Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

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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.

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.

Can Tippett overcome challenge ahead of him with Oilers?

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It was nearly four years to the day that the Edmonton Oilers organization was in a nearly identical position as the one it found itself in on Tuesday, where a recently hired general manager — a highly regarded, Stanley Cup winning general manager — was holding a press conference to announce the hiring of a veteran head coach with a strong track record of success in the NHL.

In 2015, the cast of characters included Peter Chiarelli introducing Todd McLellan, a duo that was supposed to lead a perennial dumpster fire of an organization out of the ashes by providing some much-needed stability and building something around the NHL’s next great superstar (Connor McDavid) that fell into their laps.

Obviously, things did not go anywhere as planned and the organization was forced to smash the reset button once again over the past year. That reset process continued on Tuesday when Ken Holland introduced Dave Tippett as the 16th coach in franchise history, and the eighth in just the past 10 years.

The job for these two is a significant one as they attempt to build something out of an organization that has missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including a 2018-19 team that wasn’t even a close to a playoff spot in a watered down Western Conference despite having two of the league’s top-five scorers (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) on its roster. It takes a special kind of failure to miss the playoffs under those circumstances, but this team managed it.

At the introductory press conference on Tuesday Tippett and Holland hit all of the usual buzzwords new coaches and managers love to use in these situations, including stability, communication, and structure. Holland praised Tippett’s experience and talked about him being one of his leading candidates throughout the entire process.

[Related: Oilers turn to Dave Tippett as new head coach]

Tippett also expressed optimism that the situation isn’t as bleak as it seems from the outside, saying “everyone talks about McDavid and Draisaitl, but there are more pieces here than McDavid and Draisaitl. There is a lot here to build on.”

From a hockey standpoint, Tippett at least sounded like someone that has his finger on the pulse of the current NHL and what it takes to win.

He spoke of needing scoring depth including a fourth-line that can provide offense.

He talked about the necessity of a five-man attack on the forecheck and having defenders that can not only move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the middle of the ice, but also get involved in the offensive zone.

He also fought back at the suggestion that he is a “defensive-minded coach” and talked about finding out what his players do best, putting them in a position to succeed, and maximizing their potential. In other words: He’s not planning on going to Edmonton and trying to force his roster into a set system, but rather build a system around the roster he has.

“I laugh at that all the time,” said Tippett in response to a question about his reputation as a defensive coach. “My first  [head coaching] job in the NHL, I got from Doug Armstrong in Dallas because I was an offensive coach and they hired me because they thought I could bring some new ideas. We had some pretty good offensive teams in Dallas, but when I got to Arizona we had to figure out how to win without those guys. I don’t look at myself as a defensive coach or an offensive coach, I look at myself as a coach that tries to win with what I have.”

So what does he have to work with in Edmonton?

For starters he has a McDavid-Draisaitl duo that dominated their ice-time together last season. When asked whether he would prefer to see them as a duo on the same line or separated where they each center their own line, he spoke glowingly of their ability to feed off of each other and seemed to indicate that he sees them on a line together. And that is probably the right move because there was almost no other duo in the league that did more last season than those two.

Assuming he keeps those two together he still has Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (barring an offseason trade, which would be a bad idea for the Oilers) as a more than suitable No. 2 center.

After that? There is a significant drop in talent and will probably take him back to his early days in Arizona where he had to figure out a way to win with a patchwork roster.

The defense is severely lacking in the type of players he talked about when it comes to joining the rush and moving the puck.

The scoring depth beyond the top-three forwards rapidly falls off a cliff, as shown by the fact McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins combined to score 52 percent of the team’s goals during the 2018-19 season. The depth was so bad that when none of those three were on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers were outscored by a 45-26 margin. They were not just bad, they were not even competitive.

There is only so much a coach can do to remedy that, and while Tippett had some early initial success in Arizona, making the playoffs in three consecutive years including a stunning trip to the 2011-12 Western Conference Final, the lack of talent at his disposal eventually caught up to him in the latter years of his tenure when the Coyotes missed the playoffs in his final five seasons with the team.

