The fact that the Oilers will be without top-four defenseman Andrej Sekera for a decent chunk of next season wasn’t the only notable bit of news that came from GM Peter Chiarelli’s year-end press conference on Tuesday.
He also discussed his summer plans for the team, and no, he doesn’t see another Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson type blockbuster. Chiarelli did say that he was open to the idea of trading down in the upcoming Entry Draft; the team has the 22nd overall pick, no second, and two third-round picks in the first 93 picks. Because this draft is seen as weaker than previous years, Chiarelli said acquiring a second-round pick isn’t a necessity but that if a trade came up, he’d consider moving down from #22 to acquire more picks.
Also on the trade front, Chiarelli called the widespread criticism of Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s playoffs unfair. Trade speculation has run wild around those two, especially Eberle, but Chiarelli pumped the breaks on the suggestion that they need to be dumped at any cost. He praised Eberle’s improvement along the boards, and talked about the lack of confidence that the sniper suffered from. Eberle took 208 shots, which is the most he’s taken so far in his seven-year career, but shot at just a nine per cent rate, considerably down from his previous career-average of 14 per cent. Had he shot at that rate, he’d have scored 29 goals instead of 20. Chiarelli stressed that the team will be “careful about how [they] evaluate him.”
As far as Nugent-Hopkins, the general manager stressed the team-wide need of improving in the face-off circle. Chiarelli said that he gave Nugent-Hopkins “homework” for the summer. While Chiarelli kept a positive tone publicly, with both men on the trading block it would have been a poor decision to criticize them. With questions remaining about what position Leon Draisaitl will ultimately play and the acquisition of David Desharnais not being overly successful, Chiarelli will likely be looking to give Todd McLellan some more options in the face-off circle.
The main priority for Edmonton is signing their two best forwards to new contracts. Draisaitl is an RFA this summer, and Connor McDavid will be eligible to extend his deal on July 1. Chiarelli called McDavid priority one and Draisaitl priority two of this summer. All other free agents, like rugged winger and playoff cult hero Zack Kassian and controversial defenseman Kris Russell will have to wait until Chiarelli knows what sort of numbers he’s dealing with. The two men combined for about $6.4MM in cap space this past season (entry-level contracts plus bonuses), but will account for as much as $20MM by next season.
As far as the potential of a rival team offer sheeting Draisaitl, Chiarelli isn’t worried about that. Last week, I wrote about why offer sheets are so rare, and Chiarelli mentioned one of the stated reasons. The Oilers have the cap space to match any offer sheet to Draisaitl, so the only reason another team would submit an offer is to jack up the price. It’s highly unlikely that a team would go out of their way to try hurt another team’s cap situation because of the negative affect it would have on that GM’s reputation.
Had Sekera not been injured, the Oilers defense might not have had any changes on opening night. Oscar Klefbom is developing into a good top-pairing defenseman, Larsson had a strong first season, Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning have made strides together, and Chiarelli expressed interest in re-signing Russell and Eric Gryba. Chiarelli admitted the team doesn’t have a championship defense (yet). He pointed to Nashville and Anaheim, saying that “it would be nice to have a D at that level.”
Russell is loved by old-school hockey people, and considered highly overrated by people with a mind for advanced stats. While Russell blocks a ton of shots (213 in 68 games), he bleeds possession and hasn’t had a positive CF% Rel. (scoring chances when he’s on the ice compared to off the ice) since 2012 when he was in Columbus. He also scored just one goal this season despite playing the third-most minutes of all skaters. However, the injury to Sekera could motivate the Oilers to sign Russell to help fill the void. As mentioned above, Chiarelli will wait until he knows what McDavid and Draisaitl will cost before making any considerable signing, even if it means waiting until after July 1.
Chiarelli said the team blew his expectations out of the water, finishing with 103 points and getting to Game 7 of the second round. This summer will be about locking up key pieces and letting the young roster develop next season.