Looking at Oilers’ future after firing Chiarelli

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A “be careful what you wish for” scenario emerged late on Tuesday night, as the Edmonton Oilers finally fired Peter Chiarelli as GM.

The following morning, Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson addressed the future, mixing the reassuring (not wanting to blow everything up) with uncomfortable feelings of “same old, same old.” For many who’ve seen this movie before, there’s legitimate concern about sad history repeating itself.

So, what should the Oilers do? Let’s consider the good, the bad, and the Puljujarvi.

First, a quick summary of their cap situation

Thanks to the always-handy Cap Friendly, we know that: the Oilers are basically right up against the ceiling in 2018-19, and are slated to devote about $73M to 15 skaters next season. Yeah, that’s not great.

The most prominent pending free agent is goalie Cam Talbot, who’s almost certain to be gone after the Oilers signed Mikko Koskinen to that baffling extension.

Fresh voices

Keith Gretzky is serving as interim GM, while Ken Hitchcock’s been given very little indication that he’ll be coach beyond next season.

Maybe that’s a good thing. This team needs fresh voices, not situations like the front office being littered with relics from the failed past, like Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish.

Nicholson said that the Oilers will take their time when it comes to such future moves, so here’s hoping they get with the program. After years of attempting “heavy” hockey and getting humiliated in trades, how about being forward-thinking, whether that means playing to Connor McDavid‘s speedy strengths, or finding a savvy GM who will sell-high, buy-low, and actually be ahead of the curve for once? Just a thought.

Assessing the good

As The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis aptly mentions, the Oilers do have a lot going for them. Willis mentions:

So, that list includes two stud centers, one nice forward in RNH, and Klefbom, a 25-year-old defenseman who’s been very effective when healthy.

Let’s consider a few other intriguing players who could provide the Oilers with cheap, useful production in the not-too-distant future. If you’re noticing an omission, that’s because a certain Finn is getting his own little section in this piece.

  • Kailer Yamamoto, the 22nd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. A promising, smaller forward, even if he’s struggled at the top level this season.
  • Evan Bouchard, the 10th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, could be a building block defenseman for a team that needs help at that position.

Your mileage will vary on other players, but you could do worse than to start with that mix of proven talent and decent prospects.

Now to what they need to get right, starting with another young player whose future is pivotal for Edmonton, whether he sticks with the Oilers or not:

The Jesse Question

Considering the Oilers’ history of bold moves, it’s tempting to just rubber stamp the word “DON’T” on any talk about trading away Jesse Puljujarvi, the troubled fourth overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.

But, as Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe detailed in-depth recently for The Athletic (sub required), sometimes it actually is smart to move a Puljujarvi-type. The key can be filed under “easier said than done,” as it’s all about getting the right trade, if Edmonton chooses to do that.

And, as McIndoe notes, there is some risk in waiting too long.

If your trade bait doesn’t happen to have met expectations, timing is key. Move a guy too soon, and you risk seeing him turn into an Andrew Ladd or Rick Vaive, and you could be left with regrets. But wait too long and he’ll be Andrei Zyuzin or Stanislav Chistov, and you won’t get much of anything in return.

The Oilers have their own painful history when it comes to arguably waiting too long to move on from Nail Yakupov. Could they have gotten more than the weak deal from the St. Louis Blues if they punted sooner?

Look, there are times when I’d trot out advice that should seem obvious, but isn’t. The Oilers have been burned badly not just in trading away skill, but selling low on ice-cold players who were likely to rebound.

Puljujarvi is a little different because it’s difficult to separate his struggles from the Oilers’ own miscues, and to gauge what his ceiling might be. Few can credibly say they know for sure what kind of player he’ll become, but it’s crucial for the Oilers to get this situation right.

Net questions haven’t stopped

It would be irritating but acceptable if the Oilers merely overpaid a bit for Mikko Koskinen, if he was more of a sure thing.

Handing a three-year extension at $4.5M per year gets more reckless when you consider Koskinen’s unsightly combination of unprovenness (just 32 NHL games) and age (he’ll be 31 when the extension kicks in). His .910 save percentage this season doesn’t exactly kick down doors, either, even if Koskinen’s been respectable enough.

That previous paragraph is a procession of bummers, but the Oilers can at least do their best to put themselves in a position to succeed. It’s perfectly plausible that Koskinen could end up a great bet – he’s had his moments, and also goalies are extremely unpredictable – yet Edmonton would be wise to arm themselves with Plans B and on.

Keep an eye on prospects, in the draft and otherwise. Try to identify a free agent bargain, even if you’re unlikely to hit a grand slam like the Islanders managed with Robin Lehner.

Messing up with goalies can sometimes be luck of the draw, but Edmonton should look at, say, the Blues with Jake Allen and realize that contingency plans are crucial.

