From free agents to salary cap, Oilers face an offseason puzzle

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After a season of highs and lows, the Oilers’ season ended with a sobering sweep at the hands of the Avalanche. Right away, the Oilers are fielding tough questions about free agency, goaltending, the salary cap, and even their head coaching situation.

And, truly, the Oilers face daunting questions with free agency and salary cap management.

Overall, it’s a true test of whether Oilers GM Ken Holland is still Hall of Fame material as a “builder.”

Could, and should, the Oilers bring back free agents such as Evander Kane and Jesse Puljujarvi? Is Jay Woodcroft the right choice to remain as Oilers head coach?

Searching for answers about the Oilers’ salary cap and free agent questions won’t be as painful as dominating playoff opponents despite a high-ankle sprain. Still, it won’t be easy, either.

Like an overmatched defenseman trying to keep up with Connor McDavid, let’s do our best to sort this out.

A lot of room for variance in Oilers’ actual salary cap space

The Oilers’ salary cap management is so inefficient, it can make you feel queasy. It’s like watching that viral video where a (cruel) person cuts up a cake in the least satisfying way possible.

For all the talk about Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl eating up so much of the Oilers’ salary cap, it’s really the waste around them that’s disconcerting. Next season, Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith, Tyson Barrie, and Cody Ceci cost more (about $22.538 million) in cap space than Draisaitl and McDavid ($21M).

That’s where you start cutting up the cake in all the wrong ways.

Look at tweets like these, and you’ll picture enough doom to keep the fires of Mordor burning.

Yet, the Oilers’ salary cap situation is also quite fluid.

LTIR possibilities, Mike Smith/goaltending questions

The Oilers will likely have quite a bit more than $7M or so in salary cap space to work with.

For one thing, Oilers GM Ken Holland said that he doesn’t expect Oscar Klefbom to play next season. If Klefbom stays on long-term injured reserve, that gives the Oilers an extra $4.167M in salary cap space.

Then there’s the question of Mike Smith. While there’s been some confusion about Mike Smith retirement possibilities, it sounds at least plausible. If so, there’s reason to believe that Smith’s $2.2M could go to LTIR, too.

While that could provide wiggle room, it’s not accurate to say that the Oilers will easily find better goaltending. Especially at a team-friendly price.

[Believe it or not, Mike Smith had his (good) moments during the playoffs]

For all of the mockery Mike Smith received about puckhandling gaffes and weird goals, the Oilers couldn’t ask for much better value from a $2.2M goalie. His .915 save percentage was solid, and considering being limited to 28 games played, a 7.3 Goals Saved Above Average was quite strong. From March 10 to the end of the regular season, Mike Smith tied for second in the NHL with 11 wins, and managed a blazing-hot .941 save percentage.

Yes, Smith suffered sometimes drastic highs and lows during the playoffs, but considering the bargain-bin $2.2M cost, can the Oilers really expect more than a .913 save percentage in the postseason?

Truly, the monkey’s paw may have curled when Oilers fans wished for a goalie situation without Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. Are there truly better free-agent goalie options out there, and how much will they cost?

When the smoke clears, a Mike Smith – Stuart Skinner pairing could end up being the Oilers’ answer.

Getting “league average” goaltending isn’t exactly sexy. With the Oilers’ salary cap challenges, it might be a reasonable and realistic goal, though.

Could Oilers make some trades to open up salary cap space?

Beyond LTIR, trades could make the Oilers’ salary cap space larger than it currently appears.

  • One of the most egregious parts of the Duncan Keith trade was that the Blackhawks didn’t retain any of Keith’s $5.538M cap hit to make it happen. A no-movement clause only makes a Duncan Keith trade tougher, yet you never know in the NHL.

  • The Oilers traded young (and cheap) defenseman Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele. More than once during the playoffs, Foegele was a healthy scratch. Could they move his $2.75M cap hit (through 2023-24) in a trade, anyway?

  • Zack Kassian‘s contract is a drag, yet it’s easier than ever to move. His $3.2M cap hit ends in 2023-24.

  • Could Tyson Barrie ($4.5M AAV, two more seasons) be the sort of luxury you’d give up? After averaging at least 21 minutes per night for seven straight seasons, Barrie logged a hair under 19 minutes per game. That’s honestly a wiser way to deploy Barrie, but it makes him a pricey “specialist.”

