The Edmonton Oilers were sent packing from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the opening round of play for the second season in a row. In the summer of 2020, the Oilers were bounced by the Chicago Blackhawks in four games in a best-of-five Qualification Round series. This spring, it was a four game sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets in the first round of the playoffs.
The good news? The Oilers have proven they are a consistent playoff team. In a very weak Pacific Division, they should be finishing above the cutline in 2021-22, potentially with home ice in the opening round.
If the Oilers want to take the next step, going from playoff team to Stanley Cup contender, they must find ways to score beyond their top players. Luckily for Oiler fans, General Manager Ken Holland is aware of this.
Holland spoke to the media on Wednesday in his year end press conference, and noted that improving the secondary scoring of the club would be a priority this off-season.
“I would probably say so,” Holland said when asked about prioritizing both secondary scoring and even strength scoring this summer. “We brought up Ryan McLeod and you look at Puljujärvi, Yamamoto and the young players. That’s part of the secondary (scoring). They’re people that we’re going to grow with and are important in the direction we’re going. They’ve never been through this before. The playoff series that we just had and the Play-in Series we had with Chicago, this was different. This was more like playoff hockey. It was tight-checking. We got to play our way back into the same situation next year.”
While the Oilers will be looking for Puljujarvi to continue his development in a top-six role, for Yamamoto to rebound after a down season and for McLeod to take over the vacant third-line center job, outside additions will help as well.
Young players like the three mentioned above will help produce secondary offense, but the club needs help from either the free agent or trade market. Holland knows that.
“Going under the open market, the free-agent market with whatever salary cap dollars we’ve got available, certainly that’s what we will explore: to try to get a little more secondary scoring,” Holland continued. “Some of the solution is external and some of the solution is internal. Just putting ourselves in this situation over and over and over and over again and getting more comfortable with it, and eventually having success.”
The open market won’t have the star power of years prior, but will still have some strong options for the club. Holland dove deep into winger Blake Coleman back at the 2020 NHL trade deadline, but was not willing to match the price paid by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Coleman will almost certainly hit the market in July.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, will be in tough to re-sign forward Zach Hyman. He’ll be another option for the club should he hit the market. Veterans Taylor Hall, Brandon Saad and Gabriel Landeskog are also scheduled for unrestricted free agency. On top of that, the market will have numerous bottom-six forwards with offensive ability looking for work in a depressed market.
Even when Holland makes additions this summer, and make no mistake he will, they won’t guarantee a thing. That’s the beauty, and frankly the heartbreak, of sports. Nothing is promised, even if you build the team correctly. Holland is no stranger to that.
“It was a lot of disappointment in ’93, ’94, ’95 and ’96 that eventually led to us winning the Cup in ’97 and ’98 (in Detroit),” Holland quipped. “I’m hoping it’s going to be shorter. You got to play your way into the playoffs, got to be a playoff team every year, put yourself into that situation every year and you build and grow on it. In the off-season, you tweak your team and make some changes. And you stick with it.”
The Oilers, in both of Holland’s season, have played their way into the playoffs. Their forecast for a third straight playoff appearance looks good. The trick now, for Holland, is to make those off-season tweaks and get this club better set up for a more fruitful run next April.