Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

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Oilers need to keep McDavid-Draisaitl duo together

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

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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.

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.

How Flames, Oilers might handle Lucic, Neal after big trade

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In the additional breakdown of the Milan LucicJames Neal trade, you might conclude that it’s basically a one-for-one deal, conditional draft pick aside. You can get an idea of how the two players are in remarkably similar places in their careers by reading the original breakdown.

Even their contracts look virtually the same … at least at first.

The players are close enough that it’s far from a guarantee that the Oilers will need to hand that third-rounder to their rivals in Calgary.

It’s only once you start digging deeper that you realize that, beyond James Neal being closer to his best days than Lucic, his contract is also a lot easier to deal with, for the most part. Once you start considering those factors, you might once again be surprised that the Oilers convinced the Flames to accept Lucic’s contract.

This was a case of two teams trading problems, and while both players have a decent chance to rebound to at least some extent, the true winner of this trade might be the team that can continue to clean up their messes.

To sort through the especially messy Lucic contract, you have to pull back your sleeves and get in the weeds. So, fair warning: this might make your brain melt a bit, but if you’re interested in what might happen next, these factors are important.

No movement, indeed

Lucic’s contract is an albatross deal for reasons that extend beyond Lucic not being worth $6M (and still not worth $5.25M) per year.

For one thing, while Lucic waived his no-movement clause to make this trade happen, it sounds like Lucic will retain his NMC … for some reason.

Frankly, if this is a matter of the Flames simply being nice, then they may rue such kindness in the future.

Most directly, if Lucic’s NMC is restored, then he might kabosh a trade down the line. Beyond that, there’s a scenario where the Flames might have to protect Lucic in an expansion draft, rather than someone more valuable. It’s possible that Lucic will return the Flames’ gesture by waiving his NMC in that situation (kind of like Marc-Andre Fleury doing the Penguins a solid in the Vegas expansion draft), yet the threat of complications can make you queasy.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even if it works out, it all seems pretty messy to me. The other potential escape routes are messy for Calgary, too.

Easier to sell the deal than to buy it out

It’s been mentioned that the bonus-heavy structure of Lucic’s contract makes his deal almost “buyout proof.”

That’s pretty much true, as buying out Lucic would bring out marginal savings for the Flames, even if you move the buyout to a later year than the most immediate chance after next season.

Realistically, the most reasonable way Calgary might wiggle out of some of the tougher years of Lucic’s contract would be to find a team like the Senators: a franchise in place where they value contracts that don’t cost as much as their cap hits indicate. For example: the Flames could pay Lucic’s $3M bonus before 2020-21, then trade him to Ottawa, who would be credited with his $5.25M cap hit, even though they’d only be on the hook for the remaining $1M in base salary. That scenario would be even more appealing to a cost-conscious team in the last year of Lucic’s contract, so check Cap Friendly if you’re curious about other possibilities.

Unfortunately for Calgary, even if they found a buyer, they’d seemingly need to get Lucic to play ball. The veteran winger might not be so thrilled to go to a rebuilding team.

Ultimately, the Flames are taking a significant gamble that this Lucic situation will work out better than sticking with Neal. If not, people will point to Treliving taking on Lucic much like, well, Peter Chiarelli also gambling on the big winger.

*gulp*

Neal’s cleaner situation

Puck Pedia notes some potential twists and turns, but overall, the Oilers didn’t just get a player in closer proximity to his best times of production; Neal’s contract is, mostly, a lot easier to deal with. Even if it’s bad, too.

As you can see from Cap Friendly’s buyout calculator, a cap-strapped Oilers team could benefit from a buyout, including one as early as 2020:

Saving close to $4M for three seasons, even if it means tacking on almost $2M for the following two seasons, could easily make a lot of sense for the Oilers, if they determine that a Neal buyout is the right move.

In general, they have more control of the situation, as Neal’s contract lacks a no-movement or no-trade clause. That’s kind of tragic in a way, as Neal’s already bounced around the league like a pinball, but it’s nonetheless the case.

Granted, the one area where Lucic might be a more plausible trade clip is because there’s not really any smoke and mirrors with Neal’s contract. While Lucic’s bonus-soaked contract makes him difficult to buyout, his falling salary vs. cap hit appeals to certain rebuild scenarios. Neal, meanwhile, simply costs $5.75M each season.

Still, that lack of a no-movement clause reduces Edmonton’s odds of worst-case scenarios. For instance: the Oilers wouldn’t need to protect Neal in an expansion draft, which could open up moments of tragic comedy where Neal finds himself with a new team and an expansion franchise again.

Overall, a buyout seems most feasible, although there’s the outside chance that Neal rebounds to become a deadly sniper again alongside Connor McDavid and/or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

***

Every trade carries the tagline of “to be continued,” but this swap seems especially friendly to that caveat. Is the plan for the Flames, Oilers, or both of these teams to ultimately get rid of Neal and/or Lucic all along? If so, at what cost?

Maybe the play of Neal and Lucic will decide the “winner” of this trade, but most likely, it comes down to which team does the best job cleaning up the messes they’ve made.

Check out the original post for more on this trade, including a look at where Neal and Lucic are in their careers.

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.

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.