It’s already been a fascinating off-season in the National Hockey League, highlighted by the addition of the loop’s 32nd club and the attendant intrigue of an expansion draft. But there’s been far more than that, with a flurry of high-profile trades, salary dumps, and/or buyouts. For example, both the Vezina Trophy winner (Marc-Andre Fleury) and the All-Rookie Team goaltender (Alex Nedeljkovic) have both dealt in the last week.
The action has been especially hot and heavy on the back end where such big-salaried defenders as Duncan Keith, Nick Leddy, Ryan Ellis, Shayne Gostisbehere, Rasmus Ristolainen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Seth Jones, and Nate Schmidt have been moved on, sometimes for a bounty of draft picks and sometimes with a bounty of draft picks, just to get rid of the afore-mentioned big salary. Mark Giordano, Jamie Oleksiak and Adam Larsson all found their way to Seattle in the expansion draft. Other high-priced defenders like Ryan Suter, Keith Yandle, and Tony DeAngelo have been bought out and are set to hit the open market, however briefly.
That market opens officially on Wednesday morning when the all-important free agent phase of the NHL off-season gets underway. Expect another flurry of activity right off the hop which will include many of the most regrettable deals, followed by an extended secondary phase where the true bargains are most often found. It’s an odd marketplace to say the least.
Putting a local spin on things, the Edmonton Oilers have been hip-deep in the maelstrom. The Oilers acquired Duncan Keith in a controversial trade with Chicago, then lost his would-be partner Adam Larsson to Seattle. Up front they bought out winger James Neal to create space on both the salary cap and on the roster. If the tumblers fall into place Wednesday morning, Neal’s spot on both fronts will have been replaced by UFA Zach Hyman.
The unexpected departure of Larsson left a gaping hole on the right side of the defence, where the only NHL-experienced players under contract are young Ethan Bear and younger Evan Bouchard.
But a pair of rumours breaking on Tuesday night herald major changes at right defence. First this from the ultimate (though “semi-retired”) insider, TSN’s Bob McKenzie:
… followed in short order by this from Sportsnet‘s ace reporter Elliotte Friedman in response to the Edmonton Journal‘s Jim Matheson:
Tyson Barrie is no stranger to Oilers fans, having played for the Oilers in 2021 on a one-year “show-me” contract. He showed plenty, leading all NHL defencemen in scoring with 48 points almost equally split between the powerplay and at even strength. Barrie had his issues at the defensive end of the ice, leading many to conclude he would be moving on from Edmonton to give the younger, cheaper, highly-talented Bouchard a shot. Obviously a last-minute extension of the older man in the hours leading to (or just following) free agency changes that equation in a major way.
On the bright side, Barrie’s offensive chops are well established. In a 10-year NHL career that just passed the 600-game mark, the just-turned-30-year-old sports a per-82 average of 12-41-53.
Barrie is reportedly looking for a four-year deal somewhere in the $5 million range, with the Oilers said to prefer a three-year pact.
Cody Ceci, 27, is nearly as experienced, with 549 NHL games under his belt. The 15th overall draft pick in 2012 (Ottawa Senators) was in the NHL to stay by his Draft +2 season. Since then he’s averaged a relatively modest 6-16-22 per 82 GP, with a career average of 20:46 ice time. That’s effectively top four minutes; whether they were effective top-four minutes is another question. He has an extensive history of shot shares in the low-to-mid 40s, which might be expected in Ottawa but less so in Toronto and Pittsburgh where he played his two most recent seasons.
Last summer he signed in the second week of free agency with the Penguins, taking a major haircut from $4.5 million to $1.25 million. On the Penguins his ice time was cut to 18½ minutes per game, including 2:32 on the penalty kill and just 0:04 on the powerplay, a mix which surely has appeal to the Oilers given the offence-first bent of both Bouchard and Barrie.
No word as to either term or cap hit involving Ceci, and given his recent past all bets are off. Let’s just say how I value players is different from how Ken Holland values them, and Holland’s is the only opinion that matters.
Neither d-man is yet a done deal, nor is the one involving Hyman, so let’s take a last look at the roster Holland brings to “Free Agent Frenzy”. With the subtraction of Neal he has 33 contracts on his 50-man list, with qualifying offers outstanding to 4 restricted free agents to effectively bring the number to 37. Let’s focus here on the big-league roster:
Based loosely on last year’s depth chart. All players with shaded backgrounds are under contract with the exception of Kailer Yamamoto who has been locked up with a qualifying offer and is certain to return. Those with white backgrounds are free agents on the verge of leaving the club, with Barrie included in this group. For now.
Barring any formal moves on Tuesday night, here’s a stripped down version of the roster with all the free agents as well as the injured Oscar Klefbom removed.
