Can the Oilers afford McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins long term?

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 12:21 am by Christian Pagnani



The Edmonton Oilers cap situation gets serious next season. Connor McDavid’s mega-extension kicks in then, which will make him the league’s highest paid player at $12.5 million per year, and the Oilers will have roughly $13 million to sign 10 players, including Patrick Maroon, Ryan Strome, Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning, and Mark Letestu.

Conventional thinking is simple: Leon Draisaitl is going to play centre, Chiarelli stated as much when he signed him for $8.5 million per year. That leaves Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the third spot, and $6 million dollars is way too much for a third line centre.

McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins would combine for $27 million, or 36% of this year’s salary cap. Can the Oilers afford that and build a competitive roster around them?

Highest Combined Cap Hit of Top 3 Centers since 07-08

Team Season Centers Cap Hit % of Cap
Pittsburgh 09-10 Crosby, Malkin, Staal 21.4 37
Edmonton 18-19 McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins 27 35
Pittsburgh 10-11 Crosby, Malkin, Staal 21.4 36
Pittsburgh 11-12 Crosby, Malkin, Staal 21.4 33
Pittsburgh 12-13 Crosby, Malkin, Sutter 19.46 32
Tampa Bay 07-08 Lecavalier, Richards, Gratton 16.175 32
Pittsburgh 14-15 Crosby, Malkin, Sutter 21.5 31
Philadelphia 08-09 Richards, Carter, Briere 17.25 30
Pittsburgh 13-14 Crosby, Malkin, Sutter 19.46 30
N.Y. Rangers 07-08 Gomez, Drury, Dubinsky 15.04 29
Dallas 08-09 Richards, Ribeiro, Modano 16.25 28
Pittsburgh 15-16 Crosby, Malkin, Bonino 20.1 28
Detroit 09-10 Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Filppula 15.78 27
Pittsburgh 16-17 Crosby, Malkin, Bonino 20.1 27
San Jose 14-15 Thornton, Pavelski, Couture 18.75 27
Dallas 10-11 Richards, Ribeiro, Ott 15.75 26
Detroit 10-11 Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Filppula 15.78 26

I’m projecting a modest increase of two million for next year’s cap, which would leave the Edmonton trio at 35% of the cap ceiling. Surprisingly, they wouldn’t be the highest paid group of centres since 2008. That distinction goes to the 09-10 Penguins with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal, who might be the best group on the list.

There are a lot of really good players here. When you have good centre depth, it tends to cost a lot. Pittsburgh even wanted to keep Staal despite the price on his third contract (10 years, $6 million AAV). Pittsburgh didn’t really care what a traditional third-line centre should make, and that might be an interesting consideration for the Oilers.

Almost all of these teams had some sort of success. Eleven of the teams made the playoffs, with seven of them making it past the first round.

Having this sort of depth at centre is valuable. It’s a huge luxury to have as many options at centers like a Pittsburgh, a Detroit, or a San Jose. Pittsburgh plays Crosby and Malkin together at times, same with Detroit and Datsyuk and Zetterberg. San Jose had a ridiculous amount of centres when Todd McLellan was there, something that could factor into Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli’s roster moves.

McDavid and Draisaitl are signed for the next seven seasons, which should make it more manageable for the remaining four years on Nugent-Hopkins’ contract.

Keeping Nugent-Hopkins also makes it easier to play Draisaitl on the wing with McDavid, or maybe Edmonton gives Nugent-Hopkins a shot on the wing. It’s easier to slide a centre to the wing than to move a winger to centre.

It’s a lot to pay, but that’s the cost of having three really good centres. Finding cheap wingers to compliment your centres is easier than finding good centres. Pittsburgh’s shown that with Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, and Bryan Rust playing significant roles. Meanwhile, Montreal is playing Jonathan Drouin at centre in an attempt to find a top centre.

What’s the alternative?

The Oilers acquired Ryan Strome and clearly feel he’s somewhat capable of playing centre if they started the season with him there. Strome could be a cheap third-line centre that provides a right-handed shot and only makes $2.5 million, although he’s a restricted free-agent after this season.

Maybe they acquire a cheaper centre in return for Nugent-Hopkins if they’re set on clearing out his salary, similar to the Jordan Eberle trade last summer, and they play in the third spot.

Trading Nugent-Hopkins for draft picks or prospects makes signing Maroon and Strome much easier, something that might be difficult without some creative roster management. Maroon’s been effective alongside McDavid, but he’ll get at least $3.5 million on his next contract. Strome’s hasn’t solidified himself apart from one strong season in New York, but might not matter cap-wise if he puts up another ~30-point season. If the choice is between signing either player or trading Nugent-Hopkins, I’d lean towards the 25-year old centre who has shown to be a 50-point player in previous seasons without a generational centre beside him.

I’m not sure there would be a better trio of centers in the league. Pittsburgh’s currently playing journeyman Gregg McKegg as their third-line centre, otherwise Crosby and Malkin are fantastic. Pavelski seems like a full-time winger alongside Joe Thornton at this point. Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, and Ryan Kesler might compare, but Rakell spent the majority of last season on the wing. Colorado once boasted a group of incredible centres, but have since traded away Ryan O’Reilly and lost Paul Stastny to free agency.

Maybe Nugent-Hopkins isn’t your prototypical third-line centre, but if the Oilers want to, they can run with all of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins down the middle and have one of the league’s best group of centres, with opposing coaches having matchup nightmares. Spending a little over one-third of the cap for them would be difficult, but it’s been done before.