Cap-strapped Oilers face unfamiliar roster inflexibility as pre-season wraps up

Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Eight pre-season games are in the books, finally, and what we have learned about this Edmonton Oilers team? 

When it comes to the salary cap, they’re screwed. 

One hundred and sixty five dollars. 

That was walking around money, back in the day when we used to carry “walking around money.” 

Today, that is the amount of cap flexibility the Oilers have as they enter the 2022-23 season deep into Long Term Injury Reserve. 

So, as we offer our collective relief — after a 5-3 win over the Seattle Kraken — that another stultifying pre-season is now in the rear view mirror, what greets general manager Ken Holland’s team is a level of roster inflexibility never before seen here in Edmonton. 

For starters, as we await Saturday’s 2 pm ET announcement on whether winger Mattias Janmark will clear waivers, that $1.25 million salary will solve a lot of issues if it lands elsewhere in the NHL. If he does not get claimed, as we suspect will be the case, Edmonton will be forced to place Devin Shore and his $850,000 salary on the waiver wire as a response, in their quest to be cap compliant by Monday. 

If Shore goes unclaimed, then Edmonton — which could be running that scant 21-man roster for the foreseeable future — will have a fourth line missing veterans Shore and Janmark, but including minor league vet Brad Malone, Derek Ryan, and perhaps even Jesse Puljujarvi.

Kailer Yamamoto and Warren Foegele are both injured to some unknown degree, but for the purposes of this column we’ll assume they’ll be ready to play by Wednesday night. A such, this is our best guess on how the Oilers will line up when the rosters are declared on Monday: 

Kane – McDavid – Yamamoto 

Holloway – Draisaitl – Hyman 

McLeod – Nugent-Hopkins – Foegele 

Malone - Ryan - Puljujarvi 

Nurse – Ceci 

Kulak – Bouchard 

Broberg – Barrie 

Campbell 

Skinner 

Once the Oilers get to Opening Day on Wednesday however, a few things could happen. But remember, Edmonton has exactly $165 in wiggle room — so they can’t do much. 

In order to call up a million dollar player the Oilers have to send $1 million or more in contracts down to Bakersfield. 

One move we could see Edmonton making on Wednesday morning, simply on the strength of their respective training camp performances, is to call defenceman Markus Niemelainen up to the big club and send Philip Broberg down. Broberg has to start the season on the NHL roster because of bonus clauses, but Niemelainen outplayed Broberg this fall. 

We suspect Niemelainen will be farmed out over the weekend, but may not leave Edmonton. Broberg, meanwhile, did not seize his training camp opportunity, and would not be hurt by a little more AHL seasoning. That’s a move that is easily made as neither player requires waivers, and Broberg ($863,333) makes more money than Niemelainen ($762,500). 

Up front it gets more complex, however. 

Let’s say that Janmark and Shore remain Oilers, and both are sent down to the AHL on Sunday so the team can be cap compliant on Monday. Ideally, you’d like to have Malone in Bakersfield, and one or both of Shore and Janmark on the NHL roster. 

But how do you get them there? 

Malone makes $762,500. Shore makes $850,000. Janmark makes $1.25 million. 

Alone, Malone’s demotion does not open up enough cap space to bring up either Shore or Janmark. But perhaps the roughly $100,000 gained in the Niemelainen-Broberg swap allows for a Shore-Malone swap. 

How did we get here? 

Well, as some folks would say, it’s always Jesse Puljujarvi who gets the blame. 

Holland spent the summer trying unsuccessfully to trade Puljujarvi and his $3 million salary, and built a roster that was supposed to have the flexibility provided by having moved out $3 million in salary. 

Holland wanted a second round pick for the big Finn, and couldn’t find one on the open market. Give Holland credit for sticking to his price, but this bind he is in is a result of that as well. 

Warren Foegele was another trade target, but with two years left at $2.75, he is harder to move than Puljujarvi, who has only this season left on his contract. 

Could Holland cave, and move Puljujarvi for a third round pick, and maybe a fifth? 

It would solve his cap issues, but he’ll likely let the season play out and see if injuries find some relief for his roister plight. 

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