2019 Oilers Season Preview Part One: Internal Improvement

October is finally here!! Our long summer of waiting for the beginning of the Ken Holland era in Edmonton is finally over. The Oilers will open their season at home against the Canucks on Wednesday night.

This is the time of year where everyone is optimistic about their teams’ chances (unless you’re a Sens fan this year). Training camp is over, the rosters are set, and the puck is about to drop on the regular season.

The one question that fans everywhere (except Ottawa this year) want to know the answer to is will their team make the playoffs. In Oil Country, the question is will we FINALLY make the playoffs??

I’ll attack this question from two angles. In part one, did the team improve enough over the summer to get where they need to be? In part two, how do they stack up against the competition?

Before I start, I want to take a moment to thank Michael Hebert from the OILERSLIVE podcast for inviting me on for his season preview episode. It was a lot of fun to talk hockey with him! If you don’t already follow him on Twitter (@oilerslive) and listen to the podcast, I highly recommend doing both of those things! Here’s the link to his season preview episode.

Alright, as usual, I’ll show you the latest up to date roster including salary cap information as gathered from CapFriendly.com. The lines are based off of what we saw at practice on Tuesday:

Nygard ($925k) McDavid ($12.5M) Neal ($5.75M)
Draisaitl ($8.5M) Nuge ($6M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Khaira ($1.2M) Cave ($675k) Archibald ($1M)
Granlund ($1.3M) Haas ($925k) Chiasson ($2.15M)
Jurco ($750k) P. Russell ($700k)

Nurse ($3.2M) Larsson ($4,166,666)
Klefbom ($4,167,000) Bear ($720k)
Russell ($4M) Benning ($1.9M)
Manning ($2.25M)

Koskinen ($4.5M)
Smith ($2M)

IR: Sheahan ($900k), Persson ($1M), Brodziak ($1.15M)

Total: $74,278,666
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1,333,333; Gryba – $300,000; Sekera – $2.5M
Retained: Lucic – $750k
Buried: Gagner – $2.075M

Total Cap Hit: $81,236,999
Cap Space: $263,001

The Oilers haven’t been given a totally clean bill of health to start the season. McDavid’s knee seems to be fine, but Joel Persson has a shoulder issue that is going to keep him out for another week at least according to coach Tippett, and Riley Sheahan is dealing with a concussion. Tomas Jurco is apparently having a minor procedure done. There is no timetable for his return, but it doesn’t seem all that serious from what I’ve been able to gather.

Once Persson and Sheahan come back, Manning and one other player will be sent down. That will give the Oilers some more cap space, which will leave them in a comfortable if not ideal spot with the cap.
If we analyze the failings of last year’s Oilers, health was a major factor. Nobody is really in control of that, so we can only hope the Oilers face less injuries to key players, and it would be nice if they didn’t take 3 of the top 6 defencemen out of the lineup at the same time again.

As far as things they could control went, one major issue was the fact that they only had one line that was a threat to score on a given night. The highlight of Ken Holland’s summer may have rectified that situation.

I don’t know what kind of magical elixir he was able to concoct that allowed him to pull off what I have dubbed as The Real Deal, but he found a way to get James “The Real Deal” Neal for Milan Lucic. I’ll take the guy who has scored 20 goals or more in 10 of the last 11 seasons over the guy who has only scored 7 goals since Christmas of 2017.

Neal is 32 years old and he is coming off of the worst season of his career, but I like his odds of rebounding. He just wasn’t a good fit in Calgary for whatever reason. My guess is that he will be a better fit here in Edmonton playing with the skilled centres they possess. Whether he plays with McDavid, Draisaitl, or Nugent-Hopkins, the addition of Neal should give the Oilers two legitimate scoring lines.

As for the guys that will complement the pair of duos the Oilers now possess, the Oilers are going to have to hope for some spectacular performances. Zack Kassian only had 3 points before getting a look on McDavid’s line in Arizona on January 2 last season. In the 43 games that he played in that spot, he got 23 points, which translates to a 44-point pace over 82 games. That’s better than Patrick Maroon was in 2016-17! The question with Kassian is can he do it for an 82-game season? He looked fantastic in the preseason. I’d say this is the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play! I’ve never seen him look so confident. I hope he brings that to the regular season.

The new guy that appears to have earned an opportunity to show what he can do in a top 6 role is Joakim Nygard. Nygard has been one of the best goal scorers in Sweden for the last 2 seasons. Holland and the Oilers are hoping that he can score goals in the NHL. During the preseason, I saw a player with speed. I saw a player that was willing to get to the dirty areas, and a player that can draw penalties. I saw a player that could sneak into open space. I saw a player that was willing to shoot. He’s got an intriguing skill set! He had great chemistry with Draisaitl as well. It appears as though he will start with McDavid and Neal, but that scenario could change quickly.

Holland acquired guys who are, in his words, “pros”. These are guys in that 24-28 years of age range. These are players that are in the primes of their careers. They have polish. The other thing they have in common is speed and the ability to score at least 10 goals.

