Connor McDavid

Getty Images

Kings’ big money men are under pressure

Leave a comment

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Los Angeles Kings.

The 2019-20 season was already slated to shine a harsh spotlight on the most expensive Los Angeles Kings players, particularly if they fail to rebound from a brutal 2018-19.

Already-high cap hits don’t tell the story, as the actual salaries could make management queasy. Between Drew Doughty ($12M), Anze Kopitar ($11M), and Jonathan Quick ($7M), the Kings are spending $30M on three players who are coming off of seasons that were absolutely disastrous.

Take a look at the rest of the Kings’ roster, and you’ll realize that, if this team hopes to be competitive next season, they’re counting on those three – particularly Doughty and Kopitar – to return to elite status, or something close to that. The Kings wisely stayed on the sidelines instead of spending big in free agency, yet this means that the Kings are crossing their fingers on improvement from within.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Three Questions | Kings’ rebuild  | X-factor]

Now, the lack of free agent moves would make you believe that the Kings are acknowledging reality and settling for a wonky rebuild where they might not really be able to blow things up, but might at least be able to absorb some tough years to improve draft lottery odds.

Yet … the thing is, if you’re gearing up for a rebuild, are you really giving Todd McLellan this kind of money, or even hiring McLellan in the first place?

That hefty salary indicates that the Kings are banking on McLellan succeeding with Los Angeles in a way he rarely did with the Oilers: steering a flawed, top-heavy roster to contention. Considering the stuttered development of players like Jesse Puljujarvi, it’s tough to spin the McLellan hire as anything beyond a “win-now’ move.

With that in mind, the Kings still seem like they want to be competitive, and basically all of that rides on a $35M quartet of Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and head coach McLellan.

None of them have an easy job ahead.

As tough as 2018-19 was for Kopitar, it’s not an accident that Dustin Brown had a career renaissance while playing almost 1,000 even-strength minutes and less than 100 minutes without Kopitar last season. Chances are, Kopitar will be asked to lug one or even two questionable wingers with him, and it’s up to McLellan to determine what is the most optimal combination. Should Kopitar stick with Brown and Alex Iafallo as the team did last season, or might it be helpful to mix in a little more talent? Could Kopitar + Ilya Kovalchuk work out better with another try? Would Kopitar rejuvenate Jeff Carter? In virtually every scenario, Kopitar will be asked to carry others. Not the easiest assignment for a guy who’s turning 32 soon.

Doughty may be asked to boost defensemen in a similar way, and McLellan must weigh the temptation to play Doughty a ton as one of their only needle-movers (especially if they eventually trade Alec Martinez) versus trying to keep Doughty fresh to avoid injuries and poor play from overuse.

Jack Campbell and Calvin Petersen were sharp where Quick was dull in 2018-19, but a lot still seems to ride on a 33-year-old “athletic goalie,” especially if McLellan’s system can’t hide the Kings’ poor defensive personnel beyond Doughty.

It’s not just the big-money players who need a rebound after having terrible seasons, as McLellan carries the ignominious mark of being fired mid-season, and also being a coach who couldn’t make things work despite having Connor McDavid on his team. As much as the Oilers’ struggles came down to terrible asset management by former GM Peter Chiarelli, McLellan has a lot to prove in his third head coaching gig — and a big salary to justify.

The scary thing is that the Kings probably need these four to do more than merely rebound to a place of “respectability.” They probably need Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, and McLellan to be worth pretty close to this $35M-ish collective investment, and that means that they’re all going to be under a lot of pressure. Probably too much, to be honest.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Another 100-point season would put McDavid in exclusive club

Getty
2 Comments

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Four years into his NHL career and Connor McDavid has already matched (and probably even exceeded) the hype that surrounded his arrival in the league.

He is the best, most dynamic, and most dominant offensive player in the league, a two-time scoring champion, a league MVP, and has seen his point production increase every year going from 48 (in only 45 games), to 100, to 108, and then to 116 this past season.

[More: 2018-19 In review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Assuming he stays healthy there is no reason to think he will not be able to top the century mark this season. If he does that would be four 100-point seasons in a row, an accomplishment only a select few players in league history have ever reached.

It is also completely unheard of for this era.

In the history of the league only 13 players have ever hit 100 points in at least four consecutive seasons. Here is the list:

Two things stand out here.

For one, they are all Hall of Famers and among the greatest offensive players to ever play in the league.

Second, it has not happened since the early 1990s, with the bulk of the players on this list doing it between the 1980 and 1993 seasons when scoring in the league was at an all-time high. During those 13 years 100-point seasons were fairly common across the league, as it was a mark that was reached 158 times by 61 different players.

