Oilers' early free-agent signings signal a stronger team for 2024-25


The Edmonton Oilers have never had a day like July 1, 2024.

The club delivered quality and quantity in the early hours of free agency. There were no contracts that tacked on an extra year, no signings one could point to as frivolous, not one deal lacking imagination.

Focusing mostly on forwards, management reset the skill lines, returned the brilliant penalty killing that was headed to free agency and added some toughness on the blue line.

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When all was said and done, 14 contracts were signed by restricted or unrestricted free agents on Monday.

At first blush, it looks like the organization delivered value contracts at every turn, with very little risk.

It was a watershed day for the franchise.

The forwards

All numbers five-on-five

This represents a mind-blowing change in targeting and results for the organization.

It was only a decade or so ago that the club stated with conviction that pieces would be added to a young cluster in order to push for Stanley Cup contention. Those words were followed by signing men like Eric Belanger, Cam Barker, Ben Eager and others — all of whom failed to deliver and most of whom had a year or more tacked on to their deals in exchange for signing with a non-contender.

The Oilers have improved in each of the last two summers. It’s important to remember this summer’s upgrades are still only on paper.

Even with that caveat, Monday was a blistering and memorable procurement cascade.

Leading the way are wingers Viktor Arvidsson and Jeff Skinner.

The price points and term for both men are ideal for the Oilers, a team that has so many players signed long-term (and with various forms of no-trade or no-movement clauses).

In his last three seasons, Skinner has delivered 2.61 points per 60 at five-on-five and Arvidsson owns a 1.92 points per 60 scoring rate over the same period.

For Oilers fans, Skinner is in the same range as Leon Draisaitl (2.52 per 60) over the three years, with Arvidsson’s number being a doppelganger for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ rate in the same game state over the same time frame.

The difference? Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins played with each other and both spent substantial time with Connor McDavid. That alone should pump up scoring prowess for Skinner and Arvidsson.

During the leadup to free agency, fans debated the most important signing on the team’s No. 3 line during the playoffs.

Most believed Adam Henrique to be the key. A centre with two-way acumen and scoring ability, his resume is a perfect fit for ridiculous July 1 paydays.

Edmonton retained Henrique and his two brilliant penalty-killing linemates (Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown) for a total of $5.45 million AAV, making the trio stunning value.

It gave management enough room to shoehorn Corey Perry onto next year’s roster, making the current forward group something close to an embarrassment of riches.

Left Wing Centre Right Wing

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Connor McDavid

Zach Hyman

Jeff Skinner

Leon Draisaitl

Viktor Arvidsson

Mattias Janmark

Adam Henrique

Connor Brown

Dylan Holloway

Ryan McLeod

Corey Perry

Evander Kane*

Derek Ryan

*LTIR

This is a strong depth chart. Both Dylan Holloway and Ryan McLeod have earned more than fourth-line playing time, but they are on the fourth line based on merit. Perry (and Derek Ryan) can play higher on the depth chart but probably land fewer total minutes over the long season than others listed above them.

Evander Kane is extremely likely to land on LTIR by September. How long he stays here is open to speculation, but Edmonton’s main Pacific Division rival (the Vegas Golden Knights) has provided the template and blazed the trail on using LTIR to ultimate advantage.

During his media avail on Monday evening, acting general manager Jeff Jackson framed Kane’s injury as a “hip” issue: “As we’ve said, he’s been dealing with an issue with his hip and we’re just going through a process right now to see what we need to do on that front. He’s getting the best care he can get on the advice from our doctors, and we’re going to consult with both Evander and his agent Dan Milstein to make sure that we’re getting second opinions and things like that. So that’s sort of where it’s at. Nothing’s planned as of yet beyond that, so first is a consultation with a specialist. He’s on our roster and on our cap and we’ve got to take care of his health first and foremost to make sure he’s healthy.”

Reading between the tea leaves, it’s possible the hip issue is more severe than the previous worry (sports hernia) and days could give way to weeks and months.

No matter how the Oilers get to the cap, the club is over by a significant amount with restricted free agents Dylan Holloway and Philip Broberg still to come.

Something has to give, and looking at the depth chart above McLeod might be in trade talks over the summer if the team needs to unload cap dollars.

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Defence and goal

Additions on defence came lower on the depth chart and that’s a tell. The organization is finally committed to Broberg.

In signing rugged Josh Brown and re-signing puck mover Troy Stecher, management left open one of the top-six positions on defence for Broberg.

In his conversation with the media, Jackson specifically mentioned Broberg (“he played very well”) being deployed on the right side during the postseason with partner Darnell Nurse.

Broberg did look good on the pairing, but considering the duo got outshot 38-23 in the playoffs (while Edmonton outscored opponents 4-2 in 67 five-on-five minutes) suggests the jury is still out.

Small samples often give conflicting results. The Oilers would do well to do what should have been done last fall: Play Broberg from the start of preseason in a prominent role and keep playing him all season, even through periods of struggle.

Young defencemen do not develop in a straight line.

He’s more than NHL-ready, and playing him is the only way to find out where he belongs on the depth chart.

In goal, the Oilers appeared set entering July 1 and free agency, with Stuart Skinner and Calvin Pickard (signed just before free agency) the NHL netminders for next season.

Olivier Rodrigue is the starter in the AHL for the Bakersfield Condors, but the club did sign Collin Delia on Monday to help out in Bakersfield.  That allows rookie pro Connor Ungar to ease his way into pro hockey at the ECHL level.

Still to come

The cap is the big issue, and the team may want to have more right-side defence insurance in case Nurse-Broberg doesn’t work over an extended period.

Digging deeper, the organization lost Vincent Desharnais to free agency and will miss his physical edge. Desharnais’ replacement (Josh Brown) is the likely No. 7 defender, meaning he won’t play every game.

Added to Kane’s injury and the fact Nurse is less likely to engage than in the past (his presence as a feature player on the blue line means he can’t be in the penalty box all night), we could see the organization add another player who brings some intimidation over the summer.

Bottom line

The Oilers have been part of the NHL since 1979 and were charter members of the WHA for seven years before NHL entry.

Every team sets out to sign the right players to value contracts with short term and a chance to deliver exceptional value.

It’s rare to deliver across the board. It’s July, and only on paper, but the Oilers had a massive day in free agency on July 1 and made a bet on Broberg that is absolutely the right play.

It would have been impossible to script a better set of transactions.

(Photo of Connor Brown and Mattias Janmark: Elsa / Getty Images)



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