Tomas Jurco is the other new guy that might get the opportunity to prove his worth in a top 6 role. Jurco was a former 2nd round pick of Holland’s in Detroit. He was a part of the group that was supposed to be the next great core of Red Wings (Nyquist, Tatar, Jurco), but that just didn’t ever materialize. Jurco has been grinding it out in the AHL for the past few seasons. He has had back issues, but is apparently feeling good now! He led the team in preseason scoring, and his line was always creating chances in the games that he played. This is his last good chance at earning an NHL job, and he is taking advantage of it.

The new bottom 6 is full of guys that the coaches trust to contribute offensively once in a while and penalty kill. The penalty kill HAS TO get better if the Oilers are to have any chance at a playoff spot. It hasn’t been good for years! Last year, especially at home, it was basically a given that the other team was getting a powerplay goal. Like they were down 1-0 before the game even started!

The hope is that will be different this year. Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald, Jujhar Khaira, Markus Granlund, Colby Cave, and Alex Chiasson have been given that task. They will get help from Nuge, Leon, and Connor occasionally; but the PK is largely going to be up to the bottom 6 group I just mentioned. With the exception of Chiasson, they are all fast. They are all smart. They should be able to get the job done on the PK.

They should all have the ability to contribute a little bit offensively as well.

Once Sheahan is off of the IR, then one guy will be sent down to Bakersfield. I suspect that it will be one of Gaetan Haas or Patrick Russell.

I actually really like Haas. He’s unproven at the NHL level, but he’s had a nice career over in Switzerland. He started camp slowly, but he picked it up in his last outing. He’s fast, he’s good at faceoffs, and he’s a right shot centre. Those things alone make him a strong candidate to be on the roster on most nights. I believe that he has more offensive potential than Cave, which is why I think he will pass Cave on the depth chart by the time the season ends.

Patrick Russell had a great camp. He’s a solid pro. He doesn’t make many mistakes, but there is simply too much competition ahead of him to crack the line-up on most nights. Tippett said that the team didn’t want to risk losing him on waivers, which is a positive sign for him at least.

Instead of having 1 line that can score and 3 that can’t, the Oilers should now have 2 that can score and 2 that might score once in a while. That’s an improvement!

On defence, the Oilers were marred by injuries to Klefbom, Russell, and Sekera last season. The reality of that group is that they did not move the puck well enough to keep the play in the good end of the ice often enough. They didn’t defend well enough to make up for it either.

One thing will be certain: this year’s defence will be more mobile.

Andrej Sekera was bought out this summer. He’s coming off of two major injuries in consecutive years, so it’s a decision that made sense. The move opened up a spot for one young defenceman to earn. With the decision to move Russell to his natural side, the job went to a right-handed defender. That defender is Ethan Bear.

Bear won the job fair and square. He came into camp in great shape, and his play was much improved. He moves the puck well and he has a good shot. He has the makings of a 30-point defenceman this season in my opinion. The Oilers have some talented forwards, and they need the puck on their sticks. Bear is a guy that can get it there on a consistent basis. He isn’t perfect defensively, as no rookie ever is, but his puck moving and his skating will be a big boost to the defence.

The job originally looked like it was going to 25-year old Swedish defenceman Joel Persson. He looked good beside Klefbom, but a shoulder injury created an opportunity for Bear, which he took. Persson has earned a spot with the Oilers. He’s another right-handed shot that can move the puck well. That’s two of something that the Oilers had 0 of last season. That’s an improvement!

In goal, we’ve got the streaky duo of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith. Last year, it was Koskinen providing Cam Talbot with competition in the crease. This year, it’s Smith bringing competition to Koskinen. The goaltending wasn’t good last year except in small spurts. It needs to be more consistent this season. I don’t expect either goalie to give up early goals as often as Talbot did, so that will help the Oilers be in more games than they were last year. Smith’s puck handling ability is also a huge asset. Anyone that can get the puck moving north quickly is a huge help. That’s an improvement! It’s not much of an improvement, but it’s still something.

The addition of Tippett himself as a coach also appears to be an upgrade. I’m not saying that because of his track record. I’m saying that because of the structure that the Oilers have shown in the preseason. When they have the puck in their own zone, they finally have puck support!! I’ve been wanting this for years now! There are no forwards flying out of the zone. Instead, there are multiple options open for short passes. That means the Oilers will control the puck more often this season. That in itself is a HUGE improvement!

Ken Holland has made several small additions that have definitely improved the Oilers as a team. The reality is that these improvements are small, and there are still a lot of question marks surrounding this team. Will Neal, Kassian, and Nygard be able to produce enough offence to merit top 6 usage? Will the bottom 6 score some goals? Will the PK be competent at least? Will the defence move the puck well enough to overcome its defensive issues? Will the goaltending be consistent enough?

The fact that there are so many questions makes me think that the playoffs are still a bit of a long shot this season.

The good news is that there are only 10 players under contract for next season. There will be cap space and room on the roster for Holland to make some noise next summer. Until then, we just have to sit back and watch our boys fight it out for a playoff spot! I think they will be in the mix. In part 2, I’ll tell you exactly where I think they will finish.

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