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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
Battles for the No. 1 goalie spot heading into any given season often isn’t where teams want to be.
The uncertainty for hockey’s most important position is unsettling and often means the team embroiled in a training camp battle for that club’s top job is far closer to the draft lottery than the Stanley Cup.
Today, we will focus on a few teams that don’t necessarily have that position locked up, and look into four battles that should play out once training camp gets underway in a couple month’s time.
1. Edmonton Oilers
Mikko Koskinen is Peter Chiarelli’s last defining moment in a terrible tenure with the Oilers. Chiarelli, apparently with the blessing of the team, gave .900-save-percentage man Koskinen a three-year, $13.5 million raise because of reasons that may never been fully certain.
The deal paved the way for a lot of scrutiny, the exit of Cam Talbot and the continuation of what was a compounding year of bad in Northern Alberta.
Now, the Oilers have Mike Smith in the mix, the goalie who started 40 games and posted an .898 save percentage for the Calgary Flames last season in a timeshare with David Rittitch. But Smith’s experience in the playoffs led head coach Bill Peters to give him the nod in goal.
And now Smith heads up the road to battle for a job in Edmonton. Sure, Koskinen has the contract, but there’s no question that Smith could outplay him in training camp and set up a big decision for newly-minted coach Dave Tippett. Tippett knows Smith well from his days as the bench boss in Arizona.
2. Arizona Coyotes
Speaking of the desert dogs, what’s the plan there?
They essentially have two starting-caliber netminders with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper. Raanta’s season was derailed thanks to injury. He made just 12 starts before Kuemper took over the starting role.
Raanta’s 2017-18 campaign was outstanding with a .930 save percentage across 47 starts. The Coyotes had found someone to replace Mike Smith as a solid No. 1.
When the lower-body injury ended Raanta’s season in Nov. 2018, it would have been easy to write off the Coyotes — something many did.
Kuemper would start 55 games, winning 27 of them and posting a .925 save percentage. His play gave the Coyotes a chance down the stretch, and while it ultimately ended with them not making the playoffs, it certainly showed that Arizona had two viable options between the pipes.
That’s what makes this situation interesting. A time-share might be ideal here. It’s something that’s worked for several teams, including the New York Islanders, and to a certain extent, the Boston Bruins — while not a true timeshare — were able to rest Tuukka Rask more with a quality backup, allowing them to reach Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
If general manager John Chayka wants, he also has quite the asset in either goalie on the trade market, too. Kuemper is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and will likely be looking for a raise.
For now, they have one of the better goaltending tandems in the league and some decisions to make because of it.
3. Ottawa Senators
Craig Anderson has one year left on a deal that will pay him $4.75 million this coming season.
Anders Nilsson is getting $2.6 million next season and impressed in 26 games played last season after getting shipped to Ottawa from Vancouver.
Mike Condon is set to make $2.4 million this season.
Nilsson seems the best bet to grab the starting role after the Sens gave him a two-year deal earlier this summer. Anderson’s season last year wasn’t great and Condon isn’t going to be the starter after playing two games last season.
Nilsson, on his sixth NHL team since being drafted in 2009 by the Islanders, finally found his stride in Ottawa, posting a .914 save percentage on a bad Senators team.
4. Los Angeles Kings
Yes, Jonathan Quick has four years left and yes, he’s getting paid $5.8 million.
He was also a complete disaster last season between the pipes. So were the Kings, for that matter. But who really stood out among the wreckage was backup Jack Campbell.
While Quick, 33, had a less than ideal .888 save percentage across 46 starts, Campbell, 27, and getting paid $5.125 million less than his teammate, put up a .928 on a very bad team. It’s impressive.
While the Kings haven’t done much to improve themselves this summer, giving Campbell a shot at the starting gig might light a spark elsewhere in their lineup. They did seem to play better in front of him, and he inspired confidence with his play.
Perhaps the time is now to give Campbell is chance and let Quick groom him (and potentially Cal Petersen) as the Kings begin to look to the future.
Cam Talbot says last year was an outlier in his career and that he’s looking forward to having a stout defense in front of him this season in Calgary.
All it took was a few-hour drive down the road (and a one-year contract worth $2.75 million), away from the Edmonton Oilers and a season where he only started 29 games (winning just 10 of them) and had a career-worst .893 save percentage. It’s a far cry from the 42 wins he put up in 73 starts two seasons prior. Then, the Oilers, as a whole, were a good team. This past season they were anything but.
Talbot lost his starting job to Mikko Koskinen and the Oilers gave the Finn a big money deal based on not a whole lot. As such, Talbot was traded at the deadline to the Philadelphia Flyers. Behind Carter Hart, Talbot barely played and was just as ineffective when he did.
“Last year was an outlier in my career,” Talbot said on Saturday after being introduced to the media. “Just take everything in stride. Any time you have a season like that, it puts things in perspective. Things aren’t always going to go your way. It’s how you can battle back and make yourself better in the long-run.”
Talbot said he has to come in refreshed and let last year slide.
“Have a short-term memory,” he said. “I think it’s easier said than done sometimes. I just want to come in here and prove that I still have a lot of hockey left in me.”
