Deep Dive: The Path Forward

Discussing various deadline approaches

 

Before we begin to understand where we are going, it helps to understand where we are. With 2 MVP talents on the same team, both in their primes (most franchises don’t have 2 in their history) the bar for success is higher than a wildcard spot, a position the team is barely hanging onto, if that. Of course, with a long bout of losing, and a long time between games thanks to COVID, we’ve all been steeped into a spiral of negativity.

 

The Oilers are a bit short in a lot of areas, including cap space, the currency from which opportunity is afforded. The one thing that is certain is that there is a limited number of improvements that can be made, so not every item that we think of can be seen to.

 

The ultimate goal of victory is urgent in each and every year, including this one. Although there are some interesting prospects en route, as it stands the future of the team is not guaranteed to be much better. What I mean to say is, I believe that any moves that are made should first prioritize the strength of the Oilers future, the next 3 seasons after this that both Draisaitl and McDavid are under contract.

 

How aggressive one could or should be is a gradient, based on circumstances. Of course we don’t want to see the Oilers punt on this season, but I think it’s much more prudent to keep those 3 subsequent seasons in context when considering any changes. In all, I don’t believe that buying expiring contracts is a very productive means to the Oilers end goals.

 

Goaltending

 

This is no doubt top of mind for most everyone, as league-wide rumours are starting to swirl, names are being thrown out. The margin for error is extremely thin given Smith’s age and Koskinen’s ceiling as a backup. The Oilers need an upgrade, someone to be at least a tandem leader.

 

Smith’s growing unavailability is not ideal, but Skinner seems ready to get more starts. Worst case, if no one is added, I hope Skinner gets a greater percentage of starts when he is with the NHL club. Whether he surprises into a starters role or not, he is ready and able to at least reduce the load on either Koskinen or Smith more than he was given the chance to so far. It is important for him to play games, as he’s still quite young, so it makes sense to take advantage of any waiver eligibility he has.

 

Price, Fleury, Georgiev, and Korpisalo are all names that have been brought up. Goaltending performance is nothing if not volatile, but all of these options would almost certainly represent an upgrade in the crease.

 

The pair of legends are due their share of respect when it comes to deciding their next steps, so in each case the Oilers will partly be at the mercy of the players’ wishes. Price is out right now, and we’ll see what he wants to do when he gets back. I’ve long been a backer of Price as an elite player, even when his regular season numbers went through their fair share of rough patches. The salary is an issue, but Montreal is looking to liquidate their players into futures, and could provide interesting options in terms of taking on or keeping some of the cap hit. Fleury is a bit older and on an expiring deal. It most definitely makes sense for Chicago to trade him to chase a Cup, but if I were Fleury I would like my chances with Colorado, or even Pittsburgh, better as true contenders who might be looking for a goalie upgrade.

 

At this point Korpisalo’s stock might not be very high. He’s 27, which is right about the last stop when a lot of the good young backups start jumping into starting roles (of course not always!), meaning he could be stepping into his own. He is a UFA this summer, but with Columbus committing to Merzlikins, a nice situation could see a beneficial short term contract for each side. He is having a down year, plagued by injuries, but there’s some talent. Even if he doesn’t follow Jack Campbell’s path to Vezina talks, he would make a great tandem partner for Skinner in the next 2 seasons or so, at least.

 

At least with Georgiev there are some years of team control, as he is an RFA with arbitration rights this summer. Historically, with Georgiev wrapped up in trade rumours at all times, the Rangers asking price has been very steep, valuing him closer to a top prospect than a backup goalie. For these reasons I think the Rangers will keep him, and they don’t necessarily have anyone pushing for that spot internally, not to mention their outstanding record has them focused on winning now (and Shesterkin’s injury history). I like Georgiev as a player but I don’t see this as a possibility.

 

There are some other possibilities, many thinking Ullmark might be pushed out when Rask returns. Ullmark would be a good addition, at least as safe a bet as Korpisalo. I would be less passionate about Jake Allen, but both are NHL goalies under contract beyond this season.

 

It might be too late for a waiver wire goalie from last season, in Anton Forsberg, and it might be too late for a waiver goalie this season, Malcolm Subban, now in Buffalo. A pickup like this is speculative, and might only serve to muddy the waters of the depth chart. Perhaps alongside another move something along these lines might make sense, but theoretically if one could cash in their bet the payoff would be huge.

