Making decisions on the Edmonton Oilers’ Restricted Free Agents

Ken Holland has some decisions to make this summer.

The Edmonton Oilers’ sweep by the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final indicates the team needs to make improvements in order to hang with the league’s elite, but, unlike last summer, there isn’t a lot of salary cap room to work with right now.

There are five restricted free agents on Edmonton’s roster, three of which are established NHLers while two are fringe players, and Holland needs to determine which ones will be coming back, if any will be offered a long-term deal, and if somebody could help the team by being a part of a trade.

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For this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday THURSDAY EDITION question, let’s go through and determine the best course of action with Edmonton’s RFAs.

Six years after being selected with the No. 32 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Tyler Benson hasn’t established himself as an NHL player. He’s proved everything he can at the AHL level but hasn’t been able to make an impact in the big leagues.

Last season, Benson played in 29 games with the Oilers and scored one goal and one assist. He was playing largely on the fourth line and neither Dave Tippett nor Jay Woodcroft appeared interested in giving him much of a run on one of the team’s skill lines. Benson cleared through waivers in March and finished the 2021-22 season in the AHL.

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Following the conclusion of his entry-level contract, Benson inked a one-year, two-way deal last summer. If he’s back, we can expect another two-way deal in which Benson comes in as an AHL veteran who offers the NHL club depth, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Oilers let Benson go so that he can try to find a better opportunity elsewhere.

Ken Holland signed Brendan Perlini last summer as a reclamation project to see if the No. 12 overall pick from the 2014 draft could give the Oilers some depth scoring. Perlini performed well in training camp, scoring five goals in five pre-season games, but that success didn’t translate as he only managed four goals in 23 regular-season games.

Perlini has a nice skillset, but the fact he doesn’t thrive in a checking role or kill penalties makes him a difficult fit as a fourth-liner or an extra forward. Given that he wasn’t recalled as one of Edmonton’s Black Aces during the playoffs, it’s safe to say the Oilers will move on and not give Perlini a qualifying offer.

Nobody on the Oilers improved more from the beginning of the regular season to the end of the playoff run than Ryan McLeod.

He came into training camp fighting for a roster spot and spent some time in the AHL early in the season, but, by the time the playoffs rolled around, McLeod had established himself as a reliable third-line center and a solid top-six option on the wing.

Now at the end of his entry-level deal, McLeod has already established himself as a legitimate NHL player. The question now is how much further he’ll develop and if he’ll work his way into the Oilers’ long-term plans.

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The standard path forward for a player like McLeod following their entry-level contract is a two-year bridge deal. It gives the team a quality player on a cheap contract who’s still under team control when the deal expires and it gives the player two seasons to establish himself before coming back and seeking a larger deal.

It seems inevitable that one of these two young wingers is going to be traded.

Over at Daily Faceoff, Frank Seravalli listed ‘one of Jesse Puljujarvi or Kailer Yamamoto’ at No. 16 on his off-season Trade Targets board…

Scoop: It’s a safe bet that one of these two players will not be returning to the Oilers next season. Both are fan favorites. But both require new deals, likely both raises, and GM Ken Holland acknowledged that Edmonton will have to watch every dollar. “Am I willing to trade some assets in a deal that will make us better? Yes I am,” Holland said Wednesday. Edmonton’s preference would likely be to keep Yamamoto, but he would bring the bigger return.

Puljujarvi had a difficult time on his entry-level deal and returned to Finland when it expired. Though the disgruntled No. 4 overall pick requested a trade, Holland remained patient and ultimately got Puljujarvi signed to a two-year deal worth $1.15 million in the summer of 2020.

Over those two years, Puljujarvi put up very divisive results. His numbers are fantastic and he’s earned for his play away from the puck but he also managed just 29 goals across 120 games and his doubters don’t see a player who can consistently score goals at the NHL level.

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With two more years left of team control before he can become a UFA, signing Puljujarvi to an inexpensive one-year, show-me deal seems like a good play for the cap-strapped Oilers. He has arbitration rights, but won’t command a significant salary coming off of a 14-goal, 36-point season.

Daniel Nugent-Hopkins of The Athletic listed Puljujarvi as the most likely oiler to be traded a few days ago…

Holland put the hockey world on notice two weeks ago when he said he has a decision to make with Puljujarvi. The right winger has a ton of promise and has great underlying numbers. He also produced at a 0.55 points-per-game clip.

However, his production fell off a cliff in the 2022 portion of the season and he can become a free agent in two years. The Oilers could be looking for a more established player with a cost certainty to replace him.

In that same article, Nugent-Bowman suggests that the Oilers will prioritize bringing back Yamamoto, as he produced at a top-six rate and kills penalties…

Amid a cap crunch, it might be difficult for the Oilers to keep him. At the same time, management is earmarking roughly a $3 million salary — and perhaps a little more — for the top-six winger. That’s not a lot for someone who plays that role and appears on both special teams. Woodcroft called Yamamoto a “popular request as a linemate” at the end of the regular season. Combine that with an excellent second half that led to a 20-goal season and the odds are Yamamoto is back.

Yamamoto inked a one-year, show-me deal last summer after the final season of his entry-level contract went poorly. He got off to a slow start but started to thrive when the Oilers changed coaches in February and ultimately scored 20 goals and 41 points over 81 games.

Given his production, Yamamoto will be able to command more on a contract and more in a trade than Puljujarvi would.

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What do you say, Nation? Which RFAs should be brought back? Should the Oilers be offering any long-term contracts this summer? Would you trade any of these players for an upgrade elsewhere? Let us know!


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