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It’s Edmonton Oilers day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

2017-18

36-40-6, 78 pts. (6th in Pacific Division, 12th in Western Conference)
Missed playoffs.

IN:

Tobias Rieder
Kyle Brodziak
Mikko Koskinen
Kevin Gravel

OUT:

Anton Slepyshev
Iiro Pakarinen
Eric Gryba
Yohann Auvitu
Laurent Brossoit

RE-SIGNED:

Ty Rattie
Ryan Strome
Drake Caggiula
Matt Benning

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough: Darnell Nurse | Three questions]

No team had quite the optimistic forecast for this past season quite like the Edmonton Oilers did.

And no team failed quite as hard as the Oilers did as they shouldered those lofty expectations.

Coming off a season where they took the Anaheim Ducks to seven games in the second round on the back of stellar playing from Connor McDavid and Cam Talbot, nearly everyone figured the Oilers had finally rid themselves of the disappointment that had plagued them for years.

McJesus had led the Edmontonians out of the darkness and into the promised land.

By Christmas this past year, however, things got turned around. The question went from how far they would go in the playoffs to if they’d make the playoffs at all. Much sooner than anyone predicted, the answer came as an emphatic ‘no.’

The team with arguably the best player on earth watched their miserable season come to a merciful end long before the final date on the regular-season calendar.

The Oilers came into the season perhaps the league’s most promising hockey club and left it as its most disappointing.

And it was all made worse for fans in the upper half of Alberta as they watched Taylor Hall guide his New Jersey Devils to said promise land while picking up the Hart Trophy along the way.

One slap in the face after another.

A new year means a new beginning for the Oilers, although the additions of Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak probably aren’t going to inspire notions of the team improving over the offseason.

Darnell Nurse still remains and a restricted free agent, with reports suggesting he isn’t looking to sign long-term right now given how tight the Oilers are to the salary cap. Nurse took a nice step in the right direction this year on the backend, setting new career highs in goals, assists and, of course, points, as he bounced back from an injury-plagued 2016-17 season.

Statistically speaking, McDavid had a wonderful year, posting his best season as a pro after eclipsing the 40-goal mark for the first time and putting up a league-leading 108 points despite the team around him.

What McDavid needs most are consistent linemates.

Postmedia’s Michael Traikos summed it up well last week:

McDavid’s linemates last year ranged from rookies learning the ropes (Kailer Yamamoto and Ty Rattie) to centremen-turned-wingers (Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) to whatever warm bodies Edmonton had lying around. No combination seemed to last more than a month. Nothing clicked.

Find McDavid some solid linemates, and you’ll likely have three players who become the league’s most potent trio on the scoresheet.

The Oilers will usher in the new season with a lineup that won’t look much different, so that won’t be an easy fix.

They will still have an underperforming Milan Lucic (despite general manager Peter Chiarelli’s attempts to trade the overpaid power forward). They still have the same defense that contributed to allowing the fifth most goals against last year. And they still have the same offense, that without McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, would have a missing ad on the side of a milk carton.

McDavid is going to have to work with what he has. The Oilers don’t have the cap room to change that, it appears. Talbot is going to need a better showing than his .908 last season, his worst on record in terms of save percentage, and a season that saw his goals saved above average (GSAA) go from 23.59 to -1.37.

The good news is that a swath of Edmonton’s youngsters took a step forward last season. Jesse Puljujarvi (Edmonton’s third overall pick in 2016), Ty Rattie and Jujhar Khaira all progressed, as did the aforementioned Nurse, and Andrej Sekera will be fully healthy to start the season on the blue line.

The hope is that the kids will play bigger roles this year, and they just might.

Prospect Pool

Kailer Yamamoto, RW, 19, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) – 2017 first-round pick

Yamamoto could get a full-time gig with the Oilers this season and maybe he’s the guy that can gel with McDavid. Yamamoto put up another solid year in the Western Hockey League with 64 points in 40 games, a year shortened after playing nine games with the Oilers to start the season and his time with Team USA at the World Junior Hockey Championships, where he earned a bronze medal. Yamamoto is quick, likes to dish the puck and can also find the back of the net. One of McDavid or Draisaitl is going to inherit him.

Evan Bouchard, D, 18, London Knights (OHL) – 2018 first-round pick 

A smooth-skating defenseman that can play all three phases of the game, rush the puck and score? This sounds exactly like what the Oilers blue line could use, and that’s what they got when they drafted Bouchard out of the Ontario Hockey League this past June. Bouchard had 25 goals and 87 points in 67 games with the Knights last season and had five more points in four playoff games. There are rumblings that he might not be automatic to return to junior, but there’s also an argument to be made not to rush the kid to the Show.

Ethan Bear, D, 21, Bakersfield Condors (AHL) – 2015 fifth-round pick

Bear played in 37 games in his first pro season in the American Hockey League. One part of that was due to injury, a concussion that hampered him and the Condors, who missed him in his absence. Bear put up six goals and 18 points last season as the Condor’s top defenseman and saw a lot of time on the blue line on the power play. The second part is that he got an 18-game stint with the Oilers at the end of the season and showed his worth with one goal and four points during that span. His prowess on the power play was also tapped into by the Oilers, who had him playing 1:50 per game with the man-advantage.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild.

