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Off-Season Game Plan: Edmonton Oilers

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Scott Cullen
5/29/2013 3:25:43 PM
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Expectations were high for the Edmonton Oilers entering the 2013 NHL season. After years of finishing at the bottom of the standings, and accumulating top-end talent, the Oilers were supposed to at least challenge for a playoff spot.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Oilers might do this summer so that they can finally take the next step and become a playoff team.

It's not as if the Oilers weren't competitive at all last season. They were 16-13-7 on April 3, the date of the NHL trade deadline, then lost nine of their next ten games to fall completely out of the playoff mix in the Western Conference.

The Oilers have now gone seven seasons out of the playoffs since losing in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final. Their coach then, Craig MacTavish, is their new general manager now, and MacTavish could be ready to make some changes.

Working in his favour is that the Oilers have added a lot of quality young players to their roster, a core around which they can build, so it's more about adding to what is already in place rather than starting from scratch.

"The good thing is we don't need to add the high-end skill, we need the complementary pieces now," MacTavish said at the year-end press conference. "I know those pieces are easier to come by. They're still difficult, but they're easier to come by."

That likely means a summer of changes in Edmonton. A new, if familiar, face calling the shots and at least talking the talk of someone who is prepared to have next season's opening night roster look significantly different than the one that ended the 2013 season.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

GM/COACH
Craig MacTavish/Ralph Krueger

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Taylor Hall 81.53 45 16 34 50 +5 $6.0M
Jordan Eberle 72.52 48 16 21 37 -4 $6.0M
Nail Yakupov 68.34 48 17 14 31 -4 $3.775M
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 66.53 40 4 24 28 +3 $3.775M
Ales Hemsky 64.49 38 9 11 20 -6 $5.0M
Shawn Horcoff 62.57 31 7 5 12 +8 $5.5M
Ryan Smyth 57.56 47 2 11 13 -5 $2.25M
Eric Belanger 54.69 26 0 3 3 -1 $1.75M
Mike Brown 52.19 39 1 1 2 -7 $737K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Sam Gagner 71.37 48 14 24 38 -6 RFA $3.2M
Magnus Paajarvi 63.00 42 9 7 16 -1 RFA $1.525M
Ryan Jones 58.99 27 2 5 7 0 UFA $1.5M
Lennart Petrell 57.77 35 3 6 9 -4 UFA $825K
Jerred Smithson 55.43 45 3 3 6 -4 UFA $800K
Teemu Hartikainen 52.61 23 1 2 3 -8 RFA $875K

Oilers Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

Staying healthy in a shortened NHL season, Taylor Hall emerged in his third NHL campaign as a bona fide star, scoring 50 points in 45 games. Since 1990, there have been precious few players 21 or under that scored better than 1.10 points per game and nearly all of them went on to have Hall-of-Fame-calibre careers. Hall is a game-breaker, who puts pressure on defences with his speed and, as he gets stronger, he's only going to be harder to stop as he drives to the net. The big question for Hall's future is whether he's best served staying on the wing or moving to centre.

When Jordan Eberle tallied 76 points in 78 games in 2011-2012, he was heralded as a scoring sensation, but those numbers weren't easily sustained because Eberle had scored on 18.9% of his shots (and, when he was on the ice, the Oilers had a 12.84% on-ice shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play). Those percentages are way on the high end of the spectrum so, while not impossible to duplicate, it's extremely difficult to repeat.

Regression reared its ugly head for Eberle in 2013, but it's not like 37 points in 48 games presents a long-term concern, particularly during a season when his percentages dropped so dramatically. With all that taken into account, Eberle has scored 50 goals over the past two seasons, which ranks 14th in the league, so there's every reason to believe that he can be a productive scorer for many years.

Through the end of March, Nail Yakupov had six goals and 16 poins in 34 games; respectable totals for a rookie, though not earth-shattering. But the final month was a different story. Getting an extra couple of minutes of ice time per game as the Oilers fell out of playoff contention, Yakupov fired in 11 goals and 15 points in the last 14 games (including six goals in the final three games), to surge into the rookie scoring lead.

