Cam Talbot

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Georges Laraque had some thoughts on the impact of the Oilers’ newfound toughness

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The Edmonton Oilers are coming off of their most successful season in more than a decade and there are a lot of theories for why the turnaround took place.

One of the more popular talking points was the addition of players like Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, and Kris Russell that helped bring some toughness and grit to the lineup and cut down on the number of liberties that were taken against star players like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

To be fair, players like Maroon — and even Zack Kassian who was in his second year with the team — did have really good seasons and were helpful in a lot of areas.

And while Lucic’s contract looks like it could one day be an albatross on the team’s salary cap, he is still a pretty good player for the time being.

The other theory — the one I buy into — is that fully healthy seasons from Connor McDavid and defenseman Oscar Klefbom, as well as a true breakout year from Draisaitl and rock solid play (and incredible durability) from goaltender Cam Talbot, helped carry the team. A couple of superstars, a top-pairing defender and a good starting goalie that can play 70-plus games will do a lot to improve a team.

One person that seems to be putting more stock into the first theory is ex-Oilers enforcer Georges Laraque.

Laraque was on Oilers Now with Bob Stauffer this past week and talked about the intimidation factor and how the additions of players like Lucic and Maroon led to healthier seasons from McDavid and the rest of his skilled teammates.

An excerpt, via the Edmonton Journal:

You said some of the people in the media they don’t like tough guys, and they say stuff, ‘They don’t like it, we don’t believe in this and that.’ This is the trend between people that know the game and people that don’t know the game. There’s many people in the media that cover the game that talk about hockey and stuff but they don’t know anything. And you read them and they want to make it look like they do, but they don’t. The stats you just said right there (on the health of the 2016-17 Oilers) gives you an indication right there of what’s been going on with that team. Why do you think McDavid got 100 points this year? Do you see how much room he’s getting? Yes, there’s a little bit of stuff there and there sometimes, but most of the time he was healthy because of that presence.

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Yeah, they had a young team that played all the game and, yeah, they had enough toughness that prevent guys to take liberties with those guys. Look at before, the Oilers when they had Zack (Stortini) and other guys that were up and down, people were taking liberties with that team and they were always hurt. Now those days are done. People, when they go to Edmonton, with Darnell Nurse, Lucic, Maroon, all those guys there, people don’t want to take liberties with those kids because there’s a lot of guys can answer the bell… And we’re not even talking about fighting here. We’re talking about a presence that prevents guys from taking cheap shots because they know there would be retribution if they did so.”

This all goes back to the old “deterrence” argument that gets thrown around a lot, and it is no surprise that a former player like Laraque who was paid to be that sort of deterrent (or paid to try to be that) would buy into that. But arguing that Connor McDavid has space and scored 100 points this season because Patrick Maroon or Milan Lucic was on the team is quite a leap. He had 100 points this season because he is probably already (at worst) the second best player in the league and is as dominant as any player to enter the league in decades.

As we talked about when Pittsburgh acquired Ryan Reaves from the St. Louis Blues in an effort to cut down on the physical abuse they took, arguments like this one here by Laraque aren’t really isn’t based in any sort of reality. It is true that McDavid was fully healthy this season and managed to get through without the type of significant injury that cut his rookie season in half, and it is also true that happened in the same season that Lucic and Maroon arrived in Edmonton.

But that does not mean the two results are related. After all, when Lucic played in Boston alongside Shawn Thornton the Bruins were routinely on the receiving end of cheap shots that sidelined players. Just ask Marc Savard, Nathan Horton and Loui Eriksson, for example. The “Big Bad Bruins” mentality didn’t keep Matt Cooke, or Aaron Rome or John Scott from taking them out with cheap shots.

These discussions always create a bunch of misleading arguments about toughness and physical play. There is nothing wrong with adding physical players or players that can play with a bit of an edge. But you can’t expect them to keep your star players healthy because the guys that set out to do that damage are going to do it no matter what. Plus, hockey is a collision sport that is going to result in players being injured. It doesn’t always have to be a cheap shot.

But adding toughness just for the sake of adding toughness when there is no skill to go with it is not going to make your team any better.

The Oilers weren’t better this past season because a player Patrick Maroon showed up, played physical and tried to prevent teams from taking liberties.

The Oilers were better because a player like Patrick Maroon showed up, played physical and scored 27 goals for them.

Raanta is ready for the No. 1 job with Coyotes

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Antti Raanta has spent the past four seasons backing up two of the NHL’s best goalies in Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks) and Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers). After handling those duties as well as just about any other backup in the league, not to mention performing better than a lot of the league’s starters, he is finally going to get an opportunity to get a No. 1 job with the Arizona Coyotes after the team acquired him, along with center Derek Stepan, in a blockbuster trade centered around the No. 7 overall pick.

It is a role that Raanta seems to be more than ready for.

He talked about that preparation, along with what he learned from playing behind Crawford and Lundqvist, with Dave Vest of the Coyotes’ official website.

