Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Dec 21, 2020  •   •  8 minute read

Oilers GM Ken Holland. Photo by Larry Wong /Postmedia

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Edmonton Oilers training camp preview, Part Two: Roster overview

Just as we’ve reached the darkest day of a very dark year, there has been lots of breaking news over the weekend that suggests better days lie ahead for hockey fans. The NHL’s tentative plans to play a 56-game schedule beginning January 13 announced two weeks ago have been firmed up significantly. For readers who may be catching up to the changing state of affairs, an excellent summary of the situation by TSN’s Frank Seravalli can be found here.

TSN hockey insider Pierre LeBrun provides a quick summary with these two tweets:

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So, to recap:
Puck drop: Jan. 13
Trade deadline: April 12
End of reg season: May 8
Expansion draft: July 21
NHL draft: July 23-24
Free-agent Frenzy: July 28
July 29: LeBrun goes to cottage https://t.co/um2EkAIOc6

— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) December 20, 2020

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Lots of hurdles remain, including approval by the league’s Board of Governors (a two-third majority is required since a change of divisional alignment is part of the package), as well with the five provincial health authorities in Canada. Seravalli dug into that situation here with this further clarification following via Twitter.

There’s been a lot of focus on British Columbia health officials not signing off on #NHL‘s protocols, but hearing that province is not alone.

Both Ontario and Quebec have also not signed off for Habs, Leafs and Sens to host games. Talks expected to continue early this week.

— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) December 20, 2020

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Should those approvals not be forthcoming, options for the much-rumoured Canadian Division (officially: the North Division) may include playing in bubbles in provinces who have signed off, with Edmonton — home of the Stanley Cup Finals and the World Juniors — once again being a leading contender. (Just call us Bubble City!) It’s also not been ruled out that all seven Canadian teams might have to play their games in the USA, which would likely mean a different realignment or none at all, with the league’s 31 teams sticking to their current divisional format. My Cult of Hockey colleague Kurt Leavins dug into that unattractive option in the latest edition of his weekly column, 9 Things.

Then there’s the matter of the virus itself, as numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to spiral upwards in both countries. Need I remind anyone that 2020 has been a grim year indeed, even as there is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of several approved vaccines. That is encouraging though it will take time and plenty of it.

It’s hard to make sense of this hodgepodge of wishful thinking, roadblocks, contingency plans, and ever-ongoing negotiations. But with the major players having agreed on the fundamental plan, let’s take them at face value for now and consider the state of affairs for the focal point of this blog, the Edmonton Oilers.

Current plans are for the 24 teams who participated in last summers Return to Play will commence training camp on Jan 03, a scant 10 days before the season gets underway. There will be no preseason games, which in one sense is good news as it should serve to minimize players starting the season on injured reserve.

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Word filtered out on Sunday that teams will be allowed up to 36 skaters and an unlimited number of goalies for camp, but that seems like overkill. In the specific case of the Oilers, they could bring in every player with an NHL contract except those who have been loaned overseas for the season, and they wouldn’t have 36 skaters on hand.

Nor would they need them. Consider that last year the training camp roster was cut down to 30 healthy bodies by Sep 20, twelve days before the season was to start. That squares up with when this year’s accelerated camp gets underway, so I for one expect a pretty streamlined group. Might as well stick with the guys who have a legitimate shot, even as the existence of a taxi squad might inflate those numbers a little bit I don’t think it would be by much. Last year’s late cuts will essentially be this year’s taxi squad.

The ultimate goal will be a “normal” 23-man roster buttressed by a taxi squad of 4-6 players. The latter group would be like a travelling contingent of AHL-calibre players who would need to clear waivers before being assigned to the taxi squad. Only those on the 23-man list would count against the salary cap. There has been some speculation that teams might deal with cap issues by choosing to run with just a 20- or 21-man active roster with all other spare parts on the taxi squad, but some of the nitty-gritty fine details of what is permissible haven’t (been) filtered out as yet. So again, let’s take it at face value and assume a 23-man roster for the Oilers, along with a fully-staffed 6-man taxi squad. How might that shape up?

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23-man active roster

Here’s my best take for the 23-man roster of currently signed players, all but one of whom (returning Oiler Jesse Puljujarvi) played in the NHL last season.

