Bob Nicholson spoke of Peter Chiarelli having a “plan” to get the Oilers back into the playoffs this season back in April after announcing that Chiarelli would be keeping his job coming in to this season. He said that the fans would be quite pleased with “the plan” once it was unveiled.
There was never a fancy unveiling of “the plan”, and the early season inconsistencies that have plagued the Oilers have fans questioning whether or not there is even a plan at all.
Last season, Chiarelli described the reasons for the Oilers’ struggles as “death by a thousand cuts”. There were a lot of little things that went wrong. The PK was horrendous (especially at home), the powerplay was woeful, the team couldn’t defend, and there was no secondary scoring. Chiarelli’s challenge this past summer was to fix it all. The real challenge was doing it with Connor McDavid’s $11.575 million raise.
On the defensive side of the puck, the onus has been placed on Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson to have rebound seasons, and Darnell Nurse needed to continue along his upwards trend. In other words, no real change of consequence on the back end. Given the age of those top three defenders and the fact that Klefbom was playing hurt last season, it was a safe bet to expect them to be better. Sekera’s August Achilles tear was an unfortunate situation that occurred far too late in the off-season to have expected Chiarelli to find an equivalent replacement. The reality is that any time a player is injured, his replacement is not as good. That has hurt the Oilers so far, but that’s another article for another day. The defence group is basically the same one that led the Oilers to the playoffs in 2016-17. They are not the biggest problem facing the current Oilers.
That problem is in the forward group. The lack of secondary scoring was the concern last season. Chiarelli signed Tobias Rieder with the hope that he would play a complimentary scoring role in the top 9. He also signed Kyle Brodziak to anchor a 4th line and to kill penalties. Rieder can kill penalties too. Alex Chiasson was brought in on a PTO. He can score and kill penalties as well. With three small free agent signings, Chiarelli had added some depth scoring and a lot of penalty killing. However, secondary scoring has still been a concern this season. Rieder had contributed 7 assists in 18 games played before getting hurt, but no goals. Chiasson has been a revelation. He is 3rd on the team in goal scoring with 11. Brodziak was never meant to be a scoring threat, and that has proven itself to be true so far.
Chiarelli has made two in-season moves to address the secondary scoring so far. He shipped out under-performing centre Ryan Strome for under-performing centre/winger Ryan Spooner. This was essentially a lateral move, but Spooner also hasn’t produced thus far (in a small sample size). The other was Friday’s waiver claim: Valentin Zykov from the Carolina Hurricanes. Zykov led the AHL in goal scoring last season with 33 goals. He had 7 points in 10 games in Carolina at the end of last season on a line with Sebastian Aho and Tuevo Teravainen, but he could only muster 3 points in 13 games with Carolina this season.
A closer look at these acquisitions brings “the plan” to light.
Zykov is 23 years old. Spooner is 26. Rieder is 25. Chiasson is 28. According to many studies, NHL forwards peak in their mid-20’s. All of these wingers are either approaching their peaks or are producing at a rate that is near their peaks. With younger players like Zykov and Rieder, it’s like playing the stock market. You buy a stock BEFORE it reaches its peak value in order to gain from its growth. The idea here is that one of these young wingers will build on his achievements in his young career thus far and produce at a higher level. You can apply the same thinking to Puljujarvi and Rattie as well. Chiarelli wants the Oilers to benefit from the anticipated increase in production from one or more of these young wingers. In the case of “older” players like Spooner and Chiasson, the hope is that they can produce at or near their peak level. Chiarelli cashed in on the Chiasson bet. He still needs at least one more of these bets to hit.
“The plan” for this season has been to add young, cheap wingers that have some sort of offensive pedigree and bet that one or two of them will produce. The idea is that these players are able to contribute now AND later.
