Ethan Bear

Long-term outlook for Edmonton Oilers: Free agents, prospects, and more

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 Edmonton Oilers.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Is there an NHL team that boasts a better duo than Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? What if you weigh the future, being that McDavid is 23 and Draisaitl is 24?

Of course, the Oilers pay for the luxury of a duo that carries them to competence.

Now, I’d argue that McDavid + Draisaitl is a combo worth $21M (honestly, McDavid’s probably worth nearly that much alone). Even so, the combo eats up about 25 percent of this season’s $81.5M cap ceiling. Thanks to the COVID-19 pause, it will be a chore to maintain that level, let alone bump it to $82M or higher.

When you begin paying your stars like actual stars, every mistake cuts that much deeper.

About $14.2M of the Oilers’ space will be eaten up by James Neal, retaining some of Milan Lucic‘s salary, Zack Kassian‘s extension, and the questionable Mikko Koskinen extension. Add in dead money like the Andrej Sekera buyout and the margin of error gets even smaller.

Could that force the Oilers to wave goodbye to, say, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after 2020-21? Rather than landing a big fish in free agency, will Edmonton be stuck searching the bargain bin year after year?

There’s at least an opening to put together a more efficient defense.

Oscar Klefbom‘s had some stumbles, but he’s worthwhile as either a key defenseman or a trade chip at a reasonable $4.167M through 2022-23. Darnell Nurse received a bridge contract to keep him in the fold. Caleb Jones, Evan Bouchard, and/or Philp Broberg could help out with cheap deals through at least 2021-22.

If the Oilers fail to trade them away before their contracts run out, the $8M+ of Kris Russell and Adam Larsson goes off the books after 2020-21.

So, as time goes on, the Oilers could have a decent mix of value and youthfulness on defense. Of course, that’s if Holland makes the right moves, rather than believing too much in the likes of Mike Green.

Holland must answer: who’s going to help McDavid and Draisaitl? Will Andreas Athanasiou be part of the core? Oh yeah, and what about Jesse Puljujarvi?

Long-term needs for Oilers

Even in the optimistic situation where Koskinen persists as a 1A/1B platoon option, the Oilers still need answers in net. Mike Smith hasn’t been effective, and the pending UFA is 38. Koskinen is no spring chicken at 31.

The Oilers could enjoy a less clunky defense in the near future, but if Broberg, Nurse, and Bouchard have limited ceilings, Edmonton would still need a blue-chipper. Maybe two.

And it’s abundantly clear that the Oilers struggle to find help beyond McDavid and Draisaitl.

If there’s any area where Ken Holland can help the organization learn from sins of the past, it’s draft and development. Can they find talent beyond those high first-rounders, as the Oilers so rarely did before? Can they avoid botching development for the closest answers to the next Puljujarvi or Nail Yakupov?

Long-term strengths for Oilers

Because, the thing is, Edmonton still lucked into many key building blocks for a championship foundation.

If everything else is equal, McDavid + Draisaitl are topping most (if not all) other duos. RNH, Kailer Yamamoto, and other younger forwards can help out, just generally not enough.

And, again, help might be on its way on defense.

Through all this turmoil, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman still ranked the Oilers’ under-23 core group as the top one in the NHL back in September (sub required).

Chiarelli and even Holland dug quite a few holes for Edmonton with poor asset management, in trades and otherwise. Yet there’s still a lot to work with, and Holland could very well build a contender if he hits the right buttons.

Really, that’s what’s been frustrating about the McDavid era: you almost need to be creative to find ways to make it all not work. It’s frustrating that Taylor Hall hasn’t been there as McDavid and Draisaitl grew, but that mistake is in the past.

The Oilers can take that next step. They simply made the journey bumpier thanks to taking many wrong turns.

MORE ON THE OILERS

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 NHL’s All-Underrated rookie team

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Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar and Vancouver Canucks defender Quinn Hughes have long been thought of as the only two legitimate Calder Trophy candidates. But is it really just a two-horse race? One of those two players will likely be named rookie of the year, there are other first-year players having impressive seasons in 2019-20.

So, we decided to build the all-underrated rookie team for the 2019-20 season. We’ll pick two wingers, a center, a pair of defensemen and a starting netminder. These first-year players have received their share of recognition, but none of them has gotten serious Calder consideration.

Here we go:

Dominik Kubalik – W – Chicago Blackhawks: The 24-year-old scored a hat trick in last night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s now up to 29 goals and 44 points in 62 games this season. That puts him on pace for 37 goals in 2019-20. That’s an impressive total for any player, let alone someone who is in their first season in North America.