Minnesota Wild

Record: 35-27-7 (69 games), sixth in Central Division, 10th in the West
Leading Scorer: Kevin Fiala – 54 points (23 goals and 31 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Traded Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison, 2020 conditional first-round pick.

Season Overview

To call this a strange year for the Wild would be an understatement.

Minnesota came into this season with a new general manager, Bill Guerin. But he was hired late in the off-season after Paul Fenton was suddenly fired after free agency. What that meant was that head coach Bruce Boudreau would be on his third GM which almost never happens in hockey.

Fenton signed veteran forward Mats Zuccarello to a big free-agent contract, which indicated that he thought the team could win right away. Guerin came in and didn’t really do a whole lot heading into the season because his hands were tied given the roster he had at his disposal.

The Wild started the year with four consecutive losses and they dropped six of their first seven. They didn’t beat a team currently in a playoff spot until Oct. 22 when they took down the Oilers (nine games into the 2019-20 season).

So you can certainly forgive those of us who wrote them off early on. But to their credit, they were able to get the season turned around. Starting on Nov. 14, they managed to put together an 11-game point streak.

Heading into the pause, the Wild managed to rattle off eight wins over their last 11 games. Despite the success they had after their sluggish start, Guerin still decided it was best to trade veteran Jason Zucker to Pittsburgh and to fire Boudreau.

Why would he get rid of his veteran coach?

Well, general managers like picking their own head coaches, so when Boudreau started having success again, Guerin probably wanted to cut ties with him because he didn’t want to have to keep him after an impressive turnaround.

The Wild continued to have success under interim bench boss Dean Evason, but they still weren’t locked into a playoff spot at the pause. As of right now, the Wild were one point behind the Nashville Predators for the final Wild Card spot in the West and two points behind Winnipeg for the other one (they have two games in hand on the Jets).

Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Eric Staal and Devan Dubnyk are all household names, but it was two under-the-radar players that helped fuel Minnesota’s success. Forward Kevin Fiala and backup goalie Alex Stalock have been the keys to that turnaround.

No matter what happens to this season, the Wild are at a bit of a crossroads. Do they try to build on this momentum by adding more veterans this summer or do they continue shipping out their older players in an attempt to get younger?

Highlight of the Season

Captain Mikko Koivu is on the downside of his career, but there was a special moment that occurred this season against the Dallas Stars.

On Dec. 1, Koivu played in his 1,000th NHL game (all with the Wild). He managed to score the shootout winner in that game.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ free-agent decisions; Would Rangers have made playoffs?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Bruins have some big decisions to make with some potential free agents. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• Boston needs to re-sign Jaroslav Halak this summer. (Causeway Crowd)

• Todd Reirden’s son, Travis, has an immunodeficiency that prevents his immune system from defending against bacteria and viruses. That makes things complicated for the family during this Covid-19 pandemic. (NBC Sports Washington)

Travis Zajac weighs in on the new Netflix documentary “Tiger King”. (NJ.com)

• If the NHL decides to give teams a compliance buyout or two, who would the Hurricanes move on from? (Cardiac Cane)

• A shortened season could benefit some of the young New York Rangers. (Blue Line Station)

Sergei Bobrovsky talked about giving financial support to the Florida arena workers. (The Hockey News)

• Claude Julien is trying to remain positive about the season resuming. (Sportsnet.ca)

• Sheldon Keefe expects Alexander Barabanov to be an important part of the Maple Leafs next year. (TSN)

Darnell Nurse wouldn’t mind playing hockey in empty arenas. (Oilers Nation)

• Pushing the Olympics to 2021 means that the NHL has a bigger window to finish their season. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Would the Rangers have made the playoffs? (Blue Seat Blogs)

Alex Biega sees the importance of life after hockey for all players in the NHL. (Detroit News)

• The 1995-96 Red Wings needed just a little more seasoning before they were ready for primetime. (The Score)

• What’s next for the Blackhawks and Corey Crawford? (NBC Sports Chicago)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely

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It’s Wednesday, April 8 and tonight we should have been parking ourselves in front of our televisions or gathering inside hockey rinks across the U.S. and Canada to watch playoff hockey.

Instead, we wait. We don’t know when the NHL will resume its 2019-20 schedule and we don’t know how they will complete it if playing out the regular season isn’t an option. Since the NHL pause on March 12,  various formats thrown out, garnering a myriad of responses. If time prevents the league from holding a normal postseason, they’ll have to be creative.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told Mike Tirico on NBCSN’s Lunch Talk Live Tuesday. “We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light — and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well.”

So what are possibly looking at for a right-to-the-playoffs scenario?

Points percentage

Here are your Round 1 playoff matchups if points percentage was to determine the eight teams in each conference:

Bruins vs. Islanders
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Flyers vs. Penguins

Blues vs. Flames
Avalanche vs. Stars
Golden Knight vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Canucks

There are some juicy pairings in that lot, but what of those teams who missed the cut? Surely the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Panthers, Jets, Wild, and Coyotes would like to see the field expanded considering the unique situation we find ourselves in.