The best part of that list is that only Duncan Keith has a trade clause … literally, at least. Savvy teams will look at those players’ contracts as no-trade clauses.

Still, NHL history is littered with examples that you only need to fool one person to trade away a bad contract. Holland might as well light his fat checks on fire if he doesn’t at least try.

Whatever salary cap space Oilers have, they need to be wise with free agents

Compared to the chess prodigy Avalanche, the Oilers often feel like they’re playing checkers. Ideally, the Oilers will start thinking “three moves ahead.”

Avoid making the typical Oilers mistake with young players: sign, don’t trade Puljujarvi

At some point, the Oilers need to find their own Zach Hyman-type pieces, and discover them before they get paid big. That thought keeps cropping up surrounding the often-frustrating Jesse Puljujarvi discourse.

Circling back to the Avalanche, the team clearly found a gem in Valeri Nichushkin. He’s like a lite version of Sean Couturier going from sneaky-good to Selke: the points started coming, and people came around. (Nichushkin scored 25 goals and 52 points in just 62 games played.)

If the Oilers are smart, they lock up Jesse Puljujarvi before he makes a Nichushkin-type breakthrough. The 24-year-old is an RFA with salary arbitration rights, but a cost-effective contract is very plausible.

Check out this Evolving Hockey RAPM comparison chart from multiple seasons, and Nichushkin is ahead of Puljujarvi, yet both provide tremendous two-way value:

From free agents to salary cap, Oilers face an offseason puzzle VN JP
Nichushkin: no longer a joke as a Selke candidate, but JP is sorely underrated. (via Evolving Hockey)

Frankly, both Nichushkin and Puljujarvi are the types of players old-school types should love. They’re both big, play a sound defensive game, and work hard. Grumble about highly drafted players not scoring as expected (at least right away), but it’s a testament to Nichushkin and Puljujarvi that they’re finding highly effective niches.

Chances are, crusty types gave up on such young players simply because their scoring dried up. The Oilers rank among the worst offenders, as they traded low on Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, and faced well-earned ridicule in the process.

If the Oilers traded Puljujarvi for pennies on the dollar, it would repeat that ugly history, and echo the defense-obsessed Stars buying out Valeri Nichushkin for marginal savings.

Sometimes it’s as simple as: smart teams buy low and sell high, while everyone else scrambles to find answers.

Letting Evander Kane walk might sting, yet it’s likely the wise move

After his Sharks buyout, the Oilers ignored Evander Kane’s disturbing list of “controversies and legal issues.” They signed him, and he scored a lot of goals.

Being that they already shook off questions about Kane the person, it’s not shocking that they want to keep Kane the player after an undeniably productive run.

Nonetheless, the Oilers are aware that it simply might not be possible.

Again, though, there’s the chess analogy of thinking “three moves ahead.”

While the Oilers won’t always land on chances to sign 30+ goal scorers for as cheap as they signed Evander Kane, the structure of the move is replicable. Just about every year, there are players hungry to boost or restore their market value. Plenty of them will see the value in sacrificing some term and/or money in the short-term to play with Connor McDavid, and then possibly see their bargaining power skyrocket.

Too often, the Oilers get lured into keeping players whose value ends up over-inflated.

It happened with Zack Kassian, whose career was dangling by a thread before the Oilers snatched him up. Instead of finding the next Kassian, they signed him to a bad contract.

Actually, Evander Kane’s already coaxed a team into signing a problem contract by playing well for short bursts. Ask the Sharks how that worked out.

Challenging offseason for Oilers, but there’s at least one relatively easy question

Some will disagree with the above thoughts, and demand an Evander Kane signing and/or Jesse Puljujarvi trade. Fair enough.

Whichever path(s) the Oilers choose, their offseason looks challenging.

That said, the closest thing to an easy call would be to retain Jay Woodcroft as head coach. Yes, you can quibble with certain decisions, especially as the Avalanche swept the Oilers.

Overall, the good outweighed the bad. And, one way or another, salary cap challenges will likely force whoever coaches the Oilers to get the most out of young players and prospects. Why not stick with the coach who molded many of them in the AHL?

Most of the Oilers’ offseason decisions won’t be so easy.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

From free agents to salary cap, Oilers face an offseason puzzle originally appeared on NBCSports.com