With summer officially coming to an end and training camps set to open across the National Hockey League this week, TSN gets ready for the preseason by looking at the three biggest questions facing each of the seven Canadian franchises.
On tap for today are the Edmonton Oilers, who finished with their highest points percentage in over 30 years (.643) but were swept away by the Winnipeg Jets in the opening round of the playoffs.
1. Is the defence better or worse than last year?
The Edmonton Oilers made massive changes to their defensive corps over the summer.
Gone are Adam Larsson, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear and Oscar Klefbom, with Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci as the primary replacements. We know the Oilers won’t have much of an issue scoring goals, but did they do enough over the summer to prevent giving them up?
Like most off-season overhauls, that answer will likely depend on a few different things.
For starters, what does Keith have left in the tank? Keith is a three-time Stanley Cup winner, a three-time All-Star and a two-time Norris Trophy winner. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2015 and has 625 points in 1,192 career NHL regular-season games.
But Keith is 38 now and as TSN’s Travis Yost points out, no Chicago Blackhawks skater conceded more goals or expected goals against – goaltender neutral – over the past two seasons. Chicago allowed the seventh-most goals last season and Keith was second-worst on the team at minus-13.
The 27-year-old Ceci was signed to a four-year, $13 million contract by the Oilers in free agency but will join his fourth team in the last four seasons. As things stand right now, it’s likely he’ll play with Keith on the second pairing.
Edmonton locked in their top pairing with contract extensions for Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie. Nurse had a career-best 16 goals last season and Barrie recorded 48 points in 56 games.
Considering the firepower the Oilers have up front, this team shouldn’t have any trouble scoring, especially with their defenceman contributing at that level.
Another intriguing option for head coach Dave Tippett is 21-year-old Evan Bouchard. The No. 10 selection from the 2018 draft, Bouchard only has 21 NHL games under his belt and might be asked to take on a much bigger role than in years past.
2. How will major free agent signee Zach Hyman fit in?
As the clock ticked toward free agency last season, Hyman told reporters he would like to remain with the Toronto Maple Leafs if it made sense. But given the Leafs’ cap situation and Hyman’s desire for a long-term deal, what made sense to one side didn’t to the other.
In swooped the Oilers, who signed Hyman to a seven-year, $38.5 million deal in one of the most debated signings of the off-season.
Hyman’s offensive numbers – 15 goals and 18 assists last season – aren’t necessarily eye-popping considering the kind of dollar value and term he got, but the Toronto native brings a lot more to the table than just points. A skilled two-way player with or without the puck, Hyman is a combined plus-70 the past four seasons. Sure, playing alongside Toronto’s other elite forwards helps that, but it’s not like there’s going to be much of a drop-off with the Oilers.
Hyman is expected to slide in beside Connor McDavid – the same Connor McDavid who had 72 assists in 56 games in 2020-21 – on the top line and should have an instant impact for the Oilers on both ends of the ice in the short term.
Time will tell if that holds up as the years go by. History hasn’t been kind to seven-year deals for 29-year-old forwards like Hyman, especially ones with a documented history of knee injuries. But finding a player like Hyman on the open market isn’t easy and is never cheap.
3. Is Jesse Puljujarvi poised to take the next step?
Two years ago, Puljujarvi appeared to have moved on from the Edmonton Oilers.
He was drafted fourth overall in 2016 but bounced between the Oilers and American Hockey League affiliate Bakersfield Condors during his first three seasons. Things didn’t exactly go smoothly, and he signed with Karpat of the SM-liiga in Finland in July of 2019 and elected to re-sign last summer with an opt-out in time for the 2020-21 NHL season.
Since he left as a restricted free agent, the Oilers retained Puljujarvi’s NHL rights. General manager Ken Holland and Tippett promised the youngster a clean slate if he ever decided to return to the NHL.
That might have been exactly what he needed.
Puljujarvi recorded career highs in both goals (15) and assists (10) and was a plus-6, far outpacing his four goal and five assist tally with a minus-14 goal differential in 2018-19, his last NHL campaign before departing for Finland.
Puljujarvi spent much of last season playing on McDavid’s right side and the duo outscored opponents 42 to 33 at even strength. His goal total from 2020-21 isn’t especially impressive alongside McDavid but when you consider that he saw limited power-play time and 13 of his 15 markers came at even strength, it makes more sense. If Hyman slides in on the left side as expected, there could be plenty more opportunity for the 23-year-old to put up some numbers heading into restricted free agency.