Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Image by: Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The Oilers were expected to be atop the Western Conference and well within the playoff picture. Instead, Edmonton is looking for a deal that could help save their season.
Last season seemed like a return for the Edmonton Oilers to their 1980s glory years. Their 103-point campaign marked the first time they reached the 100-point plateau since 1986-87. Captain Connor McDavid become the first Oiler to win the Art Ross Trophy since Wayne Gretzky in 1987 and the first to win the Hart Memorial Trophy since Mark Messier in 1989-90. They came within a game of reaching the 2017 Western Conference Final.
This season also feels a blast from their past, albeit the recent inglorious one. They're hovering near the bottom of the Western Conference standings, a spot where they spent several years prior to 2016-17. While they're still within striking distance of a playoff berth, they're in danger of falling completely out of the race.
With post-season hopes fading, restless Oilers followers are alternating between blaming GM Peter Chiarelli for this poor start and begging him to do something to reverse their fortunes. But as NHL insider Pierre LeBrun told Vancouver's TSN 1040 on Wednesday, it's difficult for struggling clubs such as the Oilers to make big season-changing trades at this time of year. LeBrun said Chiarelli is working the phones in search of help. He thinks the Oilers GM is searching for a defenseman, citing his club's poor defensive play.
Chiarelli was in Buffalo on Monday scouting the Sabres' game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. LeBrun's colleague Bob McKenzie said the Blue Jackets are in the market for a center and blueliner Ryan Murray might be available. The Jackets were reportedly interested in former Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene before he was shipped earlier this month to the Ottawa Senators. Murray, 24, was frequently mentioned as part of a package offer to the Avs in a failed effort to land Duchene.
Murray might not be the only Blue Jackets defenseman available. Jack Johnson is eligible for unrestricted free agency next July, but the Oilers could prefer a younger option to the 30-year-old Johnson. David Savard, 27, was a healthy scratch from the Jackets' game last Friday against the New York Rangers. He's signed through 2020-21 with a $4.25-million salary-cap hit and lacks no-trade protection.
The Jackets' asking price could be Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. His $6-million annual salary through 2020-21 could create a cap crunch for the Oilers next season when McDavid's eight-year, $100-million contract kicks in. However, the 24-year-old Nugent-Hopkins is among the Oilers' few bright spots this season, with 17 points in his first 22 games. While his trade value is undoubtedly high this season, Chiarelli might be reluctant to move him right now.
A more affordable option for Chiarelli could be Florida Panthers rearguard Alex Petrovic. McKenzie notes the 25-year-old Petrovic has been a frequent healthy scratch this season. The 6-foot-4, 206-pounder is a restricted free agent in July and has a $1.85-million salary this season. Petrovic recently told Sun-Sentinel.com's Matthew DeFranks he doesn't think the Panthers coaching staff has confidence in him. He would certainly cost less than Nugent-Hopkins to acquire, but he's probably not the tonic for the Oilers' blueline woes.
GUDBRANSON SUBJECT OF SPECULATION IN VANCOUVER
Entering this season, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson seemed a prime candidate to be moved by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Speculation over his future continues to bubble in the trade rumor mill.
Signed to a one-year, $3.5-million contract in June, the 25-year-old Gudbranson is eligible for unrestricted free agency next July. The Athletic's Mike Halford reports there's talk he could seek between $5-$6 million annually on his next contract. He suggests moving Gudbranson as a rental player to a team looking at a deep playoff run for draft picks.
TVA Sports' Renaud Lavoie recently reported of some interest in Gudbranson around the league. He thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs could have him on their list of possible stay-at-home trade candidates. TSN's Jason Brough cites a source claiming the Florida Panthers (Gudbranson's former team) remain interested in bringing him back.
Trading Gudbranson, however, might not be as simple as it seems.
The Province's Ben Kuzma recently noted the blueliner has embraced the Canucks' up-tempo style this season and wants to stay in Vancouver. He's also earned praise from GM Jim Benning for his physical style, as well as his leadership with the Canucks' young players.
Meanwhile, the Canucks are off to a better-than-expected start to this season, jostling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. If they're still in contention as the trade deadline nears in late-February, they could retain Gudbranson for a run at a postseason berth even at the risk of losing him to free agency in July.