Just for comparisons sake, there have only been 30 100-point seasons by 18 different players over the past 13 seasons.

McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin are the only players to have at least three during that stretch.

Crosby (five 100-point seasons during between 2006 and 2019) is the only one with more than McDavid.

Keep in mind, McDavid has only played in four of those seasons. If he does it again this season he would be just the seventh player to ever have four 100-point seasons within their first five years in the league.

He is already as dominant as an individual player can be in the NHL, and that is what makes it even more disappointing and frustrating that the Oilers have not been able to build something meaningful around him, and do not really seem to be close to doing so, either.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Oilers need to keep McDavid-Draisaitl duo together

Getty
Leave a comment

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

One of the only bright spots for the 2018-19 Edmonton Oilers was the breakout performance of forward Leon Draisaitl.

After back-to-back 25-goal, 70-point seasons where he looked to be an outstanding young complementary player to Connor McDavid, Draisaitl’s production erupted to an MVP level with a 50-goal, 105-point season that saw him finish in the top-four in the NHL in goals and total points.

He helped form one of the NHL’s best offensive duos alongside McDavid and gave the Oilers a line that could match up against any other top line in the league.

The key for the Oilers in climbing out of their pit of irrelevance isn’t just going to be about finding a way to build around the McDavid and Draisaitl duo, but also finding a way to ensure that the latter is able to repeat (or at least come close to repeating) what he did this past season.

The best way to do that: Resist the temptation to give him his own line and keep him right where he is on McDavid’s wing.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The argument for moving Draisaitl to his own line has always been that it could extend the Oilers’ depth and give them a situation where at least one of McDavid, Draisaitl, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (by far their three best players) are almost always on the ice at any given time. It sounds like a solid plan in theory because of how good each of them are (a deeper team is a better team), especially since there is a mindset that due to Draisaitl’s salary he should be able to run his own line.

The problem is it that it simply doesn’t work, mainly because the Oilers don’t have enough pieces on the roster to complement McDavid and Draisaitl working separately. By splitting them up under the team’s current construction you are wasting what each one can do by putting them with — for lack of a better word — inferior players.

That means instead of boosting the team it usually just ends up holding back the two stars, and that only makes a bad team even worse.

The reality of the situation for the Oilers is this: Whether he plays with McDavid or not, Draisaitl is probably going to see some kind of a regression in his production this season because he is not going to score on 22 percent of his shots again. Also keep in mind that Draisaitl is one of just four players over the past 10 years (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Alex Ovechkin being the others, all doing it just once during that stretch) to top 50 goals and 100 points in the same season, so that alone makes it hard to believe he can duplicate those exact numbers.

But they can still maximize what they get out of him by putting him in a situation where he has a chance to produce the most. That situation always has been, still is, and will most likely continue to be next to McDavid.

The McDavid-Draisaitl duo is the one positive thing the Oilers have going for them, and even though loading up all of their eggs in one basket might make their lineup thinner from a depth perspective, it is still making the team better because of how dominant these two are alongside each other. There is enough objective evidence over the past three years to show that both players see their production spike when they are on a line together and drop when they are on their own (yes, even McDavid’s production drops when he is away from Draisaitl — mostly because of what the alternative is on his wing). This is when both players are at their best as it gives each of them an elite offensive player to play off of.

At least this way the Oilers know they have 15-20 minutes per night where they are going to out play their opponents. Whether or not they can get enough out of the rest of the roster to at least tread water for the other 40-45 minutes remains to be seen, but the McDavid-Draisaitl duo might be at least good enough to steal a few games the team might otherwise lose.

It is not perfect, but it is the best chance the Oilers have.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Same old questions remain for Oilers

Getty
2 Comments

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers.

1. Who will help Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?

Our Joey Alfieri already touched on this when he looked at the Oilers’ depth scorers being under pressure to produce more, but this really is the single biggest question facing the Oilers this season. Just as it was last year. And the year before. And the year before that.

Unless James Neal finds a time machine and goes back to his age 26 or 27 seasons, or the team figures out a way to salvage the development of Jesse Puljujarvi before it sends him away for some magic beans it’s hard to see where this improvement comes from.

How top-heavy has the Oilers’ lineup been over the past two years? Some numbers for you.

  • With McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Oilers have outscored teams by an 88-67 (plus-21) margin and controlled more than 52 percent of the shot attemepts.
  • With only ONE of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 136-115 (minus-21) and controlled only 49 percent of the shot attempts.
  • With NEITHER of them on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 151-106 (minus-45) and controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts.

