State of the Oilers: April 2018

It was another disappointing year in Edmonton. The Oilers missed the playoffs again. The season was filled with criticism of the coaching staff and the GM… again. None of this is new for Oilers fans, which is why patience is wearing razor thin in Edmonton.

It’s easy to be super negative about the season that was, but an objective view of where the team is in comparison to past failed seasons and where the team is going reveals that things could be worse in Oil Country.

The Oilers finished 23rd overall in the NHL standings with 78 points. That is the most points that the team has had in a non-playoff season since 2011-12. So, there’s that.

Prior to 2015-16, the Oilers roster was a mess. Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins were the nucleus of a core that was simply not capable of competing. Centre depth was a big problem. Nugent-Hopkins was good, but there was nobody behind him that could produce. Draisaitl was in the pipeline, but he wasn’t ready for prime time yet.

The defence was porous. Justin Schultz was being looked to as the top pairing right handed defenceman. Oscar Klefbom’s development was being slowed by injuries. Jeff Petry was dealt at the 2015 trade deadline. It was largely a glorified AHL group.

Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth were the goaltending tandem in 2014-15. Enough said there.

The losing was painful for Oilers fans. The team was in the midst of an 11 year stretch without the playoffs. We all know what happened next. The Oilers were gifted the opportunity to draft Connor McDavid, and the team re-vamped its organizational structure by hiring Bob Nicholson and Peter Chiarelli. They also brought in an established coach in Todd McLellan. The dreaded “r” word was never uttered by the new management, but that marked the beginning of another rebuild in Edmonton. It’s hard to imagine that being the scenario after getting 4 first overall picks in 6 seasons, but that was the case.

Three seasons and one playoff berth later, the roster looks quite different now than it did then.

The centre position is strong. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have signed on with the team long-term. Nugent-Hopkins has become a great two-way centre that has proven that he can play the wing as well. Chiarelli said that he expects Nugent-Hopkins to be a part of the core of this team moving forward. Those three are the pillars that this team will be built upon. Eberle was traded for Ryan Strome, which added further depth to the centre position.

Hall was traded for Adam Larsson in 2016. The move addressed a massive hole on the right side of the defence, but it created another massive hole at left wing. Milan Lucic was signed to a 7 year, $42 million deal to replace Hall as the team’s top left winger. That hasn’t panned out so far. Patrick Maroon was traded at the deadline, which has created a hole on left wing that the Oilers will need to fill this off-season. Nugent-Hopkins might be the player to do it. Drake Caggiula was 4th on the team with 13 goals. That is good production out of a 4th line left winger. He is small, but he is fast and he can lay the body; which is exactly what a good 4th line player should do.

Jesse Puljujarvi fell into the Oilers’ lap in the 2016 draft, but he has yet to live up to his billing. That should change sooner rather than later. Kailer Yamamoto looks like a strong prospect at right wing as well. Ty Rattie had a strong audition with the Oilers to close the season, scoring 9 points in 12 games in his second call-up to the big club. Pontus Aberg had 8 points in 17 games with the Oilers after being acquired at the deadline. He showed flashes of skill, and he showed flashes of the inconsistency that has held him back thus far in his career. Zack Kassian provides the Oilers with great mix of size, physicality, speed and decent production on the 4th line. Chiarelli said that he likes the group at right wing. It’s a young right side that has a lot of promise, but the Oilers will likely have to keep taking the risk on these young right wingers. When they do break out, the patience will be well worth the wait.

The wing position is the biggest weakness on the Oilers roster right now, but the good news is that it is much easier to strengthen the wingers than it is to strengthen any other group. Chiarelli said as much in his season ending press conference.

