Ken Holland has a busy summer ahead of him.
The Oilers have multiple key players set to hit unrestricted free agency and Holland will have the flexibility to either keep the band together or let players move on and bring in new ones.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Tyson Barrie, and the goaltending position tend to dominate the free-agency discussion for the Oilers, which leaves Adam Larsson flying under the radar.
Acquired by the Oilers in the infamous one-for-one swap back in 2016, the six-year, post-entry-level deal that Larsson signed with the New Jersey Devils, the team that selected him No. 4 overall in 2011, is set to expire. If you had asked me this time last year, I would have been fairly confident in saying that the Oilers would thank Larsson for his service and move on, given the worry around his nagging back injury.
But now? It’s a lot more difficult to see the Oilers letting Larsson go. He’s healthy and has put together an effective season this year, anchoring the team’s second pair, playing in shutdown situations, and manning the top penalty kill unit. It’s clear that Dave Tippett values what Larsson brings to the lineup.
So, what will his next deal look like? What can a defender like Larsson command on the open market?
Here’s a list of similar defencemen to Larsson who signed contracts last off-season. These are all players who, like Larsson, were unrestricted free agents who play a low-offence, defensively oriented game. I organized them from lowest to highest cap hit…
2019-20 Statistics: 63 games, 2 goals, 15 points, 16:44 average time on ice, 49.4 expected goals for percentage
Contract: Florida Panthers, three years, $2,500,000 cap hit
Gudas represents the low end of contracts among defensive defencemen from last fall. After a solid season playing on Washington’s third pair, Gudas inked a three-year deal worth $2,500,000 annually to play the same role with Florida. The Panthers use him on their third pair alongside the offensively-oriented Keith Yandle.
2019-20 Statistics: 59 games, 0 goals, 10 assists, 20:09 average time on ice, 53.9 expected goals for percentage
Contract: Winnipeg Jets, four years, $3,000,000 cap hit
DeMelo was acquired by the Jets ahead of last season’s trade deadline from the Senators in exchange for a third-round pick. He was playing second-pairing minutes (19:55) on a brutal Sens team with very impressive underlying numbers and took on top-pairing minutes (21:14) on a Jets team that badly needed blueline help. DeMelo provides virtually zero offence but, given his incredible shot attempt metrics, getting him re-signed at $3,000,000 annually was nice work for Winnipeg.
2019-20 Statistics: 62 games, 4 goals, 9 assists, 17:35 average time on ice, 53.6 expected goals for percentage
Contract: St. Louis Blues, four years, $3,275,000 cap hit
Scandella had a weird season in 2019-20. He was dealt from the Sabres to the Habs for a fourth-round pick in January and then the Habs flipped him a little over a month later to St. Louis for a second- and a fourth-round pick. Scandella had been playing third-pairing minutes with Buffalo and Montreal but filled in and played 20:18 for the Blues after Jay Bouwmeester suffered a cardiac episode during a game. He was re-signed at $3,275,000 annually and plays on the Blues’ second pair alongside Colton Prayako.
2019-20 Statistics: 68 games, 7 goals, 13 assists, 18:27 average time on ice, 45.3 expected goals for percentage
Contract: Montreal Canadiens, four years, $3,500,000 cap hit
The Blues sent Edmundson and a prospect to Carolina before the 2019-20 season in exchange for Justin Faulk. After one year with the Hurricanes in which he was a solid, second-pairing defender, Edmundson earned a four-year deal in Montreal worth $3,500,000 annually. Edmundson now plays around 20 minutes a night on Montreal’s second pair next to Jeff Petry.
2019-20 Statistics: 69 games, 1 goal, 13 assists, 19:27 average time on ice, 52.2 expected goals for percentage
Contract: Washington Capitals, four years, $3,900,000 cap hit
Dillon had been an effective, under-the-radar member of San Jose’s blueline for parts of six seasons but got dealt to Washington ahead of last year’s trade deadline when the Sharks opted to sell off parts of their roster. Dillon filled in on Washington’s second pair and took on the tough defensive assignments that Matt Niskanen had previously played in. The Capitals kept Dillon around on a four-year deal worth $3,900,000 annually.
2019-20 Statistics: 69 games, 2 goals, 18 assists, 19:32 average time on ice, 53.9 expected goals for percentage
Contract: Calgary Flames, four years, $4,500,000 cap hit
Finally, we have Tanev at the high end of the comparables. The Flames ponied up $4,500,000 annually to sign Tanev after letting a bonafide top-pairing guy in T.J. Brodie walk. Tanev has always been a very good defender but his career has been marred due to various injuries. In 2019-20, though, Tanev had his first fully healthy season in years and was key to Vancouver’s surprising playoff run. That was enough for the Flames to invest in him being a top-pairing defender on their team.
2020-21 Statistics: 44 games, 3 goals, 5 assists, 19:41 average time on ice, 50.7 expected goals for percentage
Expiring Contract: Six years, $4,166,666 cap hit
Here’s Larsson and how he stacks up. New Jersey gave Larsson a six-year deal worth $4,166,666 after a season in which he scored 24 points in 64 games and logged 20:58 per game. The thought at the time was that Larsson was on his way to become a legitimate top-pairing defenceman. He would only end up playing one year of that deal and then he got traded to Edmonton. While Larsson didn’t become the top-pairing guy many hoped he would, he’s been very effective in his role for the Oilers. This season has been the best we’ve seen of Larsson since 2016-17.
What does it all mean?
Jim Matheson tweeted on Wednesday that Holland is working to re-sign Larsson and that he figured a four-year deal seemed right. That thought generated quite a few scoffs and laughs, but, based on the comparables I provided above, it seems exactly on par with what to expect.
All of DeMelo, Edmundson, Dillon, Scandella, and Tanev earned a four-year deal with their respective teams, and Gudas was at the low end of that group with a three-year deal. I don’t really see a situation in which Larsson commands fewer than four years on his next contract.
There’s an argument to be made that you don’t want to make such a commitment to a player who was dealing with a fairly significant injury last season, one that was bad enough to keep him out of playoff games. But the fact that Tanev, a guy who’s only really played one full season over the course of his NHL career, was at the highest end of this list of comparables would suggest that teams are willing to take a gamble.
Teams value reliable, shutdown defenders and will offer term to get them. Based on last year’s comparables and the season that Larsson is having, a four-year deal appears inevitable. The question is whether Holland can work Larsson down to a cap hit around Edmundson or Dillon rather than paying the premium that Calgary did for Tanev. I’m not sure it’ll be easy to ask him to take a pay cut from his current number.
If Larsson is commanding four years at around his current $4,166,666 cap hit, Holland might be best moving on and finding a cheaper replacement on the open market. Names such as Dmitry Kulikov, who the team traded for at the deadline, Jamie Oleksiak, or Derek Forbort come to mind.