Shedding dead weight

Let’s be honest: barring a trip to the LTIR, it’s unlikely that the Oilers will get relief from Milan Lucic‘s $6M cap hit anytime soon. (Question: does Lucic have any rashes?)

Keith Gretzky or the Oilers’ next GM should do everything in their power to find creative ways to get rid of any bad contracts other teams might take off their hand, even if it means giving up a little bit of a bribe in return.

Would someone take Kris Russell (31, $4M through 2020-21) or Andrej Sekera (badly injured, $5.5M through 2021-22) off their hands? Maybe a rebuilding team would throw away Brandon Manning‘s $2.25M next season to try to reach the floor?

Sometimes an incumbent GM won’t admit past mistakes, which means bad contracts rot on their rosters for too long. With Chiarelli gone, the Oilers could at least make greater efforts to shake that Etch-a-Sketch. We’ve seen a ton of examples of seemingly untradeable contracts being moved, so it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Bargain hunting

If there’s an area where Chiarelli was passable, it was occasionally targeting some quality, cheap scorers.

To varying degrees, players like Alex Chiasson, Tobias Rieder, and Ty Rattie have served their purpose, at least for stretches. Even if the Oilers alleviate some cap concerns, chances are, they’ll need to be wizards of the bargain bin. On the bright side, McDavid is the sort of guy who should fatten the bank accounts of the Chiassons of the world, so that’s a workable aspect of this team.

One of those “fresh voices” might be especially adept at gauging who might be a diamond in the rough.

Pulling a reverse-Chiarelli

That brings up another point: maybe the Oilers can do to other teams what savvier GMs constantly did to Chia?

By that I mean: a) trading for players who are slumping, but are almost certain to get it together and/or b) determining supposed “lack of character” guys who can help them win.

It’s not just the Oilers who’ve done this with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. The Hurricanes traded Jeff Skinner after a cold shooting season. Dougie Hamilton may once again be an underappreciated asset.

Buying low on a talented player won’t necessarily be easy for the Oilers, considering their cap predicament, so this advice may be more pertinent if they can shed some of the Russells and Mannings. But if the opportunity arises, the Oilers could really start to turn things around.

***

Again, this isn’t the easiest situation. Chiarelli (and others?) really made a mess of this situation after getting the Lottery Ticket on Skates that Connor McDavid is.

Yet, even considering the cavalcade of mistakes this franchise has made, they’re not that far from being a more balanced and competent team.

It might be awkward to ask powerful front office executives to change the way they do business, but winning is worth more than a few ruffled feathers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Eichel explodes for Sabres; More history for Caps’ Carlson

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres

The Sharks ended the first period up 2-0 against the Sabres, so it took quite the surge from Eichel & Co. to win that one 4-3 in OT.

Eichel was involved in all four of Buffalo’s goals, scoring two goals and two assists. That included the game-winner in overtime for the Sabres. The American-born forward ended the night with six shots on goal, a +2 rating, and went 12-10 on faceoffs.

The 22-year-old went two games without a point, but he’s still off to a hot start in 2018-19, as Tuesday pushed Eichel’s totals to 14 points in 10 games.

2. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Minnesota’s showing some signs of life with a two-game winning streak, but some of the joy was muted thanks to Devan Dubnyk leaving the game with an injury after a bad collision.

As ominous as that seems, it has to be a relief for the Wild to see Eric Staal finally have a breakthrough night on Tuesday. Staal scored two goals (including the 1-0 tally, thus the game-winner) and an assist, with those two goals being Staal’s first of the season. The 34-year-old’s been a revelation in Minnesota (peaking with 42 goals and 76 points in 2017-18), and he seemed to give the Wild a pretty sweet deal with his latest contract. Well, it’s a sweet deal if Staal’s game doesn’t sink too much; otherwise, you wonder if they’d be better off moving on and getting younger.

Anyway, this was a nice overall effort from Staal, who also had a +2 rating, five SOG, and went 8-7 on draws.

3. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Like the Sabres, the Canucks fell behind early on Tuesday. The Red Wings opened up a 2-0 lead against Vancouver, only for the Canucks to explode with five unanswered goals in the third period.

Horvat contributed three of those goals. While Staal gets the higher star because all of his points came against a goalie (Horvat’s third tally was an empty-netter), it was still a strong night from Horvat.

Similarly to Staal, Horvat came into Tuesday on a quiet start, as Horvat only had two goals and one assists for three points through eight contests. He managed his first career NHL hat trick on Tuesday, pushing him to six points in nine games.

Highlight of the Night

It was already covered here (alongside a fun blooper), but it has to be David Pastrnak‘s between-the-legs goal, right?

