The Power of the One Way Contract
One approach the Oilers might take to determine whether they can expect to qualify for the playoffs next season would be to slot their players into the hypothetical positions they would fill on a true playoff team. Take a realistic view of their team and players, and designate those players into the role they might fill on a current Cup contender - not a borderline playoff team. Don't base the assignment upon vastly improved projections, or how good the player was 5 years ago. I plan to go through the roster in this fashion over the Olympic break, to see if it's reasonable to expect the Oilers can become a playoff team for next season.
For now, I want to examine the end of the roster in terms of forwards. Just one man's opinion, but I think if your 12-14 forwards are three of Potulny, Stortini, Stone, Pouliot, you aren't eliminating yourself from playoff contention. As such, if they can be signed for reasonable, or better yet cheap, terms, I don't think it would be a horrible plan to lock a couple of these players up for 2 or 3 years. This idea isn't new, in fact YK Oil wrote about this general idea in a fantastic article about a year ago*. Maybe there's an argument to be made that the Oilers would be better off to clear out the one-way contracts and let players battle for the spots. Or that they should bring in some veterans for at least one of those roster spots. I think it depends how much money the above players are willing to sign for (Stortini excepted, as he's already under contract for a 700K cap hit next season).
Since these player types can be pretty replaceable league wide, I don't know how much it matters that you hold on to any of these 4 players, specifically. Sure, Pouliot could find his offence from junior, but so could another similar player from a different team.
The three unsigned players represent a place where the Oilers could start structuring their roster and cap room for next season. It might be unusual to start from the bottom of your roster, but those are RFA players who may be more receptive to doing something contractually before some of the other RFA's. By starting with these players you might get a more concrete picture of exactly how many roster spots and exactly how much money you have to work with to fill those remaining roster spots.
Something I would consider is to approach the agents of the three players and say something along the lines of** "We are happy with the performance of your player, and these other two players, but aren't sure that we necessarily want all three signed to one-way contracts. We would be quite happy to have two of them signed to one way contracts, and maybe all three, but it's possible one of the three guy could be left hanging as far as a one-way contract when July 1st rolls around. So, we are going to each agent now, with our offers for two (maybe three, this might vary for each player) year one-way contracts. If you want to negotiate on term or amount, that's fine, but be aware that if the other players sign one way contracts first, it's possible your client's roster spot may be spoken for."
This approach will likely only work with those players who believe you will walk away from them. And you may only be willing to take this approach with a player that you are prepared to walk away from, one that you think is more or less replaceable via the UFA market for similar money.
I would offer Stone a 3 year deal worth 500-550K per season. Maybe he takes it, maybe he doesn't. The power of the one way contract comes from guaranteeing money to a player that hasn't seen a ton thus far from his hockey career. 1.5 mil is a lot of money for a guy like Stone, who's been up and down between the minors since turning professional. I wouldn't be surprised if he took that, or tried to negotiate for more per season, but would be willing to take something slightly more than that amount.
The Oilers have been willing to do so in recent years for players about to become waiver eligible, but they haven't yet used this approach (as far as we know, maybe they have and we haven't heard about it?) for players that have established themselves, at least a little bit, at the NHL level.
I think the negotiations would likely be more contentious with Pouliot and Potulny, for somewhat different reasons. Pouliot has been in the NHL for awhile on a one way contract, and may feel insulted by something like that, no matter how nicely you phrase your position.
Meanwhile, Potulny has performed so well this season that your position of power re: the one-way contract may have been eroded. His agent may well convince Potulny that (a) you will qualify him, and any suggestion otherwise is an empty threat (b) even if you walk away, some other team will offer him a one way deal. I'm not sure that teams realize how valuable the offer of a one way contract might be to a player like Potulny. Sure he's put up some goals with Edmonton, but how sure is he that if he goes UFA he'll get a one way contract for more than Edmonton's offering? If you offer him, a player who hasn't spent a full season in the NHL yet at age 25, a three year, one-way deal for 600-700K per season, you'd imagine that like Stone it would appear like a lot of money to turn down. Maybe he can get more, but it's a lot to turn down.
I think that, in spite of the number crunch up front, if you could get Stone signed for 550K, Potulny, Pouliot, and Stortini for 700K each, you'd have started to achieve what Edmonton needs to start doing at the bottom of their roster - finding competent players that do not cost much more than the league minimum. There may be a side benefit to taking this approach over the Olympic break. If you start to crystalize next year's roster now, it may increase your clarity with respect to decision making at this season's trade deadline.
* = In the initial posting of this piece, I had not mentioned that YK Oil wrote about this about a year ago. I had forgotten that I'd read his article, or I'd have included a link to his material mentioning his post in my initial piece. My apologies YK, it was absolutely not intentional on my part to not give credit where it was due.
** = You might need to word things somewhat differently, more or less aggressively, with each player/agent, as the Oilers don't have identical leverage/situations with each player.