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With no cap crunch and expansion in the offing, now is the best time for Oilers to make a trade

The Oilers have plenty of cap space and a roster that has shown it can compete, so GM Peter Chiarelli doesn't need to make a trade. He should seriously consider one, though.

While one might expect much of the focus to be on the Edmonton Oilers’ return to contention after the franchise’s first trip to the post-season in a decade, trade speculation has run rampant almost since the day the campaign closed.

There’s reason, of course, for the trade talk. 

As Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli gets set for the summer, he has to take care of a few major orders of business. The first and most obvious is a contract extension for captain Connor McDavid, who at the ripe old age of 20 was the only player to reach 100 points this past season, capturing the Art Ross Trophy and putting himself right into the middle of the Hart Trophy debate. After that, Chiarelli has to turn his attention to Leon Draisaitl, McDavid’s parter in crime, who made his own waves this season with a breakout campaign that saw him post 29 goals and 77 points. And with two major signings incoming, simple salary cap structure is going to dictate that Chiarelli makes a move at some point.

However, it doesn’t exactly sound as though Chiarelli is too keen on making a deal before he absolutely has to. 

In a recent interview with TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Chiarelli acknowledged that future signings, like those of McDavid and Draisaitl, could result in Edmonton having to make a trade with the salary cap in mind. But making that trade this summer or next season? Chiarelli isn’t convinced that has to be the case, saying that, in his mind, the Oilers have “got a year to play with.” The thing is, though, Chiarelli might be better off making a deal now, and it would make sense for that to deal to see Edmonton say farewell to Jordan Eberle.

To propose Eberle as the one to move out of town isn’t necessarily an earth-shattering suggestion, as the 27-year-old winger’s name has been floated often in trade speculation, but there are several reasons why he seems the prime candidate. This past season, it became abundantly clear that the old guard in Edmonton, if you can call them that, are no longer the centrepieces of what the Oilers are building. That was clear when Taylor Hall was shipped out of town, made more evident as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins slipped down the depth chart behind McDavid and it could be seen in Eberle’s ice time, as he averaged more than a full minute less this campaign than the year prior.

Eberle’s also an obvious candidate based solely on production. He was still quite successful this past season, netting 20 goals and 51 points in 82 games, but his numbers have fallen off from his former mid-20-goal seasons with 60-plus points. Though he was still an integral part of the offense, he was far from irreplaceable. Others — and some with less pure offensive talent, such as Patrick Maroon — worked their way up the lineup to play with Edmonton’s top stars. There’s also the matter of his playoff performance, which was largely disappointing with Eberle notching just two assists in 13 games, though Chiarelli made a case the winger was going through what most players do.

“In his defense, it was the first time he’s been in the playoffs,” Chiarelli said. “And if you look back to a player like (Pavel) Datsyuk, look at Datsyuk’s first year in the playoffs. This is a big step for them, it’s a different level of competition.”

However, on top of everything is the fact Eberle is set to earn $6 million in each of the next two years, and, as Chiarelli himself said, the financial situation facing Edmonton is going to require some careful consideration. That’s a reality that every team, ranging from the most successful to those trying to climb back to the top of the mountain, faces at some point.

But the reason why trading Eberle now makes the most sense isn’t because he earns too much money and takes up too much cap space. It isn’t that he had a disappointing year and found himself down the lineup. And it certainly has little to do with the fact he didn’t meet expectations in the post-season. Rather, the reason it makes the most sense to move Eberle along this off-season is because Chiarelli holds all the cards right now.

When Chiarelli said he didn’t need to make a move, he was right. There’s no reason, financial or otherwise, why the Oilers have to trade Eberle or anyone else. Edmonton boasts the cap space and the talent level to keep their entire roster together and compete again next season. However, if Chiarelli hangs on to Eberle or whoever else might be a trade candidate, the Oilers could enter the summer following the 2017-18 campaign with a potential salary cap crunch on their hands, and you can be sure that there aren’t many GMs who are going to all that willing to help out Chiarelli without a certain additional price.

Right now, though, Chiarelli could make a deal that has no real strings attached. There’s no cap crunch that he’s trying to get out from under, no pressure to make a trade that isn’t a real win for the Oilers and he could stand to actually land a player in return that he covets, especially with the situation facing a number of teams with expansion draft protection problems. This is to say he could target and land a piece Edmonton clearly still needs, which is one more defenseman to round out the roster. That’s an even greater need when you consider Andrej Sekera stands to miss action in the coming campaign after suffering a torn ACL in the post-season.

Eberle’s probably not going to fetch an Adam Larsson in a one-for-one swap the way that Hall did and the truth is Eberle might not even land the Oilers a first-pairing guy in return. More likely, a trade would see Edmonton acquire a depth defender, maybe a second-pairing guy, and those deals will be available. There’s a lengthy list of teams who stand to lose a defender who played a big chunk of games this past season for nothing in the expansion draft, and any of those teams would probably jump at the opportunity to land someone like Eberle in return instead of simply having an NHL-ready rearguard picked off their roster. 

So, while there’s no reason why Chiarelli has to make a move this summer, he may not find a better time to do so.

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