The Path Ahead: the Oilers roster headed into the offseason  

 

After a deep playoff run it feels as if the dust is still settling in Oil Country, yet the offseason is quickly approaching. Between free agency, the draft, and the offseason trade market there are rumours abounding, yet a guarantee that all NHL teams will be active in the near future.

 

Yes, it’s a time for fan theories, speculation, team building discourse, a time for die-hards to to scheme dream acquisitions, and a time of hope and heartbreak.

 

At this point it’s impossible to know which speculations might become realities, which decisions will be made, but we can assess what the Oilers situation is as it stands.

 

GOALTENDING

 

Mike Smith has had a glorious final chapter here in Edmonton, holding down a starter’s job for 3 seasons when many thought he could no longer live up to the task. With one year left at $2.25 million, if Smith were to return it would be great value to the Oilers. Simply put, it is near impossible to sign or trade for better value.

 

Should Smith return he might very well be the starter once more, and quite frankly the skills are still there. That said, like this season, Smith should not be expected to start more than 40-45 games. The trend across the league is to manage workloads in net, as Woodcroft was happy to point out against the Flames and Markstrom’s tough series, and with the oldest goalie in the league this simply has been the case.

 

The one avenue there is for receiving better value than Smith is with a young unproven player who is ready to contribute. The Oilers have just the goalie to fit such a description in Stuart Skinner. On top of consistently producing as the AHL starter Skinner has grown his role in the NHL over the past 2 seasons as well, from 2 starts to 18 over that span.

 

Sure, it is a small sample size, yet as a young goalie Skinner is ahead of where many can hope to be at his age. He’s held his own in his NHL starts, and having him build up to a regular role over multiple seasons is ideal. So far he’s only been passing every test laid before him, improving along the way.

 

Predicting goalie performance is particularly difficult, and for the most part a large percentage of the goalies across the league could post a huge range of performance over a given season. This makes all but the most elite netminders wildcards to an extent, and a long deal could be made to look terrible quickly. There is always a higher degree of risk associated with the valuations one makes at the sports’ most important position.

 

Should Smith return it is quite likely that a Smith/Skinner tandem could work well, but given Smith’s extensive injury history it would almost certainly be a necessity for the Oilers to acquire a goalie that can compete with Skinner for the backup role, to the extent that they might also have to clear waivers at some point. Hypothetically, the recently departed Konovalov would be an ideal candidate for this role, but after a single season in AHL Bakersfield the Russian netminder has returned to his home country.

 

Perhaps the Oilers are more aggressive in acquiring a tandem backup, insulating Skinner for at least another season, and using his waiver ineligibility to their advantage, essentially replicating the situation they had in net this season.

 

Should Smith decide to retire the need would certainly be more pronounced. The Oilers would have no choice but to try to acquire at least a tandem starter, something that Smith doubters have been calling for since the beginning of his era. Holland has been hamstrung in those past offseasons, opting to stick with the under-appreciated tandem of Smith and Koskinen.

 

Each offseason there is something of a goaltending carousel, with GMs hoping that they can find treasure in the uncertainty of the market. There are some names we expect to be in play this offseason, John Gibson, Ville Husso, Jack Campbell, and Marc-Andre Fleury are among the names that have some shot at providing a starter’s level of play. In some sense there is a balance between overpaying and hoping past results can be repeated, against underpaying and hoping that recent poor performances can even be.

 

Although goaltending is extremely important, and we’ve seen how elite options such as Vasilevskiy and Shesterkin can change the fate of a franchise there are a limited number of goalies that can consistently replicate such quality. We’ve seen other teams have success with complete unknowns, Binnington, Niemi, Ward, for example, all coming from “nowhere” to lead their team to a Cup. We’ve seen the Avalanche win with Kuemper, a reasonable starter often left off of hypothetical best-on-best team Canadas, whose goaltending situation as a whole many distrust.