And that brings us to the key point here with the Oilers — their success or failure probably isn’t going to be determined by what Tippett does or does not do as a coach. There is very good reason to believe that he is a good coach. HIs approach seems sound. He has had success in two different cities, won more than 550 regular season games as a head coach, and taken teams deep into the playoffs on more than one occasion.

But the Oilers have had successful coaches come through and fail before him.

Todd McLellan’s resume before his time in Edmonton was a strong one, but he couldn’t win with the Oilers.

Neither could Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, or Dallas Eakins. Not all of them were bad coaches or bad hires. Sometimes it’s more than the coach, and when this many coaches come through one organization in such a short period of time and all experience the same fate it is probably a good sign that the problems start much higher than behind the bench.

As much as Tippett — or any coach — likes to pride themselves on coaching up players and “just finding ways to win” it is still a talent driven business, and the Oilers as presently constructed just do not have anywhere near enough of it. That puts almost all of the pressure not necessarily on Tippett, but right back on Holland to build something out of this team and give his new coach enough to work with around the McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins trio.

If Holland can do that, Tippett might very well be the right coach for the Oilers and one that can succeed where so many before him have failed.

If Holland can not do that, we will probably find ourselves doing the exact same thing in another couple of years where another freshly hired, big-name general manager is introducing the next highly respected veteran coach.

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’ Nugent-Hopkins scores first-period hat trick vs. Kings

The second half of back to backs suck. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings.

They don’t suck for the team getting to play the tired team, however. And Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the rest of his Edmonton Oilers teammates feasted on a Kings team that was still coming down from an impressive (and unlikely) win against the Calgary Flames on Monday.

Yes, the one-night world-beating Kings returned to their familiar digs in the NHL’s basement as ‘The Nuge’ and Co. orchestrated a five-goal first period, including a hat trick from Nugent-Hopkins on three shots and a trio of assists from Oscar Klefbom.

Leon Draisaitl also continued his charge to catch Alex Ovechkin in the goal-scoring race, potting his 44th to sit one behind John Tavares and five back of Ovi, who ended a four-game drought with his 49th earlier in the night. (Update: Draisaitl has 45 46 now after recording the game’s second hat trick — his first as an NHLer).

Oh, and some guy named Connor McDavid set a new career high with his 109th point on an apple Nugent-Hopkins’ hat-trick marker. (Update: McDavid now has 112 points after a one-goal, three assist night).

The Oilers are still talking playoffs, and if they can hold on against the Kings, will move five points back of the Colorado Avalanche as the turtle derby/log jam in the Western Conference wildcard race roars on.

Their chances are low, but who knows. The West has been weird this season.

Edmonton won the game 8-4.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Yakupov’s a little too young to take McDavid under his wing

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Compared to rookie sensation Connor McDavid, Nail Yakupov is a relative veteran of the NHL. Considering his bumpy path through three seasons, it’s no surprise that he’s uncomfortable with the idea of showing McDavid the ropes.

“I don’t think I’ll be a teacher. I’m too young for that,” Yakupov told the Edmonton Journal. “We’ve got lots of old guys to tell him things.”

Actually, judging by his interesting interview with the EJ, the 21-year-old may feel a little wistful that his substitute teachers won’t return to his side in 2015-16.

Yakupov acknowledged the chemistry he eventually developed with Derek Roy, a UFA sitting on the sidelines this summer.

“Especially a guy like Derek, who has played in the league for 10 years. He’s seen everything in the game. He could help a young kid like me,” Yakupov said. Soon as Derek got the puck, I was trying to get open for a shot.

“He gave me so much support and I was happy to be playing hockey again.”

Let’s highlight that last phrase: “I was happy to be playing hockey again.”

Just spit-balling here, but Roy could probably be had for a cheap price, and you could pair Yakupov with him for a third scoring duo outside Taylor Hall – Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle. The veteran and his pupil don’t represent the same threat that those other duos pose, yet they could enjoy some success against lesser opponents.

With Yakupov also needing to adjust from one Todd (Nelson) to another (McLellan), you almost get the impression that the Russian winger got the rug taken out from underneath him.

It’s a fascinating situation to watch, as he’s still very much in a sink-or-swim phase.