It has been a very productive offseason for the Edmonton Oilers. Maybe even the best one they have had in years.
They did not make a huge splash in free agency or by trade, but the additions of Kyle Turris, Dominik Kahun, and Tyson Barrie give them a trio of low-risk, decent-reward players that should add some much-needed depth to their lineup.
There are still questions on defense (especially with Oscar Klefbom‘s injury) and in net (the same goalie duo from last year?), but the overall roster looks a lot stronger than it did when the 2019-20 season came to an end. With those signings made, the Oilers can start turning their focus to future contract issues.
By far the biggest one is the pending UFA status of former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Nugent-Hopkins is set to enter the final year of a seven-year, $42 million contract and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency next offseason.
Re-signing him should be a priority for the Oilers. But what will it cost, and can the Oilers make that work in what will continue to be a flat-cap environment in the short-term?
What kind of player is Nugent-Hopkins?
How about underrated?
That is a good place to start.
Not only because he has spent his entire career playing on a team that has not been very good, but also because he is a No. 1 overall pick that has not really blossomed into a superstar or a franchise player.
He is good. Very good. He is just not a franchise-changer, and anytime you take a player with the top pick in the draft that is not a franchise-changer it is easy to be disappointed or underwhelmed.
Maybe in hindsight Gabriel Landeskog or Jonathan Huberdeau would have been the better pick. Extreme 20/20 hindsight says Nikita Kucherov, who went No. 58 overall, should have gone first overall. But Nugent-Hopkins did not make the decision to pick himself first. All he can do is be the player that he is. That player is a very good one. He is clearly the third-best player on the Oilers roster behind the MVP duo (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) and has produced at a top-line rate for several years now.
Over the past three years, for example, he has scored at a 29-goal, 69-point pace per 82 games.
He is a huge part of the Oilers’ death star power play, and first-line producer at even-strength.
What is that worth?
The key thing with contracts is you need to worry more about what the player will do, as opposed to what they have done.
All of those numbers above from Nugent-Hopkins have come during what should be his peak years of production in the NHL (ages 24-26), and when he begins his next contract he will be 28 years old. Hardly washed up, still almost certainly productive, but probably at a point where his upward trend has stopped.
Back in October Jason Gregor at OilersNation tackled the Nugent-Hopkins contract situation and came to the conclusion that players like Brayden Schenn and Chris Krieder might be the best comparisons for a new deal. That would be in the $6.5 million per season range, which would be a $500,000 per year increase over Nugent-Hopkins’ current contract.
That honestly seems a little on the low side for me in a normal offseason. Nugent-Hopkins is a little younger than both players, and there is certainly an argument to be made that Nugent-Hopkins is the more productive player. When players like James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Hayes can pull in more than $7 million per year, there is no reason that Nugent-Hopkins can not as well.
When Nugent-Hopkins signed his current contract it accounted for 9.3 percent of the salary cap. A similar rate on an $81.5 million cap would be a $7.5 million cap hit.
The key here with all of this is in a “normal” offseason.
With the ongoing COVID situation impacting finances and the flat cap that goes along with that, things can hardly be described as “normal.”
What can the Oilers afford?
A $7 million per year cap hit would seem to be within reason for the Oilers, assuming they spend to the cap.
As of this posting the Oilers have $53 million committed to 12 players for next season. If you add $7 million for Nugent-Hopkins to that and it would still leave them with more than $20 million in salary cap space to fill 10 roster spots, including several restricted free agents (Kailer Yamamoto, Jujhar Khaira, and Kahun).
They also have several UFA’s, including Barrie, Adam Larsson, and Tyler Ennis.
Kris Russell‘s recent contract extension chopping off a few million in his salary cap hit certainly helps create space, and there is always the chance that a James Neal or Zach Kassian could be dumped. There are options. It will take some work, but retaining Nugent-Hopkins should be the new top priority.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.