“I have been privileged to play behind Corey Crawford in Chicago and Henrik Lundqvist in New York, and working with great goalie coaches in Chicago and New York,” Raanta said. “… It’s been kind of like a step-by-step process for me. Last year, I kind of felt that my game was finding the right way and my confidence level was going better and better all the time. I felt like I was giving the team the chance to win every night. There’s going to be other goalies and there’s going to be a battle for the No.1 spot (in Arizona), but I feel my game is going in the right direction … and I feel like I’m ready to take one more step and be playing more and get the No. 1 spot.”

He has certainly earned the opportunity to get a No. 1 spot.

Over the past three seasons his .924 save percentage ranks third (behind only the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray) among the 61 goalies that have appeared in at least 50 games during that stretch. His .931 even-strength save percentage is tied for fourth.

He even had a stretch last season where he was playing well enough to take a few starts away from Lundqvist. It’s probably not realistic to expect him to continue to maintain that sort of performance in a No. 1 role (bigger work load, not always getting the most favorable matchups, and all of those variables), but all he has done in the NHL is perform at a high level when given the opportunity.

Probably one of the best case scenarios for the Coyotes is that Raanta is able to duplicate what Cam Talbot has done since the Rangers traded him to the Edmonton Oilers two years ago. Talbot, Lundqvist’s backup before Raanta came along, was also 27 at the time he was traded and had performed extremely well in a limited backup role.

He has been an above average starter with the Oilers ever since.

The Coyotes have made some significant changes this offseason, parting ways with coach Dave Tippett, trading Smith, letting Shane Doan leave and bringing in Stepan, Raanta and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks. Those veterans join a young core being built around Max Domi, Dylan Strome, Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and, of course, standout defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. It has been a rough few years for the Coyotes on the ice, but they have young talent to build around and added some outstanding veterans to that core this summer.

Draisaitl and other key situations for Oilers’ future with McDavid locked up

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It might not look like it with that $100 million price tag, but the Edmonton Oilers got a bargain in landing Connor McDavid‘s prime years for $12.5 million per season.

Once that became official, questions naturally pivoted to RFA Leon Draisaitl, and reasonably so. Also reasonably, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli deflected questions regarding those negotiations.

Now, while McDavid and Draisaitl stand as the Oilers’ most important – and expensive – considerations, other moves are likely to determine Edmonton’s ceiling. So let’s look at some of those key situations.

MORE: Edmonton’s cap challenges are arguably even tougher than what Penguins, Blackhawks faced

Draisaitl a mystery

The range of possibilities are truly wild for what Draisaitl might make.

Sportsnet’s Jonathan Willis stated in May that a $6-$6.5 million cap hit would be appropriate, yet plenty of estimates place Draisaitl at making far, far more. Chiarelli has stated that the Oilers would match any offer sheet, which inspired some gloomy thoughts.

The slight bright side: if that $9.8 million poison pill happened now, it would go down to … $22.3 million.

Luckily for the Oilers, that worst-case scenario is also an unlikely situation. Either way, Draisaitl seems almost certain to be Edmonton’s second-most expensive player. Chiarelli’s job is to keep him closer to third place than to first.

Potentially elite goalie for cheap (but not for long)

Whether you believe that he deserved a Vezina nomination or not in 2016-17, the bottom line is that Cam Talbot presented glorious value while carrying the league’s biggest workload.

No one played in more games (73), faced as many shots (2,117) or stopped as many pucks (1,946) as Talbot did last season, and he did that all at a bargain rate of $4.167 million.

That cap hit runs out after 2018-19, so the Oilers will need to determine if Talbot’s worth a raise (because he’s highly likely to get one, in Edmonton or somewhere else).

Fork in the road

They might not be headline-grabbers, but some of the more intriguing situations involve Oilers with a lot to prove, and possibly a ton of money to earn.

Ryan Strome is the easiest example. Edmonton provides a clean slate – and possibly some stellar linemates – as the fifth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft tries to show that he’s worth more than $2.5 million per year.

He’s followed what seemed like a 50-point breakout in 2014-15 with two seasons around 30, so next season could have a huge impact on his back account. Even as an RFA.

Many joke that Patrick Maroon ($1.5M) provided many of the same benefits as Milan Lucic ($6) at less than a third of the price. Maroon should narrow that gap after that contract expires following 2017-18. The big-money question is whether he could meet or even exceed last season’s 27 goals.

There are some interesting questions on defense, too. Matthew Benning will be an RFA after this coming campaign, yet Darnell Nurse stands as the blueliner with the most to gain.

Nurse has work to do to justify being the seventh pick of 2013, so what better time to show that he’s more than just a solid player than in his contract year?

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These aren’t the only factors to consider. Chiarelli must continue to search for supporting cast members, and potentially people could be part of the core in Edmonton. By the same logic, he’ll need to determine if anyone else is expendable, with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins‘ $6M being the glaring question.

He’ll also root for Kris Russell and Lucic to be the kind of players that … well, aren’t punchlines across the league.

As this post mentions, the Oilers face unprecedented challenges. For outsiders looking in – particular those who love to get nerdy about building teams – it should be a fascinating process; even smaller names make for some pivotal narratives.

