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Why can't the Edmonton Oilers get big contributions from players on entry level contracts?

Edmonton Oilers CEO & Vice Chair Bob Nicholson (left) and Interim General Manager Keith Gretzky speak during a media conference at Rogers Place in Edmonton, on Monday, April 8, 2019.
- Ian Kucerak/Postmedia News

According to the wonderful on-line resource CapFriendly, the Western Conference club with the highest cap hit in 2018-19 was … drum roll … your Edmonton Oilers. That’s right, folks, by their expert calculations the Oilers incurred a cap hit of $80,007,877 this season just past, at first glance over the NHL’s current limit of $79.5 million but with a portion of Andrej Sekera’s cap written off to Long Term Injured Reserve. Even with that taken into account, the Oilers had less residual cap space ($356 k) than any other WC team, with the Sharks, Stars and Blues nipping at their heels.

However… according to another wonderful on-line resource, NHL.com, the Sharks, Stars, and Blues all made the playoffs, and at present all are hanging around in them. Whereas one has to go back to the historical records of the regular season to discover any mention of the Oilers, only to find that they finished in 14th place in the 15-team Western Conference, 11 points behind the 8th-place Colorado Avalanche.

The Avs and Oilers make for an interesting comparison. Both were peppered with high draft picks over the past decade. Over those years the Oilers had six picks in the top 4 overall (Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Jesse Puljujarvi), while the Avs had a #1 (Nathan MacKinnon, 2013), a #2 (Gabriel Landeskog, 2011), a #3 (Matt Duchene, 2009) and a #4 (Cale Makar, 2017) with another #4OV in the holster for 2019, courtesy the trading of Duchene.

But when it comes to cap hit there is no comparison. Believe it or not the Avs have the lowest cap hit in the Western Conference, with over $10 million unused at season’s end. Enough space that the Avs were ready, able and willing to trade for Brooks Orpik last summer only to immediately buy him out (at a cost of $2.5 million this season, $1.5 next) in order to receive a sweetener in the form of Philipp Grubauer, now their #1 goalie. Cap space: it’s a thing.

So is lack of cap space, as Oilers fans can attest. This year it became manifest when Sekera returned and interim GM Keith Gretzky had to cut the budget elsewhere. While the departure of their own former #1 goalie Cam Talbot was already inevitable, the necessity of moving him for an inexperienced backup just to make cap space did have an effect on the Oilers the rest of the way as Mikko Koskinen took all the starts and got repeatedly crushed in back-to-backs. Didn’t account for 11 standings points of course — the Oilers playoff hopes were doomed with or without Talbot — but the need to move him had a deleterious impact on the club.

Taking a closer look comparing the payrolls of the two clubs, one item absolutely leaps off the page. As CapFriendly documents, the Avalanche currently have six players on Entry Level Contracts who are making significant contributions to the club. Forwards Mikko Rantanen, J.T. Compher, Alexander Kerfoot, and Tyson Jost and defenceman Samuel Girard all played between 66 and 82 games this season, averaging between 13 minutes a night (Jost) to nearly 21 (Rantanen).  All five were among the team’s top 10 scorers, each scoring over 25 points. It’s an impressive list:

Come the playoffs, Rantanen paced the Avs to a shocking 5-game beatdown of #1 seed Calgary with 5 goals and 9 points, while Compher chipped in with a pair of huge third-period goals that both led to Colorado overtime wins. Meanwhile, the 82-gamer Girard was hurt on a Sam Bennett (high) hit in Game 2, just at the very moment that a sixth ELC became available, namely Cale Makar who came in and made an immediate impact. Timing is everything, and one might argue Bennett’s was poor in this instance. Let’s just say the Avs have missed Girard less than one might expect, as Makar scored one game winner and set up another in his first three NHL games.

A harsh contrast to Edmonton. Let’s look past the fact that the locals’ own hotshot right-shot rearguard has yet to force his was into the AHL line-up as Makar already has at the NHL level, which is a sobering thought (although that could change as early as tomorrow). The bigger deal by far is the stunning lack of ELC’s on Edmonton’s roster. Look down the “Terms” column of CapFriendly’s version , scroll past the four notations of “NMC” and the only reference you’ll find of “ELC” is Jesse Puljujarvi, on Injured Reserve. His season ended on Feb 15 after 46 games of just under 12 minutes a night. His 9 points on the season ranked 18th on the Oilers.

Scouring the non-roster players on the bottom half of the page, we can find five other guys who played part of the season with the Oil, though fewer than 20 games in every case. This list is not so impressive:

Egads.

Now it’s worth pointing out that three of those Colorado players are set to become RFA’s in a couple of months. Rantanen will earn big bucks next year, while Compher and Kerfoot will surely earn decent raises. But guess what, that’s where all that cap space also comes in handy. Meanwhile, Makar, Girard and Jost will continue to contribute on their ongoing ELC’s.

