What the Oilers accomplished on Day 1 of free agency and where they must still improve

Jeff Jackson did hockey’s version of Walter White when the free-agent market opened Monday and got cooking. He augmented the forward mix to the point where it could be the most dynamic group the Edmonton Oilers have had in more than three decades.

The only thing to wonder about now is whether he, or his replacement, can truly address the one element that appears to be missing on the roster: right defence.

Jackson, the Oilers hockey operations CEO, was busy in his first and likely only foray into free agency as acting general manager following Ken Holland leaving the organization last week.

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The good was that he enhanced the middle-six group up front – a major area of need for the organization – by signing Viktor Arvidsson and Jeff Skinner and re-upping Connor Brown, Mattias Janmark and Adam Henrique.

The latter three formed their third line in the Stanley Cup Final and had tremendous success. Brown and Janmark, who were mostly fourth-liners during the regular season, were also a duo on the Oilers’ outstanding penalty kill that allowed just four goals on their playoff run. Janmark also had two short-handed goals in the postseason, and Brown had three points in that situation. Henrique provided versatility by playing centre and wing.

Brown signed a bargain one-year, $1 million deal – although his $3.225 million games-played bonus from last season is on the Oilers’ 2024-25 books. Janmark returned on a three-year, $1.45 million AAV pact, which represents the first time he’s had a multiyear deal since his entry-level contract. It’s also his first raise since 2020. Henrique got a two-year, $3 million AAV deal.

It’s Arvidsson and Skinner who have the most upside and come with the most panache as complementary pieces.

“Both of those guys are going to add a really nice element to our top six,” Jackson said.

Arvidsson signed a two-year, $4 million contract. He’s a proven five-on-five contributor and should get every opportunity in the top six, probably alongside Draisaitl – as Jackson indicated on Monday. The 31-year-old is Mattias Ekholm’s buddy from their days in Nashville and, as another northern Sweden native, sounded genuinely excited to play in Edmonton.

The Oilers lost free agent Warren Foegele, who coincidently signed with Arvidsson’s former team – the Los Angeles Kings. Though Foegele produced when next to Draisaitl, too, Arvidsson has done so more consistently in his NHL career. The only red flag is an injury history, highlighted by missing the first 50 games of 2023-24 with a back issue. He finished the regular season, dressed in the playoffs and said he’s fully healthy.

Skinner comes to Edmonton on a one-year, $3 million contract and should be motivated after just being bought out by the Buffalo Sabres. The 32-year-old is one of the most graceful skaters in the NHL and, as a six-time 30-goal scorer with an 11.2 shooting percentage in his career, should be able to excel next to either Draisaitl or Connor McDavid.

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Jackson also signed 39-year-old right winger Corey Perry to a one-year, $1.15 million contract against the cap – a deal that could be worth as much as $1.4 million with incentives. That one’s a bit puzzling considering Perry had a goal and three points in 19 playoff games on the Oilers’ run. He was scratched six times and there often didn’t appear to be a natural fit in the lineup when he did play. For that, he got a pay bump.

Still, this could be the best top six – maybe even top nine – the Oilers have had since Wayne Gretzky patrolled the ice.

Now for the one concern, right defence, which has the potential to ruin the Oilers’ winning recipe.

Jackson said he knew he wasn’t going to be able to re-sign Vincent Desharnais for cap reasons. Desharnais went to division rival Vancouver on a two-year, $2 million AAV deal. But rather than replace Desharnais and/or trade Cody Ceci to upgrade the position, Jackson opted for quantity over quality.

The big move there was to bring in Josh Brown, 30, on a three-year, $1 million AAV contract. Jackson noted Brown’s 6-foot-5, 220-pound size, play around the net and toughness as major selling points. However, Brown’s underlying numbers with Arizona weren’t exactly inspiring. Though Brown’s contract can be fully buried in the AHL, teams typically don’t sign players to multiyear contracts with that in mind.

Jackson followed that up by getting Connor Carrick on a two-way contract and re-signing Troy Stecher, an extra defenceman in the playoffs before undergoing ankle surgery, to a two-year, $787,500 AAV deal.

“We want to make sure we have a deep D corps,” Jackson said.

But deep isn’t high end. The right side of the defence was the weakest position on the roster. It’s no better than it was to finish the season. It’s arguably worse with Desharnais out and Brown and Carrick in.

The only certainty in the group is Evan Bouchard, a Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy candidate. Cody Ceci, who was scratched in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, enters the last season of his $3.25 million and remains – at least for now. Jackson noted that RFA Philip Broberg still might have to move over from his natural left side as he did late in the playoffs even with all the Monday additions.

That seems less than ideal.

To top it off, the Oilers are almost $2.5 million over the salary cap, per PuckPedia, and with Broberg and Dylan Holloway in need of new contracts. Though teams can exceed the cap in the offseason by up to 10 percent, something’s clearly got to give here.

There are still ways to shed money. Evander Kane ($5.125 million AAV, two years remaining), Ceci ($3.25 million AAV, one year), Brett Kulak ($2.75 million AAV, two years) and Ryan McLeod ($2.1 million, one year, RFA expiry with arbitration rights) are the trade candidates to facilitate that. But it’s worth noting that Kane has a full no-movement clause until it becomes a partial no-trade on March 1, so he holds all the cards.

Kane played through a sports hernia in the playoffs before being held out of the lineup following Game 2 of the Cup Final. Jackson said Kane might need a second opinion this summer regarding his injury but added isn’t an expectation Kane will have to go on LTIR.

Options are fairly limited to improve the defence until the Oilers get out of the red and into the black.

Still, Jackson deserves a ton of credit for his work on Monday – namely the Arvidsson, Skinner, Brown, Janmark and Henrique deals. He looked like someone primed for the GM job even though he’s insisted he doesn’t want the gig on a full-time basis and will hire someone later this summer.

He’s got the glasses; all he had to do was shave his head and he could have been mistaken for the “Breaking Bad” anti-hero the way he was cooking on Monday.

But Jackson, or his successor, still needs one component to get this mixture just right.

There’s still time to tweak the right defence. Avenues still exist to improve the team in the weeks ahead before training camp begins in September. The Oilers should be comfortably in a playoff position by the trade deadline in what’s expected to be a weak Pacific Division, so they can also add their group before then if they can’t sooner.

They’d better find what they need to get the formula just right to ensure their Stanley Cup chances don’t burn out.

(Photo of Viktor Arvidsson and Mattias Ekholm: Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

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