Upgrades might prove too costly for cap-strapped Oilers as trade deadline approaches
EDMONTON — There’s a small section of the West Edmonton Mall reserved for luxury, high-end retailers, where you can look at Rolex watches, Tiffany jewelry or Louis Vuitton bags.
Imagine walking through there with a credit card in your wallet that’s so maxed out, it will get declined if you tried to buy a pack of gum.
That’s how Oilers president and general manager Ken Holland has got to be feeling approaching the NHL's trade deadline.
The Oilers are so stretched when it comes to the salary cap, they have carried just 20 players for much of the season. No healthy scratches, here.
Holland told TSN earlier this month that "we’re dollar in, dollar out, so, we start bringing in people with big cap numbers, we’re going to have to do some real gymnastics here to move people out."
While the Oilers have shown interest in defencemen like San Jose's defenceman Erik Karlsson, Arizona's Jakob Chychrun and Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm, they might simply be nice things in the shop window that the team can’t afford. And they might not address the Oilers most glaring issues.
The Oilers have the league’s best offence (230 goals) and powerplay (clicking at a rate of just over 32 per cent) and can outscore their defensive mistakes and iffy goaltending.
But, when things get tighter in the playoffs, their weaknesses could become all the more glaring.
Only six teams have a worse penalty kill rate than the Oilers 75 per cent clip. The goaltending continues to be an issue, with Stuart Skinner (.912 save percentage) outplaying Jack Campbell (an .884 save percentage), who has disappointed in the first of a five-year, US$25 million deal.
The problem with a big name like Karlsson is he carries an $11.5 million cap hit on a contract that goes until 2026-27. To get help from a third-party team a contract, or to have the Sharks retain part of the salary, is a long-term commitment.
Yes, Karlsson has an impressive and unexpected 77 points in 60 games this season. But, no matter how well he performs, the contract he signed pre-COVID, before the salary cap stagnated, is simply too rich for cash-strapped GMs.
He’s the Rolex when you’re on a Timex budget.
Ekholm comes with a $6.25 million hit. Even Chychrun, with a cap hit of $4.6 million, is a luxury the Oilers can’t afford unless the Coyotes agree to eat a part of the salary or help comes from another team willing to "buy down" part of what he's owed in exchange for assets. It’s hard to imagine a dollar-in, dollar-out deal can be made.
The Oilers might just press the narrative of how recent good results are justification for not making any sort of big deadline splash.
Despite the penalty-kill and goaltending issues, the Oilers have only lost two games in regulation out of their last 18. That speaks to Connor McDavid’s 48 goals, 36 more from Leon Draisaitl and 28 from Zach Hyman. The Oilers’ offence paces the league even though winger Evander Kane has missed more than half of the season due to injuries.
"Any time you’re collecting points, that’s the business we’re in,” said coach Jay Woodcroft. “We haven’t been perfect over those six or seven weeks… but we’re doing some good things in order to gain points. That’s a credit to our players and their hard work."
Before the deadline, the Oilers host two beasts of the East, Boston and Toronto. Those two match-ups offer Holland the chance to make some last-second assessments.
Woodcroft said his most pressing issue is to keep the players focused on the ice.
“It’s part and parcel of where we’re at in the NHL schedule. There is a trade deadline coming up and we have a bunch of human beings in that dressing room. I know that everyone is driven to win.
"So, what’s it like keeping everyone’s focus on task? I think, as a group of coaches, what we try and do is you try and ask your players to control the things within their control. That’s their daily attention to detail, their daily effort, their own personal process.”
The Oilers most pressing need is to find a way out of salary-cap jail. Holland has to keep the Oilers competitive not just this season, but in years to come.
Winger Jesse Puljujarvi, the former first-round pick who is in the final year of his contract that carries a $3 million cap hit, has been on the market for months, with no takers. The Oilers have not been able to deal him, and have steadfastly refused to waive him, despite Puljujarvi's meagre 14 points in 57 games.
Defenceman Evan Bouchard, Klim Kostin and Ryan McLeod are all RFAs at the end of the season, and will need raises. As it stands, the Oilers already have over $71 million in committed salary for next season.
The other expiring contracts are role players Devin Shore, Mattias Janmark and Derek Ryan. Basically, this is a team locked into its direction, long-term.
While there is still belief that this team is a contender, the spectre of the 2023-24 season looms over this franchise as well. And good enough just might have to be good enough.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press