Edmonton Oilers: 2021-22 NHL season preview

Edmonton Oilers: 2021-22 NHL season preview
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The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Edmonton Oilers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 35-19-2 (72 points); second place in North Division
• Postseason: Swept by Jets in First Round
• Offensive leader: Connor McDavid (56 games, 33 goals, 72 assists, Art Ross Trophy winner).

• Free Agent Additions: Zach Hyman, Duncan Keith (trade from Blackhawks), Cody Ceci, Warren Foegele (trade from Hurricanes), Slater Koekkoek, Brendan Perlini, Derek Ryan, Colton Sceviour (PTO).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Adam Larsson (Kraken expansion draft), Ethan Bear (trade to Hurricanes), Caleb Jones (trade to Blackhawks), James Neal (buyout, then Blues), Dmitry Kulikov (Wild), Jujhar Khaira (Blackhawks).

Edmonton’s biggest question

• Did they get McDavid and Draisaitl enough help?

At this point, anyone arguing against Connor McDavid being the best hockey player in the world is really straining the limits of logic. Last season, McDavid scored an absurd 105 points in 56 games, and even cleaned up a lot of the defensive lapses that raised some mild criticisms.

Between McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and a shockingly effective Mike Smith, the Oilers put together a reasonably promising 2020-21 season. And then they got swept by the generally mediocre Winnipeg Jets.

If you look at the additions and subtractions above, you’ll note that Ken Holland was busy this offseason. Even so, did he really change the big-picture view for the 2021-22 Oilers?

With all due respect to useful winger Zach Hyman, the larger answer looks like a firm “No.”

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Oilers’ defense looks different. They’re banking on the analytics being wrong about Keith’s decline, Barrie’s flaws, and Ceci’s … (motions at everything).

Losing Larsson, Bear, and Jones may only exasperate those worries. That’s especially true if concerns are true about Oscar Klefbom missing some, or all, of the Oilers’ 2021-22 season.

For all of the changes on the fringes, the biggest takeaway about the 2021-22 Oilers is how similar they look compared to recent versions.

It’s one thing for one of Nugent-Hopkins, Barrie, and Smith to return. It’s surprising that all three are back, though.

Overall, it sure feels like the 2021-22 Oilers are asking the usual: for McDavid and Draisaitl to paint over the many holes up and down this roster. That seems dicey. Yet … it’s also dangerous to tell McDavid he can’t do something. (Like, say, that he can’t score 100+ points in a 56-game season. You know, as a hypothetical.)

What’s the salary cap situation?

It would be convenient to blame the Oilers’ salary cap woes on the McDavid – Draisaitl combo. After all, they cost a combined $21M in cap space. That translates to slightly more than 25-percent of the $81.5M salary cap.

Instead of shackling Edmonton to mediocrity, McDavid – Draisaitl are more like hockey’s answer to a “get out of jail for free” card. Frankly, McDavid’s worth around $21M by himself.

Now, that $21M commitment does require a front office to be agile to make things work. Unfortunately, the Oilers have instead stumbled time and time again. This offseason only adds to the worries.

  • In the shaky trio of Keith, Ceci, and Barrie, the Oilers have $13.5M in cap commitments. The 2021-22 Oilers get Nurse for a reasonable $5.6M, but that explodes to $9.25M from 2022-23 through 2029-30.
  • Despite those additions, the Oilers defense might actually be worse in 2021-22. If it’s more or less the same as last season, that’s a big (and expensive) problem.
  • Long-term, the Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman contracts could become headaches. In 2021-22, they’re probably nice bargains for the Oilers. Hey, at least there’s that.
  • Mike Smith didn’t break the bank at $2.2M, but it’s still puzzling that the 39-year received a two-year deal. At least the 2021-22 season is the last one where the Oilers pay Mikko Koskinen that comical $4.5M.
  • Paying Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian about $6M combined isn’t ideal for a hopeful contender. The Oilers get to do that for three seasons.

No, the Oilers don’t have a mammoth, Sergei Bobrovsky-style albatross weighing them down. Instead, the Oilers keep stacking up medium-sized mistakes; they’ve rolled up a katamari of questionable contracts.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Even Oilers apologists probably aren’t overly thrilled that the 2021-22 team is essentially spending to the salary cap ceiling. The Oilers’ greatest pain might come after the 2021-22 season, though.

According to Cap Friendly, the Oilers only have about $7M in projected cap space for 2022-23, with a mere 16 roster spots covered. Yes, there’s wiggle room. For better or worse, Oscar Klefbom might be LTIR material. And the 2022-23 cap might bump up a bit.

In the grand scheme of things, however, it just doesn’t look good. At least McDavid and Draisaitl are still around.

Breakout Candidate

Evan Bouchard

The Oilers’ three first-round picks following Connor McDavid (first overall in 2015) all might be capable of bigger and better things in 2021-22.

Both Jesse Puljujarvi (fourth in 2016) and Kailer Yamamoto (22nd in 2017) have shown flashes of brilliance in the NHL. Each have also experienced ups and downs, which seems customary for young Oilers not named McDavid or Draisaitl.

Bouchard (10th in 2018) may be the most intriguing of the three.

He’s been knocking on the door for a while now, with the Oilers preferring a “slow-cook method” of development. Coach Dave Tippett’s been hesitant to unleash young players lately, and that’s where things get intriguing.

Chances are, Bouchard will begin the season as a third-pairing option as a right-handed defenseman. It’s not outlandish to picture Bouchard performing better than Barrie and Ceci, however. If Bouchard shows that potential, and the Oilers embrace that evolution, his breakthrough could end up absolutely crucial.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Oilers

McDavid remains an unrelenting scoring cyborg. Once again, he dominates alongside Draisaitl — and they do so by carrying their own lines. Instead of sputtering out, Mike Smith repeats his not-that-far-from-Vezina work from last season. Those changes on defense exceed expectations. It all comes together, and McDavid finally goes on a deep playoff run.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Oilers

McDavid fails to be superhuman, or worse, gets injured. Mike Smith slips in a big way, and Mikko Koskinen can’t make up the difference. An already shabby Oilers defense gets even worse, and they end up delusional about Keith. The Oilers miss the playoffs, even in the pathetic Pacific Division. Rumors start to swirl about McDavid wanting out.

PointsbetEdmonton Oilers Stanley Cup odds

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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.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.