The Edmonton Oilers could have started contract negotiations with their restricted free agents (RFA) a while ago, as they did with Stuart Skinner. General manager Ken Holland acted early and locked up Skinner for three more seasons at a very good price in December. This is a gamble that’s already paying off since he has shown he is capable of holding down the starter’s job in Edmonton.
The Oilers have four other RFAs this season, three of them are must-signs, and one is not. Ryan McLeod and Jesse Puljujarvi are on one-year deals signed with the Oilers, Klim Kostin is also on a one-year deal, signed with the St. Louis Blues, and Evan Bouchard is coming off of his entry-level deal. You can probably take a guess at the one player the Oilers shouldn’t give a qualifying offer to or try to come to terms on a new deal, and that’s Puljujarvi.
Benefit of Signing Their RFAs Early
The Oilers signed Skinner on Dec. 19. Before that, he had a record of 9-8-1 with a save percentage (SV%) of .915. He had also assumed the starter’s role from Jack Campbell. Holland wasted no time signing him to an extension so that Skinner’s value wouldn’t continue to rise if he kept starting games and putting up great numbers as a rookie.
Skinner is signed to a bridge deal worth $2.6 million AAV, keeping him on the team until Campbell has one year remaining on his contract. This season, when one goaltender has had a tough go, the other picks up the slack, and the organization now has at least 3.5 more seasons of this tandem. Skinner could have argued for more money, and the Oilers would have been stuck in a position similar to the Los Angeles Kings, who are paying Jonathan Quick $5.8 million AAV and Cal Petersen $5 million AAV. However, a goalie like Skinner doesn’t have much leverage, with only 33 games played.
Related: Oilers’ Holland Deserves Credit for Kostin & Skinner Deals
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Bouchard, McLeod, and Kostin are in a bit of a different situation. Goalies and skaters are judged differently and take longer to develop, but their situation also depends on their development.
In Bouchard’s first full season in the NHL in 2021-22, he broke out in a big way and led the Oilers’ defence in goals (12) and points (43), while playing nearly 20 minutes a night. The club saw his potential on the power play and used his talents a bit there as well. He is seen as Tyson Barrie’s replacement to take over on the power play and in the top-four by the end of next season.
If Bouchard’s success had carried over to this season, Holland would have had a tough time signing him to a good deal. He has taken a step back offensively, contributing just three goals and 18 points through 43 games. But he has shown flashes of an offensive breakthrough like last season, and he has two assists in back-to-back games against the Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
Bouchard is playing less, earning little time on the power play and being used on the third pairing with mostly rookies as partners. He isn’t in a great position to succeed, but he also didn’t earn more opportunities after he got them early in the season. It isn’t great that he isn’t producing like last season, but the team will be able to use this season as leverage to either sign him on a cheap bridge deal or lock him up long-term for a lower AAV than he would have asked for last season (from “Lowetide: Oilers’ Evan Bouchard’s difficult season disguises elite talent”, The Athletic, Dec. 23, 2022).
McLeod has done a lot of things right and can play anywhere in the lineup, but he has also had a tough time scoring. His combination of puck handling and speed will continue to help him get chances and be useful, and his offensive production will come. He is only in his second season in the NHL and on pace to improve his numbers from last season.
After spending most of the season in the bottom-six, McLeod has earned his chance to play in the top-six and is a great stabilizer for Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman on the second line (from “Leap of Faith: Giving bigger role to a few young players could be magic elixir for Woodcroft’s Oilers”, Edmonton Journal, Jan. 9, 2023). All three of them have speed and constantly control the puck in the offensive zone to create chances. McLeod has four goals and 10 points in 30 games, but he has a 54.3 Corsi percentage, the best among forwards on the team. The talent is there, and if I were Holland, he is one player I would try to lock up long-term. This may be difficult because McLeod can probably see his game improving and will want another prove-it deal if he doesn’t start scoring a lot more.
Kostin has become a fan favourite very quickly for good reason. He emerged at a time when the Oilers were missing Evander Kane and the combination of skill, physicality, and scoring he brings. Kostin has done his best to make up for that since being called up from the Bakersfield Condors and has scratched and clawed for every minute he has earned.
Kostin has found a home in Edmonton and has provided some depth scoring that the Oilers have desperately needed. He has seven goals and 11 points in 27 games and is on a 20-goal, 33-point pace. He has played on every line but has been most effective on the third line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mattias Janmark. Kostin is coming off his second two-goal game of the season in a win over the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. He has a cap hit of just $750,000, and the Oilers are going to have to offer him more if they want to keep him around. A bridge deal is likely after such a small sample size, but there seems to be mutual interest in a new contract, given Kostin’s success.
Why Puljujarvi Shouldn’t Be Given Another Chance
The Oilers didn’t handle Puljujarvi’s development well, which likely explains his lack of confidence and slow improvement. He was rushed into the NHL in his draft year and didn’t have success. That didn’t change until he left the team for a season to go play overseas. He got a second chance and took advantage of it but has since fallen to a fourth-line player. After the poor second half of his 2021-22 season, he was given a third chance when the team extended him a qualifying offer last season, but his lack of success this season should make this his last chance.
Give credit to Puljujarvi. He has altered his game to contribute in other areas while he continues to have trouble scoring. He leads the Oilers in hits and is a great forechecker, but nothing has gone right offensively for him this season. He has just three goals and nine points in 43 games, is minus-13 and has a 4.6 shooting percentage. He has been given ample opportunities on the top line with Connor McDavid and hasn’t been able to produce.
The Oilers are also sinking $3 million of their cap space into him and are right against the cap. He is their top trade candidate and is likely on his way out to make room for any deadline additions. If by chance, he isn’t moved before then, there would be no reason to extend him a qualifying offer. The opportunities in Edmonton have passed him by, and Puljujarvi will probably have more success elsewhere. The team will also need the extra cap space to use on their other RFAs.
The Oilers have done well drafting and developing, which is a key to success. They must keep Bouchard, McLeod, and Kostin around, as they all have much more to offer the organization. I don’t expect all three to have new contracts before the offseason, but it would be ideal to get at least one or two of them locked up before they start to realize their potential.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with NHL Stats News and trade talks.
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