When their top two players are not on the ice the Oilers are playing at the level of an early 1990s expansion team.

It is appalling to have what might be the best offensive duo in the league and still be so far away from the playoffs.

Does acquiring James Neal in a swap of bad salaries (in what should be an upgrade) and signing some cheap, reclamation project free agents do enough to help move the needle closer to the playoffs?

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. How will they stop teams?

Here is a set of numbers for you to ponder: 25, 25, 8, 28, 30, 30, 19, 23, 28, 30, 22, 26, 16

What are those numbers representing? They are where the Oilers have ranked in goals against (starting with this past season on the left and moving backwards) dating back to the start of the 2006-07 season. Average finish: 24th. The one outlier (the eighth place year) was when Cam Talbot pretty much stood on his head in net and was eventually run into the ground due to a ridiculous workload.

The Oilers are bringing back mostly the same cast of characters on defense that haven’t been good enough, and barring an unexpected miracle they don’t really have a goalie that should be a serious threat to steal games. Mikko Koskinen‘s contract looks to be a mess, while Mike Smith is coming off the worst season of his career and is entering his age 37 season.

This all seems like a tough recipe to make work.

Dave Tippett has a reputation for being a defensive coach (a reputation he doesn’t really seem to like) and is very respected around the league, but how much of an impact can a coach make with a thin defense and two massive question marks in goal? Even if McDavid and Draisaitl repeat their magic and they find some respectable second-line scoring can they actually stop enough teams for any of it to matter?

3. What changes will Ken Holland make?

Holland has two cornerstone players that are already among the best in the league and haven’t even hit their peak years in the NHL yet. It is a great starting point. That is the good news. The bad news is that even though he has McDavid and Draisaitl to start building around he still has what might be the most daunting rebuilding job of any general manager in the NHL. Not only because he has a ton of holes to plug, but because he has to deal with the pressure that is not wasting anymore of McDavid’s best years in the league.

In the past, the Oilers have tried to shake things up by dealing players that were once considered part of the core (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz). They not only failed to capitalize on those trades, but they have quickly run out of such players to deal.

Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins be next? Oscar Klefbom? It seems to only be a matter of time until Puljujarvi gets moved.

No matter who it is, he is going to have to make significant changes to get this team out of its current situation.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Oilers’ depth scorers under pressure to increase production

Getty
Leave a comment

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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers.

There’s no denying that the Edmonton Oilers have some high-end skilled players on their roster. Connor McDavid is arguably the best player in the NHL, Leon Draisaitl is one of the top sidekicks in the league and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is another quality option down the middle. Unfortunately for the Oilers, that’s where it ends.

Unlike a lot of the other bad teams in the NHL, a lack of star power isn’t their biggest problem. It’s the depth scoring that’s holding them back. McDavid scored 116 points in 78 games, Draisaitl had 105 points in 82 contests and Nugent-Hopkins had 69 points in 82 games. After those three, the next highest scoring forward on the team was Alex Chiasson, who had just 38 points on the season. Chiasson was the only other forward on the roster that surpassed the 30-point mark. Having four forwards at 38 points or more simply isn’t enough.

New general manager Ken Holland definitely has his work cut out for him. Sure, he’s experienced and has had a ton of success in the NHL, but there’s no fixing this organization quickly.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

“Certainly I understand the anxiety of the fans and I understand the pressures,” Holland said, per NHL.com. “I’m coming in here with eyes wide open. But I also know there are no quick fixes, there are no magic wands, and you have to build it and you have to have a plan.”

Holland acquired James Neal from Calgary for Milan Lucic. Neal underperformed in his first year with the Flames, as he scored just seven goals in 63 contests there, but playing him with a quality center could get his production back up to where it needs to be. They also added Josh Archibald, Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco and they also re-signed Chiasson.

Getting restricted free agent Jesse Puljujarvi signed to a new deal and convincing him to come back to Edmonton would be huge for an Oilers team that’s starving for talent. Puljujarvi and the organization aren’t on the same page right now. The 21-year-old hasn’t put up big numbers yet, but he has the potential to become a key contributor down the road. Getting the former fourth overall pick back in the organization would be key.

Is that enough quality depth to make the Oilers a playoff team? Probably not. It’s a start though.

The lack of scoring is just one of the many issues facing this team. They still have plenty of question marks on defence and they need to find a long-term solution between the pipes because Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen aren’t true number one goaltenders at this stage of their careers.

There’s still a lot of work for Holland and his staff to do to make this team a playoff team. A lot of the building blocks are in place. Now it’s just a matter of finding the right guys to surround the franchise players with.

How quickly can Holland get this turned around?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.