In 2020, the Edmonton Oilers approached the NHL’s trade deadline with a mindset to buy assets in advance of a playoff push. Just week’s after the deadline, the COVID-19 pandemic swept North America and hasn’t left. Deadline additions Mike Green and Andreas Athanasiou never got comfortable in Edmonton, and the Oilers ended up losing valuable assets with minimal return.
At the 2021 NHL trade deadline, GM Ken Holland took a different approach. The Oilers weren’t ‘all-in’ this time, and took a much more cautious approach. While the Toronto Maple Leafs made an impact addition with Nick Foligno, the Oilers added veteran D Dmitry Kulikov at a small cost.
Kulikov is a solid addition for the Oilers who will help them in a shutdown role. He could even play top-four minutes, filling the vacant second pairing position on the left side. However, the addition falls short of the hopes of most Oiler fans. It also falls short of the hopes of Holland, who did explore other avenues.
“He’s a left-shot defenseman that’s played over 700 NHL games,” Holland said of Kulikov on Monday afternoon. “He’s an experienced guy and I think he’s played over 20 playoff games. He can skate, he can make a good first pass and he’s defensive-minded. He’s got some edge to his game and he can kill penalties.”
In the days leading into the deadline, defensive depth became a priority for the Oilers. Darnell Nurse has had a career season, but the club badly misses Oscar Klefbom in the top-four. Youngsters William Lagesson and Caleb Jones have tried to fill a top-four spot in Klefbom’s absense, but neither of them has been able to take a spot fulltime. That led to Holland’s decision to add a body at the position.
Holland was also looking to add a left winger with some skill, and sources do confirm that he looked into a third-line center capable of winning faceoffs and playing on the penalty kill. Ultimately, the Oilers knew getting both was unlikely at best. Getting one of them was a goal that came up short on this day.
“Money was tight and the assets were tight,” Holland said when asked about his situation at the deadline. That combination, along with needing roughly $2,000,000 to activate Slater Koekkoek from LTIR and recall players from the taxi squad, made other moves unlikely.
Still, Holland could have gotten creative and called in a third team to broker a trade and eat some cap space. Both the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings did that to help contenders like the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning over the last 72 hours.
The thought never really came across Holland’s mind, however.
“No,” he quickly responded when asked if he’d considered the creative avenue that brought Foligno to Ontario and David Savard to Tampa. According to sources, the reason for the lack of creativity came from a lack of desire to part with more draft picks. At the end of the day, with second and third rounders already off the board this summer, the Oilers weren’t willing to part with more draft capitol.
That hindered the Oilers in Taylor Hall talks. While the Sabres were willing to retain 50% of Hall’s salary, clearly, they weren’t willing to take back a contract like Alex Chiasson without the Oilers including their first-round pick. Holland, of course, wasn’t going to move the pick for a rental. The Oilers pursued, but weren’t willing to put together an offer that could have matched Boston’s second-round pick and young forward Anders Bjork.
As a result, when the Sabres went to Hall with options, Edmonton was no longer truly in the running.
Edmonton also looked at St. Louis Blues winger Mike Hoffman, but the Blues’ recent stretch of hot play pushed them to a decision to keep Hoffman. Anthony Mantha and Rickard Rakell were also investigated, but sources indicate it was never serious. The Oilers weren’t willing to pay the price Mantha got, rightfully, and didn’t have the firepower to match Washington. The Ducks never got close to moving Rakell on this day.
At center, the Oilers and Flames flirted on Derek Ryan talks, but again the deal didn’t advance too far because the Flames weren’t overly interested in a veteran like Chiasson and the Oilers weren’t in a position to move their third-round pick next season following the Kulikov deal.
At the end of the day, Holland added a piece in Kulikov that can help. He also decided to not sell the farm and “go for it” by adding a third-line center or a top-six winger. Those holes remain for the Oilers, and they very well could be the reason that the team fails to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
That said, Holland publicly believes that the championship window in Edmonton is opening. He told ‘Tim and Friends’ following Monday’s deadline that he feels the club is “entering” their window to win. He also added that he was “tempted” to sell the farm, but held off.
Perhaps its because Holland looks at the Maple Leafs and doesn’t think this is the year to go for it. Perhaps his eye is set to the future. Multiple insiders, including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, believe the Oilers will be a “major player” in free agency this summer. Mike Futa, a former Assistant GM with the Los Angels Kings, concurs.
Maybe Holland views the window as opening in 2021-22, when contracts for Alex Chiasson, Jujhar Khaira, Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kris Russell expire. Perhaps Holland feels he’ll be able to buyout James Neal and move Mikko Koskinen off the books this summer to really open things up. Perhaps that is the plan, and Holland simply gave his team a nice little piece as a tip of the cap after a strong regular season.
Regardless, Oiler fans are restless today. It’s easy to understand why. The Toronto Maple Leafs started their rebuild after both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were in place. They are firmly “going for it”. The Oilers, with two top-five players in the world, admittedly aren’t. Whether or not you agree with Holland’s approach, the frustration is understandable from some.
The real test will be this summer. The Oilers will be playing in a weak Pacific Division in 2021-22, and in theory should have plenty of cap space and assets to make a dent. Perhaps that will be the time to be aggressive and go for it. Only time will tell if Holland and the Oilers made the right call.
For now, the veteran manager elected to keep his power dry, protect his remaining picks and prospects, and turn his eyes to a free agent period with extra cap space in a ‘flat cap’ world.