A one-year deal in the $2,500,000 range is the likely outcome here, and could happen in the coming weeks ahead of expansion.

D Adam Larsson

Acquired in 2016 from the New Jersey Devils, Larsson has had an up-and-down career in Edmonton. He was an outstanding shutdown defenseman in both the 2016-17 and 2020-21 seasons, helping Edmonton reach the playoffs in both years.

In 2017-18 and 2018-19? Larsson was inconsistent at best, but dealing with personal tragedy (death of his father) and back issues. His 2019-20 season was interrupted multiple times by multiple injuries, and his stint in the bubble was even shorter.

Larsson is a good player. He’s physical, plays against elites, is a legit top-four shutdown option and is a leader on this Oiler team. The injury concerns, especially the back, are a red flag, however.

Still, if Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard are going to play consistently on the right side in 2021-22, Edmonton will need a shutdown option. At this point in time, Larsson is the only option for that role in the organization.

He has value, and the Oilers enjoyed success when he was on the ice in 2020-21. The club has had contract discussions with him, and at this point an extension seems way more likely than not.

It sounds like Larsson will get three or four more years, with a cap hit  around $3,750,000 per year. He’ll be staying.

D Tyson Barrie

Barrie’s one-year contract with the Oilers last October simply could not have gone better for all parties. Barrie led the NHL in points by a defenseman with 48 (8 g, 40 a), helped Edmonton to the NHL’s best powerplay for the second year in a row, and gave the club a much needed boost when it came to puck moving and mobility.

Now, however, the relationship appears to be over. Barrie is searching for a long-term contract that will certainly start with a five in front of it when it comes to dollars. That’s a contract that is both too rich and too long for the Oilers.

Barrie has earned the right to sign that contract. Edmonton shouldn’t be the team offering it to him. Bouchard offers a similar set of skills at a far cheaper cap hit.

The Oilers have let it be known that playing Bouchard will be a priority in 2021-22. As a result, they likely will not be signing back Barrie. They shouldn’t, either. It was a fun season, and both sides got exactly what they wanted out of the deal.

It’s time for Barrie to cash in, and for the Oilers to bring their top prospect to the NHL full-time.

D Slater Koekkoek

Koekkoek is an interesting case because he didn’t play well in January and early February, but was injured and done for essentially the regular season before the club really hit its stride. Koekkoek played in all four playoff games for Edmonton, and was arguably one of their three best defensemen.

Assuming the club loses Barrie in free agency and Caleb Jones to expansion, there is a path to another one-year deal for Koekkoek. If Oscar Klefbom won’t be ready until, say, mid-November? Then Koekkoek is almost a lock to re-sign.

As a depth defender, I have time for Koekkoek. Personally, I believe he is a better player than his early season showing in Edmonton indicated. I’d be more than okay with bringing him back as defensive depth.

The Oilers are likely 60/40 on bringing him back, and will probably wait to see how expansion unfolds and where Klefbom is at a month and a half from now.

D Dmitry Kulikov

Odds are, Kulikov was simply a pure rental for the Oilers. A veteran shutdown defenseman, Kulikov was solid on a pairing with Larsson after coming over in mid-April. He struggled in Game 3 against the Jets, however, and was scratched in Game 4.

If Klefbom is slated to play at any point in 2021-22, the club likely allows Kulikov to walk.

Personally, I’d prefer Kulikov on a cheap one-year deal to Kris Russell, but Russell is already signed and Kulikov is not.

Expectation? Kulikov is wearing another jersey on opening night.

F Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

This is the burning question among UFA’s. Will Nugent-Hopkins, drafted by the club first overall in 2011, return to continue his career in Edmonton? Or, will the final piece of rebuild 2.0 walk out the door, like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle before him?

If you asked this question a year ago, the overwhelming answer would be yes, Nugent-Hopkins would get a new contract with the Oilers. After a poor 2020-21, however, there is now doubt.

Nugent-Hopkins scored a respectable 35 points (16 g, 19 a) in 52 games, but struggled at five-on-five. While playing a majority of his time with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins managed just 15 even strength points on the season (7 g, 8 a).

If Nugent-Hopkins wants a long-term contract and a raise, he didn’t let it be known with his play in 2020-21.

Still, Nugent-Hopkins is top-six forward who has two-way skills and is dynamic on the powerplay. It’s also likely that 2020-21 is more of an outlier at five-on-five, and that Nugent-Hopkins will rebound in 2021-22.

The club is going to make a real effort to sign RNH. A deal of around five years is the target, but the dollar amount is a mystery. It’s hard to imagine RNH getting a raise on his $6,000,000 salary. Would he accept a slight decrease, like his former teammate Eberle did with the New York Islanders, and sign for $5,500,000 per season? If he does, he’ll be back in Edmonton.

The Oilers should make a real effort to sign Nugent-Hopkins for anything in the $5,000,000 – $5,500,000 range. If it gets too far over that number? Shake hands, move along, and sign two of the left wingers currently slated to hit the market.

F Alex Chiasson

Chiasson’s time in Edmonton is almost certainly coming to an end. Chiasson, on a dirt cheap contract, scored a career-high 22 goals in 2018-19, then signed a two-year extension with a $2,150,000 cap hit.

Chiasson scored eleven goals in 2019-20, then nine more in 45 games this season. While he would have hit double-digits in both seasons had a full 82 games been played, Chiasson hasn’t fully lived up to his cap hit. He’s played almost exclusively in the bottom-six, and struggled at five-on-five in 2020-21.

He’s a strong powerplay weapon, but Jesse Puljujarvi started taking his minutes as the season wore on. If he isn’t on the powerplay, Chiasson has minimal value.

With Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto (RFA), Josh Archibald and Zack Kassian already in the fold, it’s hard to see where Chiasson fits moving forward.

Chiasson’s three-year run as an Oiler is over.

F Patrick Russell

If Edmonton is serious about adding secondary scoring, then Russell’s time as an Oiler is over. While he does a lot of things well away from the puck and at five-on-five, he’s an offensive blackhole at the NHL level. Russell is an impact player in the AHL, but appears to be one of those AAAA players. He’s too good for the AHL, but not quite NHL level.

Dave Tippett does like him quite a bit as a 13th or 14th forward option, however, so there is at least some chance that the club gives him another one-year deal.

Most likely option? Russell heads home to Europe and carves out a nice career for himself.

F Joakim Nygard

He’s already signed a six-year deal in Sweden. His NHL career, for now, is over.

F Gaetan Haas

Like Russell, Haas does some things well. In 2020-21, he added penalty killing to his resume. At the end of the day, however, Haas does not score nearly enough to earn an everyday job in the NHL. With both McDavid and Draisaitl returning, and a full-time spot ready for Ryan McLeod, Haas will be in tough to make the roster.

Holland is also expected to sign a right-handed bottom-six center, which makes it even tougher for Haas.

Unfortunately, the lack of offense likely ends Haas’ time in Edmonton. If he could produce just a little more, there would be a real player here.

Like with Russell, the most likely option is a return home to Europe, where he has already proven to be an impact player.

F Tyler Ennis

For some reason, Tippett just did not like Tyler Ennis. Perhaps it was because Ennis, best suited for a bottom-six role, was more offense than defense. Still, Ennis produced at five-on-five, and not playing him consistently was a mistake by the veteran coach.

It’s clear that Tippett doesn’t value Ennis, which makes another contract extremely unlikely. Ennis, who passed through waivers twice this past season, will likely need to settle for a one-year contract somewhere else for 2021-22.

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