It goes without saying that Ken Holland has his work cut out for him in turning around the fortunes of the Oilers.
The good news – as he so aptly put it in his introductory news conference – is that the core pieces are largely already in place, making it easier on him.
Everyone else is up for grabs, as they should be. Even outside of Connor and Leon, if the right deals came along, Holland would probably make a move but I’m guessing he’ll ask for a huge ransom going forward for any of them as they’ll all be essential to his retooling efforts.
What will Holland focus on? Here’s the order of on-ice issues for the Oilers as I see them.
1. Better wingers
The Oilers had huge issues with depth scoring last year – their biggest issue by a country mile – as after their big 3 of Nuge, Dr. Drai, and Connor, the scoring dropped off significantly.
In fact, if you go past those 3 they only had 1 other guy who cracked the 20 goal mark – Alex Chiasson.
That’s absolutely terrible. Teams with good D could focus on those 4 and completely shutdown the Oilers attack. That MUST change going forward if the Oilers are to make the playoffs and win the Cup. Look at the rosters of the good teams with depth. Winnipeg, as 1 example, had 3 30 goal scorers, 2 more players who cracked 20 goals, and a further 5 players who potted between 10-15 last season.
The Oilers can’t hold a candle to that – although they do have the flashier players that potted 40 and 50 goals, after that they have 2 20 goal scorers and 2 guys who cracked the 10 goal mark.
Ouch – and that’s just 1 example.
Holland needs to beef up depth scoring in both the top and bottom 6, as the bottom 6 proved itself unable to add much depth scoring – although in short sample size Colby Cave and Josh Currie looked good with newly re-acquired veteran Sam Gagner.
The Oilers will have some cap space to work with – CapFriendly says $10,758,001 which is about $1 million more than I thought – and the good news is the Oilers don’t have any key players to sign for next season and a number of stupid contracts from the Chiarelli era – like Alex Petrovic for example – are going off the books which means the Oilers won’t have any major decisions to make in terms of who to keep (for cap reasons, at least – for hockey reasons is a different story).
It’s not a huge amount of cap space but if Holland plays his cards right – and keeps an eye towards the future as key prospects at wing like Kailer Yamamoto, Tyler Benson, and Kirill Maksimov – even Ryan Mcleod if he turns out to be a Leon Draisaitl clone that plays both center and wing.
There are many possibilities. Jordan Eberle, if he can be persuaded to take a discount from what he would get on the open market, could come back for a 2nd tour of duty, as he has expressed interest in leaving larger cities like New York and coming to a smaller Canadian city.
Would he come back to Edmonton? Maybe, but then you read stuff like this and think maybe he wouldn’t.
There are a lot of cheaper options, too – like Brandon Pirri for example.
There are rumours that the Oilers could be trying to bring back Taylor Hall back too, in free agency if he doesn’t want to re-sign in Jersey in 2 seasons – and if you trade for him it will likely take a King’s ransom if you can pull it off at all. Probably a pipe dream, but with a new GM in charge never say never.
If he spends his 1st year as GM undoing a lot of PC’s mistakes I think a lot of people would consider that a success.
At any rate, scoring wingers – we need ’em badly.
2. The goaltending question
The Oilers have a question mark at best at both the starter and backup spots.
After Peter Chiarelli – in one last bout of incompetence – stupidly signed Koskinen to a VERY risky extension of $4.5 million a year for 3 years the day before he was fired in January. Most teams use the goalie position as a way to SAVE cap space – seeing as how the prices are down due to the lack of positions in comparison to forward and D – but not Chiarelli. He signed a guy with red flags to too much $$$ for longer than he had to and for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension other than it was stupid.
It’s highly unlikely the Oilers can trade him to another team with that contract as it’s not a boat anchor but it’s pretty terrible, so count on the Oilers being stuck with him for the next 3 seasons.
If I had to guess I’d say Holland’s best bet is to supplement Koskinen with a 1A type that can push him for starts.
Koskinen may cover his bet next year but now the entire league knows he has a weak glove hand so let’s cross our fingers and hope he works on it in the offseason.
There are any number of options available to Holland in both trade and free agency – although the crop of free agents isn’t great outside of Sergei Bobrovsky who will likely be out of the price range of the Oilers after other teams stupidly get into a bidding war for a guy who’s likely got another 5 years at most of mileage left.
3. Decide if there is a glut at left D and solve it in some way
Right now, the Oilers have 3 puck moving D for 2 spots on the left side. Oscar Klefbom is signed to a team friendly contract for the next 4 seasons, while Darnell Nurse – who has snaked the 2nd pairing spot from Andrej Sekera the last 2 seasons due to the aforementioned Sekera’s injury issues.
Sekera himself is still an excellent puck mover but after major injuries the last 2 seasons it is fair to question whether he is the same player that he was when we first signed him as a prized free agent in free agent frenzy in 2015 or whether he’s lost a step.
He put up 4 assists in 24 games last season on the 3rd pairing (largely) with Matt Benning, but at $5.5 million a season for the next 2 seasons and Nurse setting a career high last year and becoming the team’s highest scoring d-man it’s reasonable to ask whether Sekera has a future with this team.
With a NTC turning into a limited NTC clause next season, the upcoming Seattle expansion draft 2 seasons from now is also something that needs to be kept in mind as the team would be obligated to protect him – a protection that would likely take away from a more deserving player.