 

During Holland’s time here in Edmonton, and dating back to his historic runs with the Red Wings, he has been perhaps the foremost champion of lower cost tandems that lack a certain “star power” (Hasek is the GOAT, Osgood and Smith borderline HOFers? Worth consideration?). Sure, they’ve gotten the job done, even in Edmonton, but it seems that Holland would rather allocate as much cap space towards improving the team in front of the goalies than spending it on a highly paid number 1.

 

For these reasons I don’t believe it’s likely that Holland is in on some of the bigger names on the market, such as John Gibson. Cheaper, less regarded options such as Khudobin or Mrazek are possible and would certainly encourage Skinner to grow into a bigger role. Perhaps Jack Campbell is a nice in between, as he’s played at a high starter level behind a strong Leafs team the past 2 seasons. There are some durability concerns, as there might be with any goalie, but Skinner essentially affords the Oilers fantastic flexibility, being waiver exempt and at an advanced level, to gamble on a talent by constructing a crease that goes 3 deep, or at least has a healthy competition for each start.

 

Either way there have already been changes in the Oilers crease, but we will have to wait to see the degree to which more happens. Any acquisition is sure to be met with some differences of opinion across the fan base.

 

DEFENCE

 

The Oilers have 6 defencemen under contract for next season, as well as some players currently in the minors that could factor into their plans in both Koekkoek and Niemelainen, yet there is still some action being anticipated before any possible moves to improve the blueline for next season.

 

Although the volume of contracts is high, the volatility of change within this group will be palpable. With a number of contact situations to navigate and some ascending talent the Oilers blueline is most definitely at a crossroads. If the NHL is indeed a copycat league, the greatest area of difference between the Western Conference finalists lies on the blueline. Although not many players are at Makar’s level, the Oilers have a lot to work with, and their path to the top almost certainly passes through providing McDavid and Draisaitl with an elite defence group.

 

Most of all, like Smith, we are expecting to find out Duncan Keith’s plans for the future by July first, or at least that is the hope for the Oilers. The veteran defender was serviceable in his one season with the team so far, and despite an elevated cap hit provided some value on the Oilers trip to the conference final.

 

It’s been a few seasons since Keith has been at an all-star level, but at the very least it seems as though his teammates valued him and his experience. That said, it’s likely most fans of the Oilers are hoping that Keith calls it a career, which would free up the last season of his $5.5 million cap hit, a significant portion of the $82.5 million upper cap limit for next season.

 

Naturally Keith’s departure would create an open spot on the left side behind Nurse, whose 8 year $9.25 million deal kicks in this coming season. It’s an extension that is widely considered a bit rich at this point, but regardless Nurse is the Oilers top option on the back end at this point.

 

Tyson Barrie is a name that has been widely speculated to be on the move, and naturally a lot of the motivation is salty related. With Bouchard rising, Nurse’s offensive abilities, not to mention Keith’s puck moving nature, having a specialist such as Barrie becomes a bit redundant, a lot of these players contribute in the same areas. Barrie is certainly not without his warts defensively, but undoubtedly can still contribute offensively, at least in the form of point totals.

 

There is a chance that other teams would welcome the addition of Barrie, valuing his contributions more than the Oilers might. Freeing up his cap hit essentially gives the Oilers space to potentially keep Evander Kane, or Brett Kulak, or sign a starting goalie, assets that the Oilers are in greater need of. Unfortunately, in a cap world players can be seen as “negative value” in a sense, and being freed from Barrie’s cap hit would be helpful, even at minimal to no return.

 

Unlike other problem contracts on the Oilers, Barrie’s talents and cost might be an ideal situation given their own cap realities. Dallas and Carolina both have some questions regarding puck moving right shot defenders, and other teams could find themselves in a similar position.

 

All that being said Barrie seems to be well liked by his teammates, and while moving him might be ideal for some, were he to stay on the Oilers he could still be an effective player. There are much worse things than ensuring you provide the Oilers forwards with defencemen who can move the puck up ice. We saw Barrie take on a slightly bigger role in the playoffs due in large part to the Nurse injury and the play of his partner Kulak.

