Edmonton Oilers poised to move on from Khaira, Kahun, but who is the likeliest buyout candidate?

Edmonton Oilers poised to move on from Khaira, Kahun, but who is the likeliest buyout candidate?

Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Jul 26, 2021  •  23 hours ago  •  8 minute read  •  6 Comments

Oilers GM Ken Holland has it up to here with important decisions in the coming days.
Oilers GM Ken Holland has it up to here with important decisions in the coming days.

Edmonton Oilers took an important step toward solidifying their roster in advance of this week’s Free Agent Frenzy, announcing their intentions to issue qualifying offers to four of their seven restricted free agents, nearly a day ahead of the official deadline for the process. The club has formally qualified NHL regular Kailer Yamamoto as well as farm hands Tyler Benson, Stuart Skinner, and Cooper Marody. 


The bigger news is the two names at the NHL level that will not receive QOs, namely Jujhar Khaira and Dominik Kahun. Not that it’s really news of course, given Holland had already signified his intentions about the two during his media avail last Wednesday. But the hard news on the other five serves to crystallize the roster on the cusp of free agency, with the important exception of a possible buyout which we will discuss a little further down the page.

NHL roster entering free agency

  • Note: some mobile device users may need to click the “View on Edmonton Journal” tab at the bottom of this post to see the graphics, which are a central element of this article. 

This is the full roster that played NHL games this past season with the exception of Skinner (1 GP who is better identified with the farm club), and also includes Duncan Keith who was acquired by trade earlier this month. Players with blue backgrounds are under contract for next season, those with orange for multiple seasons. Those with black backgrounds have already departed the scene, while white backgrounds are free agents (red font restricted, green unrestricted). The latter group now includes both Khaira and Kahun given the club’s decision not to qualify them.

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Of the seven who previously identified as RFAs, Khaira (258 GP, all with Edmonton) and Kahun (186 GP with four different teams) were by far the most experienced NHLers. Both 26-year-olds held arbitration rights, meaning that if the Oilers had issued either a QO, the player would have the option to take the case to an impartial third party and taking the all-important element of cost certainty out of the club’s hands. No way Holland wants that to happen with a depth player when cap space is bound to be tight.

Kahun in particular had some decent boxcar stats with which to build a case, including a per-82 average of 15-22-37, +7, the vast majority of that production occurring at even strength. That’s apt to earn him a new NHL contract somewhere, as indeed it did a year ago when he landed in Edmonton at the discount price of $975,000.

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As for Khaira, he has been with the organization for nine years and played double-digit NHL games in six of them, including something close to a full-time role in the last four. In 2021 he had an awful start, survived a stint on the waiver wire, then returned to action with a very strong run of play at centre in a bottom six role. Alas, he suffered a pair of nasty blows to the head later in the season that derailed him to a degree.

Khaira’s physical style was on display all season long, in fact he wound up second among NHL forwards (min 20 GP) in Hits per 60 trailing only the infamous Ryan Reaves and ahead of a cluster of bashers including Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and his own teammate Josh Archibald. Those counts are subject to rink bias of course so the ordering is hardly reliable, but it’s fair to say that JJK belongs in there somewhere.

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He’s also a strong penalty killer who has played an important role in Edmonton’s huge improvement on that unit these past two seasons. Indeed, as per NaturalStatTrick.com, Khaira’s on-ice rate of 3.69 PPGA/60 ranks #1 in the entire NHL among the 140 NHL forwards who saw at least 120 minutes of action on the specialty unit over the past two seasons.

Khaira even managed to produce a little more offensively in 2021, as his 5v5 points-per-60 of 1.67 ranked an improbable third on the entire club behind You Know Who and You Also Know Who. Not bad considering he never played with the big guys, under 8 minutes with each over the course of the season.

One problem with Khaira is his QO is a relatively hefty $1.3 million, moreover stats like those cited above might help his camp build a case for the arbitration process. No worry of that now with no qualifying offer, but it remains possible that the two sides may yet come to terms at a lower figure. The Oilers have just two more days to negotiate exclusively with him, so the likelier scenario sees the player go to the open market on Wednesday. Might the two sides then circle back to each other? Not likely, but “not impossible” either. Fair to say that other teams also value big, aggressive, mid-career forwards with penalty killing chops — especially if they are cheap.