Even his teammates are openly campaigning for him now:

Kubalik’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that 25 of his 29 goals and 35 of his 44 points have come at even strength. No other rookie has more than 12 even-strength goals in 2019-20. That’s how good the ‘Hawks freshman has been.

Nick Suzuki – C – Montreal Canadiens: Suzuki was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights along with Tomas Tatar and a second-round draft pick. The Habs had to give up captain Max Pacioretty to them that haul, but it’s a deal that’s worked out well for both sides.

Suzuki started the year playing wing on the fourth line and he’s since emerged as a valuable contributor down the middle. The 20-year-old is in the middle of a four-game pointless drought, but he’s managed to pick up 13 goals and 40 points in 66 games. His numbers are solid, but don’t jump off the page. That’s mainly because he didn’t start getting power play time until later on in the season.

He deserves to be mentioned among the group of under the radar rookies. He’s shown that his hockey IQ is up there for a player of his age and he has the offensive instincts to chip in offensively with regularity.

“He’s a smart player, he figures it out, but at the end of the day it’s having been through that grind before,” head coach Claude Julien said of the rookie’s heavy workload in junior hockey, per CBC. “Once the guys go through it once they’re a lot better the second time around. So to me, he had it before he got here and that’s why he’s doing well.”

Victor Olofsson – W – Buffalo Sabres: Olofsson is to power play goals what Kubalik is to even-strength production. The Sabres rookie has scored 19 goals this season and 11 of them have come on the man-advantage. Sure, you’d like to see him produce more at five-on-five, but when you can get this type of offense from a player drafted in seventh round, you shouldn’t complain.

No matter what you think of his even-strength production, you have to be encouraged by the fact that his first NHL campaign has gone this well. It’s definitely something he can build on going forward. And since when is being a lethal weapon on the power play such a bad thing anyway?

Adam Fox – D – New York Rangers: How is it possible to be underrated in New York? Well, Fox has found a way. The 22-year-old has an impressive seven goals and 34 points in 63 games this season. He’s also averaging 18:45 of ice time per game, but he’s played over 20 minutes in each of the last eight games.

It’s always good for a youngster to be mentioned in the same breath as a player like John Carlson. The numbers in the above tweet are really impressive.

Canadiens forward Max Domi banked a puck off Fox and into the Rangers net in the first period of last night’s game, but the rookie responded with a goal and an assist in his team’s comeback victory.

Ethan Bear – D – Edmonton Oilers: Penguins defenseman John Marino would’ve probably been in the spot had he been healthy, but he’s been sidelined for a while now. Bear is worthy of being here. The 22-year-old played 18 games in the NHL last year, but he still qualifies as a rookie in 2019-20.

He’s emerged as a key piece on a team that’s been lacking quality defenders for a while now. Bear has begun getting more power play time recently and he’s also averaging 21:42 of ice time, which is more than Makar (20:52) and slightly less than Hughes (21:44).

Bear has five goals and 20 points in 64 games this season. Those numbers should continue to climb now that he’s getting added time on special teams.

Elvis Merzlikins – G – Columbus Blue Jackets: How could it not be Elvis? Yes, Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov has also put together a strong rookie year, but no one expected the Blue Jackets to compete for a playoff spot this year.

Merzlikins suffered an injury on Tuesday night and Columbus needs him to get back as soon as possible. He’s posted a 12-9-8 record with a 2.39 goals-against-average and a .922 save percentage this season. And, oh by the way, he’s also tied for the league lead in shutouts, with five.

The 25-year-old’s first season in North America has gone as well as anybody could’ve expected. The Blue Jackets are 1-4-5 in their last 10 games, but they’re still clinging on to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They need Elvis to get back in the building (sorry) as soon as possible.

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.

Injuries keep adding up for Oilers as Klefbom goes on IR

It is another massive game for the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday night as they continue their push for the Pacific Division crown against the Boston Bruins. Facing a team like Boston is difficult no matter the circumstances, but it is going to be even tougher for the Oilers as an already battered team will be without another key player for an extended period of time.

The Oilers announced on Wednesday that top defenseman Oscar Klefbom has been placed on injured reserve.

Prospect Evan Bouchard has been recalled in his absence.

Injuries have been a problem for Klefbom the past two seasons, but he was finally healthy this season and had appeared in each of the Oilers’ first 59 games.

He played 30 minutes in the Oilers’ most recent game, a 4-3 overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday.

What makes the timing of this one so tough for the Oilers is that they are already playing without several key players including Connor McDavid, James Neal and Kris Russell. Combined with Klefbom, those five players account for more than $26 million in salary cap space and close to 30 percent of the team’s goals for the season. That is a lot to overcome when you are in a race for a playoff spot and a division title.