 

Brett Kulak is certainly a point of interest moving into the summer, a pending UFA who could sign anywhere. Despite being scratched in Montreal, Kulak flourished with the Oilers and likely earned himself a raise on his previous cap hit of $1.8 million. Who knows if the Oilers will table the most lucrative offer, or if the Albertan even has a preference to play in another city more than Edmonton, but from an on ice perspective his contributions are undeniably part of the Oilers best case scenario.

 

Kulak has the size, strength, and skating to defend well all over the ice, fitting in well on this blueline much in the same way that Cody Ceci has. Both have enough ability to make effective plays up the ice, but benefit from being paired with a more robust offensive partner, something the Oilers have a lot of.m, given the backbone of the future lies within Nurse, Bouchard, and Broberg.

 

Speaking of which, Philip Broberg is a major reason for hope here in Oil Country. Although his fellow 2018 draft classman Mo Seider has taken the league by storm, Broberg has kept pace with much of the loaded draft class, as the group looks to start taking their place near the top of depth charts league wide. He’s done extremely well in the AHL, anchoring a strong team, and even shown flashes during his brief stints in the NHL so far.

 

Yes, there is still a lot of growth required, not to mention more contact balance and strength en route, but the budding stages of a high calibre defenceman have already begun to emerge. He has the size and skating to project as an effective defensive contributor as well as the puck skills to be a strong transition player. His offensive ceiling might not be that of Nurse or Bouchard, but his contributions to team offence might be close to what Nurse brought this past season.

 

No doubt that all the tools are present, and Broberg showed up early to camp last season to build chemistry with some of his star teammates. What’s more is that he has an inside track with Coach Woodcroft, having starred for him in the AHL. There should still be a degree of patience, but Broberg is on pace to be an impactful top 4 defender for the Oilers by the end of the 23/24 season. By that I mean, should the cookie crumble and Broberg finds himself in the AHL to start (and star) next season neither the player nor fans should take it as an indictment of his long term viability.

 

Having been through the weeds of this blueline let’s get to the 2 most important players headed into next season, both with some questions. Starting with Darnell Nurse.

 

There are several important truths to acknowledge off the top; Nurse is the Oilers best defenceman, and a foremost member of the team’s leadership. He is also, by all accounts, a sterling teammate and has completely exceeded the expectations of being a top 10 draft pick. E is starting a long 8 year extension that might be $2 million more than a fan might dream, and he may never deliver a Norris trophy like others in his cap bracket. Finally, he is coming off a severe hip injury, which notoriously linger for up to a year after a player is deemed “healthy”.

 

With all that context out of the way, this could be a less than ideal start to the season for Nurse and by extension the Oilers. It might be a while before we see Nurse return to dominant form, but beyond a doubt Nurse is a focal point of the Oilers long term success. So long as the cap keeps rising, this should be the most cumbersome his contract is for another 4-5 seasons, at least.

 

The Oilers as a whole might need to hold down the fort while Nurse works his way back to elite form, and last but not least, Evan Bouchard will be instrumental in that endeavour. Already holding down a top 4 spot last season, Bouchard is positioned to assert himself as an elite player in the near future. The offensive talents are as visible and unique as they are effective, and it is all but formality that he isn’t the top power play option outright.

 

That said there is another aspect to Bouchard’s game, a level of defensive effectiveness that we’ve seen glimpses of. Although his size and strength may leave a bit to be desired when it comes to old school, rough and tumble, styles of defending, Bouchard has shown that he can continue to grow into an all around player and even an expanded penalty killing role.

 

There may be some inconsistencies along the way, but Bouchard is continuing his ascent into the elite player many think he can become. Together with Nurse and Broberg, the trio provides a fantastic starting point for the Oiler’s future. The trick will be to fill out the rest of the depth chart effectively, in terms of attributes and cap allocation.

 

With so many names with uncertain futures it’s hard to predict what the Oilers will need to replace or what they will be able to afford. Regardless of who stays or goes the focus should be more geared towards adding players of a higher defensive quality to round out the skill the Oilers have a lot of.

 

Perhaps some in-house solutions are available, from retaining Kulak to some growth from Samorukov, who dressed in only 18 games this season, but the onus might be on Holland and the pro scouting staff to find value from outside the organization.

