The Edmonton Oilers won the draft lottery, again, because this is something that they are really good at, but this time it’s supposed to be different. They have already started cleaning house, apparently feeling a greater sense of urgency now that they have an incoming generational talent.
Former Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli is coming in to run the Oilers’ hockey operations department and Edmonton is a suddenly desirable destination for a proven head coach.
Connor McDavid is an exceptional player, an 18-year-old who will step into the National Hockey League and produce from the start, but that doesn’t mean Stanley Cups will be back in the City of Champions in no time because McDavid can’t singlehandedly fix all the problems that have plagued an organization that has missed the playoffs for each of the past nine seasons.
Consider that Sidney Crosby, for all of his point production and success in 10 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has won the Stanley Cup once, and needed a Game Seven on the road to do it, so there’s a lot beyond a franchise player that goes into achieving team success.
At the same time, winning this lottery was going to be a gift from the heavens for any team, and it’s no different for the Oilers. They already had some quality young talent on hand and McDavid is going to give them a chance to play entertaining and winning hockey.
The Oilers still have work to do if they are going to compete for a playoff spot, making up a 35-point deficit from this past season, most notably improving their defence and finding a new starting goaltender. But, consider this: if the Oilers can make those upgrades in the summer, they could go into next season with playoff expectations, something that wouldn’t even be on the radar if Connor McDavid wasn’t going to Edmonton.
Peter Chiarelli/Todd Nelson (interim)
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FREE AGENT FORWARDS
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The Oilers are in good shape up front, as one might expect with their recent accumulation of top picks, but adding Connor McDavid to the group makes it an identifiable strength.
First and foremost there is McDavid. With no disrespect intended to the Oilers’ other first overall picks, McDavid is in another stratosphere, a brilliant talent with rare speed and hands. He’s going to come in with sky-high expectations because, at some point, he should develop into the best player in the league. The question is how soon he enters that discussion. If McDavid fits with the Oilers’ other skilled forwards (or, more accurately, if they fit with him) the goals could come in a hurry.
Taylor Hall is coming off a season in which he missed 29 games due to injury and even when he was healthy, his 0.72 points per game was his lowest rate since his rookie season. But, he’s a 23-year-old with high-end skill who scored better than a point-per-game in the previous two seasons.
Jordan Eberle has a knack around the net and was the Oilers’ leading scorer. He’s not the most physically imposing, but his hands and instincts should make him a productive component of the Oilers’ top line.
Though he’s not necessarily heralded like other No. 1 picks, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has developed into a quality two-way centre, coming off back-to-back 56-point seasons.
Because Nugent-Hopkins has experience playing tough minutes, with more defensive zone starts against quality opposition, he can alleviate some of the pressure on McDavid and, because opponents will likely focus their defensive attention on McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins may benefit from more favourable matchups.
Benoit Pouliot didn’t match his career-high of 36 points, set in 2013-2014, but tallied a career-best 19 goals and 34 points in just 58 games for the Oilers in his first year of a five-year deal. He’s a useful complementary winger, who consistently drives play and can score a bit.
It hasn’t been an easy road for Nail Yakupov, the first pick in the 2012 Draft, as he’s racked up his share of minuses over the past couple of seasons, but he finished 2014-2015 with 20 points (9 G, 11 A) in his last 28 games, producing once he had the opportunity to play with a capable offensive centre, Derek Roy. If the Oilers are intent on keeping Yakupov, he can be a good source of secondary offence. If not, he should still have value on the trade market for a team willing to roll the dice on potential.
It took some time and patience with his lack of production, but Anton Lander broke through in the second half of the season and the 23-year-old offers potential as a two-way forward. He also signed a bargain two-year contract extension that could make him an attractive trade commodity now that the Oilers have McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins and potentially Leon Draisaitl down the middle, but Lander could also shift to the wing and that would provide lots of options to mix and match in the middle of the dept chart.
Matt Hendricks is a tough customer who can contribute in a depth role, but has been playing too much for the Oilers, averaging 13:32 of ice time per game over the past two seasons.
Veteran checking centre Boyd Gordon is a faceoff ace, winning more than 56% of his draws over the past two seasons, and he plays a role that is very focused on the defensive side, which can free up offensive opportunities for others in the lineup.
A hard-hitting winger with good size, Rob Klinkhammer didn’t produce much (three points in 40 games) after arriving in Edmonton, but earned a contract for next season nonetheless.
Tough guy Luke Gazdic doesn’t play much and has seven points and 170 penalty minutes in 107 games over the past two seasons, and as he runs out of heavyweights to tangle with, there’s not much reason for him to get into the lineup.
Grabbed off waivers from Boston, Matt Fraser is a sturdy winger who could score in the minors, but is competing for a regular spot in the NHL. He may be on the bubble, depending on what other moves the Oilers make to improve in the offseason.
The Oilers have enough talent to fill out their lineup, but adding a veteran forward or two, to play a role in the middle of the lineup, like Daniel Winnik or Sean Bergenheim, could also offer some lineup insurance.
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FREE AGENT DEFENCE
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Defence is a much greater concern for the Oilers, as they lack top-pair talent, making it one of the focal points of their offseason plan.
One positive on the back end was the development of 2011 first-rounder Oscar Klefbom. He was sheltered in his usage, but logged more than 21 minutes in a puck-moving role and should continue to play a bigger role as he matures.
