Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Oilers keep on rolling with win over Flyers

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Talent has never been the question in Edmonton, it was always a matter of systems and execution.

Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock each saw glimpses in recent years, but Dave Tippett might have unlocked the secret formula for the Oilers to have long-lasting success.

With six wins in the team’s first seven games, including a 6-3 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday Night Hockey, Edmonton is starting to believe that it has what it takes to become a serious contender in the Western Conference.

Jakub Voracek had two goals and an assist for Philadelphia while Carter Hart was pulled after allowing four goals on 14 shots in his first start near his hometown Sherwood Park, Alberta, as the Flyers concluded a three-game road trip through Western Canada where they went 0-2-1. Oskar Lindblom also scored.

Connor McDavid led the way offensively with five points (one goal and four assists), while Leon Draisaitl added two goals of his own as the Oilers bounced back after their first loss of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this week. Mikko Koskinen stopped 49 shots and picked up his third victory of the season.

The Oilers recorded four consecutive goals, including three in the second that broke the game wide open. McDavid or Draisaitl’s ability to break a game open has rarely been an issue, but slowing down the opposition has been problematic. But through seven games this season, the team has allowed only 17 goals thanks to improved goaltending and more importantly, better team defense.

Last season the Oilers allowed 271 goals, good for seventh worst throughout the NHL. It’s the sole reason Tippett was brought in, to limit the damage in their own end of the ice, and allow their superstars to flourish offensively without ignoring their defensive responsibility.

Tippett has opted to play McDavid and Draisaitl together for most of the season, which has always been a delicate situation. Should a coach load up to form a powerful top line, or spread the wealth throughout the lineup so a high-end player is on the ice for the majority of the game?

The Avalanche have had great success keeping Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen on the ice as a pairing almost exclusively and the Oilers have been trending in that direction.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal provide options in the middle of the lineup but neither have the top-end talent equivalent to McDavid and Draisaitl.

However, if the Oilers are able to have a prolific first line, combined with strong structure throughout the neutral zone and in front of their goaltender, they will quickly become an elite team that could be a force to be reckoned with.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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

Previewing the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: The Oilers have a new GM (Ken Holland) and a new head coach (Dave Tippett), but as far as personnel changes go, this was a very quiet offseason.

Considering some of the blunders of the Peter Chiarelli era, there might be a feeling of “no news is good news,” although try telling that to Connor McDavid, who didn’t get much of a bright side to look on beyond hoping that Mike Smith channels his solid playoff production, rather than Smith’s more troubling body of work.

The Oilers are almost the same team as last year, although James Neal could be a nice upgrade over Milan Lucic.

Strengths: McDavid! OK, thanks for coming!

Alright, the Oilers also have Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and maybe some help coming – eventually – with prospects such as Evan Bouchard.

And, hey, having the best player in the world is a pretty big strength.

Weaknesses: … And squandering McDavid’s talents almost takes talent in itself.

You know you’re weak on the wings when people are hoping that James Neal is a solution, and crossing their fingers that Alex Chiasson can approach last season’s numbers.

This team is weak on the wings, and that’s far from their only issue. Their defense doesn’t play the sort of modern game that you’d want to propel McDavid in transition, and lacks elite skill overall. Maybe Tippett can scheme this group to competence, but it’s unclear how much potential has been untapped after Ken Hitchcock and Todd McLellan tried their hands at the same.

Oh yeah, their goaltending duo of Smith and Mikko Koskinen is a bowl of “meh,” too.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Consider this: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is about to enter his ninth season in the NHL, and Tippett will be his ninth head coach.

The Oilers have been the definition of dysfunctional for a distressingly long period of time, and while there’s the feeling that McDavid and others are far beyond the point of being tired of losing, it’s time for some stability. That’s what Tippett represents: a steadying presence, something that must appeal to the deliberate approach Holland also seems to prefer.

That said, Edmonton’s also subject to about-faces, as that seems to be their M.O. Let’s put Tippett at a three.

Three Most Fascinating Players: McDavid, Koskinen, Darnell Nurse

Number 97 would be a pick every year based on his captivating speed and skill alone. Maybe eyes are fixed on him a bit more now, though, as he’s shown signs of frustration, occasionally actually letting that be known in vague media comments. If the Oilers unravel again, will McDavid vent in an even bigger way?

Re-signing Koskinen tied a baffling bow around the Chiarelli era. Along with Smith, it’s tough to know what exactly we should expect from Koskinen. If Tippett’s system dumbs games down and makes it all a slog, that might actually set the stage for some redemption. (James Neal is another fascinating redemption story.)

The Oilers have precious few defensemen of merit, so it’s crucial for them to see Nurse take additional steps forward. Then again, he’s entering a contract year, so they also probably don’t want to break the bank for the RFA. That should make Nurse intriguing to watch.

Playoffs or Lottery: It’s tough to pick against McDavid, especially since Draisaitl and RNH give him some support. One can imagine a decent formula of McDavid + stingy defense and goaltending = grinding out wins.

Hockey teaches us time and time again that one superstar rarely is enough to mask a ton of blemishes, though. While a weak Pacific gives some hope for Edmonton sneaking in, I’d lean closer to the lottery than the playoffs with Edmonton.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Oilers add Riley Sheahan on one-year deal

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In his first year as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, Ken Holland has had the difficult task of trying to build up the depth around superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Given how little the Oilers had around them on the roster and how little salary cap space they had to work with, it has forced Holland to try and find bargains on the free agent market.

He continued that process on Thursday by signing veteran center Riley Sheahan to a one-year deal. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it is reportedly worth $900,000 for the season according to TSN’s Ryan Rishaug. Holland has some history with Sheahan, having drafted him in the first-round of the 2010 NHL draft when he was still the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.

In 447 career games he has scored 58 goals and 149 total points, including 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) a year ago with the Penguins and Panthers.

The hope for the Oilers is that he can settle into a third-line center role and help give the team some useful minutes. The Oilers have two outstanding centers (McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) but very little depth down the middle behind them. It has been a massive problem for them and resulted in the team getting crushed when neither of the top two are on the ice. Whether or not Sheahan can help enough to make an impact in such a role remains to be seen, but it is a small price to pay to find out.

Along with Sheahan, the Oilers have also added Markus Granlund and Josh Archibald this summer, while also trading Milan Lucic for James Neal.

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.

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.