Look at the situation that the Oilers are in. Chiarelli had next to no cap room to work with this season, mostly because of McDavid’s raise. The Oilers could not afford a proven, veteran top 6 scoring winger. They couldn’t afford another Milan Lucic contract. They also couldn’t afford to take anyone of substance out of the defence group to add to the forward group. The strategy that Chiarelli is using is a creative way to add some scoring. No one can accuse Chiarelli of not being willing to take a risk. None of Rieder, Spooner, or Zykov are guaranteed to produce; but the odds that one of them will are pretty good given their age and their current spots in their career arcs.
If you go back a couple of years, you can see that this has been “the plan” in preparation for this season for quite a while. Look at the situation that Chiarelli was brought in to. Chiarelli was tasked with building a winning team around McDavid as quickly as possible. Everyone is pissed off that the team stumbled after having such high expectations coming in to last season. A popular opinion on Twitter is that it is unacceptable that the Oilers are not a contender in year 4 of McDavid. Year 4 of McDavid is year 1 of his 8-year, $100 million contract. Expecting to add a $6 million + winger on top of the $11.575 million raise this season is ridiculous. The Leafs aigned Tavares for $11 million, but had to let James van Riemsdyk ($7 million) and Tyler Bozak ($5 million) go via free agency. The pressure to win NOW is extreme here. Chiarelli also needs to build a team that can contend for the duration of McDavid’s time in Edmonton. The expectation is that the team wins now AND later.
The key word is “build”. Make no mistake about it: a 2nd rebuild commenced the moment that the Oilers won the 2015 draft lottery. Chiarelli was the man chosen to guide the team through it.
In a rebuild, you trade some big parts of your team for lesser pieces that can help you later. Normally, lesser pieces are draft picks and prospects that are a few years away from contributing. Edmonton doesn’t have time for that. There were a lot of factors that went in to the Hall-Larsson trade, but the return fits the bill: young, cheap, and able to contribute now as well as later. The same could be said for the Eberle trade. Strome was 23 years old at the time of the trade that brought him here. He had some offensive pedigree, although it didn’t pan out here. Chiarelli changed the bet to Spooner this season. Young, cheap, and able to contribute right away as well as later.
It continued last season. Ty Rattie is another one. He has a lot of offensive pedigree, and he was signed as a free agent last season. He was given another contract for this season after his successful stint on McDavid’s wing at the end of last season. 25 years old, cheap, can contribute now and potentially later as well. Chiarelli said that his goal at the trade deadline last year was to acquire prospects that were close to being NHL ready. That mission aligns perfectly with my suggestion for what “the plan” is. He traded Mark Letestu for Pontus Aberg. Aberg was 24 years old at the time of the trade. He had offensive pedigree. He had 8 points in 16 games in Edmonton last season, and he has 10 points in 21 games with Anaheim this season. It was a good bet, but Aberg didn’t help his cause here with his mishap last season and with his play in training camp this season. Patrick Maroon was traded for JD Dudek (not close to NHL ready) and a pick. That pick was later flipped to Philadelphia for 21-year old Cooper Marody, who has already played in NHL games for Edmonton this season.
Look at the last 3 first round draft picks for the Oilers. Jesse Puljujarvi was playing men’s hockey in Finland in his draft year. That was an indication that he might have been closer to being NHL-ready than most of his peers. That hasn’t panned out so far, but that’s a calculated risk that I would take again if I were on the draft floor in 2016. Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard both have late birthdays. A late birthday gives a player one extra year of development when compared to his draft class. That puts Yamamoto and Bouchard one year closer to playing in the NHL than a prospect with an earlier birthday. Even 2018 2nd rounder Ryan McLeod has a late birthday, and that kid looks like he could stick on the Oilers roster next season. The draft strategy aligns with “the plan” of acquiring players that will be ready to contribute sooner rather than later.