 

Defence

 

The defence is middling as a whole. It has its bright spots, namely Nurse and Bouchard. Ceci and Keith have been solid, but it’s fair to say that they should be pushed for minutes by a 3rd pair in earnest, to the point that it’s hard to put them in order. Lagesson has had incredible underlying numbers, and plenty of the depth performers have held up their end or the bargain, in Koekkoek, Niemelainen, and Russell.

 

A true NHL arrival seems like it will have to wait until next season for Broberg and Samorukov, but both will be extremely valuable on low cost deals when they earn a regular spot. Trading either would be extremely expensive, in particular Broberg who has NHL tools and a high pedigree.

 

It’s frustrating because what this defence really needs is something they already had in Ethan Bear. A young, right shot, defensively capable, low cost player on an inexpensive contract. There are other defenders on the market, including some that might be better players, but the combination of traits is rare and valuable. To be tangential, imagine this defence group:

 

Nurse — Bear

Lagesson — Bouchard

Keith — Ceci

 

That’s a good blueline! Nurse and Bear were great together, Lagesson and Bouchard push Keith and Ceci perfectly. Nurse, Bouchard, and Keith can all play on the power play.

 

At any rate, finding a defender who can unquestionably deliver top 4 minutes is never cheap or easy. The cost for Chychrun is said to be huge, but it’s an understandable concept given his talent, cap hit, and years of control. It’s very much something that needs to be considered. Of all the names I’ll mention in this article, it’s the one I would pay the most for.

 

Other common rumours will surround veterans on expiring contracts. I can see how a player like Ben Chiarot could improve this blueline, but the cost will not be inexpensive, and a player of his ilk might not be affordable to the Oilers to re-sign. It makes sense to add a defence-leaning player given the Oilers plethora of offensive skills already. I don’t think it’s wise to be spending valued futures on such players at this point.

 

There could be a different approach to improving the Oilers window, trading for a prospect who might be ready to step into their own. I bring this up with a specific player in mind, Pierre-Olivier Joseph in Pittsburgh. The Penguins left side is well accounted for, but Joseph has shown undeniable talent during his brief NHL stints this season and last. He has some similarities to Bouchard, a tall offensively skilled player, but still seems to have some room to grow when it comes to strength and balance. Although hoping to get top 4 play out of him this season might be a bit ambitious, over the course of our defined window (McDavid and Draisaitl’s contracts) he no doubt improves the team as a whole. Not that there are rumours about Joseph in particular, it’s a profile that might be more interesting to target than half-season rentals.

 

 

Forwards

 

This is the area the Oilers have the most to work with, as several of the most expensive spots are accounted for. There are of course glimmers of hope, McLeod’s play, Marody’s potential call up, or Holloway’s debut/return. However it’s clear an infusion of top 6 caliber talent would go a long way.

 

There’s likely to be many names that become available, especially since the player to be acquired could be a winger. The likes of Kessel or Gallagher, for example, would go a long way on paper, but their fitting into the cap structure of this season and beyond would have to be a main consideration. These are the types of players that management seems to prefer, established veterans, moving further away from their prime.

 

Again, taking on a player in their early 20s might be the most cost effective, but the Oilers would be wise to be flexible enough to pounce on someone who is being undervalued. All things being equal, a younger player with a good shot would be ideal, perhaps Kubalik from Chicago.

 

An undervalued goal scorer that comes to mind is Alex Nylander, recently traded from Chicago to Pittsburgh at a modest cost. A deal similar to this is risky and depends on your office’s evaluation being precise, but the payoff could be huge. Adding a young, controllable, low cost contributor that is on the upswing is exactly the type of move that would keep the Oilers from being stuck in this position next season.

 

Finally, a galaxy brain option is Vitali Kravtsov, who isn’t eligible to return to the NHL this season after being loaned from the Rangers. Things in New York have gone sideways for the highly skilled Russian winger, joining a growing list of top draft picks that have fallen out of favour with the club. He appears much more confident in the KHL than he did in the AHL, and at 22 he is ready to make the transition to a full time NHLer. Although this might not help the Oilers this season, the quality of the team would be elevated in the long run. On top of all this, the Rangers have undergone a philosophical shift in their recent GM swap, a mentality that seems to have paid off considering their strong record. Scoring talent like Pavel Buchnevich was moved out for more rugged types like Sammy Blais. Perhaps the Rangers would be interested in adding to their lineup in that capacity, with a player who could help their team this year, Zach Kassian. 

