Death by a thousand cuts.
That’s how Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli described his team’s demise last season.
As the salary cap walls close in on Chiarelli this summer, do the same words apply to the Oilers’ salary cap issues?
With just $10.9 million in cap space to play with, only five NHL clubs have less wiggle room this July 1 than the Oilers. That cap space includes re-signing Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome, so nearly $11 million is — in reality — closer to $4-5 million to sign three or four players.
"We’ve done interviews with (free agents). The level of player varies," Chiarelli said on Wednesday, just five days before the doors open on free agency at noon ET Sunday. "I don’t expect we’ll be active from a star player perspective. That would require trades too (to move out salary), if we did that.
"There are depth players. There are bottom six players. We’re looking at those."
So, as the Oilers try to rebound from a season that cost people jobs throughout this organization — from the bench, to the coaches’ office, to the empty cubicles inside the Oilers Entertainment Group offices — the free agent market is, by the GM’s own admission, not a place where the Oilers will find impactful relief.
Sure, they’ll add a fourth or third-liner who can kill some penalties, and a seventh defenceman in case young Ethan Bear is not deemed ready for primetime coming out of training camp. But the few million dollars in cap space the Oilers lack this July 1 is not at Chiarelli’s disposal because it has been unwisely used elsewhere to top up deals that now tie the GM’s hands.
Let’s start with a backup goalie named Mikko Koskinen. The unproven Finn was given a $2.5-million, one-year deal on May 1 coming out of the KHL — where goalies are notoriously difficult to assess.
That salary is simply too much for any backup goalie, let alone one who turns 30 in July and has four NHL games under his belt – almost a decade ago on Long Island. Backup goalies should make $1 million, when they are proven. Koskinen is starkly overpaid, particularly when you note that on May 2 Colorado signed a goalie named Pavel Francouz, who later that month would be named the KHL Goalie of the Year.
Francouz’s price was $690,000 on a one-year deal, and his numbers last season — a 1.80 goals-against average and a .946 saves percentage — were very similar to Koskinen’s 1.57 and .937. And, Francouz is two years younger.
The roster Chiarelli has built here in Edmonton is dotted with bad contracts to varying extents, and now that Connor McDavid has moved to his second contract, this lineup is virtually devoid of value contracts.
Andrej Sekera at $5.5 million is an overpay, even when healthy. Kris Russell, who is a contributor, is overcompensated by a million dollars at his current AAV of $4 million.
Milan Lucic at $6 million is not pretty, coming off a 10-goal campaign. That he replaced Taylor Hall, who won a Hart Trophy while being paid $6 million, is a black mark on Chiarelli’s managerial record.
Zack Kassian is a fourth-line player making $1.95 million for two more seasons. Goalie Al Montoya makes just over $1 million, though there will be little cap penalty if he spends the season in the minors.
Death by a thousand cuts? When it comes to salary management, Chiarelli may have something there.
So, it is clear that, by necessity, the solution in Edmonton is already inside its locker room. And there is some irony in that the very contracts that have put the Oilers in cap jail belong to the players who will have to pick up their games if Chiarelli is to keep his job here.
Lucic must return to being a 20-goal, 50-point player, because a buyout would only exacerbate the cap issues in Edmonton. He has five years left at $6 million per, with a buyout that is anything but team friendly.
Sekera must show that the torn ACL he suffered in May 2017 is not career altering. He is 32 and has three years left on a deal that is lavish, for a second-pairing defender.
Russell has to be the other half of what would be a $9.5-million second pairing with Sekera, because you can’t pay third-pairing D-men four million bucks.
Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, two Entry Level Contracts, could ride to Chiarelli’s rescue here if they become top-6 wingers this season. Same with fresh draft pick Evan Bouchard, whose skill set, if it germinates, will provide some value contract seasons.
It is easy to look at McDavid’s annual $12.5-million salary, which kicks in this season, and Leon Draisaitl’s $8.5 million, which began last year, and let Chiarelli off the hook for having cooked this broth.
But cap jail isn’t built on just two contracts. It is a death by a thousand cuts, something they are growing familiar with in Edmonton.