Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Oilers have a big list of players they could dangle as trade bait as GM Peter Chiarelli tries to find an established top-two defenseman to improve his team.
In an interview with the Edmonton Oilers website on Saturday, GM Peter Chiarelli downplayed the recent trade chatter swirling about his club. He expressed disappointment with his club's performance and acknowledged several players are underachieving, though he refused to single any of them out.
Sportsnet's Mark Spector believes forwards like Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are “soft skill” players Chiarelli will eventually ship out. The Edmonton Journal's David Staple disagrees, suggesting wingers Teddy Purcell, Nail Yakupov or Benoit Pouliot as more likely trade candidates.
It's widely assumed Chiarelli wants to bring in a proven top-two defenseman. Landing one could take dangling Nugent-Hopkins or Eberle as trade bait. If he adds his 2016 first-round pick (which could once again be a high one) to the package, the greater the odds of a solid return.
Staples' colleague Jim Matheson doesn't expect Chiarelli will trade the 22-year-old Nugent-Hopkins during the season, but feels he should listen to offers next summer if teams come calling. He suggests the Nashville Predators as a possible destination, citing their blueline depth and lack of a true first-line center.
Matheson notes the Predators say they won't trade captain Shea Weber, but claims most scouts believe they could be willing to move his hefty contract. The 30-year-old Weber lacks a no-trade clause, but Matheson believes it could cost more than just Nugent-Hopkins to get him.
Anyone can be moved, but taking on Weber's $7.87-million cap hit ($14 million this season alone in actual salary) means Chiarelli must clear cap space. Even then, there's no guarantee he wants to move Nugent-Hopkins or that Weber will be available. Acquiring such a high-salaried player is a move more likely to occur in the off-season.
Staples also believes Chiarelli must also clear out some “dead wood” on the blueline. Nikitin Nikitin, Mark Fayne, Andrew Ference, Eric Gryba and even Justin Schultz have surfaced in the rumor mill in recent weeks.
Of these, pending UFA Gryba ($1.25 million) carries the most affordable contract. Ference, 36, is past his prime and carries a $3.25-million annual cap hit with a no-trade clause. Buried in the minors, Nikitin is a UFA next summer with a $4.5-million cap hit. Fayne is earning $3.625-million annually through 2017-18 while Schultz ($3.9 million) is a restricted free agent in July.
Chiarelli can rid himself of Nikitin, Gryba and Schultz next summer by simply not re-signing them, but that won't address the Oilers' need for blueline depth now. Besides, Schultz could have value as a trade asset. A team could take a chance on the 25-year-old regaining his form with a change of scenery. Same goes for Fayne, though his salary won't be easy to move right now.
Based on Chiarelli's recent comments, however, it's apparent he's not rushing into any deals. Indeed, it could take until next summer to swing a major trade. He'll likely use the remainder of the season to evalute his roster, especially when rookie center Connor McDavid (broken clavicle) returns in January.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.