NHL Rumour Roundup: Is it almost time for the Oilers to make a move?

On this edition of 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discuss Canadian teams playing at home without fans, AHL players that could possibly go to the Olympics and the latest news from the CHL.

With the holidays behind us, a fresh year ahead, and no Olympic break coming anymore, the NHL will be full steam ahead towards the trade deadline and playoff races in the coming months (and fingers crossed there are no further COVID-19-related pauses).

This year’s trade deadline has been pushed back to March 21, so there is plenty of time for the market to take shape and for the full list of trade candidates to come out of the mists. However, it’s late enough in the season for some teams to be contemplating what their next move has to be.

In Edmonton, some corners of the fan base are calling for a coaching change, though as Mark Spector wrote Saturday night, moving on from Dave Tippett at this point is perhaps not the best response for a team that has had four different coaches in six years. Instead, maybe we should be trying to get inside the head of GM Ken Holland and what approach he might be taking to upgrade the roster.

And that’s where we’ll start with today’s roundup of NHL rumours.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

IS IT TIME FOR THE OILERS TO MAKE A MOVE?

On Dec. 11 the Oilers were on a five-game losing streak and losing steam. Following a 3-1 loss to contending Carolina, Oilers GM Ken Holland joined Scott Oake and Louie DeBrusk on After Hours and was asked about what approach he was considering taking at the trade deadline.

“We gotta win some games. Certainly I want to be a buyer at the deadline, but we have to win some hockey games,” Holland said. “We’ll see where we’re at. The standings will sort of dictate my thinking.”

Since then, the Oilers have gone 2-2-2 and have lost their past three games in a row. With the tough NY Rangers up Monday night followed by the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, it’s not out of the question that Edmonton could find itself out of a playoff spot by week’s end.

Allowing the team’s on-ice play and its position in the standings to dictate Holland’s moves would seem to indicate that if the team is on the playoff line he may only make subtle adjustments or even, possibly, nothing at all.

But can these Oilers afford to be so patient?

“The one thing I think about Edmonton is that missing the playoffs is not an option,” Elliotte Friedman said on the Jeff Marek Show Monday.

“When you think you can win the Stanley Cup you’re trading, say, a first-rounder for a rental D or a rental forward. I don’t know if you can do that to save a playoff berth for the Oilers, but you cannot let this season slip away. There’s too much at stake.”

Despite Holland’s off-season efforts, the same issues plague this roster as before. Goaltending may be the biggest concern, with 38-year-old Mike Smith playing just five games so far and picking up day-to-day status just two games after returning from a previous injury that kept him out for two months. The team’s left side defence is a weakness, as is their forward depth. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl may be 1-2 in the Art Ross race, but when neither of them is on the ice at 5-on-5 the Oilers have been outscored by a whopping 36-17.

So if a coaching change isn’t on the table, then what kind of moves can be found via trade? Perhaps it becomes less likely the Oilers enter the rental market that contenders traditionally do, but sitting out all of the action because they’re underperforming doesn’t appear to be the best way forward either.

“We always talk about Pittsburgh, their model was with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin you go for it every year. Obviously, Edmonton is not at that level, but I do think with McDavid and Draisaitl to keep them happy you owe them to go for it.

“You’ve gotta be smart,” Friedman continued. “You’re not trading Evan Bouchard. I don’t think you’re trading first-rounders for rentals right now. But there’s going to be teams out there that are going to say ‘we need to make moves, we want to lighten our load, we don’t think we’re that good.’ I gotta think there’s sensible moves for the Oilers to make that it’s not just a first-rounder for a rental.

“I think you have to be looking around. Maybe is there another defenceman with a bit more term you can go out and get?”

This won’t be Holland’s first rodeo and he’s tackled the deadline from all sorts of angles in his decades in an NHL GM’s chair. But this Oilers team, with so much pressure to win and yet hanging on to the bottom rungs of just a playoff berth, may be one of his more challenging conundrums yet.

“I just think at the end of the line Edmonton can’t afford to miss the playoffs. It’s just not an option,” Friedman said. “But I look at Holland and I just think this is a person who will decide what the right path is and he won’t be influenced by the noise. He will make the decision he thinks is right for his team and I think when you’re in that chair that’s the way you have to do it.”

WHAT PATH COULD THE CANADIENS TAKE?