 

 

FORWARDS

 

KEY COGS

 

There is not much need to get too in depth here, as we are all acutely aware of the otherworldliness of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, as much as we are familiar with the solid top 6 level of play that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman provide. With 3 centres in this group it provides a certain level of flexibility within the Oilers most impactful forwards. There should be little concern of anyone in this group leaving, and perhaps even less concern that their level of play will not be up to task next season.

 

RFAS

 

With the exception of a trade offer that improves the Oilers chances of winning a Cup throughout their window, there’s no reason to think that any of Yamamoto, McLeod, or Puljujarvi should not return as key fixtures in this lineup. All 3 have proven to be strong top 9 options whose skill sets round out the elite talent on the roster nicely. There’s not really a reason to think that any of the 3 have priced themselves out of their value or the Oilers means either. Simply put, to acquire a player of their respective qualities at their eventual cap hits is quite unlikely, let alone young players with strong chemistry and proven results in this lineup.

 

Almost unanimously that is the opinion of Yamamoto and McLeod, yet the rumours seem to be stirring regarding Jesse Puljujarvi’s acceptance into that description. The criticism or reluctance towards Puljujarvi is, at best, confounding, as really only Kane and Draisaitl have been as effective in McDavid’s wing, with Puljujarvi coming in at a much smaller cap hit. No doubt there is potential for Puljujarvi to be even better than he has been, particularly as it comes to converting chances into goals, but already his impacts are strong in their own right, not to mention a good complement to the rest of the group.

 

Meanwhile, Ryan McLeod’s versatility as a centre gives the Oilers the flexibility to deploy McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH however they see fit. Although his defensive prowess is likely to be his calling card, he is able to use his speed in offensive transitions effectively, making him a great linemate for Draisaitl in particular. There is some further offensive upside, particularly with in zone playmaking skills, but McLeod is looking to build off a campaign that saw him breakout into a strong top 9 contributor.

 

Like Puljujarvi and McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto has some offence to his game, but contributes in other ways as well. He has a high motor and is not afraid to engage in tight puck battles or get his hands dirty in front of the net. He does have some good puck skills and passing skills but likely tops out as a versatile middle 6 winger. By this I mean that the expectation should not be that he becomes a point-per-game offensive dynamo, rather that he can be a valued compliment on a top team.

 

With the current cap conundrum the Oilers find themselves in there likely aren’t many better options plausible for improving the lineup. I’m no capologist or contract predictor, but to lock up this trio for 4 years each at a combined cap hit of ~$10 million would seem a tidy bit of work, and would go a long way in securing the forward depth for years to come.

 

DEPTH UNDER CONTRACT

 

Perhaps the most egregious, and obvious, cap inefficiencies on this roster is Zach Kassian and his $3.5 million cap hit. Simply put, the Oilers cannot afford to pay that much to a player who can’t be deployed in anything more than 3rd line minutes, at most. Kassian does provide a level of abrasiveness, at least, meaning his skillset isn’t completely obsolete in this lineup, if only for a 4th line, crash and bang role.

 

It’s unlikely that the rest of the league sees any value in acquiring his services without a sweetener, something that may be too costly for the Oilers to consider. Ideally his cap hit can be traded, although it wouldn’t be out of the question for an alternative method to be explored, perhaps a buyout or LTIR designation. Learning his cap hit would immediately free up the space for the Oilers to improve more pressing matters such as keeping Kane, Kulak, or acquiring a goalie of significance.

 

In brighter news, Warren Foegele provides a stronger level of play at a smaller cap hit. Best suited as a 3rd liner, Foegele isn’t exactly outstanding in terms of quality or value with a $2.75 million cap hit, but nonetheless he is a contributor to the Oilers success.

 

Outside of fully fortifying the centre depth, Derek Ryan is a versatile enough forward that he can occupy any spot in the bottom 6 comfortably. Despite his diminutive size and modest offensive abilities the veteran is able to be effective by the grace of his positioning and on ice awareness.