Yakupov faces regression risk too, after scoring on 21.0% of his shots as a rookie, but that could be mitigated by a few things, most notably more ice time and the likelihood that he will be able to create more scoring chances as he matures and gets stronger. The strong finish is intriguing, though, because it is an indication that Yakupov can already complement Hall and Eberle, with legitimate first-line upside in his own right.

A talented playmaker with elite vision, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins needs to keep getting stronger so that he can handle the rigors of NHL hockey (he's played 102 of a possible 130 games through his first two seasons) and even though his scoring numbers weren't great in his sophomore year, his possession numbers were very strong. Given his setup skills, Nugent-Hopkins should be a fine complement to Hall and/or Eberle for years to come, but he needs to stay healthy in order to put up the numbers that his skill suggests is possible.

There was a time, not so long ago before injuries wreaked havoc with his career, that Edmonton's offence was driven by Ales Hemsky, but that seems like another lifetime after he's scored 56 points in 107 games over the past two seasons, punctuated by poor possession numbers in 2013. With one year remaining on his deal, Hemsky could fill a complementary offensive role or, more likely, he could be trade bait, but expectations have to be dialed down at this point even though Hemsky is just 29.

Shawn Horcoff has been a dutiful worker since signing his outrageous contract extension, taking on tougher assignments, thereby freeing younger forwards for more favourable matchups, but when a guy is getting the kind of money Horcoff is, he needs to be more than a sacrificial lamb. For that reason, Horcoff is a prime compliance buyout candidate. A fresh start somewhere else, where he could fit in a third-line role without the expectations created by a massive contract, might be best for the 34-year-old who has topped 50 points four times, the last being in 2008-2009.

With nearly 1200 NHL games, Ryan Smyth has enjoyed a great deal of success, scoring at least 20 goals in 11 different seasons, but he had two goals in 47 games last season as, at 37, he's not able to keep pace with the Oilers' younger scoring forwards. He has one year left on his contract and can play it out in a checking role.

When the Oilers signed Eric Belanger, in the summer of 2011, he had just completed five consecutive seasons of scoring between 35 and 41 points, so they had every right to expect more than four goals, 19 points and a minus-14 rating in 104 games. If Edmonton wants to buy out the final year of Belanger's deal, that's an option, or they could let him ride it out, but expectations have to be very low at this point.

When Ben Eager fell out of favour in Edmonton, the Oilers determined that they still needed someone to play pugilist when needed and Mike Brown has racked up 64 fighting majors over the last five seasons, including a dozen in the shortened 2013 campaign. Brown is tough, to be sure, but isn't a heavyweight, so he can find an opponent nearly every night. As gritty as he may be, Brown is a puck possession disaster, so he needs to be used in very specific situations to minimize the negative effects.

The curious case of Sam Gagner is that, coming off a breakout offensive season, the 23-year-old could be a prime trade chip if the Oilers choose to use one of their skilled young players in order to acquire a defenceman. That doesn't mean it has to happen. If the Oilers have another way to bring in a top-pair blueliner, or can't find a way to get that done, it's hardly the end of the world to have Gagner and Nugent-Hopkins manning the top two centre spots.

His path to the NHL hasn't been as smooth as the Oilers' other recent first-round picks, but Magnus Paajarvi played well once he was recalled from the American Hockey League and he has enough size and skill to play a top nine role now, with perhaps potential for more of an offensive contribution. He is just 22, after all.