Again, this attempts to simulate a depth chart showing the roster holes at the right levels, the main ones being 1LW, 3LW, 3C, 2RD. Hyman will surely check the first box, Barrie (should he sign) the last. This version of the roster is based on a 13F/7D/3G split, leaving no room for a fourth RD. Should both names rumoured above be signed, would one of the younger men be forced out of the mix?
That is essentially what happened to Bouchard in 2021 as he played just 14 games. However, a persistent buzz this summer is that it might be Bear who is the odd man out and might be shopped. While that prospect will leave a sour taste in the mouths of many Oil fans including this one, my pragmatic side has to ask what might they be able to get in return for the popular rearguard?
In particular, Seattle might be a prime target given Bear’s connection to the city where he played four years of junior hockey, winning the WHL’s defenceman of the year award in his final campaign in which he helped lead the Thunderbirds to a berth in the Memorial Cup. Such connections might have extra value to the fledgling Kraken franchise, moreover they have a number of interesting assets gleaned from the expansion draft. (Adam Larsson, anyone?)
From this distance, a defence involving Barrie, Ceci and Bouchard playing the right side would be a vulnerable group, but if history has taught us anything, it’s “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. Stay tuned.
As for those holes on the third line? One name that’s getting plenty of buzz for the 3C role is none other than Ryan Getzlaf, who may be on the outs with the Anaheim Ducks, his team of 15 years. At 36, Getzlaf’s window is closing, and the Ducks have been lost at sea in recent years. The 8-year, $66 million extension he signed in 2013 is now expired and the market beckons. So do a number of high-profile American teams, but Getzlaf does have some connections to this part of the world. A big, right-shot centre who is proficient on the faceoff dot and has lots of experience playing in big games and with skill sure would check a lot of boxes. A one-year 35+ pact with plenty of bonuses might be the best approach, even as it’s likely a pipe dream.
A secondary choice is David Kampf, a 26-year-old Czech who rather surprisingly did not receive a qualifying offer from Chicago. Ken Holland has done plenty of shopping in that aisle during his previous summers in Edmonton, signing Josh Archibald and Markus Granlund in 2019, then Dominik Kahun and Slater Koekkoek in 2020. All had been RFAs who did not receive a qualifying offer, as is the case with Kampf now. He’s not a prolific scorer by any means, but is a sound defensive centre with proficiency on faceoffs and on the penalty kill, where he led Blackhawks forwards in ice time in 2021.
Another possibility is that the Oilers might circle back to Jujhar Khaira, already well-known in these parts so needing no further description here.
As for that hole at 3LW, one leading candidate who has received plenty of talk is Tomas Tatar, who was drafted, developed and ultimately deployed by Holland’s Detroit Red Wings before both player and GM headed in different directions. Tatar had six consecutive 20-goal seasons with Detroit, Vegas and Montreal before slipping to just 10 in the truncated 2021 campaign. That he was benched during the Habs extended playoff run is both a concern but also a potential opportunity in the sense that it might bring his price tag down.
Another possibility is Jordan Martinook, a trusted worker bee for coach Dave Tippett when both were with the Arizona Coyotes. Now 29, his ice time and goal production have slipped the last couple of years in Carolina, where roster depth may have bumped him down to the fourth line. Not sure there’s room for both him and Devin Shore in the same line-up, but it would shock me not at all if the Oilers expressed interest.
Another option on LW would involve “shopping local” and giving a youngster like Tyler Benson or maybe Dylan Holloway a shot. Are the Oilers prepared to walk the talk and give another youngster a full shot? Recent evidence shows an ever-increasing preference for “greybeards” leaving one to wonder how and when the club will bring on the next wave.
Lastly the Oilers are three deep in experienced goaltenders, but it’s possible they may look for an upgrade on the market. A highly-desirable choice would be Linus Ullmark who posted excellent numbers (9-6-3, 2.63, .917) despite playing for the dreadful Buffalo Sabres. By way of comparison, the Sabres other five (!) goalies posted a combined 6-28-4, 3.58, .896. The club nose-dived to an 18-game losing streak while Ullmark was injured only to right the ship, at least to a degree, after he returned. Scuttlebutt has the Sabres making a late bid to extend the turning-28-year-old, presumably with a nice raise on the $2.6 million annual stipend he earned on his last deal.
Lots more names on the market of course, but we’ll have plenty of time to discuss future bargains once this week’s first
tsunami wave recedes. First let’s see what the morrow brings.
Recently at the Cult of Hockey
STAPLES: Nurse, Oilers reportedly negotiating four-year extension
McCURDY: It’s official — Oilers buy out Neal
STAPLES: Holland’s greatest challenge? Replacing Adam Larsson
McCURDY: Neal trade talks heating up?
McCURDY: Oilers signal intentions to move on from Khaira, Kahun
LEAVINS: Some comparisons for new Oiler Xavier Bourgault
McCURDY: A wrap of the Edmonton Oilers performance at the 2021 Draft
Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy