James Neal

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Same old questions remain for Oilers

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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.

PHT Power Rankings: Bounce-back candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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After looking at the top breakout and regression candidates in our previous offseason PHT Power Rankings, we shift our focus this week to more established players that should be better (and maybe significantly better) than they were a year ago.

Who are among our top-10 bounce-back candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season?

To the rankings!

1. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. For the majority of NHL players scoring 30 goals in a season would be a huge accomplishment. For Patrik Laine in 2018-19 it was probably a hugee disappointment. He was supposed to challenge Alex Ovechkin for the goal-scoring crown but never really came close to doing so. His season was made by one 12-game hot streak in November where he scored 18 goals, then managed just 12 goals in the other 70 games thanks mostly to an uncharacteristically low 6 percent shooting percentage in those games. That is a fluke and will not last. He is too good, too talented, and has too good of shot for it continue.

2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. He missed the first quarter of the season due to an extended contract negotiation and never really had a chance to get rolling once he returned. Despite the poor production, there were a lot of positive signs that indicate he can (and will) bounce back. HIs possession numbers were outstanding and he still generated a fair number of shots, he was just crushed by a 5.6 shooting percentage. A fresh start and a full season will do him well.

3. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings. There is really no way to sugarcoat Doughty’s 2018-19 season — it was bad. Maybe it was the result of playing on a terrible Kings team that had nothing going for it. Maybe it was the fact he is inching closer to his 30th birthday and reaching a point where he will inevitably start to slow down. Maybe it was just a down year. It was probably a combination of all three. Whatever the case, he had a miserable year as the Kings were absolutely steamrolled when he was on the ice. He is too good and has too much of a track record for that to happen two years in a row.

4. James Neal, Edmonton Oilers. His days as a 35-or 40-goal scorer are probably done but did his career really fall of a cliff that quickly? Scoring 20-25 goals shouldn’t be an unrealistic expectation, and if he manages to do that it will be a nice bounce back season and really help a painfully thin Oilers roster.

[Related: Can James Neal bounce-back after tough year in Calgary?]

5. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins. The raw numbers point to a strong season offensively, but there weree a lot of flaws to his game in a lot of areas (5-on-5 and defensively, to be specific). He wasn’t *bad* but he can definitely be a lot better and will no doubt be motivated to show he is still one of the elite players in the league. It is a big year for him in Pittsburgh.

6. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings. Quick has always been a polarizing player because he’s never been as good as his loudest supporters think he is or as bad as his loudest critics think he is. He’s a perfectly fine starting goalie that’s had two amazing playoff runs. That’s it. He’s not an all-time great and he’s not bad. He’s just … good. For some reason that is difficult for people to accept. No matter what side of the Quick argument you fall on you should probably be willing to acknowledge he is not going to repeat the .888 save percentage he finished last season with. He is WAY better than that.

7. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders. There were a lot of shocking things about the Islanders’ turnaround a year ago. One of the more overlooked storylines is that they were able to make the playoffs despite their best and most important returning player — Barzal — regressing almost entirely across the board. After one of the finest rookie seasons we have seen in years, expectations were through the roof for Barzal in year two. He was good, but probably fell short of what was expected of him.

8. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars. Benn’s slower than expected start drew the ire of team CEO Jim Lites even though he was still one of the four or five players on the team that actually produced. Still, it wasn’t the typical Jamie Benn season in Dallas. His 0.68 point per game average was the second lowest of his career (only his rookie season was worse) and a sharp decline from what we are used to seeing from him. The fact that is considered a “down” year is a testament to how good he has been. He is not finished as an elite scorer just yet.

9. Rickard Rakell, Anaheim Ducks. During the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons Rakell was one of the best and most overlooked goal-scorers in the league, scoring at a 37-goal pace per 82 games. He was one of the go-to players for the Ducks offensively and looked to be ready for another huge year this past season. But his down year was one of the many things to go wrong in Anaheim as his offensive production plummeted. A lot of the decline was shooting percentage driven and he should be able to recover from that this season.

10. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. Like Barzal in New York, Keller went through a bit of a sophomore slump for the Coyotes. The good news is he didn’t regress all that much, is still only 21 years old, and has already demonstrated an ability to be a top-line player in the league. If he gets back to the level he was at during his rookie season (or even takes a step forward) it will go a long way toward ending the Coyotes’ playoff drought.

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

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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.

It’s Edmonton Oilers Day at PHT

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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.

2018-19
35-38-9, 79 points (7th in Pacific Division, 14th in Western Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Mike Smith
Markus Granlund
Tomas Jurco
Josh Archbald
James Neal

OUT:
Andrej Sekera
Ty Rattie
Milan Lucic
Tobias Rieder
Anthony Stolarz
Al Montoya

RE-SIGNED:
Alex Chiasson
Jujhar Khaira

2018-19 Season Summary

The Edmonton Oilers have the best player in the game in Connor McDavid, but that hasn’t guaranteed them any kind of success. Over the last four years, the Oilers have made the postseason just once and that was in 2016-17.