An absolutely dreadful season may have hit its lowest point over the holiday season when the Canadiens, hammered by the injury bug and COVID protocols, had to dress an almost-unrecognizable team in Tampa, Carolina and Florida. Those three losses played out more or less as you’d expect and now Montreal, with just 18 standings points, is just three up on Arizona for last overall (the Habs have played three more games, too).

So they’re going to be sellers. Ben Chiarot‘s name is the most obvious for the rental market and it’s presumed the tough defender could bring back a late first-rounder. Any expiring contract could be moved, really. The question is how far might Jeff Gorton, the executive vice president of hockey operations, might take this thing — and what he might do even before the team hires a formal GM. With someone as experienced as Gorton running the show for now, the Habs could slow play their GM search to find precisely the right fit and allow Gorton to proceed with his vision.

“I look at Gorton in Montreal and (Jim) Rutherford in Vancouver and even though you’re still talking about hiring a GM, your top decision maker from a hockey point of view is already there,” Friedman said.

There has been some talk of a potential for a complete rebuild in Montreal, something owner Geoff Molson said he was “not afraid” of when announcing Gorton’s hiring. But Bergevin built a team that was supposed to contend (and did reach the final last season) so when you talk about change that substantial, you have to wonder what certain players think about it.

“This is my 10th season now and I have always had a desire to win. I love the team and the city but I haven’t taken the time to think about what I would do if management announced a major rebuild,” Brendan Gallagher said after Bergevin’s dismissal. “That’s a discussion we should have in the future.”

On Jeff Marek’s list of 25 trade candidates last month, Gallagher’s name appeared.

Gallagher plays a feisty and productive style of game that would make him a welcome addition to most NHL teams, but he’s also battled injuries in recent years, has had trouble scoring in 2021-22 and is in the first year of a six-year contract paying $6.5 million against the cap and as much as $9 million in actual salary in years to come. His importance to the team, to the fan base (and his no-move clause) means he’d have a role to play in any deal, but it might not be so simple to find in-season.

And that brings us to the next big potential trade chip: Carey Price.

Montreal’s goalie carried this team to the final last season, but hasn’t played yet this season as he’s dealt with personal off-ice issues and rehabs a knee injury. Price, unprotected by the Habs in the expansion draft but left unclaimed by the Kraken, could be a huge get for any team, but the most important thing is that he takes care of himself right now.

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Like Gallagher, Price’s immense contract ($10.5 million cap hit through 2025-26) could make an in-season deal difficult and it’s not even clear if he will return to play before the fall anyway. If he does come back and returns to form, though, a shocking trade market could kick up.

“The Olympics are out of the question now so what happens with Price?” Friedman wondered on 32 Thoughts: The Podcast. “Now that the Olympics are out there’s two ways this can go: Number one he can say, you know what, there’s no Olympcis this year, this team is not playing for anything, I’m going to take the rest of the year off to get healthy physically and mentally and I’ll see you all next September.”

The other way this could go: Could the Habs and Price land in the same spot Gallagher may end up and agree a parting of ways is best for both if a rebuild is the plan?

“Would that ever happen with Price?” Friedman wondered. “Would the Canadiens and Price say well maybe another team might want you, but the only way that could work is if you get healthy and play some games this year so other teams can see that you’re alright. I think at some point that conversation is going to have to happen.”

WHAT WILL BE THE FIRST BIG TRADE OF 2022?

While the second-to-last Canadiens contemplate changes big and small, the last overall Coyotes are definitely in tank mode and could sell any and all assets. Phil Kessel is the most obvious, a rental player with a Stanley Cup past.

But there’s also Jakob Chychrun, a highly valuable 23-year-old defenceman with another three years remaining on his contract (and a very manageable $4.6 million cap hit). Usually, these are the types of players a rebuilding team would want to keep, but the Coyotes could get a haul for Chychrun and may see an opportunity to lean into the full rebuild even more with a trade here.

And this may be one we don’t have to wait until the deadline to see play out.

“I think that’s probably the first big deal of 2022 is Chychrun,” Friedman said.

However, while the idea of trading a young, top-four, left-shot defenceman with term may seem to align exactly with Edmonton’s needs — the kind of situation that may be worth swinging for — Friedman also added that he “heard it’s not going to be” the Oilers.

Stay tuned. We’ll see where this goes, as they say…

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