EDMONTON — On the surface it seems like a negotiation that should not be difficult.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wishes to remain an Edmonton Oiler. He is an integral part of their Top 6 -- the third-best forward on their team. He has shifted to left wing without complaint, and even with Nugent-Hopkins on their roster, general manager Ken Holland’s primary need in the off-season is to add another Top 6 left winger.
If he lets Nugent-Hopkins walk, he’ll need two.
The RNH contract is on the top of the pile of papers on Holland’s desk as the expansion draft, free agency, and another season in the finite careers of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl approach. Underneath the Nugent-Hopkins file is the Adam Larsson file, the Tyson Barrie file, the Oscar Klefbom file, the Mike Smith file, and the combined James Neal/Mikko Koskinen buy-out files.
So let’s take a spin through the to-do list of a GM who has a bunch of cap space -- finally -- a pretty good regular season team, and an abject need to take a major step a year from now. I’ll be neither the agent nor the GM, but an objective third party with a realistic view (we hope):
His seven-year, $42 million deal has expired. When he signed it he was going to be this team’s No. 1 centre. Today, he a Top 6 left winger in a depressed economy -- the third-best centre in Edmonton, but not a classic third-line centre.
This cap hit should start with a five.
Holland could take Nugent-Hopkins’ $6 million cap hit and find two left wingers to replace him. But here’s the problem: in order to replicate his defensive work, his penalty killing, his role on the NHL’s best powerplay (for two years running), and his normally productive five-on-five play, Holland will need two separate players.
One guy who does all that will cost what Nugent-Hopkins costs.
So, if Holland isn’t much further ahead by moving on from Nugent-Hopkins, it all becomes about term. There is a sliding scale between how much below $6 million the offer is, and how many years the player wants tacked on for taking a (supposed) hometown discount.
Nugent-Hopkins had a poor year five-on-five. In the playoffs, he was deployed on a line with rookie Ryan McLeod and Zack Kassian. He did not carry that line to success, which is a pretty tough ask, but Dave Tippett’s personnel choices speak to a severe lack of forward depth.
They need more good forwards in Edmonton, not less.
My call: Offer Nugent-Hopkins five years, $28 million ($5.6M AAV). He’ll want six times six. Find a middle ground.
Every championship team needs a hard-nosed, defensive stalwart like Larsson. He is the Oilers’ Nik Hjalmarsson, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Ken Daneyko, Jason Smith etc.
The big Swede says that he wishes to stay and has become a big cog in a leadership group that has finally found traction here (and includes Nugent-Hopkins). It is no fluke that the resurgence in Larsson’s game this season coincides with the strides Edmonton made defensively. He also will not require a raise from his $4.16 cap hit, as his role and the economy have changed markedly since he signed his last deal in New Jersey.
My call: Offer four years, $15 million (3.75 AAV).
The problem here is, Barrie is coming off a one-year contract, and the plan all along was that this free agent deal would bring him maximum dollars AND term. He delivered, leading all NHL defencemen in points, and now some NHL GM will deliver a seven-year, $45 million deal.
That GM shouldn’t be Holland. I like the player, and he produced in Edmonton. But, Holland shouldn’t commit that much cap space and term.
The money needs to be spent elsewhere.
My call: Let him walk.
Smith can still play, and we’ve always said, his swagger is something the Oilers need.
Holland needs to acquire a younger protégé who can roughly split the 2021-22 season with Smith, with an eye to being a clear No. 1 the season after that. Chris Driedger, Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins… Whomever.
But Smith should transition to a backup role as an Oiler. Not somewhere else. He brings a lot.
My call: Offer two years, $3.5 million ($1.75M cap hit).
Look, he’s dead cap space as it is, earning $5.75M and barely playing. As fine a career as he has had, it’s over for Neal. But you’d like to get more creative than just buying Neal out. He has two years left on his contract.
With some help from our friend Hart Levine at PuckPedia, we know that a Neal buy-out costs Edmonton a $1.92M cap hit for four years. But if you bury him in the minors, you save just $1.125M per season but the deal ends in two years.
The best option: trade him and eat half the salary. It costs you $2.875 for two years and the contract is over. The trick is, what would you have to include in that trade to make it happen? Can it be part of a goaltender deal? Can Seattle be enticed?
A buy-out works. But a trade works better. Either way…
My call: Part ways with the James Neal contract.
Same drill: With one year left at $4.5M on that ridiculous departing gift left by ex-GM Peter Chiarelli, a buy-out of Koskinen costs $1.5M for two seasons and opens up $3M in cap space right now. That’s not bad.
But if you can include Koskinen in a deal, again retaining 50 per cent, then he costs $2.25M for one season. Or, if the other team buys him out, then he is just $750,000 on your cap for two seasons.
But again, what asset must be attached to Koskinen to make that trade happen? Would you bury him, save the $1.125M, and not extend the pain another year?
In the end, if you’re bringing back a 39-year-old Smith, the other guy has to be younger and have some future prospects.
My call: Trade Koskinen and a fourth-round pick, retain 50% or negotiate a buy-out, and get back nothing of consequence.