Quick Season Review
Thank goodness for the Cleveland Browns; if it weren’t for them, the Edmonton Oilers would likely be the worst managed franchise in professional sports of the last decade.
How else do you explain a decade that has seen more first overall draft picks than playoff appearances? While the Oilers certainly aren’t as bad as last season may indicate, they’re still a long way away from the potential Stanley Cup contender that many had them pegged as just as short as an offseason ago. At this time last year, the Oilers had just been eliminated from the playoffs in game seven of the second round, and if it weren’t for some spotty – alright, terrible – officiating, we could have been talking about the Western Conference Finalist Edmonton Oilers.
However, that obviously wasn’t the case, and it seemed as though Edmonton spent the 2017/2018 season trying to recover from their shocking elimination at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.
One year removed from their first playoff appearance in ten years, the Oilers spent the bulk of the 18/19 season trying to remain out of the Western Conference’s basement – this, despite having a back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winner in Connor McDavid leading the charge for the most northernmost franchise in the NHL.
It’s tough to look at last year as anything but a disappointment; however, are the Oilers really as far off as many pundits have them placed? What should be on general manager Peter Chiarelli‘s shopping list for the summer, and what needs to change to get the Oilers back into the second season?
Let’s find out.
Three Things that Need to Change
After a season like the Oilers had, obviously some changes will be necessary. The team has already relieved their associate coaches of their duties and replaced them with former Calgary Flames bench boss Glen Gulutzan, Trent Yawney and ex-Swift Current Broncos head coach Emanuel Viveiros to replace the former Oilers bench bosses. While a step in the right direction – the Oilers special teams were, for lack of a better word, embarrassing – more moves will be required for the Oilers to improve on last season’s atrocious results. Suggestions, you ask? Of course, I have suggestions!
1. A scoring winger for Leon Draisaitl
While it’s only a small sample size, the Oilers seem to have found their top line heading into next season in Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ty Rattie. While Rattie is certainly a question mark heading into next year, he’s certainly earned a shot at the starting RW slot to start next season. In his 11 games with Nuge and McDavid, Rattie posted nine points and seemed to form instant chemistry with the two former first-overall picks. While a bonafide scoring winger for McDavid would be wonderful, it’s not as much of a priority this offseason as it was last.
However, the same can’t be said for the Oilers second line. Leon Draisaitl is a legitimate scoring threat on his own, scoring 70 points in 77 games last season. While a bit of a regression from 77 points in 2017, the young forward has established himself as a bonafide second line centre on the Oilers and likely is a first liner on most NHL teams.
Where the issue lies is with his wingers. Throughout last season, Draisaitl was cursed with rotating wingers; in fact, he played more than 150 minutes with seven different players, which unfortunately included scoring wizards Mike Cammalleri and Milan Lucic. It’s a huge reason that the Oilers were unable to find balance in their lineup last year; with no effective wing options for the big German, Leon played the bulk of his time with McDavid and Nuge. While I’m certain that Draisaitl isn’t complaining about the chance to play with two of the NHL’s best, it speaks to the lack of forward depth on the Oilers roster. None of the options the Oilers cycled through Draisaitl’s wing has worked thus far; the recently re-signed Drake Caggiula doesn’t belong in the top-six, Ryan Strome is much better suited as a third line centre, Mike Cammalleri started poorly and got worse, and Milan Lucic should be tarred, feathered, and paraded through town for the atrocious performance he put out last season.
There are a few internal options; both Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto have the potential to be impact players for the Oilers; however, Puljujarvi has been inconsistent at best in his time on the big club, while Yamamoto is as unproven as they get at the NHL level. There are a few names on the free agent market that could draw some interest from the Oilers; players like James Neal, Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek are available, and the Oilers should seriously consider picking up one of the mentioned names, if possible.
While Neal looks likely to head back to Vegas after the success of their inaugural season, Grabner and Vanek are two names I could see coming to Edmonton for a reasonable price. While not top-tier wingers, both have scored 20+ goals consistently throughout their careers and would make an immediate impact on the depleted Oilers wings.
