If it’s not Connor McDavid holding the NHL’s top prize when the Stanley Cup is hoisted this spring, fingers will be pointed at Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland. The Oilers are in win-now mode, but like many NHL teams under the league’s current salary cap structure, there is little room for the club to make improvements at the deadline.
As Holland told TSN this week, the team will be “dollar in, dollar out” when it comes to making moves. With that in mind, what could the Oilers do to improve their roster? Here’s a look:
Oilers' strengths and needs
In an interview with The Athletic this week, Holland expressed confidence in his roster, specifically his forward corps. On a team that features the NHL's top two scorers in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, as well as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman, who also sit among the league’s top 20 scorers, offence should not be a concern.
Scoring depth has plagued the Oilers in the past, but beyond its top four, the team also has Evander Kane, who recently returned from a month on injured reserve, and soon-to-be-reactivated Kailer Yamamoto. When Yamamoto is activated, however, the Oilers will need to shed immediate cap space by waiving or trading multiple forwards, and given that activation could occur this weekend, Holland is on the clock.
In net, Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell have split time. Neither has been spectacular and both sprung leaks at inopportune moments this season. The Oilers are one of only six teams to not record a shutout in 2022-23, and although goaltending has not lived up to the organization’s hopes when it signed Campbell last offseason, the team is handcuffed to its tandem.
Therefore, the area the Oilers can make the largest impact is on the blue line.
Beyond Darnell Nurse, the Oilers don’t have a true top-four defender. Tyson Barrie plays the role, and offensively contributes at that level, but in terms of puck possession and defending, Barrie and the rest of the Oilers’ veterans on the blue line (Brett Kulak and Cody Ceci), give up more chances than they generate. In fact, the only Corsi and Fenwick positive defenders are the Oilers’ least experienced and lowest ice-time-consuming blueliners: Philip Broberg, Evan Bouchard, and Vincent Desharnais.
Trade deadline targets for Oilers
To address Edmonton’s need for an impact defender, Jakob Chychrun has been the name most mentioned in rumours. The Oilers and Coyotes last made a deal in 2022, when Edmonton cleared cap space by shipping Zack Kassian to Arizona in exchange for draft picks.
The reported asking price for Chychrun is multiple first-round picks and a prospect or young NHL player. Edmonton has its own first-rounder in each of the next three drafts, and given Chychrun is still under contract for two more seasons at a reasonable $4.6 million hit, it’s a risk that makes sense to give Edmonton its best shot at a Cup.
If Edmonton were to choose a more affordable, rental option, the team could look at Columbus’s Vladislav Gavrikov, Vancouver’s Luke Schenn, or Holland could strike a deal with a familiar trade partner in Detroit to acquire Olli Maatta. All three would fit more easily into Edmonton’s cap situation, although with less impact than Chychrun. Specifically, the Oilers have been linked to Gavrikov, as well as Montreal Canadiens veteran Joel Edmundson, who would also provide support as a rental.
With that said, if not Chychrun, Chicago Blackhawks blueliner Jake McCabe, who has been involved in increasing trade talks recently, would be another fit. McCabe plays a simple, reliable game, ideally suited as a third-pairing player who spends time on a first penalty-kill unit. Similar to Chychrun, McCabe is signed through 2024-2025. Couple that with the fact the Blackhawks are reportedly willing to retain up to 50 percent of McCabe’s salary, and the fit looks even better. The deal, however, would likely cost the Oilers a first-round pick, and they’d still need to include a salaried player. The Blackhawks and Holland made a deal in 2021 to send Duncan Keith to Edmonton for Caleb Jones — a deal that Holland almost certainly regrets in hindsight.
Assets Oilers could move
It’s hard to imagine Jesse Puljujarvi is not the first player dangled in any deal. His $3 million cap relief would allow Edmonton to acquire a blueliner, specifically if the Oilers sweeten the pot. In terms of young roster players teams like Chicago or Arizona could seek, rookie Dylan Holloway is the other probable ask that would also create room up front in Edmonton. Holloway has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, and if he does have a breakout season next year, he may become too costly to keep anyway.
Holland has stated he’ll carry only 12 forwards to maximize cap space when Yamamoto returns from injury, which means the team would need to trade or waive at least two forwards. While Puljuarvi and Holloway are the likely trade targets, veterans Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark, who each carry a $1.25-million cap hit, make the most sense as waiver dumps.
Teams will undoubtedly inquire about blueliner Philip Broberg as well, but given that Edmonton’s Cup window will not end this season, keeping a defender who could become a top-four staple in coming seasons should be a focus for current and future success.
Cap-strapped and roster heavy with positional needs, something has to give in Edmonton, and Holland will be working the phones until 3 p.m. on March 3 when the NHL’s trade deadline passes.
More from Yahoo Sports