The defence group has been improved as well, despite what this past season’s results would indicate. The group in 2017-18 was essentially the same as the one that the Oilers made the playoffs with in the 2016-17 season. Klefbom has developed into a valuable player for the Oilers. He scored 38 points in 2016-17, which shows that he does have the ability to produce points. He still has 45 games left until he reaches the magical 300 games played mark that usually marks the end of development for NHL defencemen, and he is signed to a reasonable contract until July 2023. Adam Larsson won’t score like Hall could, but he brings a nastiness to the game that was much needed. Darnell Nurse is rapidly developing into a top pairing defenceman. He averaged a career high 22:14 in total ice time, and he ranked 19th in the league in even strength time on ice. Ethan Bear showed that he could develop into a good right handed offensive defenceman, even though he does have defensive deficiencies in his game right now.

These defencemen represent the core of the defence for the foreseeable future. That leaves the defence group in a much better position now than prior to 2015-16.

Andrej Sekera was signed to a deal with an AAV of $5.5 million in July 2015. He added some stability to a group that needed it badly. When the contract was signed, it was expected that Klefbom and Nurse would pass him on the depth chart sometime during the length of the deal. A knee injury accelerated that process, but that has happened. Sekera’s NMC clause will be lifted at the end of next season. It is almost a certainty that Sekera will be traded at that point.

Kris Russell was signed to a 4 year, $16 million deal last summer. Russell is an effective defender that is consistently among the league leaders in blocked shots. $4 million is a big cap hit for him; but like Sekera, his NMC will be lifted in July 2019.

Chiarelli mentioned in his season ending press conference that he might look to “tweak” the defence in hopes of getting the group to move the puck faster. The most glaring need seems to be for a top right handed offensive defenceman, but acquiring one of those would be more than just a tweak.

The goaltending is much better now as well. Cam Talbot was acquired in a trade with the Rangers at the 2015 draft. He broke Grant Fuhr’s Oilers record for wins in a season last year with 42. He finished with 31 wins on a struggling team this season. At least 30 wins in back-to-back seasons is nothing to turn your nose up at. This wasn’t his best year, but it wasn’t a great year for many Oilers. Chiarelli mentioned that Talbot’s work load needs to be managed better, which means he needs fewer starts. Injuries to Talbot early and late in the year are evidence of that. Going forward, Talbot has the Oilers in good shape between the pipes.

Chiarelli has been the target of a lot of anger from Oilers fans over some of the big trades that he has made. It’s a rebuild. Part of rebuilding is tearing down what once existed. There were decisions that needed to be made, and Chiarelli made them. You can read my opinion on the Hall deal here, but it was a good move by Chiarelli. Larsson’s skill set was a necessity. Fans were mad that he traded another high-end talent in Eberle for another weaker player in Strome. You can read my thoughts on that trade here.

People were also mad that Chiarelli did not spend the $8.6 million in cap space that the Oilers had to load up for a Stanley Cup run in the last year of McDavid’s ELC. Eberle could have been retained, but it was clear that he had fallen out of favour with the coaching staff and management based on his defensive play and his lack of production in the playoffs. On July 1 2017, neither McDavid nor Draisaitl had signed their extensions. It would’ve been irresponsible to sign a big unrestricted free agent to a long-term deal not knowing what the contracts for 97 and 29 would be.

The most important quote from Chiarelli’s season ending press conference was “we’re not going to dismantle this team”. This is what the 23 man roster will look like for next season based on the current players that are signed to contracts:

Nuge ($6M) McDavid ($12.5M) RW
LW Draisaitl ($8.5M) Puljujarvi ($0.925M)
Lucic ($6M) Strome (RFA) Aberg ($0.65M)
Caggiula (RFA) Khaira ($0.675M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Pakarinen (RFA)

Nurse (RFA) Larsson ($4.167M)
Klefbom ($4.167M) Russell ($4M)
Sekera ($5.5M) Benning (RFA)
Gryba ($0.9M) Bear ($0.925M)

Talbot ($4.16M)
Montoya ($1.06M)

Total Cap Hit = $62.079 million
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1.33 million

Total: $63.409 million
Space with $78 million cap: $14.591 million
Space with $82 million cap: $19.591 million

Including any RFAs that the Oilers will re-sign, there are 7 players that need to sign contracts and a minimum of $14.591 million to sign them with. The most notable of those RFAs is Darnell Nurse. He will be qualified at $0.874 million, but he has likely earned the right to a 5 year deal with an AAV of $4.5 million. Ryan Strome ($3 million), Drake Caggiula ($0.874 million), Matthew Benning ($0.874 million), and Iiro Pakarinen ($0.761 million) would likely accept their qualifying offers. Those 5 contracts at those values add up to $10 million, which would leave $4.591 million for a top left winger and another right winger.

