Part 1: Intro and Goaltending
Part 2: Defence
Part 3: Forwards
Part 4: Coaching and Management
McDavid. Ultimately the mantle of best player has to live up to a standard of success. It’s fair to say that over his career the team around him has limited the heights he and the rest of the Oilers have been able to reach. Around the league as several players build worthy Hart candidacy, a certain amount of malaise might have set across the wider scoped, and eastern focused, voter group.
That is not to say that McDavid has been anything other than his otherworldly self, and moreover the trivialities of individual accolades pale in comparison to the task at hand. Here we sit, comfortably within McDavid’s prime, with what is probably the best roster he’s had to date. Part of the frustrations in years past has been the sense of dread, we’ve seen stall and backslide, wriggling around in the sludge of the playoff race. Finally, the infrastructure seems to be in place, the Oilers are good enough to make it as far as they have in this era.
Connor McDavid: A+
A generational talent who continues to improve his defensive game, his transformation into a dominant defensive force as much as his offensive continues to dazzle and evolve. Increased production and level of play in the postseason.
Never too far from the conversation, Draisaitl delivered a vintage performance, another 50 goal season, filled with iconic sound bites and even better play. It’s a bit funny to remember the talk last offseason about the team needing to sustain itself with both McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines considering how seamlessly the regular season has ended. It’s true that there wasn’t as much doubt about their play as much as the depth around them.
If anything, the fact that their impressive seasons are ho-hum in the eyes of casuals is a testament to their consistent excellence. Both are truly unique talents and share a lot of the burden of the team’s results, although it’s true McDavid can get a bit more of the spotlight, good and bad. As such much of the same rhetoric about playoff success applies. It’s worth noting there is a camp of Oilers fandom that think Draisaitl is the team’s best player and they were loud and proud early in the season as Draisaitl dominated.
Leon Draisaitl: A+
A Hall of Fame talent, perennial 50 goal scorer, elite playmaker, the superstar has lived up to the German Gretzky nickname once bestowed upon him. One of the league’s top players.
Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t turned into the high flying, playmaking, top line centre many had envisioned when he was first drafted, yet the centre has continued to be a key factor for the Oilers. His offensive totals seem a bit modest given his pedigree, but the truth is that RNH contributes in many facets of the game. A responsible defender with the flexibility and versatility to contribute on the wing in the top 6 or at centre on the 2nd or 3rd line.
The first year of a new extension, RNH should continue to be an important contributor for years to come. His willingness to adapt and accept a number of roles is a credit to his mindset of putting the team first and his skillset to offer value on both sides of the puck.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: B+
A solid year for the veteran centre, RNH provides the Oilers with centre depth and top 6 skill.
Another important forward who was shuffled a lot through the season, Zach Hyman had a career year in his first campaign as an Oiler. Delivering on everything fans and management were hoping for when he signed as a free agent, the workman winger showed chemistry the all 3 of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins, a promising sign that he should be able to continue providing the Oilers with a great deal of lineup flexibility.
With McDavid and Draisaitl being able to score at otherworldly rates, let’s call it 100 goals a season between the two of them, it is important to have players that contribute in more ways than scoring. The fact that a theme of those versatile contributions will begin to emerge with the rest of this forward group is as telling a sign of their strength as a whole as any.
The long point I’m getting to here is that Hyman might never reach 30 goals or 70 points in a season, but his clean cut brand of high compete level and effectiveness in tough ice are of greater importance than those milestones.
Zach Hyman: A-
The concerns one might have had upon his signing, rumours of a leg injury and chemistry concerns were dismissed with his strong play.
The elephant in the room, with an uncertain future looming, Evander Kane is a polarizing and controversial figure off the ice and simultaneously a rare talent and significant contributor on the ice. There are disturbing incidents in his past, as well as a number of accusations that have proven to be false.
Some might argue whether he should be allowed to participate in the league at all, of which he is certainly not the only player in the league. Outside of the serious, abusive, and alarming off ice past there is also a layer to his reputation of friction between he and he previous teammates that cannot be ignored.
Further down the list, in terms of red flags is the reason he became a free agent in the first place, the misleading vaccine records that saw him suspended for much of the first half of the season, and the personal flights he took that saw the Sharks terminate his contract.