2. Depth at forward through the draft
While the Oilers may lack NHL-ready wingers, their depth issues don’t stop with the big squad. Their overall forward depth on the farm is abysmal, at best. While players like Jujhar Khaira and the recently-departed Anton Slepyshev have made the jump to the big squad over the last few years, the Oilers brass have had difficulty replacing them on an AHL level. Their best option on the farm is Joey LaLeggia, a former defenseman-turned-forward who, admittedly, has done well since switching positions; however, it speaks to the lack of depth in the Oilers prospect pool. Patrick Russell is another potential player of interest, but as of this point looks like a long shot to make the Oilers roster.
However, this year marks a deep draft class, especially on the wing. According to Elite Prospects, six of the top ten draft eligible players are listed as forwards, and Edmonton has to be salivating at the chance to draft another impact forward in the #10 slot. Names like Oliver Wahlström, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, or Joel Farabee could (hopefully) be available at #10, and each could step in and make an impact with the Oilers, whether this season or next.
It’s also important that the Oilers continue to build their depth at forward through the later rounds. If Edmonton wants to emulate the success of Chicago and Pittsburgh’s rebuilds, they’ll have to draft well to continue to keep young, inexpensive players in their lineup. While the Oil are without a fourth-round pick, they draft at the #40 position and pick early enough in each subsequent round that they should be able to fill their barren prospect pool. Despite the Oilers’ reputation as poor drafters, they’ve done well in the later rounds over the last few years. It’s essential that Edmonton doesn’t drop the ball this offseason.
3. A right shot defenseman who can run the PP
Have you heard this one before?
After Adam Larsson failed to become the next Bobby Orr, the Oilers are still in need of a legitimate offensive defenseman on the right side. Admittedly, the need isn’t as dire as some may think; while Edmonton would love to have a right-handed d-man that can run the point on the powerplay, more internal options exist than some may have you believe.
Oscar Klefbom has proven that he can run one unit of the powerplay when he’s on top of his game, and while last season was a regression by every standard, the 25-year-old Swede is poised to rebound after solving his shoulder issues near the end of last season. Klefbom is a player who scored 12 goals as recently as two years ago, and a return to form would certainly help the woeful Oilers powerplay. However, that still leaves the Oilers without a right-shot option; who could potentially fill in?
Another name that jumps out on paper is Matt Benning. Last season, Benning set career highs in both goals and assists and looked poised to take a step forward into a second-pairing role with the Oilers. However, Benning struggled at points with an expanded role, and while his offensive totals increased, he looked much more comfortable on the third pairing throughout the season. That’s no reason to think that Benning can’t take a step forward this season, though. He’s been a positive possession player throughout his two seasons with the Oilers and increased his Corsi from 51.4% in 16/17 to 52.5% over the course of 17/18. He’s also got a rocket of a shot that could be a major asset on the point with the man advantage. Although he’s only picked up three points on the powerplay through his time in the NHL, he’s shown well in his limited ice time with a man up and is definitely worth a look during the early points of the season. Again, this is all contingent on a bit of a bounce-back season from Benning; however, the third-year Oiler has all the raw skill needed to make it happen, and should he recover from the sophomore jinx that caught up to him at points last year, he could provide a viable second option for Edmonton on the man advantage.
There’s also some prospects the Oilers could look to, most notably Ethan Bear, who performed well in his 18 games with the big squad last season. However, I’m of the belief that another season in the AHL would benefit Bear far more than a season as the #7 defenseman on the Oilers, and would prefer that he’s left to develop for another season in Bakersfield.
Outside of the Oilers current roster, the trade market seems the most likely route for the Oilers to go for a powerplay defenseman. Names like Tyson Barrie, Justin Faulk and Torey Krug have found themselves brandished about in trade rumours; could one potentially come to Edmonton in the offseason? It depends on the asking price; on the surface, the Oilers are likely out of contention for Barrie and Krug, as their asking prices will simply be too rich for Edmonton’s blood. However, there’s a real chance of prying Faulk out of Carolina; would the 10th overall pick be enough to get it done? Maybe, maybe not, but Peter Chiarelli would be stupid not to be making a call at least.
