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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