In supporting McDavid, Oilers face bigger cap tests than Pens, Blackhawks

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The Edmonton Oilers officially confirmed Connor McDavid‘s contract as the richest in NHL history: eight years at a tidy $100 million.

Remarkably, that $12.5 million cap hit is actually a big break for the Oilers, as McDavid could’ve justifiably demanded more. Either way, what’s next?

GM Peter Chiarelli gave the “no-comment” treatment when asked about Leon Draisaitl, instead praising McDavid for “caring about his teammates.”

Chiarelli’s seen the Blackhawks and Penguins struggle with salary-cap challenges, and the scary thing is that the Oilers must climb a bigger mountain.

Oilers lack some advantages Penguins, Blackhawks enjoyed

As tough as things have been for Chicago and Pittsburgh, Edmonton lacks some of those franchise’s significant edges.

For one thing, signing Sidney Crosby to a 12-year deal with an $8.7 million cap hit wouldn’t be possible today. Edmonton could only sign McDavid for a maximum of eight years, limiting the Oilers’ ability to parallel deals for the likes of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

It’s worth noting that the Blackhawks haven’t won a Stanley Cup since Jonathan Toews‘ and Patrick Kane‘s matching $10.5 million cap hits kicked in, deals that were more costly with the max-year loophole closed.

Yet, even in Chicago’s case, they managed to get a huge-term bargain under its belt during the old CBA. Duncan Keith brings Norris-level defense for a dirt-cheap cap hit of about $5.54 million through 2022-23.

Edmonton must find other opportunities to save money.

Bargains are crucial, and they’re where Chiarelli must “earn his money”

However you slice it, teams must bargain-hunt, and they often need to be creative to make things work.

The Penguins spent assets to land Phil Kessel, and they convinced the Maple Leafs to retain a crucial chunk of his cap hit. They’ve managed to integrate younger players like Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and especially Matt Murray into a mix of established stars. Of course, they’ve also enjoyed some luck along the way, most notably in convincing Marc-Andre Fleury to go to Vegas.

In many ways, Chicago set a template for the Penguins in discovering the likes of Artemi Panarin while also finding success with the likes of Ryan Hartman. Both Stan Bowman and Jim Rutherford have been willing to take chances on players and part ways with guys who weren’t deemed essential.

Such a thought explains why Kris Russell and Milan Lucic stand as polarizing signings; if those two struggle, that’s $10M poorly spent.

Not all bad

Look, Chiarelli faces some difficult challenges, yet he also has some things working in his favor.

Most obviously, this is a largely young core, with players who can improve. It’s reasonable to believe that McDavid and Draisaitl could make other, cheaper wingers better when Edmonton’s budget gets especially tight.

Cam Talbot‘s also been a revelation, and while his $4.2M cap hit expires after two more seasons, it’s a nice bargain to have.

There are also some decent deals on defense.

Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, and Adam Larsson combine for an affordable, solid trio. Klefbom and Larsson are also in their prime years, likely to deliver value for Edmonton going forward.

Once you shake off concerns about Lucic and Russell, the slate is actually fairly clean for Edmonton. That’s especially true if they make another tough call and move Ryan Nugent-Hopkins if his $6M is too much to stomach.

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The Oilers aren’t in an impossible situation, just a very challenging one. With McDavid as a sure thing alongside other nice pieces, it comes down to Chiarelli providing the supporting cast needed to collect some Stanley Cups.

Signing McDavid was the easy part.

Oilers sign Russell to reported four-year, $16 million extension

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When the Edmonton Oilers traded Jordan Eberle over the weekend part of the reasoning was so they could clear salary cap space, presumably to help re-sign veteran defenseman Kris Russell.

On Friday, they completed that series of transactions.

The Oiliers announced a four-year contract for Russell that will reportedly pay him $16 million.

That comes out to a salary cap hit of $4 million per season. TSN’s Ryan Rishaug adds that the deal could also include a modified no-trade clause.

Russell has become an extremely polarizing player in the NHL over the past few years so this deal is sure to receive equal amounts of praise and criticism depending on what exactly you’re looking for from a defenseman.

He has never been a strong possession player and doesn’t have a lot of offensive ability — two things teams seem to be looking for on their blue lines right now — which leads to criticism from the analytics side of the sport. But because he is one of the NHL’s most fearless shot-blockers and consistently among the league leaders in that category he is loved as an old-school, defensive-defenseman. That ability was a big talking point for much of the 2016-17 season as the Oilers had their best season in more than a decade (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Cam Talbot played a pretty significant role, too).

Another part of the justification for the Eberle trade was the fact the Oilers needed some additional salary cap space because of the need to re-sign both McDavid and Draisaitl to long-term contract extensions.

Eberle on his own was going to account for $6 million in salary cap space this season.

Ryan Strome (the player acquired for Eberle) and Russell will account for $6.5 million.

Are the Oilers better off with Strome and Russell than they would have been had they simply let Russell walk and kept Eberle? That remains to be seen, but obviously the Oilers think they are.