Factoids

  • John Carlson cemented his spot alone atop the NHL’s scoring leaders list by generating two goals, pushing him to 20 points on the season as Washington beat Calgary. NHL PR points out some impressive history for Carlson, including that he joined Bobby Orr (twice) and wonderfully old-timey-named Baldy Northcott (in 1932-33) as the only defensemen to lead the league outright in scoring through 20 days. Carlson reached 20 points in 11 games, tying Orr (in 1974-75) as the second-fastest surge to 20 points for a defenseman. Only Paul Coffey hit 20 faster, doing it in 10 games in 1988-89. Sportsnet notes that Carlson’s already off to one of the best Octobers for a defenseman, and the Capitals have three more games left in the month.
  • Marc-Andre Fleury earned his 446th NHL win, breaking a tie with Terry Sawchuk for seventh all-time. Henrik Lundqvist is at sixth with 450, while Curtis Joseph ranks at fifth with 454. It should be interesting to see if MAF ends up higher than Lundqvist when they’re both done — which hopefully isn’t anytime soon.
  • Sabres wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin has 10 points through his first 10 games, landing on a short list of defensemen who managed such a short at 20 years old or younger. Another Sabres stat: Eichel scored his sixth overtime goal, already tying the franchise record at 22.

Scores

BOS 4 – TOR 2
BUF 4 – SJS 3 (OT)
FLA 4 – PIT 2
ARI 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
VAN 5 – DET 2
NSH 6 – ANA 1
MIN 3 – EDM 0
LAK 3 – WPG 2
VGK 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
WSH 5 – CGY 3

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Two goals, two extremes: Pastrnak beauty and Murray blunder

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You don’t often hear the phrase “keep your eyes on the puck.” Greg Wyshynski basically wrote a hockey book about watching how things develop away from the puck, for instance.

Tuesday presented one great highlight reel moment, and one for the bloopers, and you may note that the key figures involved either kept their eye(s) on the puck or couldn’t quite manage it.

To start, you have Boston Bruins star David Pastrnak in the moment that will probably linger in the memories of more hockey fans beyond Tuesday. After being robbed of an impressive goal thanks to an offside review early against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pastrnak made a tremendous between-the-legs move to score for Boston, and add to his gaudy goal-scoring start.

Also notice that Pastrnak was able to keep his eye on the puck as it went into the net, as he gestured as such while others seemed bewildered — maybe by him being audacious enough to make that move.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. He allowed a goal he’ll undoubtedly want back against Noel Acciari of the Florida Panthers, and it’s about as close to hockey’s version of “losing a baseball in the lights” as I think you’ll see:

It’s hard not to feel for Murray there, and one cannot help but feel pity for any goalie facing Pastrnak lately.

Pastrnak’s Bruins ended up beating the Maple Leafs 4-2, while Murray’s Penguins fell 4-2 to the Panthers.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL over/under: How many goals will Pastrnak, Neal finish with?

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Entering play on Tuesday night David Pastrnak (Boston) and James Neal (Edmonton) sit on top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaderboard with nine goals each. They have been two of the hottest players in the league to start the season and are in action on Tuesday looking to increase their lead.

Pastrnak’s climb to the top isn’t all that surprising given how good he has been the past few years. He is coming off of his third consecutive 30-goal season and is part of one the league’s top lines alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. He scored 38 goals in just 66 games last season, a pace that would have had him pushing the 50-goal mark had he stayed healthy. Including his start this season, he has scored 52 goals in his last 82 regular season games played dating back to the end of the 2017-18 season.

He is simply one of the best finishers in the league and is just now entering what should be his peak years for offense.

Neal’s early success is a little more surprising.

He has always been a good goal scorer, but was coming off by far his worst season in the league in Calgary, scoring just seven goals in 63 games. He has already blown past that number this season.

With both players pacing the rest of the league so far, let’s try to project what they might be capable of for the entire season.

Let’s start with Pastrnak — As already mentioned, he has a recent track record of being a lethal goal scorer and is surrounded by two elite players in Boston. Their line is driving all of the offense in Boston right now and Pastrnak is at the center of it. He entered the season looking like a lock for at least 35 goals as long as he was able to stay healthy. Nothing he has done so far has shaken that belief. As is the case with most players on a nearly goal-per-game hot streak, he is carrying a shooting percentage well north of 30 percent, a number that is no doubt going to drop as the year goes on. Even the best players don’t shoot above 20 percent (and even that is an outrageously high number for a full year) for a full season, while Pastrnak himself has consistently settled around the 14 percent mark.

So let’s use some simple math here: If Pastrnak maintains his current 3.38 shots per game average (he easily could) and shoots at his normal 14 percent on those shots, that would be an additional 35 goals on top of what he already has this season. That would give him 44 goals, just shy of the pace he was on last year without the injury and that seems like a pretty fair projection.