Alas, that’s not a tenable roster given the split of fifteen forwards to just six signed, healthy defencemen, along with the requisite two goalies. It’s just a starting point for the purposes of this discussion.

Which leads us to two key defenders who are currently not available to the club.

Defenceman Oscar Klefbom is nursing a shoulder problem that seems certain to sideline him for the entire season, even as he is currently expecting to be healthy for 2021-22. But for this year he is out.

Trouble is, for the Oilers to fully utilize Long Term Injured Reserve, they will need to find a way to fit Klefbom under the salary cap for the first day of the season before then assigning him to LTIR. For a club tight to the cap (read: “over the cap”) that is going to prove tricky to accomplish.

Second problem is that top-four d-man Ethan Bear remains unsigned, having played out the final high-value year of his entry-level contract last season, in the process inserting himself into the club’s top four as a 22-minute a night defender. In theory he’s earned a substantial raise, even as he has precious little negotiating power at this moment in time, having not yet acquired arbitration rights. He may wind up getting a low-ball extension offer for one year due to the club’s economic situation, or perhaps the club will use the Klefbom LTIR savings to offer a two- or three-year bridge deal with a significant raise. But that is hard to to do until Klef is officially on LTIR, which likely won’t happen until Day 2 of the season. In theory the club could wait until then before signing Bear, but the prospect of such a key, young player missing training camp and possibly even Game 1 is not an appealing one. At all.

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There may be other ways around the problem; if, for example, Klefbom could choose to opt out on the season that would solve it in a hurry. Not that the player would likely consider it given the loss of salary that goes with such a decision, with the club having the choice as to whether to defer the player’s contract or simply burn a year off of it. Perhaps that could be negotiated between the two sides to the player’s best interests. But while the NHL is willing to accept opt-out decisions from players, they will generally be for COVID related reasons. Not sure Klefbom’s situation would qualify, even as it would be a worthwhile line of inquiry for the Oilers to pursue.

Another way would be to create a little cap room by waiving higher-priced players for temporary placement on the taxi squad. It’s not like the club would save the entire amount of the waived player’s contract, but they could bury $1.075 million of it and replace the guy on the opening-day roster with an NHL-minimum player, saving $375,000 against the cap; or perhaps with nobody at all, saving the entire $1.075 million. At this point we don’t know what is permissible, and I’m by no means sure people like Ken Holland do at this point either. A sharp capologist will be worth his weight in palladium this next while.

What we do know is that no NHL team would touch a contract like that of James Neal, so he would be an ideal candidate for a paper transaction before opening night, even as he might expect another one the other way immediately thereafter.

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6-man taxi squad

Safest bet on this list is #3 netminder Anton Forsberg, though from this distance they all look like reasonable bets. The forwards will be looking nervously over their shoulders as barring a trade, one of the 15 attackers on the main roster seems likely to be sent down at some point.

Of this group Evan Bouchard would surely be in line to get the push if for whatever reason the club is unable to sign Bear.

Other pros signed to NHL-class contracts

All of these players shown in grey font are longshots to make the team or even the taxi squad, even as a handful of them might be invited to camp as a courtesy. All are on two-way contracts and seem destined to earn the AHL portion so I have omitted salary info as irrelevant.

Those shown in blue strikethrough have been committed to Europe for the duration of the 2020-21 season. Most of them were identified in this post last week, while the Edmonton Journal‘s Jim Matheson has since confirmed that Philip Broberg will not be sticking around Edmonton for camp after the World Juniors is complete, even as he’ll already be in town (where he will serve as captain for Sweden). Matheson quotes Oilers GM Ken Holland: “I talked to Philip a week ago and I told him he will go back to Skelleftea until the end of their season and then come back to Edmonton or Bakersfield once they’re done.”

Look at all those blueliners with a, uhh, blue line through their names. Of this depth group of developing D, only Markus Niemelainen hasn’t been ruled out, and he is a long ways removed from NHL consideration at this point. Meaning that until the Bear situation is resolved, the Oilers only have eight NHL-calibre-or-close rearguards at their disposal. Few enough to make this observer think that the Oil might be on the market to sign a cheap free agent, or perhaps to trade a forward for a d-man, though those are topics for another day.

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