 

Finally, Devin Shore is under contract for 1 more season at $850,000. Fully relieved if he is sent to the AHL, there is little risk for a player best served in a rotational 4th line role. Positional versatility is a plus, as is the low maintenance usage he commands, as the Oilers will not feel pressured into giving him more minutes or a bigger role as they would a younger developing player.

 

UFAS

 

The biggest question throughout this forward group is what will become of the Evander Kane situation. With uncertainty surrounding his previous contract with the Sharks and whether it will be re-instated or not, there is no way to predict what will unfold even before getting into the options that might be available to Kane on the open market. Will he command the term and salary his on ice play would suggest? Or will his off ice reputation keep teams away from those elevated numbers?

 

No doubt he fit in well with the Oilers, providing speed, toughness, and most importantly in my opinion a legitimate scoring touch. Outside of McDavid and Draisaitl the Oilers are lacking a threat to score at a 30 goal pace. With the Oilers cap situation quite precarious, there is little chance the Oilers would be able to fit Kane at anything close to his true value (the $7.5 million cap hit he had in San Jose), yet there is a chance the Oilers might be able to keep him at a discount, as he chose to join the Oilers at such a rate in the first place.

 

Having a legitimate scorer in the top 6 took the Oilers forward strength from good to great, but doing so at the extreme discount the Oilers enjoyed with Kane this season is entirely unlikely to present itself again.

 

On a smaller scale, all of Archibald, Brassard, and Sceviour can be effective 4th liners at most, and some combination of the 3 could be brought back, and could be productive in such a limited role. There is, however, absolutely no reason to overpay these forwards in dollars or term.

 

ROOKIES

 

For those dreading the potential departures of key forwards such as Kane or Puljujarvi, there are always opportunities for the next generation to start making their mark. Although not every prospect will live up to their highest potential, the Oilers have a number of players who could feasibly make an impact in the near future. What’s more is that younger players on cheaper entry level deals is one of the foremost avenues towards navigating the cap while maximizing talent through the lineup.

 

Making his NHL debut in the playoffs, it seems close to guaranteed that Dylan Holloway finds himself part of the Oilers regular forward group. What is left to be determined is what kind of impact he can have. His reputation is one of a straightforward, hard working game, notably effective on the forecheck (as both Kane and Puljujarvi are) where is able to leverage his size, strength, and skating to his advantage. That is not to say there isn’t a high level of skill to his game, but elite offensive benchmarks such as 30 goals or 80 points might be a bit lofty, even for career highs. He can play centre and the wing, adding to the high level of versatility throughout the Oilers lineup, although early on in his NHL career a spot on the wing might be more prudent.

 

After a championship season in the QMJHL and a strong showing at the Memorial Cup, Xavier Bourgault is continuing to trend towards an NHL debut. Another former 1st round pick with positional flexibility, Bourgault does seem to have a higher offensive ceiling than Holloway. Bourgault is a smart player on both sides of the puck, but has continued to leverage that skill to generate offensively. The calling card of his game might well be his ability to get open in the slot, where a quick release allows him to rack up goals. It’s easy to envision him in the slot/bumper position on the power play. I stated that the biggest attribute Kane brought to the Oilers was his goal scoring, as it is an area the Oilers lack a little depth, and I believe that Bourgault could fit in wonderfully on this roster for that reason. Coming straight to the NHL from Junior is no easy feat, and it’s possible Bourgault spends a year in the AHL, but regardless he is worth keeping an eye on for the Oilers future.

 

After those 2, the Oilers system has some talent that might be a bit further away from jumping to the NHL, shooters like Petrov and Savoie have boasted outstanding production, as well as two-way workhorse Tullio, and are definitely reasons for optimism going forward. I will take the time to suggest that Raphael Lavoie might be closer to making the jump, despite some uneven results in the AHL. Lavoie is a big body whose main contributions are likely skilled offensive play at the net front. He has been inconsistent, even garnering some criticism in his draft year for such, and has gone long stretches without producing in the AHL. The skills are there, as he has also scored in bunches, and perhaps his pre-existing relationship with Woodcroft gives him an in when it comes to cracking the NHL lineup.