“The plan” of utilizing young players that could potentially produce was the right strategy for this season given the cap situation that the Oilers are in, and given the need to build a winner long-term here. The key part is about building a winner long-term. The strategy is a risky one that has decent odds of working out this season, but it could also result in the Oilers missing the playoffs this season. 99.99% of Oilers fans want heads to roll if the team misses the playoffs again. In their minds, everything is riding on the Oilers making the playoffs RIGHT NOW. Guess what… the world isn’t going to end if the team misses the playoffs this year. McDavid isn’t going to demand a trade. A giant black hole isn’t going to form at Rogers Place and suck the entire city into the abyss if the team misses the playoffs this season. Mario Lemieux’s Penguins missed the playoffs in 5 of his first 6 seasons. They won back-to-back Stanley Cups starting in year 7. Pretty sure that turned out okay for Pittsburgh. The Oilers are in a better position than those Penguins. The important thing is that we see improvement. The Oilers need to be playing competitive games in March, which is a distinct possibility with Hitchcock at the helm.
The beautiful thing about “the plan” is that the only forward that isn’t under team control for next season is Chiasson. He would be cheap to re-sign if Chiarelli wanted to. McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, and Lucic are the only forwards that are signed beyond next season. That means that the forward group is LOADED with young, cheap players that are desirable and potentially available to other teams. Chiarelli has a lot of valuable trade pieces at his disposal, and he has another 3 months until the NHL trade deadline.
Including the injured Rieder, the Oilers have 8 NHL quality wingers that could easily be moved: Rieder, Chiasson, Spooner, Kassian, Caggiula, Puljujarvi, Rattie, and Zykov. Guess what… a team only dresses 8 wingers on a given night. That list doesn’t include Lucic or Draisaitl, who are also playing wing. If Hitchcock can’t create a group that can score using the current wingers, Chiarelli could easily make a trade involving one or more of these guys for an upgrade of some sort. The Oilers will have to get back under the cap once Andrej Sekera comes back. Another move may be coming at some point soon. Stay tuned there.
If no trade happens this season, then Chiarelli (or whoever is in charge) will have a lot of ammunition for next summer. Next summer will be when the finishing touches can be put on the rebuild. This is when you use some of the young assets you’ve acquired during the process of moving out the big pieces of what was there at the start to acquire higher quality pieces. Next summer (or at this trade deadline potentially) is when the Oilers can add that top scoring winger. The Oilers have 8 NHL quality wingers that could be moved right now. They have several prospects including Ostap Safin, Kirill Maksimov, Tyler Benson, Ethan Bear, and Caleb Jones that could be included in trades if need be. With Bouchard all but guaranteed a spot next season, one current defenceman will have to be moved to make room. Sekera and Kris Russell both have NMC’s that will be modified to allow a trade to be facilitated in July 2019. Moving one or both would open up a lot of cap space for next season without having to rely on hoping that Lucic will agree to waive his NMC. Cam Talbot and Mikko Koskinen are both UFAs next summer. Only 1 will likely return because both will want raises. There is a lot of potential for a busy off-season in Edmonton next summer, and I’d be shocked if it didn’t result in the Oilers being a contender in the 2019-20 season.
There you have it. THAT is “the plan” that Nicholson spoke of last spring. It is the right strategy for what the Oilers are trying to do as an organization right now. The team is inarguably in a better state than when Chiarelli got here. The defence is better, the goaltending is better, the prospect pool is better, and the results have been better. “The plan” has involved a lot of risk. The early stages of the rebuild saw Chiarelli “lose” some big trades in the eyes of many fans. Chiarelli has had the balls to make the moves that no previous Oilers GM would have had the balls to make. That’s what a rebuild entails. Chiarelli may get fired after this season if the Oilers fail to make the playoffs, but I’m one of very few fans that believes that the firing would be a mistake. Whoever the GM is next season will have Chiarelli to thank for the wonderful position that Chiarelli has put him in going forward.
For now, we will just have to hope that Zykov can produce because he is definitely an exciting prospect! We will also have to hope that Hitchcock can find a way to get Zykov or one of the other young wingers I’ve discussed to start producing so that the Oilers can find themselves in the playoffs in April.