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The Oilers are blowing it in Connor McDavid’s last affordable season

Building around the superstar center won’t get any easier from here.

Edmonton Oilers v Dallas Stars Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There are a lot of reasons to be upset as an Edmonton Oilers fan right now. The team is sixth in the Pacific Division and eight points out of a wild card spot midway through the season. Postseason hopes are running on fumes. A Stanley Cup seems almost entirely out of reach.

That’s never where you want to be when you have Connor McDavid, the reigning league MVP and arguably the best player in the league. Usually the hardest part of constructing a contender is finding players like him. The Oilers, meanwhile, have struggled with everything else.

Except there’s another problem for the Oilers and general manager Peter Chiarelli, who recently said he was “feeling the heat” of his team’s struggles: This year represents the end of their best window. It’s not necessarily going to get any easier from here.

For the past two-plus seasons, McDavid has been playing on his entry-level contract, which includes a $925,000 base cap hit and $2.85 million in performance bonuses. He always maxes out his earnings, so the total cap hit is really $3.775 million, but that’s still a massive bargain for a Hart Trophy winner.

Next season, that figure more than triples as McDavid’s eight-year, $100 million extension goes into effect. His well-deserved $12.5 million cap hit will be the highest in the league. It was the necessary price to retain a generational talent, but for a team that’s otherwise made a lot of puzzling decisions, there won’t be much flexibility left to address problems.

The Oilers already have $60.9 million tied up in just seven forwards, four defensemen, and two goalies for next season, according to Cap Friendly. The team should avoid a salary cap overage if it doesn’t make any major additions this season because it’s so far under the cap. But even an $80 million salary cap would leave just $19.1 million to add another nine-to-10 players.

A good chunk of that money will need to go to defenseman Darnell Nurse, who is a restricted free agent in the summer. Ryan Strome, Brandon Davidson, and Drake Caggiula will also be RFAs. On the UFA front, Mark Letestu, Patrick Maroon, and Mike Cammalleri will all need to be replaced.

That’s not an impossible task if your goal is simply to ice a team next season. But it begs the question of how the Oilers plan to address all their current problem in that situation. The team still has a defensive foursome of Oscar Klefbom, Andrej Sekera, Adam Larsson, and Kris Russell signed for a combined $17.8 million through the 2020-21 season. It still has Milan Lucic at a $6 million cap hit until 2023.

And while some of those questionable deals look damaging now, they will only get worse once McDavid is eating up a larger proportion of the salary cap. The NHL’s system gives little margin for error for teams paying premiums to stay players, and the Oilers have more than used up their wiggle room with onerous contracts already on the books.

That’s why the first three years of McDavid’s career presented such a big opportunity. Entry-level deals are the bargains of the NHL, and these three seasons were always going to be Edmonton’s best chance to surround him with the most talent possible. That’s part of why people were so upset when the team made bad deals to ship out Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle: The team may never get players like that again as long as McDavid keeps them competitive.

Now that’s not to say the Oilers are hopeless. McDavid, Draisaitl, Klefbom, Nurse, Larsson, and Cam Talbot comprise a good group of core players. Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto will still be on ELCs next season. Extreme parity means a quick turnaround is always possible, especially when your best player is as good as McDavid. In this league, it seems like everyone is a couple of smart moves and some good luck away from contention.

But none of that changes the fact that building around McDavid was always going to be easier with a $3.775 million cap hit than a $12.5 million cap hit. And right now, in their final season under those more favorable circumstances and with McDavid posting 47 points in 43 games, the Oilers are 27th out of 31 teams in the standings.