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

From free agents to salary cap, Oilers face an offseason puzzle
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

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.

Scroll Down For:

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

    Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

    canadiens sabres
    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.

    Flyers chairman Scott to retire; Hilferty becomes successor

    Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

    PHILADELPHIA — Dave Scott will retire as chairman of the Philadelphia Flyers’ parent company Comcast Spectacor and be replaced by Dan Hilferty.

    Hilferty, who was recently named CEO of Comcast Spectacor, will succeed Scott as chairman of the company on April 17 and as the team’s governor on July 1.

    Scott joined Comcast Spectacor in December 2013 and the Flyers have struggled under his reign. They will miss the playoffs for a third straight season and haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1975.

    “Our number one goal for the Flyers will be to consistently compete for the Stanley Cup,” Hilferty said. “It is going to be a process that will take time to get on that path, but I’m confident we are headed in the right direction with Danny Briere as interim GM, Coach Tortorella, and our hiring of a President of Hockey Operations soon. Our leadership team will be fully focused to deliver on this for our fans while also continuing to make the sports complex the best location for sports and entertainment in the nation.”

    As Chairman and CEO of Comcast Spectacor, Hilferty will lead the company’s entire portfolio, including the Philadelphia Flyers. Spectacor Sports and Entertainment CEO Valerie Camillo will continue to work directly with Hilferty, overseeing the Wells Fargo Center, including its continued transformation, and lead the Flyers’ business operations.