The Oilers opened last season with a loss to the New Jersey Devils in Gothenburg, Sweden. Edmonton got off to a solid start, as they went 8-3-1 in the first 12 games of the season. Unfortunately for them, things fell apart in November. They dropped six of seven games between Nov. 5-18 and they had just three victories over the last 12 games of the month. That string off poor performances led to head coach Todd McLellan being fired on Nov. 20. He was replaced by veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

December got off to a much better start. They had a 6-1-1 record in the first eight games of the month. The excitement in Edmonton didn’t last very long, as they ended up dropping the last six games before the start of the new year.

As you’d expect, the high-end players on the roster were pulling their weight, but the supporting cast ended up getting called out by Hitchcock.

“I thought those guys that we go to every game played their hearts out,” Hitchcock said after a 4-3 loss to the Jets, per NHL.com. “McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins played their hearts out, and we need more support for those players. The cavalry isn’t coming for those players. We need the bottom end of our team to start playing better if we expect to get to the next level. We’re covering our own weight at the top, but we need better play from the bottom end of our group.”

The struggles carried into the new year and the Oilers ended up letting go of general manager Peter Chiarelli. In the end, the Oilers finished second from the bottom in the conference. Only the Los Angeles Kings finished below them in the standings.

Changes were made in the offseason. Ken Holland left Detroit to take the GM opening and he hired Dave Tippett as his first head coach. Both men have a ton of experience but rebuilding the Oilers into a championship contender won’t be easy.

“The goal is to build the Edmonton Oilers into a playoff team and a legitimate Cup contender,” said Holland via NHL.com. “Certainly there are pieces there, but you have to be deeper. Those teams that go on those long playoff runs, they’re deep and you have to have depth in your organization and on your farm team. You can’t just be relying on five or six guys over 82 games; as great as they are, they’re just not going to make it.”

Some changes were made during the summer. They signed Mike Smith, traded for James Neal and added some depth pieces up front. There’s still plenty of work for Holland to do to get the Oilers to where they want to be. It may take some time for them to get there, but new management and a new head coach gives the fan base a new sense of hope.

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.

Goaltending, Lucic’s role among biggest questions facing Flames

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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 Calgary Flames.

Let’s take a look at three big questions for the Calgary Flames for the 2019-20 season.

1. Who is going to stop the puck?

There is probably no question that will impact the Flames more than this one.

Goaltending has been a constant struggle for nearly a decade now as the team has not finished higher than 15th in save percentage since the 2011-12 season, and hasn’t finished higher than 20th since the 2013-14 season. That is simply not championship caliber goaltending, and it was probably the single biggest weakness the team had this past season.

David Rittich was a nice surprise, but he struggled down the stretch and is still a bit of an unknown entering this season. Challenging him for playing time will be Cam Talbot who was brought in on a one-year deal to replace Mike Smith.

The Flames have elite, high-end forwards and a strong defense that is carried by Norris Trophy winning blue-liner Mark Giordano.

That core at forward and defense is good enough to compete for a championship right now and maybe even win one if everything goes right. Goaltending, however, is going to be the biggest “make-or-break” aspect of this team and if things do not dramatically improve in net it is going to be an impossible obstacle to overcome.

[MORE: 2018-19 in review | Under Pressure: Treliving | Talbot the X-Factor]

2. What can they get out of Milan Lucic?

James Neal‘s brief tenure with the Flames did not go as anyone could have planned it, so it is not really a surprise they were willing to part ways with a 32-year-old winger coming off of a down year.

What is a surprise is that they traded him for Milan Lucic, a player that is regarded to have one of the worst contracts in hockey.

How badly has Lucic’s career deteriorated in recent years? He scored just 16 goals over the past two years and has looked like a player that is simply not built for the modern day, faster paced NHL.

If the Flames think they can rejuvenate his career or that his size and physical presence is going to dramatically alter the success they are likely setting themselves up for disappointment. They didn’t get upset in the first round by the Colorado Avalanche because they weren’t big enough or physical enough — they lost because they were outplayed by a faster team that is quickly emerging as a powerhouse in the Western Conference. Giving Lucic a significant role and assigning him to be the muscle to “protect” their stars as a deterrent is only going to hold them back.

If they play him in the bottom-six role he should be in they are committing $6 million in salary cap space to a player that isn’t going to give them that sort of a return on their investment.

Maybe they had to trade Neal, but trading him for a worse player with a worse (and buyout proof!) contract doesn’t seem to move the needle much in the right direction.

3. Will Johnny Gaudreau‘s playoff luck finally change?

Gaudreau has blossomed into a superstar for the Flames and is one of the league’s most dynamic offensive game-changers. He is the definition of an impact player and one that can take over a game on any given night, and he has consistently done that for the better part of the past three seasons.

The problem: It has not yet happened for him in the playoffs.

In his past two playoff appearances Gaudreau has scored zero goals in nine games while managing just three assists. Not great for a player that has been one of the best point producers in the league.

It’s easy (and lazy) to write that off as him “not being a playoff player” or being “too small.”  It is most likely a lot of bad luck. It is not as if Gaudreau has lacked chances in those playoff games. He still generated shots and he still created chances — he just hasn’t had the puck go in the net. That is not an uncommon development for any player. Pick out any superstar in the league and look at their postseason careers and you will find extended stretches over multiple postseasons where they did not consistently score goals.  Gaudreau is too good, too talented, and too productive to be shut down in the playoffs.

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.