 

 If adding these future pieces doesn’t seem to add up for you I will point to a couple teams who have taken off with recent acquisitions of this ilk. Nashville traded for Luke Kunin who seemed to have stalled out in Minnesota, he now is playing a big part of a rejuvenated Predators outfit. Sam Bennett had gone stale in Calgary before the Panthers traded for him, not to mention Florida added a mid-20s journeyman in Anthony Duclair. It’s these types of additions that allow teams to outperform their expectations, by taking chances on player evaluation, which we’ll get into more during the Coaching and Management segment of this piece. 

 

Cap

 

The Oilers are tight against the cap this season, and don’t appear to have much room in next season’s calculations. This makes any transaction more difficult to balance, and in all likelihood more expensive in terms of assets that would need to go the other way. There are some contracts coming off the books this offseason or 2, including older players who could ride off the end of their deals on LTIR, theoretically. This group includes Smith, Koskinen, Turris, and Keith.

 

There are however 2 contracts with even more term, owed to players that do not contribute efficiently based on their cap hits, in Barrie and Kassian. Finding a way to move on from these contracts, more precisely to free up the space they occupy, is almost necessary to free the cap space for any improvements, this season and beyond.

 

Whether it’s in a cap dump, or exchanging these contracts laterally, any opportunity to move on is probably the right path to follow. Both players are limited overall, but have specific roles that other teams might covet, perhaps even giving Barrie and Kassian some value as trading chips.

 

Barrie is an offensive defenceman who can run a power play, and importantly a right shot. His play defensively is suspect, and most of the strengths that he has are made redundant by the rest of the Oilers defence group, in particular Bouchard. Not every team has an emerging top 4 right handed defender on a rookie deal, so it’s not impossible that a team might be interested in Barrie under certain circumstances.

 

Kassian brings size and physicality. He got paid after a strong couple months on McDavid’s wing, but has not and will not be able to replicate those results. Moving on from this player is perhaps less pressing of an issue than moving on from Barrie, but should be moved on from just the same. A younger player of similar skill and draft pedigree just cleared waivers, in Nick Ritchie, and he makes less on a shorter deal. He could have been claimed for nothing if the Oilers had room, which goes to show how valuable cap flexibility is. Perhaps his toughness is seen as an asset for a playoff bound team.

 

Coaching and Management

 

All of the action points we’ve discussed so far lead to the evaluation of these positions, ultimately the direction of the organization. I think that it’s easy to be hyper critical in hindsight, or to assume that any given change would be better for the Oilers. Although at this point the team is not good enough, I think that there have been positives in both Holland and Tippett’s performances over their time in Edmonton. It’s worth noting that the Oilers weren’t even making the playoffs before the duo took over, the special teams have always been strong (a credit to Tippett) and there are some good prospects in the system (a credit to Holland). It is important to acknowledge that one could think that both Holland and Tippett are capable in their roles, yet still think the best route forward is to move on. The evaluations of managers, coaches, or players is not personal, rather a part of the profession. We are all made to move on, merely temporary beings, especially in the arena of professional sports.

 

It’s somewhat fair to say the Oilers have been short staffed for much of the season, with a seemingly endless stream of players rotating in and out of COVID protocols. It’s also fair to say that that the roster itself is insufficient, or at least underwhelming, including in net. It’s also true that despite saying all the right things, the team seems fragile, or better yet, stuck in a rut. This long streak of giving up the first goal, or the winless record when trailing after the first period encapsulates a sense of inevitability to falling and staying behind. Again I’ll reiterate that the question is not whether or not Tippett is a good coach in general, it’s if he’s the best option for the team right now.

 

Perhaps this season is a last straw, if they can somehow keep it together enough to make the playoffs would it buy him another season? It does feel like there’s been an endless stream of coaching turnover in the Nugent-Hopkins era, a number of which found NHL Head Coach positions since. Perhaps the issues run deeper than the Head Coach position itself (they do).