He’ll get to do so under Bill Peters, who coached Talbot at the World Hockey Championships. Talbot said he feels comfortable in the system, one that is defense-first and includes the reigning Norris winner in Mark Giordano.
“It’s exciting for myself,” Talbot said. “It’s a very deep team.”
David Rittich is the started in Calgary, but he split time with the outgoing Mike Smith (ironically, he’s gone to Edmonton) last season and Smith took the crease for the playoffs. Still, Talbot realizes he’s 1(b), if not the backup heading into next season.
“He’s a good, young goaltender… took his game to another level last year, had a heck of a season,” Talbot said. “I’m just coming in here trying to compete and pushing each other to be better.”
Flames general manager Brad Treliving said the expectations for Talbot are rather simple.
What under-the-radar UFA could make the most impact next season?
SEAN: Brett Connolly turned himself from a top-five draft bust into a very reliable bottom-six forward with the Washington Capitals. He was vital in their run to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup title and his numbers improved in each of his three years in D.C. all while getting modest ice time (10:41, 12:00, and 13:20, respectively). He topped out is his walk year this past season with 22 goals and 46 points. The 27-year-old earned himself a nice raise from $1.5M salary this past season, and given how desperate some teams are for depth scoring, he might land in the category of an overpay even if he can give you 30ish points playing in your bottom six.
JAMES: The Flames already reportedly having interest in Cam Talbot makes me worried that the second-biggest reason I’m eyeing him (possibly being cheap?) could fall through … but if it’s a one-year deal, he’s low-risk all the same.
Consider this: even after two rough seasons with the Oilers, Talbot’s career save percentage is still a solid .915. That’s not world-beating stuff, but I’d honestly feel better about Talbot – David Rittich than how they rolled the dice with Mike Smith last season. Besides, if it’s one year, so if things went off the rails, they could also pursue someone at the trade deadline. (As they, frankly, should have done re: Jimmy Howard in 2018-19, if you ask me … hey, Howard does only have a one-year contract in rebuilding Detroit. Hmmm …)
Otherwise, here’s my advice: sign players closer to training camp than July 1. If you need a slogan: “PTOs are the way to go.”
ADAM: Joonas Donskoi is the guy that I keep coming back to. I thought he got kind of a raw deal toward the end of this season in San Jose and could probably use a fresh start with a bigger opportunity. He’s always had some decent production, his underlying numbers are strong, and he’s still pretty young as far as unrestricted free agents go. He is still probably going to get a pretty nice deal for himself, but he is not the biggest name out there and I think I’d rather bet on him than a lot of the other names on the market.
JOEY: With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and a few other big names grabbing all the attention, it seems like Gustav Nyquist is flying under the radar. Sure, he struggled with the Sharks in the postseason, but he still managed to put up 22 goals and 60 points last season. He’s a top-six forward that would immediately improve any team he joins this summer. Nyquist has hit the 20-goal mark four times in his career.
SCOTT: I’m torn on this one. Is Semyon Varlamov an under-the-radar free agent? If so, I think he’d be a great add for several teams in need of a goalie, and a starter. Could he fit in Edmonton even after that insane Mikko Koskinen deal? Would Calgary welcome a No. 1 goalie with open arms? What about Ottawa or Buffalo. Varlamov didn’t have the world’s best season in Colorado but played a lot of games when the Avs were a poor team. He had a .920 the year before.
If Varlamov isn’t an under-the-radar choice, then Brett Connolly most certainly is. The former sixth-overall pick in 2010 had a great contract year with 22 goals and 46 points, both career highs. The risk here is that all the good production came in a contract year. But he’s a positive possession player in five of the past six seasons and is still quite young at 27. His cap hit last year was $1.5 million. That will go up, but if the Caps can’t find room in their cap, others will. Paging the Edmonton Oilers.
What team/GM needs to hit a homerun this summer?
SEAN: Dale Tallon has promised to be aggressive this off-season and many are expecting the Florida Panthers to land one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, if not both. The organization needs to strengthen big time to back up their talk, and if they underwhelm in free agency, how will that affect the fan base going forward and what will that mean for the temperature of Tallon’s seat?
Hiring Joel Quenneville was a boon. Now they need to add talent to the roster, starting with a replacement for Roberto Luongo in goal.
JAMES: I’d like to see the Dallas Stars pull the right moves, with the requirement being that, if they land big fish, they really need to play a more entertaining style. Even Ken Hitchcock would probably want them to pick up the pace a bit. Scratch that, Jacques Lemaire even would.
Jamie Benn looked dominant at times during the playoffs, and who knows how much more often that will happen with him being 29? Ben Bishop is 32; you can’t expect him to be the best combined regular season and playoff goalie year after year. And even consider the youngsters: you only get two more years of Miro Heiskanen on his rookie contract, while John Klingberg‘s obscene discount $4.25M will run out after 2021-22.
There’s a lane here, so the Stars should bowl over the finish line like Roope Hintz when he’s really on the loose.
