The Edmonton Oilers re-signed pending RFA F Devin Shore to a two-year contract extension with an annual value of $850,000 on Wednesday afternoon. With that first bit of business taken care of, the bottom-six forward group for the 2021-22 Oilers has begun to take shape.
The 2020-21 group, to put it nicely, was not good enough. The Oilers struggled to score at five-on-five when their bottom-six was on the ice. They were routinely outshot, out-chanced and outscored when their depth players allowed the big dogs to rest. Regardless of what GM Ken Holland said in the spring prior to the trade deadline, Edmonton’s depth was poor at best last season.
In fact, without Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the ice, the Oilers only managed 35.8% of the goals. That’s a number similar to arguably the worst team in franchise history, the 2009-10 club.
Luckily for the Oilers, both McDavid and Draisaitl are in their primes, and the club has had the best powerplay in the league for two straight seasons. In a pair of weaker divisions, that has been enough for back-to-back playoff berths.
Now, however, it is time for the Oilers to take that next step. If Edmonton is going to be a real Stanley Cup contender, they need to be better without McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice. We know that already, and Holland does too.
At his season ending press conference, Holland admitted that adding secondary scoring would be a priority this off-season.
“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 said in May. “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.”
Part of adding secondary scoring will be, without doubt, revamping a bottom-six that has largely been a blackhole since 2016-17.
We know that at least three pieces of the 2020-21 bottom-six will be back in 2021-22. Josh Archibald, a speedy penalty killer who plays a physical style and has some skill, will return. Archibald has one season remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $1,500,000. Archibald isn’t a perfect player, but he’s a solid bottom-six forward who can move up and down the lineup if needed.
Ryan McLeod, recalled by the club late in the season, will also return. Another speedy forward with some skill, McLeod will enter his rookie season as Edmonton’s third line center of the future. The internal improvement that Holland talks about will likely come from McLeod and his AHL teammate Tyler Benson. McLeod saw some powerplay time in Edmonton this year, and has penalty killed at the AHL level.
Lastly, Shore is also a lock to return. Best used as a 13th forward, Shore plays a physical style and can kill penalties. He struggled at five-on-five last season, however, and shouldn’t be counted on for anything higher than fourth line duty. He’s fine in that role, but likely won’t provide much in the way of offense.
Who Is On The Fence?
There are two players who will need a decision made on them in the coming weeks. One is pending RFA Jujhar Khaira, who had arguably his best NHL season in 2020-21. The other is Zack Kassian, who has been a massive disappointment since signing a four-year contract extension in January of 2020. Kassian has three seasons left on his contract with an AAV of $3,200,000.
The decision on Khaira is simple. He requires a qualifying offer, and if he doesn’t get one then he will be allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent at the end of July. If Edmonton signs him, he could fill the role of fourth line center for the club.
Khaira is another one of the big, physical forwards who is a strong penalty killer inside the bottom-six. There isn’t much offense here, however, despite a strong month of February. Still, Khaira is a real NHL player, and a club could do worse than him in a fourth line center role.
Problem is, if Edmonton signs the right-shot center they desire for the third line, then McLeod is relegated to the fourth line center position. Khaira could, in that situation, shift to left wing while Shore heads to the press box as a healthy scratch.
The Oilers are considering protecting Kassian, but should leave him exposed for Seattle. Kassian struggled mightily the second the ink was dry on his contract, and was a non-factor in the ‘Play-in’ round last August. His 2020-21 season wasn’t much better, as he was demoted out of the top-six and sustained two injuries.
There is the possibility that a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers trades for Kassian. Both teams are very open about their desire to add grit this summer. If there is a way out here, which I’m not sold there is, the Oilers should take it.
Both Joakim Nygard and Gaetan Haas have departed the organization. Nygard signed a six-year deal in Sweden earlier this spring, while Haas inked a five-year deal in Switzerland on Thursday. Both players struggled to find consistent work in their two seasons in Edmonton, and will return to Europe where they are proven stars. Neither was able to provide any kind of consistent offense in the NHL.
Patrick Russell is a pending UFA who struggled to play regularly this season. It’s unlikely that he gets another contract with the club. Ditto Tyler Ennis, who produced well when playing but didn’t penalty kill and seemed to be in Dave Tippett’s doghouse for most of the season. They will both be erased from the bottom-six group.
Kyle Turris is almost certainly done in Edmonton. He has one season remaining on his contract, and will likely hit the waiver wire in training camp and be sent to Bakersfield to finish out the final year of his deal.
Is There Room For Improvement?
There is absolutely room for improvement among Edmonton’s bottom-six forward group, even if the club brings both Kassian and Khaira back. In that case, the club still needs to add a bottom-six, right-shot center. They’d also still be able to sign a winger.
Derek Ryan is the leader in the clubhouse, in my opinion, to fill that center spot. He’s 34-years-old, but Ryan still has gas in the tank and can be a stopgap at the third line center spot until McLeod is ready for the added responsibility.
The club is also expected to give Tyler Benson a real opportunity this fall. Benson was a point-per-game player in the AHL this past season, scoring 36 points in as many games. It was the second time in three seasons on the farm where he has been an impact player. If that wasn’t enough, Benson was a regular penalty killer for the Condors, and will need waivers this fall.
There are also ample free agents that could help the club in a depth role. Corey Perry will once again hit the market this summer, and has proven that he can help a team from down the depth chart. Joel Armia adds size, possession and depth scoring to any roster, while Barclay Goodrow, Tomas Nosek and Blake Comeau will also hit the market.
In an ideal world, the Oilers are able to move Kassian for a low-level prospect or a mid-to-late round draft pick. That would free up $3,200,000, and would allow Edmonton to make an addition to their bottom-six.
In that scenario, the club could sign Ryan to a two-year deal worth $1,800,000 per season and Armia to a three-year deal worth $2,850,000. Both contracts, and the subtractions of Kassian, Haas, Ennis and Nygard, would give the group a new look.
Tyler Benson – Derek Ryan – Joel Armia
Jujhar Khaira – Ryan McLeod – Josh Archibald
Even if the club can’t more Kassian, they could get creative and add at least two more pieces to the bottom-six.
Artturi Lehkonen – Derek Ryan – Zack Kassian
Tyler Benson – Ryan McLeod – Josh Archibald
Devin Shore, Jujhar Khaira
These are just two possible outcomes for Edmonton’s bottom-six in 2021-22. Both would represent improvements over the 2020-21 edition, which should be the goal for Holland. If he can improve the bottom-six, while adding a real top-six forward to the mix, then Edmonton should be entering the playoffs no worse than in the second spot in the Pacific Division.
The Devin Shore signing caused a stir on Wednesday in Oil Country. It was a curious move, giving two-years to a depth forward, but in no way is a backbreaker for the club. Improving the bottom-six is still the goal, Shore’s signing doesn’t change that and won’t get in the way of improvements in July.