Smart money is on Holland keeping him for 1 more season at least to see how he answers the question of his health – after all, if he’s injured again for most of the season they’ll have to get rid of him however they can, but if he stays healthy and can prove that at least against softer competition starting the season on the 3rd pairing that he can still play he’ll have much better trade value next offseason.
It’s also important to remember that dealing Sekera this season opens up a lot of valuable cap space – if they went out and got a more typical 3rd pairing d-man they would save huge $$$$ – not to mention their best prospects are all d-men bubbling under that they’ll need to have room for, perhaps even starting as early as next season.
I highly doubt Klefbom or Nurse are going anywhere, so the only question for Holland is how he answers the Sekera question.
4. Answer the question of what to do with Lucic
Ahh Milan Lucic – the prized signing of Peter Chiarelli whose career has gone significantly south since we opened the proverbial wrapping on him after signing him as a free agent in the 2016 offseason to in part replace the scoring left by Taylor Hall after he was traded.
At one time he could be counted on to deliver 20 goals and 50 points to your team in a season along with a penchant for physical play due to his giant stature.
Alas, the last 2 seasons his boxcars have gone from 10 goals and 34 points to 6 goals and 20 points last season.
His contract is by far the worst on the team as he’s signed for the next 4 seasons at a $6 million cap hit.
Buying him out is not really an option as his buyout cap hit ranges from as little as $3.6 million to as much as $5.6 million for the first 4 seasons of the buyout, which is very little savings on the cap – not to mention it would saddle the team with a 625K cap hit for the next 4 seasons after his contract expires.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t have value around the league – he is still a feared physical player, and finished 7th in the league in hits last season – not to mention his presence in the lineup prevents the opposition from taking liberties with Connor Mcdavid and Leon Draisaitl.
But the league has changed over the last few years and physical play doesn’t have as much value in the league as it once did – speed is the new value, and Lucic doesn’t have it anymore.
They can’t even stash him in the minors as he has a NMC in effect until June 1, 2021 – which means he would have to approve going down to the minors himself. Think that’s happening? I wouldn’t even bother asking him.
As you can guess, trade options are fairly limited with him. He did publicly express a fondness for going to his hometown of Vancouver, but there are a couple of problems with that: a) Vancouver is a divisional rival so they would be reluctant to trade with us and b) We would be asked to take back a bad contract in the process, and on Vancouver that would likely mean Loui Eriksson, a player with the exact same cap hit as Lucic and boxcars that aren’t much better while being significantly older – the only upside to dealing for Eriksson is his contract expires a year earlier than Lucic’s does.
Dealing Lucic would likely mean taking back a bad contract from whoever we trade him to, that’s not unique to Vancouver. Does that put the team any further ahead? Probably not – but if anyone can pull it off then Ken Holland can.
The best prospect for getting Lucic off the roster is the only team in the league that I could see that would have issues getting to the cap floor – the new Seattle expansion franchise. He’d be veteran leadership for their bottom 6 which would be sorely needed on an expansion team and they’d have a much better ability than the Oilers to weather the storm of his cap hit.
Other than that, I’m not sure where else you can trade Lucic to without it being a lateral move at best.
5. Scale back on the NM/NT clause contracts
Right now the Oilers have 4 players on NM/NT clauses – the aforementioned Sekera and Lucic along with Mikko Koskinen and Kris Russell.
Lucic would be nice to move but I don’t know if it can be done. Sekera will likely be moved before his contract is up.
I’m not as down on Kris Russell as a lot of Oiler fans are because I still see value in him as a stay at home d-man who finished 3rd in the league last year in blocked shots. I don’t think he’s overpaid but he’s right at the upper limit of what I’d pay him.
I see Russell as a guy who will likely be dealt for any combination of picks or prospects and replaced by an internal option.
Of all the players who have NM/NT clauses he has the most value – and starting next season it goes from a NMC to a limited NTC.
Koskinen, as mentioned, is not a guy I see being moved considering internal options are still marinating on the farm and I highly doubt another team would trade us their starter much less take on that cap hit for 3 seasons.
All 4 guys with these clauses are the 4 worst players on the roster, and Russell shouldn’t even have had a NM clause in the 1st place – after all, the Oilers resurrected his NHL career, how much demand would there be for a resurrected 2nd pairing stay at home guy? Can’t have been that much.
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BONUS: continue to improve upon the Oilers drafting
I know the title mentioned only on-ice issues to be solved, but I lied and am including bonus material. 🙂
One of the good things Peter Chiarelli did that was LONG overdue was to do a housecleaning of the amateur scouting staff, and put a solid guy in charge of overseeing them in Keith Gretzky.
Now the current drafting cycle that started with PC isn’t complete until 2020, so we won’t know the exact impact of his hands on the tiller until then, but even right now things are looking up as far as the pipeline goes.
A number of great centers or wingers started their AHL careers in the Condor’s playoff run that just ended or will be starting next season, to complement the aforementioned Yamamoto, Benson, and guys like Cooper Marody.
The best prospects are all on D, though – with some impressive names like Evan Bouchard, Memorial Cup hotshot Dmitri Samourukov, William Laggeson, Joel Persson, Ethan Bear, and Caleb Jones all in the pipeline.
The boys in goal will have to be given some more time but we’ve got some guys trending up there as well – no one of note ready yet but I have no doubt someday they will be.
Holland started an awesome pipeline in Detroit which was the primary reason they were so successful for so long. Can he duplicate that with Edmonton? I hope so.