In all I have some thoughts, but not nearly enough information or understanding of all of these issues to provide context on whether or not Kane should be punished more or allowed to be an NHLer. It is not my place to judge these things either, but it is a piece of context that cannot be overlooked. I would say I’m a person who believes in reform and forgiveness, and although my forgiveness means nothing in this situation, that usually it is something that can be earned by those who seek it in earnest.
All that being said, perhaps the most stable and positive the talk around Kane has been in the past 5+ years has been during his stretch with the Oilers. From an on ice perspective it went about as well as possible, with Kane scoring at an impressive rate through the regular season and improving upon that mark in the playoffs.
On top of the goals Kane brings an abrasiveness that many deem essential for playoff success, and an edge that not many around the league can best. No question that Kane makes the Oilers a much better team on the ice. Off the ice things seemed to go nicely as well, with Kane praising and being praised by his teammates. Sure, in some ways many will feel the team needs him, as his joining the team, in conjunction with the coaching change, directly preceded the Oilers turnaround.
As a UFA, the future could lead to a great many places for Kane, and even regardless of who else the Oilers sign or not they might not be able to table the best offer that Kane might command. However, it might be impossible to predict what the market will be for the winger in terms of dollars or years.
Perhaps the only chance the Oilers have of re-signing Kane is if he feels that he needs the Oilers as much as they need him. With a shrinking number of teams who would be interested and the public knowledge of some financial difficulties it will be interesting to see what Kane prioritizes between salary, term, and fit from an on and off ice standpoint.
Evander Kane: A
A uniquely polarizing and controversial figure, Kane was unequivocally an overwhelming positive on the ice.
Another powerful winger with an uncertain future is pending RFA Jesse Puljujarvi. His relationship with the Oilers has been strained and tumultuous throughout his years in the organization, and as it stands it appears that such is still the case.
From an on ice perspective I believe the evaluation is fairly simple; Puljujarvi is an effective player who shows strong chemistry with McDavid, a spot he held for most of the season. Yes, it’s true that his offensive game still needs to develop, but he is a strong defensive winger thanks to his ability on the forecheck and in puck battles.
I believe that his offensive game can and will grow more, but Puljujarvi is not likely to be a point-per-game type of winger. That said he is already a valuable contributor and should continue to improve as a player. Because of his low point totals he should also be afforded at a reasonable rate by whichever team signs his next contract.
Somehow Puljujarvi has become a whipping boy across certain corners of Oilers media, not to mention his GM openly questioning his importance to the team going forward. Not only has mistrust between the Oilers front office (the previous regime) led to Puljujarvi returning to Finland before, but there seems to be rumours that the large number of doubters affected his confidence.
No matter how one slices it Puljujarvi is being unappreciated. With the spotlight of a conference final appearance many have taken notice to this bubbling rift, leading to comparisons to Nichushkin, another big winger, a top 10 draft selection, with sterling defensive impacts, who underperformed offensively early in his career with the Stars before becoming a key contributor in the loaded Avalanche lineup.
Although I believe that the Oilers should keep Puljujarvi long term, this space is meant to evaluate the season that was. Yes, as someone in the pro-Puljujarvi camp I see the makings of a great player, but there is still some work to do before he truly arrives at his potential.
Jesse Puljujarvi: B
Puljujarvi had some great stretches in the season and continued his growth. A strong forechecking winger, his inconsistent offensive numbers left a bit to be desired, but his trajectory is still headed in a positive direction.
Curious is the way that Puljujarvi put up a similar season to our next player, Yamamoto. Yes, in the sense that their offensive totals were very similar, but also in that both contribute in similar fashions despite their different sizes. Yamamoto also battles around the ice, has some net front ability, as well as possessing the skill to help in transition like Puljujarvi. Both spent most of the season beside an MVP, Yamamoto riding shotgun to Draisaitl, as Puljujarvi was to McDavid.
In the playoffs, Yamamoto used his feistiness and speed to throw lots of hits. Despite being an undersized winger taken in the first round, Yamamoto is first and foremost a battler, which no doubt endeared him to fans.