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As for those qualified, Yamamoto was a no-brainer, having reached the end of an Entry Level Contract that saw him play games in four different seasons. In that span he’s played 105 big league games with 20-32-52, +18, a respectable per-82 rate of 16-25-41, +14. A year ago he appeared poised for a big payday after averaging nearly a point per game after getting called up after Christmas, but in 2021 he lost his scoring touch. Best compromise for both sides appears to be a bridge deal, perhaps in the range of the 2x $2 million pact that Ethan Bear signed a year ago. Yamamoto has no arbitration rights so it’s not impossible the club may lowball him on a one-year extension, but two seems the more likely term.

As for the unrestricted free agents, the defence group is of greater interest with a fairly decent chance that at least one of them may return. Tyson Barrie‘s negotiating position just got a heck of a lot stronger with the departure of Adam Larsson, though stylistically he’s something of a poor fit for what the club needs. Depth defenders Slater Koekkoek and Dmitry Kulikov are likely to be available on a cheap deal. My take is that Kulikov’s thumping style might make him the best in-house replacement for Larsson’s physicality, though rumours have him possibly interested in rejoining the New Jersey Devils, from whence he came at the trade deadline. As for Koekkoek, he won a lot of fans in Edmonton even as his on-ice results were less than impressive.

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Up front, Alex Chiasson has a slight chance of returning at a greatly reduced price, though the presence of four right wingers who were all protected against expansion does not bode well. Should the pervasive rumours of a Zack Kassian trade come to fruition, that would open a spot. But best guess here is he moves on.

That’s almost certainly the case for Patrick Russell, a grinding winger who has very little offensive touch. Russell has signed no fewer than four contracts with the org over the past five years, and made the NHL against considerable odds, though always as a depth player. Best guess here is the 28-year-old Dane takes his hard-earned NHL pedigree back to his domestic league, as Joakim Nygard and Gaetan Haas did before him.

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The case for buyouts

Holland has indicated the Oilers will likely buy out one expensive veteran, and time is running short to do so. Such a buyout must occur by Tuesday, and the player must first have cleared waivers unless he has a No Move Clause in which case he can be bought out directly. Neither of the two main options, winger James Neal and goaltender Mikko Koskinen, have such a clause, so if I’m reading the rules correctly look for one of them to hit the waiver wire at 10: 00 MDT on Monday.

A couple of big differences between the two. Koskinen is of course a goalie so can’t be buried in a depth role with quite the utility that Neal, a winger, can and has. But the bigger issue is that Neal has two years to run on his contract, Koskinen just one. Meaning a buyout of Neal would provide some cap relief for each of the next two seasons, whereas one of Koskinen would proceed directly to the “buyout penalty” phase in 2022-23. Holland has already identified cap constraints for that season due to expected renewals of Darnell NurseEthan Bear, and Jesse Puljujarvi taking effect, all of whom are apt to command significant raises. So the availability of the Neal cap space for that ’22-23 season in particular has to be appealing indeed.

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Conclusion: Neal is the more likely buyout candidate.

Extended roster

Fewer changes here, with just one player having already moved on in depth goalie Dylan Wells, traded to Carolina for future considerations. Just a single arrival as well in forward Tim Soderlund, a throw-in on the Keith trade who doesn’t appear to figure into the organization’s plans. (If he does, they’re sure keeping it secret.)

The three players shown in red font — Benson, Marody, Skinner — all completed their three-year Entry Level contracts in 2021 and were obvious choices to qualify. Each represents a past investment of a second or third round draft pick.  All three are taking a slow boat to the NHL, having played just 14 games among the three of them.

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Their extensions should be straightforward, with only Marody holding arbitration rights but no real case to make. Next year both forwards will lose their waiver exemption so might stand a better chance of getting an NHL shot out of training camp. As a goalie, Skinner has one more year of exemption. Worth noting he is currently one of SIX goalies in the org, which will have to do a fancy tap dance to find sufficient playing time for all of them.

Of the unrestricted free agents, Theodor Lennstrom was eligible for a QO but didn’t receive one, and is likely headed elsewhere. Same likely holds for veteran UFAs Joe Gambardella and Alan Quine.

In all the Oilers currently have 34 players under contract, and the tender of four QOs effectively pushes that number to 38. Room for about ten signings, with the first expected to be winger Zach Hyman on Wednesday or even earlier if Ken Holland and Kyle Dubas can agree on a compensatory draft pick.

All of the foregoing represents the nuts and bolts of roster management, much of it of marginal interest perhaps to all but us depth chart nerds, but a critical step to set the stage for Wednesday’s opening of the free agent market. That’s when the real fun will begin.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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McCURDY: A wrap of the Edmonton Oilers performance at the 2021 Draft

STAPLES: Who were the risk takers and who played it safe in the draft

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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