It’s still unclear which right winger will play on the top line with McDavid. Chiarelli said that Ty Rattie is a cerebral player that the Oilers feel can play with McDavid and Nugent-Hopkins, and that he would like to bring him back next year. He would compete with Kailer Yamamoto for that remaining right wing spot at training camp.

Maroon’s departure and the disappearance of Milan Lucic’s production has created a need for a top left winger. There are none coming in the pipeline that will be NHL ready next year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looked great with Connor McDavid. He had 14 points in 12 games with McDavid down the stretch. McDavid went 2 games without a point against Calgary and Minnesota… those were the two games that Nuge missed. As soon as Nuge came back in the Vegas game, McDavid got 3 assists. I really don’t think that that was a coincidence. Nugent-Hopkins is a viable top line left winger. However, there is still another hole at left wing, and it would be great to find another left winger that can produce points consistently.

The only two ways to get one are to trade for one or to sign a free agent.

Oscar Klefbom is the one roster player that would yield a top left winger on his own in a trade. However, trading Klefbom would be a mistake. The defence would be much weaker without Klefbom. Trading him would also essentially make it impossible to move both Sekera and Russell at the end of 2019 based on need, which could possibly prevent the Oilers from landing a top right handed offensive defenceman.

The Oilers’ 2018 first round draft pick could potentially be traded for a left winger. Outside of the top 5 prospects in this year’s draft, it is shaping up to be a weaker draft this year. Unless the lottery balls go the Oilers way again, trading the pick is a strong possibility. Chiarelli admitted as much. The Islanders’ 2019 3rd round pick is expendable as well.

A top unrestricted free agent left winger will cost up to $7 million this July. With $4.591 million in projected cap space after signing internal RFAs, signing a top left winger won’t happen without moving more salary out.

When asked if the Oilers could acquire a top right handed offensive defenceman without trading Nugent-Hopkins or the 2018 1st round pick, Chiarelli simply laughed and said “I don’t know”. His lack of an answer to that question suggests that the answer is no. Nugent-Hopkins is the one asset that could get the Oilers a top pairing right handed defenceman on his own in a trade. Trading Nugent-Hopkins would also force the Oilers to get another top left winger in addition to the one that they already need. Chiarelli said that he would not be trading Nugent-Hopkins and that RNH will be a part of the Oilers core going forward.

That leaves free agency as the only other avenue available to acquire that top right handed defenceman. There are two available in July: John Carlson and Mike Green. Washington will be working hard to re-sign Carlson, and Green seems to want to stay in the Eastern Conference (and he is having cervical spine surgery this summer), so neither of those options seem likely. Chiarelli admitted that this type of defenceman is a need, but he did not say that it had to happen this off-season.

Sekera’s and Russell’s contracts being moved in 2019 would open up $9.5 million in cap space. The timing of those NMCs being lifted is just right. Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson will be unrestricted free agents in 2019… just saying. Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Barrie, Justin Faulk, Jared Spurgeon, and Sami Vatanen will all be unrestricted free agents in 2020. Moving Sekera’s and Russell’s contracts before 2020 would allow the Oilers the opportunity to get the right handed offensive defenceman they need within the next 2 years.

Stay tuned for upcoming articles on potential targets for trades and free agents for the Oilers, as well as potential off-season scenarios based on trading certain players.

One positive result the Oilers had this year was that they were 25-14-9 against the Pacific Division. They proved that they could beat teams within their division, which is always important. That is also one reason why the team’s record this year was frustrating. Say what you want about Peter Chiarelli, but he has the team in a much better position today than when he was hired, and that’s how you know a manager is doing a good job.

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