Once more, in lockstep with Puljajarvi, Yamamoto should be an important piece for the Oilers going forward. I would venture that Puljujarvi has a higher ceiling, while Yamamoto is closer to his peak at this moment. There could and should still be some improvements to his game, but Yamamoto likely profiles as a strong middle 6 winger.
Kailer Yamamoto: B
A middle 6 winger with a high compete level, Yamamoto should be part of the Oilers core going forward.
Looking to position himself in a situation similar to both Puljujarvi and Yamamoto, Ryan McLeod had perhaps the most surprising breakout season on this team. Headed into the year, with much of the talk surrounding moving McDavid and Draisaitl to separate lines on a more permanent basis, it became clear that the Oilers might need McLeod to take a huge step in holding down the 3rd line centre role.
At points, especially in training camp and the early season, the ask seemed too big for McLeod. Yet as the season continued the young forward improved, eventually cementing a top 9 role. He was effective at centre on the 3rd line and even had some strong stretches on Draisaitl’s wing.
McLeod has a lot of tools, primarily his size and speed give him a lot to work with defensively, but he has shown some playmaking ability and is effective attacking through the neutral zone. Being tight against the cap means to maximize their talent the Oilers will need to rely on their young players growing into bigger roles on lower cap hits, exactly how the trio of Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, and McLeod are capable of doing. Although their impacts were relatively similar to each other’s, I gave McLeod the highest grade because he took the biggest and least expected leap of the 3 this season.
Ryan McLeod: A
Solidifying the Oilers centre depth, McLeod’s versatility saw him cement a spot in the Oilers top 9.
Warren Foegele earned his reputation playing on Jordan Staal’s wing on the Hurricanes 3rd line, so his being able to replicate his results was not a given. Perhaps some did not appreciate the value from the trade that saw him join the team, but it is a good sign that he was able to hold up his end of the bargain for his new team.
Having high effort players is always a positive, especially lower in the lineup. He got a few looks in the top 6 under Tippett, but should not be expected to succeed in such a role going forward.
The only negative one might have is that his cap hit might be a bit rich for his contributions, but it is a smaller deal without much term involved.
Warren Foegele: B
The archetypal 3rd line winger, Foegele is a bit short on offensive talent but does not cheat anyone out of work ethic.
For much of the year Foegele was paired with another ex-Hurricane, Derek Ryan. The diminutive veteran has some positional versatility, but continues to post positive impacts in flow-of-play metrics thanks to his hockey sense. He does have some playmaking abilities, but most of Ryan’s contributions come by the grace of his anticipation and positioning.
Derek Ryan: B
A versatile bottom 6 forward, Ryan continues to post strong results and is able to make his linemates better.
Beyond this point we get to smaller depth roles on the team. Likely the lowest grade on the team, Kassian saw his role and effectiveness wither away to almost nothing. Although he was at his best in the playoffs and brings an element of physicality he brings none of the top 6 viability that saw him earn his current deal which is both too long and too rich to call his season anything but a misallocation of those resources. With some tough cap decisions on the horizon, the best case scenario for the Oilers would be to free up the cap space he occupies.
Zach Kassian: C-
A bottom line winger with physicality, Kassian’s contract is cumbersome for a team looking to contend.
Archibald and Shore had spells on the 4th line, but are purely depth options. Perlini had some nice goals and perhaps the press conference of the year. Benson likely had his last chance at cracking the lineup. Turris had nothing left after a long and solid career.
Perhaps the last noteworthy name is Dylan Holloway. Despite playing in only one game, the Oilers last playoff game, Holloway’s season was a positive for the Oilers. Finally healthy after a long, setback-filled injury recovery, Holloway proved he could produce at a high level in the AHL, confirming his reputation as a player whose game was relatively pro-ready coming out of college.
His game bears some resemblance to that of McLeod, size and speed, and has centre/wing versatility. He isn’t afraid to get physical and has good habits on the forecheck. He might have a bit more offensive upside than McLeod, but both could be middle 6 contributors on both sides of the puck as soon as next season.
Dylan Holloway: B+
Holloway is in line for a top 9 spot next season where his NHL career will officially begin. If he can find his way into the top 6 he does have some viability as a Calder trophy candidate.