Three Things to Stay the Same
1. Fight the urge to blow it all up
While the Oilers weren’t as good as the 2016/2017 season suggested, I don’t believe that they’re as bad as last years results indicate. Yes, the team is handcuffed by a few hefty contracts and yes, Peter Chiarelli doesn’t exactly have a glowing record in the trade department. However, this is still a team that has a back-to-back Art Ross Trophy winner in Connor McDavid, two future start defensemen in Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse and a bona fide #1 goaltender in Cam Talbot. Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are good-to-great NHL players at the very least. Players like Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto have yet to reach their full potential. Yes, the team struggled last year despite having all of these pieces on their roster. However, it’s fair to say that outside of McDavid every player regressed last season, and it’s safe to assume that at least a few of those names are due for bounce-back seasons. The Oilers definitely need to make a move, but they shouldn’t sacrifice another core piece in the process.
2. Young Defensemen
It may not seem like it on nights where the Oilers are getting blown out, but in this writers opinion they have one of the more promising young defence cores in the NHL. With Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, Matt Benning, and Ethan Bear and all under 25, the team looks to be nearly set for the future on the back-end. With such an embarrassment of riches on the roster, it may be tempting for the Oilers to move one of their young defenders for immediate help. Personally, unless the perfect deal comes around I would be hesitant to move any of the five names mentioned above. Even if it means you get a lesser return, I think it’s essential that the Oilers make every effort to move either Kris Russell or Andrej Sekera sooner rather than later; while their NMC’s make them difficult to move, I have no doubt that there will be teams out there looking to pick up a decent defenceman closer to the start of the season. We may have to be patient, but the team looks well built on D for the near future.
3. Flexibility at Center
There are those who feel the Oilers should move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in order to fill another roster hole. The argument is that with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the roster, Nuge is simply too expensive to utilize as a third line center. While I’d agree that he’s not best utilized on the third line, he gives the Oilers flexibility at the position that Edmonton hasn’t had since 2006. He also proved late in the season that he’s able to play the wing, and with the Oilers desperate for a top line winger, Nugent-Hopkins is a valuable commodity. He also alleviates a bit of stress in times that the Oilers are forced to move Draisaitl to play with McDavid; it gives Edmonton a genuine second-line center to fill the gap left by shifting Draisaitl up. Even Ryan Strome, while limited offensively is a solid option at 3C. The Oilers faithful have been screaming for years for depth at the center position; why throw it away now?
While the 2018 season wasn’t a kind one to the Edmonton Oilers, they aren’t as far off as many pundits have you believe. They still boast a large portion of the roster that got them one game away from the Western Conference Finals two years ago, and their needs – while ample – aren’t as glaring as they were in the darkest days of the rebuild. First and foremost, a bounce-back season from Cam Talbot is required for the Oilers to stand any chance of making the postseason. Especially with an unproven backup in Mikko Koskinen, Talbot will likely be required to start between 60-70 games this year and will need to handle the workload better than he did last season. He’s proven he can do it before, and if the 30-year-old goaltender can return to his 2016-2017 form, Edmonton already stands a much greater chance at making the postseason.
It’s also essential that the Oilers defensive and special teams woes cure themselves; while we’re still waiting on official word on new assistant coaches for the team, the onus is on the players to perform on the defensive side of the puck. Oscar Klefbom, Andrej Sekera and Adam Larsson all regressed last season, and all have to be better if the Oilers want to improve in 18/19. The forward group – while lacking an impact winger – is on the right track, and it now falls to general manager Peter Chiarelli to acquire someone to play with Leon Draisaitl on a consistent basis.
Could that duty fall to someone like Kailer Yamamoto this season? In an ideal world, no, but he did show well in the latter half of the WHL season after a slow start. If the top line of McDavid/Nugent-Hopkins/Rattie can continue along their torrid pace from the end of last season and the bottom six can continue to develop, the forward group looks poised to take two steps forward from their step backwards last year.
If all of the above can happen and Peter Chiarelli can make the necessary acquisitions, I believe that the Oil has a real shot at the postseason in 2018/2019.