Had the world not been hit by a global pandemic, the Edmonton Oilers wold have returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this past April. Instead, the Oilers ‘missed’ the playoffs as they fell in four games to the Chicago Blackhawks in a best-of-five Qualification Round series.
A tough break, to be sure, but the Oilers can consider themselves a playoff team for 2019-20. Moving forward? There is work to be done by veteran President of Hockey Operations and GM Ken Holland.
The Oilers relied heavily on special teams last season, and will need to improve at five-on-five if they hope to take another step.
There is also the challenge of building a team in a pandemic. Regardless of what some will tell you, COVID-19 is very much real and very much still a threat to our society. It’s not going away in the immediate future. As a result, the economic impact the NHL is facing has changed everything. The salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million for at least the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
That creates challenges for GM Ken Holland. It might force him to move on from Andreas Athanasiou or Zack Kassian, two players he planned on having for next season. It also may impact just how much Holland can improve the team this October.
On top of that, it could take the Oilers out of the running for Taylor Hall. The Oilers have had interest in reuniting with the former face of the franchise, and Hall was open to it when the Oilers were talking trade with the Devils last November.
Here is what Holland currently has on his depth chart, including signed players only.
XXX – Connor McDavid – Zack Kassian
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Leon Draisaitl – Kailer Yamamoto
Joakim Nygard – Gaetan Haas – Josh Archibald
James Neal – Jujhar Khaira – Alex Chiasson
Athanasiou is the only RFA of consequence up front. Riley Sheahan, who served as the third-line center last season, is a pending UFA and unlikely to return. Sources indicate he is looking for a raise beyond what the Oilers are comfortable with.
Tyler Ennis can play both wings, is likely to be cheap and is interested in returning to his hometown team. The interest is mutual, and this is likely to come down to contract demands. I lean towards Ennis being the only current UFA forward returning.
Patrick Russell served as an extra forward throughout the season and could garner a new contract as well, while Nygard was recently loaned to Sweden. He’s expected to be recalled for any potential training camp in November/December, however.
Oscar Klefbom – Adam Larsson
Darnell Nurse – XXX
Kris Russell – Caleb Jones
Both Ethan Bear and Matt Benning are RFA’s. Bear does not have arbitration rights and almost certainly will be signed to a bridge deal. Benning will likely be wearing a new uniform whenever next season begins. Evan Bouchard is a wild card here, and he could push his way to the NHL.
Larsson, Klefbom and Nurse could all also be trade chips. Kris Russell, meanwhile, could be used to create cap space.
Holland’s Shopping List:
The good news? The list is much shorter than most years. The bad news? Everything on said list is quite important.
1. Find a tandem goalie: Mikko Koskinen will certainly be back next season. He makes $4.5 million for two more seasons, has a modified no-trade clause and was actually quite solid with a .917 save percentage. The Oilers will need to replace Mike Smith, who only posted a .902 save percentage and was largely ineffective for stretches.
There are plenty of options available both via free agency and trade. They include Thomas Griess, Matt Murray, Casey DeSmith, Frederick Andersen, Aaron Dell, Devan Dubnyk, Alex Stalock, Antti Raanta, Corey Crawford and more.
2. Add a top-six winger: Re-signing Ennis will help in this regard, but the Oilers need a top-six winger to play with Connor McDavid. The second line should be set, with Draisaitl centering Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto.
McDavid doesn’t have any set wingers in my opinion. Kassian was non-existent after signing his extension, and there are rumblings the Oilers could move on.
Free agent options like Taylor Hall, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov make lots of sense and are sexy acquisitions. A two-way forward like Andrew Cogliano, while not sexy, could be a valuable add as well. There are many ways to do this, but someone needs to be added to this forward group. A two-way option in this role is possible as well.
3. Add a third-line center: Sheahan was outstanding on the penalty kill, but was lacking at five-on-five. Fact of the matter is, the Oilers simply did not have a capable third-line center on their roster. Could Gaetan Haas emerge in year two of his North American career and take the job? Possibly, but it would be a risk to bet on that.
A money-for-money kind of trade could be the solution here. What if the Oilers moved, say, Kris Russell to Pittsburgh for Nick Bjugstad? The Penguins get a shutdown defenseman, the Oilers get a right-shot third center. It’s that type of trade that could fill this hole for the Oilers.
There are some free agents, like veteran Carl Soderberg, but not many.
4. Solve the Puljujarvi Dilemma: One way or another, the Jesse Puljujarvi saga needs to end this offseason. Both the player and team would benefit from it. Puljujarvi cannot afford another season outside of the NHL if he is going to establish himself as a player in this league. The Oilers need to recoup assets or find a spot for the player.
In an idea world, Puljujarvi returns as the right wing on the third-line next season. If not, Holland could cash him in for a draft pick, of which the Oilers are lacking, or use him to help unload an unwanted contract. Regardless, after a year in Europe, it feels like this saga is coming towards an end. A solution benefits everyone.