The stretch drive is upon us! There are 10 games left in the Oilers season. They currently sit 7 points back of the Coyotes for the 2nd Wild Card spot in the Western Conference. They have to pass Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota, and Arizona to get in to a playoff spot. This week, the Oilers have games against the Blues, the Jackets, and the Senators. The good news is that 3 of the next 6 are against teams near the bottom of the standings (OTT, LA, and ANA). The bad news is that the other 7 are against teams that are above them in the standings.
As much as I’d love to see a miracle run to the playoffs, it isn’t going to happen.
Despite that, there are still reasons to watch Oilers games for the rest of the year. Leon’s chase for 50 goals and 100 points is something that I’ll be cheering for. He needs 7 goals and 9 points to hit the mark. That’s the only thing that I’ll be watching for that affects this season though. I’m looking ahead to this summer and what the new GM can do to improve the roster going into next season.
Over the course of the spring, I’ll be posting articles about what the Oilers can do to improve the team this summer in my 2019 Oilers Off-Season Game Plan series. For now, here are some of the questions that I’ll be looking for the answers to over the course of these last 10 games.
The lack of secondary scoring that the Oilers have had this season has been well documented. The Oilers have 3 top-6 forwards in McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins. The rest are bottom-6 forwards or worse. Lucic is the only other forward that is signed beyond next season. Players with one year left on their contracts are quite tradable. Kassian, Gagner, Brodziak, and Cave are the only regulars that are signed through next season. Khaira, Puljujarvi, Rieder, and Rattie are all RFAs. Chiasson is an UFA.
The question is how many of these forwards should the Oilers keep for next season? I see 4 right wingers that shouldn’t be slotted any higher than the 3rd line on a consistent basis. The 5th is Rattie, who I still believe can play a supporting role with McDavid, but has been relegated to 4th line duty or the press box late in this season. A lot of people would argue that Rattie isn’t an NHLer at all. Lucic has become nothing more than a 4th liner, which is really unfortunate. Rieder has 0 goals. I mean, come on… 0? Khaira can play well on a 3rd line, and he’s played well on a 2nd line with Nuge at times this year, but he’s not a top-6 forward. There’s also a crop of AHL talent that might be ready for bottom-6 duty at a fraction of the price that the current group will cost next year. I’ll be watching to see if anyone makes it impossible for the Oilers to move on from him next season.
The Oilers defence is a big quandary for the new GM this summer. The current top 6 are the same group that got the Oilers to the playoffs in 2016-17, but it is clear that there are some deficiencies in their games. Larsson and Nurse have made far too many mistakes on goals against this season. Klefbom has only been healthy for one full NHL season in his career. Russell has his shortcomings offensively, but he blocks a lot of shots and bails the team out in a lot of situations. Benning has been sneaky good this season, but when he’s bad, he’s really bad. The group as a whole struggles to move the puck, which is a big problem in today’s game.
The big ex-factor on this defence is Sekera. I believe that one of the biggest reasons that the Oilers have struggled since the 2017 playoffs has been the loss of Sekera. He missed the vast majority of the last 2 seasons with injuries. He was a shell of his former self last season, but a lot of that was because he could hardly move with his knee issue. This season, we have seen glimpses of his old self. He has shown poise with the puck. His calmness has been great for Benning’s game. Sekera’s presence has allowed Hitchcock to ease the workload of the top 4.
Sekera is playing well as a 3rd pairing defender, but the question is whether or not he can be a top 4 defender again. If he can return to that level, it would be a huge boost to the Oilers defence. It could also make his $5.5 million contract for 2 more years more intriguing to other teams. Nobody would have been interested in him if his injuries had limited his abilities too much; but a team in search of a veteran top 4 defender might be willing to take a look at Sekera if they think he can do the job. His NMC modifies to allow the Oilers to trade him on July 1, so a trade is possible.
The other option that exists if Sekera can be a top-4 defender is trading Nurse. I don’t view this as a desirable option, but if Nurse can yield a top-6 winger, then it may be worth considering. This only makes sense if Sekera can play 2LD next season and if there is a prospect in the system that will be ready to play 2LD by the time Sekera’s contract is up (possibly Jones or Samorukov, too early to say in my opinion).
If Sekera is capable of playing 2LD, then the Oilers have options for next season. If he is strictly a 3LD going forward, that limits the Oilers. I’ll be watching him closely over these last 10 games.
Lastly, we already know that Koskinen is the starter for the Oilers next season, barring some unforeseen circumstances brought on by the new GM. He has been brilliant at times, and he has been awful at others. Last night was a great example of the latter. He was beaten cleanly over the glove for 3 goals last night, and another went in off his glove. One squeaked through him. That one may have been aided by a little bit of contact in the crease, but I think that puck was getting through Koskinen regardless. Marchessault beat him five-hole on the 6th goal. I don’t understand how a goalie that is 6’7” can come out as far as he did so often and get beat so cleanly repeatedly like he was last night.
We know that Koskinen is a work in progress. The question is how good of a back-up do the Oilers need to go out and get this summer. I’m thinking that they need an established veteran back-up that can play for long stretches as insurance for Koskinen. I don’t think the last 10 games will change my mind, but you never know.
At least we won’t have to wait long to see where the Oilers will be picking in the draft. The draft lottery will be conducted on April 9 this year, just a few days after the conclusion of the regular season. The bright side about losses is that they make their draft position a bit better. Let’s sit back and see how it all unfolds!