It would be a grave mistake if Oilers don’t fill GM role before draft

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Edmonton Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson. (Jason Franson/CP)

How much pressure is there on the Edmonton Oilers organization to get this general manager hire right?

Well, consider the $2 to 3 million home gates that pass by each spring, with the Oilers on the outside of the playoffs looking in for the fourth time in CEO Bob Nicholson’s five years with the team.

Nicholson has his candidates for GM — a list that includes Kelly McCrimmon, Mark Hunter, Ken Holland, Keith Gretzky and Sean Burke — and don’t believe what you hear about the team going into the upcoming draft without filling the position.

“Are you kidding? That’s where [the new GM] is going to have to get all his work done,” an Eastern exec said Sunday.

It would be a grave mistake not to have the new GM in place in time for the draft, and there’s no reason for it.

It’s not even May 1 and the interviews are concluded — or at least well along in the process. The draft goes in Vancouver on June 21. Unless the new hire is forbidden by his old organization from making the move before draft day — which is almost unheard of — the Oilers need him in place to make a dent in their cap woes come June, so they can go after a couple of mid-range free agents in July.

There are at least two trades to be made, quite possibly a buy-out and a couple of roster spots to be cleared to make room next season for at least two members of the Bakersfield Condors, who open Round 2 of the American Hockey League playoffs Friday against the San Diego Gulls.

Here’s a look at what awaits the new Oilers GM, and why it is perhaps not as dire as you may think:

• Make room for two D-men. Caleb Jones will make the jump next season, and there has to be room on the NHL roster should Evan Bouchard show up ready too, which is about a 50/50 proposition right now. Joel Persson has an outside shot, and with Dmitri Samorukov demanding significant AHL ice time next season, some decisions are going to have to be made.

The Oilers are deep in young defencemen with a chance to play in the NHL: Jones, Bouchard, Persson, Samorukov, Ethan Bear, William Lagesson. There are enough that one could be used in a trade for a winger, or as a sweetener to move a contract.

Kris Russell is a third-pairing defenceman making $4 million for two more seasons. Andrej Sekera is coming off of two major injuries and makes $5.5 million for two more seasons. One of them has to be gone by training camp for the new GM to have room to add the necessary wingers his team needs.

• It would be foolish to move your first round pick at No. 8, but Edmonton has picks in every round but the fifth. The club needs to either attach a draft pick or prospect to a player like Russell or Milan Lucic, which would be much more difficult. Or the Oilers could deal Russell for someone else’s $4-million winger, who may perform better next to the Oilers’ centres than the team he was with.

• Lucic: Financially, there is no point in buying out Lucic but I would trade him for someone else’s problem of equal value. His presence here as a big free agent signing who has declined to a six-goal scorer is an ongoing negative. At $6 million, there are all kinds of other bad contracts across the NHL that could also use a change in scenery, but don’t think the player you get will make your team a lot better than Lucic does.

• Count on one D-man, and one wing from Bakersfield. Jones showed he could play in the NHL this past season, thriving at 17 or 18 minutes of ice time. When injuries led to him playing 22 to 24 minutes, he couldn’t handle it. Bring him up, give him third-pairing minutes and he may eventually be the three-to-four defenceman you want.

Unless you can do better on the free agent market this summer, Tyler Benson — the AHL’s second-leading rookie scorer this season with 15 goals, 51 assists and 66 points in 68 games — appears smart enough to be an NHL winger next fall. The Oilers need three, maybe four wingers. Benson is one. The Russell trade becomes another. Buy out Sekera, and the $3 million you save can become a third.

If the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes — both of whom missed the playoffs last season — can be second-round teams in 2018-19, the Oilers can make the playoffs next season.

It will take some savvy GM’ing, however, and that means having a hire in place well before the draft.

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