The Oilers, however, have managed to overcome the previous injuries thanks to the continued excellence of Leon Draisaitl, as well as the emergence of young players like Kailer Yamamoto and Ethan Bear. Entering play on Wednesday the Oilers are 11-4-2 since the start of the new calendar year and are tied for first place in the Pacific Division with the Vegas Golden Knights while still having two games in hand.

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’ McDavid, Draisaitl trying to join rare club

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After back-to-back disappointing seasons the Edmonton Oilers are finally in position for a return trip to the playoffs.

They enter Thursday’s game (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN) against the San Jose Sharks in second place in the Pacific Division and just three points out of first with a game in hand. They’re still probably not where they want to be, but the overall quality of their division has given them an opportunity to not only get in the playoffs, but potentially go on a deep run once they get there as nobody in the Pacific is clearly better than them.

At the center of the Oilers’ success is, of course, their two-headed monster of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

After both finished in the top-four in the scoring race a year ago, they have a chance to take their offensive dominance one step further and literally finish as the top-two scorers in the NHL this season.

That is where they enter play on Thursday, with Draisaitl pacing the league with 83 points in 53 games (127 point pace) and McDavid sitting just behind him with 79 (122-point pace).

The only other player in the NHL currently on pace for more than 115 points this season is Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon (117 point pace).

So they have a pretty sizable lead.

If they are able to hold that lead it would put them in some pretty exclusive company as teammates to finish first and second in the league in scoring.

Here are the only players to do it in the post-Original Six era.

  • 2012-13 (48-game season): Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay Lightning)
  • 1995-96: Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr (Pittsburgh Penguins)
  • 1991-92: Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens (Pittsburgh Penguins)
  • 1986-87: Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri (Edmonton Oilers)
  • 1984-85: Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri (Edmonton Oilers)
  • 1983-84: Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey (Edmonton Oilers)
  • 1974-75: Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins)
  • 1973-74: Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins)
  • 1971-72: Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins)
  • 1970-71: Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins)
  • 1969-70: Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito (Boston Bruins)

That would be a pretty impressive list to be a part of, especially since only three of those have happened since the start of the 1990 season (and only two of those duos were over an 82-game season).

As they have for the past four years, McDavid and Draisaitl still represent a significant portion of the Oilers’ offense. At least one of them has been on the ice for 124 of the Oilers’ 170 goals this season (73 percent), while both of them have been on the ice for 81 of those goals (48 percent of the goals). While they both have 79 points individually and are each on pace for more than 120 points, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the only other forward on the team that currently has more than 30 points and is on pace for more than 50 points.

So, yes, they still have some depth concerns that need to be addressed.

Even so there are still some positive developments around McDavid and Draisaitl that have made a difference this season.

James Neal has cooled off considerably from his great start in October, but still provides another goal-scoring presence on the power play when he is healthy.

After missing 15-plus games in each of the past two seasons, top defenseman Oscar Klefbom has been healthy this season, while rookie Ethan Bear has made a really nice impact on the blue line.

Mikko Koskinen has also bounced back and played well enough to help justify the bold contract extension he received from the team a year ago.

Randy Hahn and Jamie Baker will call the action from Rogers Place in Edmonton. Kathryn Tappen hosts studio coverage on Thursday with Anson Carter and Colby Armstrong.

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.

Goalie fight (Talbot vs. Smith), Tkachuk involved in Flames-Oilers brawl

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People predicting that there would be more carnage in the second of this week’s two installments of “The Battle of Alberta” were right. Really, it’s pretty tough to top a goalie fight.

That’s right, during Saturday’s Oilers – Flames game in Calgary, goalies dropped the masks/gloves/blockers/etc. for the first netminder skirmish since Ray Emery didn’t give Braden Holtby much of a choice in 2013.

In this case, Cam Talbot fought Mike Smith. It was part of a larger skirmish, as Talbot was getting into it with some Oilers, and then the two met later on down the line during the brawl. Personally, I thought “Hmm, not sure I’d want to fight Mike Smith.” Such a thought ended up being pretty justified.

Matthew Tkachuk also fought with Ethan Bear during that larger fracas. You can watch the carnage in the video above.

Now, don’t get me wrong. While Saturday takes the cake in my opinion, Wednesday’s shootout win for the Flames was still nasty and spirited. It also involved a brief fight between Tkachuk and Zack Kassian:

Still, it’s tough to top a goalie fight. Bonus points for Smith being with the Flames last year, and Talbot with the Oilers. It adds a level of goofy weirdness that we can all get behind.

The Oilers ended up blowing out the Flames 8-3 on Saturday. The Buzzer explores another big night for Leon Draisaitl, among other topics.

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.