ADAM: I think the obvious answer here is Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is going to lose his two franchise players, he is (probably) going to lose the two big trade deadline acquisitions he received, and is going to have to try and piece together a roster to fill out all of those spots. That will not be easy, especially as it relates to goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is not going to be easy to replace and they have nothing in house. Unless you get Robin Lehner the free agent market is pretty slim, too.
Dale Tallon in Florida is also probably under a lot of pressure. There has been so much anticipation around them heading into the summer and what they might be able to add. The core of that team is good enough to win … he just needs to make sure he puts something decent around them. Bobrovsky could be great in the short-term before he starts to decline in a couple of years, and Panarin would be a bonafide star going into that lineup.
JOEY: I think the pressure is on Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers to deliver on Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. This team missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and they need to make sure that they create a buzz in their market going forward (easier said than done). Everyone expects them to land prized free agents on July 1st, so failing to do so will be perceived as a wasted opportunity to improve their team. They have a good group of young players and it’s time they get them some help.
SCOTT: In my opinion, it’s without a doubt Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Here we have a general manager who chose to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL Trade Deadline instead of shipping both Russians off for returns. And he sold other pieces off to acquire the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for a playoff run that started out tremendously against the Tampa Bay Lighting only to fall flat on its face in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.
The Blue Jackets had two fourth rounders after doubling down on the 81st pick in the third round in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Their third and final pick in this year’s draft came in the seventh round. Not much restocking there. The Blue Jackets stand to lose their best forward and their best goalie this summer, along with Duchene and perhaps others. Kekalainen sold his soul to the devil and the deal burned to ashes. Now he has to rebuild from the rubble. Those fond memories of a two-round playoff run will provide little warmth when they’re dead last by Thanksgiving.
Finally, are we really going to finally see an offer sheet signed this summer? If so, who is the most likely candidate?
SEAN: I’ll believe it when we see it. This year might be the closest because of the high number of talented RFAs, but I think NHL GMs will remain conservative and not want to upset the apple cart. If we were to see a player actually sign one, how about Kevin Lebanc from the Sharks? He’s coming off a great year and ready to cash in.
The 23-year-old forward scored 17 goals and record 56 points in in 82 games this season and nine points in 20 playoff games. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Labanc could fetch an AAV of a little more than $3.5M a season — by Evolving Wild’s model — and, according to the NHL’s offer sheet compensation for 2019, it would cost only a second-round pick. If a team wanted to try and make the Sharks not match, the next tier of AAV between $4,227,438 – $6,341,152 would cost a first- and third-rounder.
Doug Wilson has a lot of decision to make while using his $14M of cap space, but it’d be tough to imagine him not bringing back Labanc, who shows plenty of promise.
JAMES: My vote is no, it won’t happen.
For all the courage that’s demanded of hockey players, hockey executives are often among the most conservative, risk-averse people out there. Combine that notion with the prohibitive costs of signing an expensive offer sheet, and you quickly realize why offer sheets are a fun idea that would won’t happen any time soon, like the abolition of offside calls.
At first, I though Sharks’ rising star Timo Meier, as he might be a less-obvious choice than, say, Mitch Marner.
But context makes me wonder about Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes may very well be a budget team even after that great run, and judging by how they’re seemingly trying to lowball Aho, I wonder if a team try their luck in seeing if Tom Dundon would divert some of those AAF bucks to Aho? (Uh oh.)
When in doubt, follow the money, or in this case: perhaps an urge not to spend it.
(I still wouldn’t expect too much drama, but would be DELIGHTED if I’m wrong. I might stock up on some extra popcorn, just in case.)
ADAM: We should, but we will not. Mitch Marner is the logical candidate due to Toronto’s salary cap situation, and maybe Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, but I just don’t see it happening. Every year we try to talk ourselves into this and every year it never happens. I will say this: if I am Joe Sakic in Colorado I am marching into my owner’s office and trying to get the okay to spend as close to the cap as possible, because that team is the perfect one to make an offer sheet on a player Marner or Point. They are already a potential Stanley Cup contender and a team quickly building something special, they have more salary cap space than anyone, they just had two of the top-16 picks in the 2019 draft and have a bounty of young players so giving up the draft pick assets in the future would not crush them, and they could probably sign Marner and re-sign Rantanen to massive contracts and STILL under the cap. If any team could do it; this is the team. If they will not, no one will.
JOEY: I don’t expect to see one, no. But if there is one, I think it’ll be Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Would the Hurricanes be able to match a front-loaded contract from another team? Would they even want to? The ‘Canes are one of those small-market teams that need to make sure they take care of business with their best player before July 1st. It would be a shame to see them take a step back after having such a positive campaign in 2018-19.
SCOTT: I’ll be bold here and say yes. Someone is going to fire off an offer sheet to Mitch Marner that will cripple the Toronto Maple Leafs if they match. The New Jersey Devils are having quite the summer and they’ve taken Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes in two of the past three drafts and added P.K. Subban to the mix last weekend, too. Want to keep Taylor Hall in the organization? Throw enough money at Marner that Kyle Dubas can’t match. You have the cap space to do it and could probably find ways to get back into the first round down the line, especially if Hall gets shipped out.