Filling in the spaces around the Oilers' star forwards may not be easy, but there are options out there. A checking centre like Maxim Lapierre or Boyd Gordon would improve the lower half of the forward depth chart and another veteran pickup is probably necessary. A big winger like Bryan Bickell or Dainius Zubrus, while different players, could add much-needed size. Should the Oilers get bold and move Gagner, they could look to free agent centres like Stephen Weiss, Derek Roy or Tyler Bozak to fill the second-line spot.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Justin Schultz 70.21 48 8 19 27 -17 $3.775M
Jeff Petry 67.78 48 3 9 12 +1 $1.75M
Corey Potter 64.11 33 3 1 4 +8 $775K
Ladislav Smid 62.98 48 1 3 4 -1 $3.5M
Nick Schultz 62.50 48 1 8 9 -13 $3.5M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Mark Fistric 67.34 25 0 6 6 +6 UFA $1.475M
Ryan Whitney 65.75 34 4 9 13 -7 UFA $4.0M
Theo Peckham 57.84 4 0 0 0 -1 RFA $1.075M

Oilers Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com

After he was courted by just about every team in the league coming out of the University of Wisconsin (and not signing with Anaheim, who made him a second-round pick in 2008), Justin Schultz ripped apart the AHL, scoring a mind-boggling 18 goals and 48 points in 34 games. There was obviously some benefit to sharing AHL ice with NHLers like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but those numbers probably inflated expectations for Schultz.

As it turned out, Schultz's offensive skills are as good as advertised, but his play without the puck isn't as strong and, as a result, he was playing a couple of minutes per game less in the second half of the season. Nevertheless, Schultz can be a major cog for the Oilers, it would obviously be better if his game rounded out a little as he grows into his NHL career.

Though he was among the league leaders in giveaways, Jeff Petry has become a solid top four defenceman, playing close to 22 minutes per game over the last two seasons. He has good size, skates well and, with more experience, should make beter decisions.

While Corey Potter plays a depth role, and he saw fewer minutes in 2013 than the year before, the late bloomer doesn't hurt the Oilers, putting up solid possession numbers when he is in the lineup. As a number six or seven, Potter is a very economical choice.

Ladislav Smid was one of three defencemen in the league with at least 150 hits and 100 blocked shots, so there's no doubting that he lays his body on the line, but those are also stats accrued when the Oilers don't have the puck. It's fair to question whether the Oilers could get better possession stats from Smid, yet if they are concerned about defensive toughness and figure to lose Mark Fistric as a free agent, Smid should continue in a regular turn on the Edmonton blueline going forward.

Veteran Nick Schultz was a career-worst minus-13 and his 18:38 time on ice per game was his lowest since 2005-2006, yet his possession numbers weren't bad relative to other Oilers defencemen.

Bruiser Theo Peckham had a difficult time even getting in the lineup, playing four games for the Oilers in 2013, so it's conceivable that he might not even get a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. If he does stick around, he's a No. 7 or No. 8 defenceman.

Few teams have a more glaring need than the Oilers on the blueline. If they turn to free agency, paying for a strong puck-mover like Mark Streit could hold some appeal, even if Streit is 35-years-old. Adding a quality veteran, who would effectively replace Ryan Whitney, would show a sense of urgency for this group to be more competitive.

If Edmonton wants to look through the trade market, perhaps prepared to move a quality young forward or two, it could be worth kicking the tires on Alexander Edler or Kevin Bieksa in Vancouver, Brent Seabrook from Chicago or Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian. None of those players would come cheaply, because it's never easy to acquire a top pair defenceman, but they would surely upgrade Edmonton's back end.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Devan Dubnyk 74.31 38 14 16 6 2.57 .920 $3.5M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Class '12-'13 Cap Hit
Nikolai Khabibulin 76.09 12 4 6 1 2.55 .923 UFA $3.75M

Over the last three seasons, Devan Dubnyk has a .917 save percentage, which ranks 14th among goaltenders with at least 100 games played over that span, yet the Oilers don't necessarily seem convinced that the 27-year-old is their answer between the pipes.