“I don’t think it would be right if we’re left out,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. “We’re close to a playoff spot and have 13 games left. We just started playing as well as we did before the All-Star break, the bye week. We were feeling pretty good, playing with confidence.”

If you stick with the traditional series format, the timing of everything would affect series lengths. Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have been vocal about not having the 2020-21 season interrupted, so if we’re talking about July or August playoff hockey, we can’t have four rounds of best-of-sevens.

Tournament

P.K. Subban said he’d love to see a 31-team tournament to decide the 2020 Stanley Cup winner — and why wouldn’t he when you glance at the Devils’ place in the Eastern Conference standings. But while including every team in the league isn’t the best idea, using this opportunity to be different opens the door for that kind of format if there isn’t time for a full four rounds of playoffs.

Like the points percentage idea, a tournament would require some sort of cut off point to fill the field. Do you forget conferences and just go with an overall Sweet 16 and best-of-three series? Would it be ideal to include 24 teams and work in byes for those atop the standings?

Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly told NHL.com’s The Rink podcast that he wants a full four-round playoff.

“I know you can do it in a different way, but if it was up to me, from my time being in the League and other guys I’ve talked to on the team, we really need to protect the integrity of the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s a whole other season in its own so I think it’s got to be a full, best-of-7 for four rounds, for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how they make that work, how you can condense it to still give the teams fighting for a wild card a chance, but I think you have to have the full thing.

“It’ll be tough and obviously I don’t have all the answers, but I feel it really protects the integrity of the Stanley Cup. It is extremely difficult. Having to beat a team four times is not an easy thing to do, and I just feel we need to have that.”

Neutral sites

An NHL playoff or tournament set up with games played in either one city or multiple locations? That’s been discussed with locations such as Buffalo and Grand Forks, North Dakota serving as potential options. However many teams, isolated in a city, away from their families. The league would love the unique aspect to such a conclusion to a season, but would the players? 

As with the Major League Baseball idea that was floated on Tuesday or the NBA’s in Las Vegas, what would the logistics look like for the NHL? Would there be fans? How long of a period of time would the players and staff be away from their families in such a scenario? Will there be tests upon arrival? What if a player or staff member contracts the virus? Will there be an expansion of rosters?

And that’s just with the logistics involving the teams. What about the people working at the arena(s)? And should medical personnel be used in this case and not be assisting hospitals?

As Bettman said Tuesday, there’s too much uncertainty to have an idea when the NHL will be given a green light to resume games. The planning needs to be done for all situations once that happens, and more and more it’s looking like if playoffs do happen, it will be a unique format that wins out for this special circumstance.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

What is the Kings’ long-term outlook?

Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Los Angeles Kings.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Los Angeles Kings currently revolve around two cornerstone pieces, captain Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty.

They were central figures during two Stanley Cup seasons in 2012 and 2014 and remain vital to the organization. The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment ended when they placed the veteran winger on unconditional waivers for the purposes of terminating his contract in mid-December.

But now the focus has shifted, and general manager Rob Blake is tasked with finding new pieces to help usher in a different era of Kings hockey.
Blake and his staff aim to build through the draft and own 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including three in the second round, two in the third round and two in the fourth round. The Kings currently sit in the bottom five of the NHL standings and will have a premium first-round pick depending on the results of the lottery at the conclusion of the NHL season.

The Kings also made two selections in the first round of the 2019 draft and have a top-five NHL farm system, according to The Athletic’s prospect rankings this past summer.

Los Angeles won’t return to glory overnight, but they have the ammunition to rebuild their foundation and become a contender in the Western Conference once again.

Long-Term Needs

The Kings need to hit on their upcoming draft picks, simply put. The decisions made by the front office in the upcoming offseason could define the success of the franchise. It will be the difference between a three-year rebuilding process or 10-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Los Angeles also has to manage the salary cap over the next few seasons. Its patience will be tested, but the organization needs to wait until Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter’s lucrative contracts expire after the 2021-22 season. Goaltender Jonathan Quick’s deal expires the year after.

With new talent on the horizon, the Kings are in a position to clear out bad contracts but should avoid long-term commitments until a new core is established at the NHL level.

Long-Term Strengths

The good news is Kopitar and Doughty are still performing at a high level. The captain led the team in scoring with 62 points, surpassing his total from last season in 11 fewer games. Doughty leads the team in ice time, averaging a shade under 26 minutes per game and was close to eclipsing the 40-point mark for the sixth straight season.

In addition, Sean Walker secured a spot on the blueline with strong play in the first 70 games of his career. The undrafted defenseman also showed ability on the offensive side of the ice with 24 points, most of which came at even strength.

Most importantly, Todd McLellan looked to be making strides in his first year as head coach. The Kings finished (maybe) the season with an impressive seven-game winning streak and went 10-2-1 in the final 13 games.

The team has a lot of flexibility going forward and now it’s up to Blake to make the correct decisions, and McLellan to execute that plan on the ice.

MORE ON THE KINGS:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.