Team captain Andrew Ference saw his role decrease as the season progressed, and maybe a third-pair role is what the future holds for the 36-year-old vet. A career that spans more than 900 games has taken its toll, as 2006-2007 was the last season in which Ference played more than 72 games.
Nikita Nikitin was not a steadying influence in his first season with the Oilers. He has good size and can handle the puck, but he missed half of the season due to injury and his decision-making was questionable when he was in the lineup.
After signing as a free agent, Mark Fayne didn’t play a very significant role for the Oilers, with no regulars playing less than Fayne’s 17:56 per game. His favourable advanced stats did not translate so well to Edmonton, as his shot differentials sunk well below team average.
When the Oilers inked Justin Schultz to a one-year deal last year, Craig MacTavish talked about Schultz’s “Norris Trophy potential”, which remained well-hidden last season. Schultz can have a role, playing sheltered minutes geared towards the offensive zone, but Schultz playing a team-high 22:37 per game contributed to Edmonton’s defensive troubles.
In the 2013-2014 season, Martin Marincin formed one half (with Jeff Petry) of the Oilers’ best defensive tandem. So, what happened at the start of last season? He was demoted to the AHL, ostensibly because he had a poor training camp, and definitely not because the Oilers had already committed more money to veterans Nikitin and Fayne. In any case, 23-year-old Marincin did get called up again. He could be ready to earn more responsibility or a useful trade chip to acquire more immediate help.
Keith Aulie offers size and toughness, but he’s no more than a depth option, having never played more than 45 games in a season.
Given this cast of characters, the Oilers could really use a top-pair defenceman. That’s not going to be easy to acquire and if it’s not feasible, then adding a veteran top-four defenceman would be a step in the right direction. Free agents like Andrej Sekera, Zbynek Michalek or Christian Ehrhoff may not be franchise cornerstones, but they would be clear upgrades and might buy some time for the younger Oilers defencemen to develop.
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FREE AGENT GOALTENDERS
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Ben Scrivens was looking at a great opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender, and why not? He had a .917 save percentage in 72 games over the previous three seasons, but then fell flat right from the start last season, and finished with an .890 save percentage. He’s still under contract for another season, so it makes sense to have Scrivens around for the backup role, but that does mean that the Oilers still need to find a better starter.
Based on changes with other teams, there should be some established goalies available. Brian Elliott, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson and Ryan Miller were all starters that didn’t start Game One of the playoffs for their respective teams in the postseason (that doesn’t mean they are available, but some of them might be). Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer and Kari Lehtonen could be suitable trade options and there are free agents Antti Niemi and Michal Neuvirth, so there are possibilities.
Those may not sound like Vezina winners, but getting something around league-averaging goaltending next season would make a massive difference, year over year.
|Leon Draisaitl||C||32||19||34||53||+14||Kelowna (WHL)|
|Darnell Nurse||D||36||10||23||33||+18||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)|
|Laurent Brossoit||G||53||0.918||Oklahomas City (AHL)|
|Bogdan Yakimov||C||57||12||16||28||+7||Oklahomas City (AHL)|
|Tyler Pitlick||RW||14||3||6||9||-1||Oklahomas City (AHL)|
|Anton Slepyshev||LW||58||15||10||25||0||Ufa Salavat Yulayev (KHL)|
|Iiro Pakarinen||RW||39||17||11||28||+17||Oklahomas City (AHL)|
|Joey LaLeggia||D||37||15||25||40||+14||Denver (NCHC)|
|Jujhar Khaira||LW||51||4||6||10||-7||Oklahomas City (AHL)|
|Martin Gernat||D||54||1||8||9||+1||Oklahomas City (AHL)|
1st – Connor McDavid
16th – Evgeny Svechnikov, Paul Bittner, Thomas Chabot
The Oilers have approximately $51M committed to the 2015-2016 salary cap for 16 players.
No. 1 defenceman, starting goaltender, one winger
WHAT I SAID THE OILERS NEEDED LAST YEAR
Three forwards, No. 1 defenceman, depth defencemen.
Benoit Pouliot, Teddy Purcell, Mark Arcobello, Leon Draisaitl, Nikita Nikitin, Mark Fayne
Anton Lander, Teddy Purcell, Justin Schultz, Martin Marincin, Mark Fayne, Nikita Nikitin
POSSIBLE 2015-2016 EDMONTON OILERS DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Taylor Hall||Connor McDavid||Jordan Eberle|
|Benoit Pouliot||Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||Nail Yakupov|
|Anton Lander||Leon Draisaitl||Teddy Purcell|
|Rob Klinkhammer||Boyd Gordon||Matt Hendricks|
|Luke Gazdic||Tyler Pitlick||Matt Fraser|
|Jujhar Khaira||Andrew Miller||Iiro Pakarinen|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Oscar Klefbom||Zbynek Michalek||Antti Niemi|
|Andrew Ference||Martin Marincin||Ben Scrivens|
|Nikita Nikitin||Mark Fayne||Laurent Brossoit|
|Darnell Nurse||Justin Schultz|
|Joey LaLeggia||Keith Aulie|
Enhanced stats via www.war-on-ice.com.
(SAT% - shot attempt percentage; SAT%Rel - shot attempt percentage, relative to team when off the ice; SPSV% - combined on-ice shooting and save percentage; OZS% - percentage of faceoffs to start shift in the offensive zone vs. defensive zone)
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com