Barring a major trade, and assuming that Nikolai Khabibulin will be moving on as a free agent, there are still free agent options for the Oilers to consider in net. Mathieu Garon is a reliable veteran backup or a healthy Jose Theodore could push Dubnyk and still come at a reasonable price after an injury-plagued season.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Oscar Klefbom D Farjestads (SEL) 0-3-3, +7, 11 GP
Martin Marincin D Oklahoma City (AHL) 7-23-30, +20, 69 GP
Toni Rajala RW Oklahoma City (AHL) 17-28-45, +18, 46 GP
David Musil D Edmonton (WHL) 9-22-31, +29, 62 GP
Martin Gernat D Edmonton (WHL) 3-10-13, +8, 23 GP
Anton Lander C Oklahoma City (AHL) 9-11-20, -1, 47 GP
Tyler Pitlick C Oklahoma City (AHL) 3-7-10, -7, 44 GP
Jujhair Khaira LW Michigan Tech. (WCHA) 6-19-25, +2, 37 GP
Daniil Zharkov LW Belleville (OHL) 25-18-43, +18, 59 GP
Joey LaLeggia D Denver (WCHA) 11-18-29, -7, 39 GP

Oscar Klefbom's season was cut short by shoulder surgery, and he hasn't been playing a ton in Sweden (67 games over the last three seasons), so his game could use some refining, the kind of stuff that happens when a player gets game reps. At the same time, he's 6-foot-3, has good mobility and can move the puck, so his potential puts him at the top of an Oilers prospect list that is, admittedly thinned because so many of their recent top picks are already in the NHL.

6-foot-5 blueliner Martin Marincin is a high-risk, high-reward player, one who can do a lot of good things, the challenge is minimizing the mistakes. That's not unusual for a young defenceman, though and, given his frame and skills, Marincin should be a part of the future on the Edmonton blueline. How soon is the question.

Tiny Toni Rajala was a fourth-round pick in 2009, played one year in The Dub, returned to Finland for a couple of seasons and then started the 2012-2103 in the ECHL, so it hardly looked like he was on track as a prospect. But, after he was called up to the AHL, he scored 45 points in 46 games, before adding 14 points in 12 playoff games. He may be too small, and could use to add some muscle, but that kind of offensive ability is going to at least warrant a look, to see if Rajala can do it at the next level.

A big defensive defenceman, David Musil was a second-round pick in 2011. He's not going to put up points but, with some time to develop in the AHL, could become a steady, reliable pro. Nothing flashy.

Tall and talented, Martin Gernat missed much of the season after shoulder surgery, but recovered to produce 17 points in 22 playoff games. Some time in the AHL will do him good, but his offensive potential could make the Slovak a bargain as a fifth-round pick (in 2011).

Drafted in the second round in 2009, Anton Lander has played 67 games for the Oilers over the last two seasons, while logging 61 games in the AHL and, while he could be more, that might also be what the 22-year-old is: a fringe NHLer. He only has seven points in those 67 career NHL games, which isn't enough, even for a fourth-line player, but he's young, so with some development, maybe Lander could become a solid checker.

A second-round pick in 2010, Tyler Pitlick has good size and managed 33 points in 106 career AHL games. He's been better in the playoffs (13 points in 24 games) and is still just 21-years-old, so there is time for him to get more productive.

Taken out of the BCHL in the third round of last summer's draft, 6-foot-3 winger Jujhar Khaira had a solid freshman season at Michigan Tech. He's several years away, but the 19-year-old offers some potential as a scoring winger with size.

After a couple of seasons in the OHL with Belleville, 2012 third-round pick Daniil Zharkov has signed a two-year deal in the KHL. He's only 19, so the next two years were going to be for development anyway, but there is always the concern that he will simply remain in the KHL. If he does come back to North America, Zharkov has enticing traits, including size, speed and a good shot.

An undersized defenceman that has put up 67 points in two seasons at Denver University, Joey LaLeggia could ultimately be nothing more than a minor-league defenceman, but he also might be able to carve out a career as a power play specialist because of superb offensive instincts.

Oklahoma City has some other, older prospects, like C Mark Arcobello (who had 68 points in 74 AHL games in 2012-2013), D Taylor Fedun and recently-signed Andrew Miller, that could get a shot.

DRAFT
7th - Elias Lindholm, Darnell Nurse, Sean Monahan.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Oilers have approximately $51.7M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 15 players.

Check out my possible Oilers lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.

What I said the Oilers needed last year: One top six forward, one or two top pair defencemen.

They added: Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz, Mark Fistric.

TRADE MARKET
Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Nick Schultz.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Oilers celebrate (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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