Can he hit that? Or exceed it? And can he continue to make a run at knocking Alex Ovechkin from his goal scoring throne?

What about Neal? — Everything disappeared for Neal in Calgary last season. His shot volume plummeted, his shooting percentage cratered, he seemed like a player that was just totally out of it and had seen his career wash out. But given his track record there was always a chance he could rebound, and the Oilers are the team that is benefitting from it.

He is back to averaging close to three-and-a-half shots per game (up a full shot from Calgary) and so far is riding the same shooting percentage wave that Pastrnak is in Boston. He also has the added bonus of getting to play on Edmonton’s power play (an area he has always excelled) alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That is going to help a lot, but not so much that he keeps scoring on 30 percent of his shots.

The Oilers have 72 games remaining on their schedule. With his same shot rate and career average shooting percentage that would put Neal on a 35-goal track for this season, a number that the Oilers would have almost certainly signed up for in the preseason when they made the trade.

Can he get there? Or will he exceed it?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Flyers remain one of NHL’s biggest mysteries

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General manager Chuck Fletcher spent his entire offseason overhauling the Philadelphia Flyers organization.

New coaching staff, new players, big trades, a big free agent signing, and everything else the team’s ownership was looking for when it wanted a “bias for action” in its new GM. Even with all of the changes the Flyers remained a gigantic mystery because it wasn’t entirely clear if they were actually any better than before all of the movement started. If anything, it seemed like a perfect representation of everything the Flyers have come to represent over the past decade where they have enough high-end players on the roster to make you want to buy into them, but just enough questions to give you pause in doing so because there were so many “ifs” attached to their success.

If Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere can rebound and take big steps forward as top-pairing defenders.

If Carter Hart can be a star in goal.

If Kevin Hayes is actually worth $7 million per year.

If Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun still have something left in the tank.

Usually the more “ifs” you throw at a team the worse it tends to turn out for them because pro sports is rarely kind enough for every “if” to work out in a team’s favor. Through the first seven games of the season there still isn’t much clarity on what the Flyers are. On Monday night they snapped a four-game losing streak with what was perhaps their best all-around performance of the season, completely demolishing one of the league’s best teams — the Vegas Golden Knights — in a 5-2 win to bring their record to 3-3-1, the type of record you might expect from the type of mediocre team you expect the Flyers to be. Still, there are some early signs that maybe this team has played better than its early record might indicate and that there could be some hope here.

The process has been good — And by “process” I mean there are strong signs that they are controlling games even if they are not yet turning into wins. They are third in NHL in shots on goal per game, they are allowing the fewest shots on goal, they are the NHL’s best team in both shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential at 5-on-5 (via Natural Stat Trick), and they dictating the pace of almost every game they have played. This is, at the very least, a positive sign because the most important part of scoring goals is generating shots, and the most important of preventing goals is preventing shots. It’s common sense, and if you can keep doing that over a full season the odds are going to be in your favor. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they might be a little unlucky at this point. And not to make too big of an excuse here, but their early schedule was about as brutal as it could have possibly been playing three games, in three different countries, in three different time zones (going from Switzerland, to Philadelphia, to Vancouver for a three-game Western Canadian road trip) across the stretch of one week.

Hart hasn’t been all that good (yet) — This was always the big wild card for this Flyers team. He is supposed to be the savior of the position and the one to finally stabilize the position long-term. His rookie season was extremely promising and expectations were high entering the season. Through his first five starts, he hasn’t yet found his game yet with an .890 save percentage. The fact the Flyers are still 2-2-1 in those games is kind of accomplishment. He can be better, he needs to better, and there is every reason to believe that he will be better. Once that happens, and if the Flyers are still able to play in front of him the way they have, this could be an interesting team.

Some of their top forwards have been unlucky. There are three forwards in the NHL this season that have recorded at least 24 shots on goal and failed to score — two of them (Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk) play for the Flyers. Add Jakob Voracek (two goals on 17 shots) and three of the team’s top offensive players have scored on two of their first 76 shots on goal this season. That is a shooting percentage of just 2.6 percent. All three may be on the wrong side of 30, but none of them have completely fallen off a cliff yet as players and are still capable of producing like first-liners (as they did as recently as a year ago).

Basically, everything that could have gone for the Flyers right now has gone wrong. Their travel schedule has brutal, their starting goalie and arguably their most important player has struggled, and their best forwards have been unable to find the back of the net. Through all of that they have still managed to collect points in four of their first seven games and continue to tread water.

In the end, it still leaves the Flyers right where they were when the season started — a team that has given us plenty of reason to buy into them, yet one that we still don’t fully know anything about with a lot of “ifs” following them around.

Such is life with the Flyers.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.