Edmonton hit the sweet spot two years ago when both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were still on their own entry-level pacts, and the Oilers did take advantage by making the playoffs and winning a series, as the Avs have done in 2019. But the Oilers have fallen back, failing to generate a stream or even a trickle of productive young players in the pipeline. Moreover, the club has a freshly stated preference for “overripe” prospects, this in a year when they had a 30-year-old NHL neophyte playing goal and saw Gambardella make his NHL debut at 25, Patrick Russell at 25, Josh Currie at 26. Meanwhile, McDavid and Draisaitl remained the two youngest players on the active roster.

The alert reader might point out, “Colorado is probably the exception, lots of more veteran teams in the post-season, I’ll bet they don’t have so many youngsters on cheap entry-level deals”. Which is true and not true. Let’s have a look around at the other playoff teams in the west, including players on ELC’s who played 20+ games on the season (* = d-man):

  • St. Louis: Robert Thomas, Zach Sanford, Ivan Barbashev, Sammy Blais, Vince Dunn*. 320 GP, 118 points.
  • Calgary: Matt Tkachuk, Andrew Mangiapane, Dillon Dube, Rasmus Andersson*, Juuso Valimaki*, Oscar Kylington*. 290 GP, 125 points.
  • Winnipeg: Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Sami Niku*. 271 GP, 144 points.
  • Dallas: Roope Hintz, Miro Heiskanen*, Julius Honka*. 169 GP, 59 points.
  • San Jose: Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc. 160 GP, 122 points.
  • Vegas: Alex Tuch. 74 GP, 52 points.
  • Nashville: none.

… and to refresh:

  • Colorado: Rantenen, Kerfoot, Compher, Jost, Girard*. 370 GP, 214 points
  • Edmonton: Puljujarvi. 46 GP, 9 points.

Regular season-only totals shown in all cases, so as to not embarrass the Oilers.

With the singular exception of veteran-laden Nashville, every playoff team had a significant contribution from at least one player on an ELC, most from more than one. Some of those are past high draft picks, several of them — Rantanen, Laine, Connor, Tkachuk, Meier, Tuch — expiring with major raises due. The piper has to be paid eventually.

But this past season, even after accounting for bonuses due, pretty much every player listed above provided value for money, frequently significant value. And many of them — Compher, Kerfoot, Barbashev, Anderson, Labanc — are guys who came from outside the first round but were ripe enough at an ELC age to make significant contributions, and who will presumably continue to do so going forward at less than extortionate prices.

Where are those value ELC’s on the Oilers? Nowhere to be seen.

Worth noting that pretty much every NHL player on an ELC this past season was drafted (or signed) between 2014-18, with a strong bias towards the earlier years of that window. As pointed out by my friend Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell in this painfully detailed post on his terrific blog a few days back, in those two years alone the Oilers traded out no fewer than 10 (ten!) Top-100 draft picks in pursuit of quick fixes: goalies Ben Scrivens, Viktor Fasth, and Cam Talbot; defender Griffin Reinhart; forwards David Perron, Mike Brown, coach Todd McLellan. Slightly lower picks were sent out for d-men Nikita Nikitin and Eric Gryba. Not a single one of those players, nor the coach for that matter, is an Oiler today. Needless to add, neither is any of those draft picks.

Since then, a 4th round pick in 2016 was sent out for Patrick Maroon, a 3rd rounder in 2017 ceded for GM Peter Chiarelli, another 4th round pick in 2018 was spent on Al Montoya, a 3rd-rounder in 2019 on Alexander Petrovic, a 6th rounder in 2020 on Chris Wideman, and the beat goes on. Some of those deals can be defended, most look pretty bad in retrospect.

Make no wonder the organization is becoming a little gun shy about rushing things, but at least they are now in a better place with some decent defence prospects from the lower echelons of those 2014-15 drafts (William Lagesson, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear) and some higher picks (Tyler Benson, Dmitri Samorukov, Kirill Maksimov. Ryan McLeod) from the more recent 2016-18 editions emerging in the pipeline. But the sad fact is none of them is making much of an impact on the NHL to this point, even as some of their contemporaries are pushing their way in on teams a lot better than the Edmonton Oilers.

Point fingers as you will at the club’s mediocre drafting record, its iffy results developing its own prospects, or its profligate trading habits of future assets, but the dearth of young talent — actually young actual talent — was a major shortfall of the 2018-19 Oilers.

The next General Manager faces a myriad of challenges to clean up a multi-dimensional mess, but perhaps the biggest of them involves a vision of the future that is in step with what is working elsewhere in real time.

Follow me on Twitter @ BruceMcCurdy

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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