 

We’ve seen coaching changes yield strong results around the league this season, only serving to embolden the opinions that the Oilers could use such a manoeuvre as a shot in the arm. For now, the team is fighting. Some would like to see more creative lineup decisions, which is fair to be curious about. Missing the playoffs would almost certainly be the end of the line for Tippett, but his fate seems to loom more with each game. The main candidates that have been discussed as potential replacements are Jay Woodcroft and Claude Julien.

 

Woodcroft coaches the Oilers AHL affiliate, and would seem uniquely positioned to put the team’s younger players in positions to succeed, thanks to his prior relationships. It’s fair to expect Yamamoto, McLeod, Lagesson, Niemelainen, and even Marody to contribute more, or at least to be given that opportunity. Theoretically, this makes the Oilers a much deeper team right away, but could pay further dividends down the road when players like Broberg, Samorukov, and Lavoie push for spots. Bakersfield is playing well, and the cheapest and fastest way to improve is from optimizing the internal usage and deployment of your current roster. Woodcroft is uniquely positioned to succeed in this way.

 

Julien has a long track record of producing strong flow-of-play metrics, like shots for and expected goal percentages. The Oilers are middling, even uninspiring in these areas. No doubt the hope would be to see such metrics improve upon Julien’s hiring.

 

Tippett’s job does appear to be more in question than ever, but undoubtedly the teams has continued to play hard for him.

 

However this season turns out it’s much less likely that Holland’s job will be in jeopardy. I would evaluate a general manager by one’s confidence in their abilities to improve the team in the future more than a frame-by-frame evaluation of the past. The context of time changes too much that I don’t think it’s productive to look at the past and say “he should’ve done x, y, or z”. The question should be about the belief that the next move will be one that helps the organization or not.

 

At this point I would say I have little faith in Holland’s abilities going forward. Part of this is tied up in the organization’s structure above him, which might be the foremost example of “the old boys club” across the league. The conglomerate of team Canada, nepotism, and former players from the fading glory that was the 80s is especially prominent, and it shows in the players the Oilers have been even rumoured to be targeting.

 

In all it’s a group that is living in the past, often very literally when it comes to key acquisitions like Keith, Smith, and former Red Wings and Coyotes players. It’s a list that lacks vision and ambition, targeting “safe” players with established reputations, rather than taking chances on those who might be coming into their own. Of course every GM will look to their past relationships, but it can’t be the only option, especially when it’s not working. There is no clear image of what traits or attributes the Oilers value in potential players. There is a lack of imagination when it comes to cap management or designing cap solutions. There is a disparity in trade negotiations, perfectly exemplified by the negotiations with Chicago in the Keith deal, which essentially afforded Chicago the space to acquire Fleury for nothing. Based on all that it’s hard to have confidence that Holland and the current structure can be the ones to find his way through this mess.

 

The Oilers have expressed an interest in bolstering their analytics department, a fine enough sentiment. I would say they need a stronger sense of what kinds of players they want, especially from a pro scouting standpoint, perhaps in the form of a player that they see something in that others don’t. There does seem to be some vision in that regard as it pertains to the players the Oilers draft (big mobile defence like Broberg and Munzenberger, and forwards that can shoot like Bourgault, Petrov, and Savoie) which is a good thing. 

 

I’m sure Holland at least is a strong resource of experience on many of the behind the scenes intricacies of running an organization. Perhaps it’s best for him to move into a support role, leaving the main vision for the future to someone else but providing general wisdom. I don’t think we’ve seen enough to have confidence that Holland can be the one to lead this group out of the darkness they find themselves wandering through. With the trade deadline and offseason fast approaching, a change in the General Manager position might be even more pressing than that of the Head Coach. Of course, this is not an attack on the person but rather the principals that seem to be at play. There is always a chance that the approach to the roster changes, and it needs to. The Oilers are still trying to cement themselves as an elite regular season team, let alone a an experienced playoff contender. 

 

Regardless, the Oilers issues run even deeper than any one player, coach, or manager. Like bolstering the analytics department there are many areas that an organization can improve beyond those positions. Over the years we’ve seen a great deal of players, coaches, and mangers fail the franchise, but perhaps it’s the other way around.