Pacific division predictions

EDMONTON, CANADA - MAY 14: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93, Darnell Nurse #25, and Jack Campbell #36 of the Edmonton Oilers defend the net in the third period against the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game Six of the Second Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 14, 2023 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Lawrence Scott/Getty Images)
EDMONTON, CANADA - MAY 14: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93, Darnell Nurse #25, and Jack Campbell #36 of the Edmonton Oilers defend the net in the third period against the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game Six of the Second Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 14, 2023 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Lawrence Scott/Getty Images) /
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It’s that time of year again Edmonton Oilers fans – we’re about a month away from the start of the season so the offseason is almost over. Rosters are more or less set save for a handful of prospects and PTOs that teams are pushing through training camp. Minor changes may be made here and there but for the most part rosters across the NHL are more or less set. The frenzy that is day one of free agency is long gone, as is the penchant for big moves.

Here’s how I see the Pacific division shaping up – agree with me or not, either way, is fine, just don’t be a dick to me on X (Twitter) if you disagree is all I ask.

Anyway, let’s get to it.

1.  Edmonton Oilers

Think I’m biased? Think again.

The fact is the Oilers were a measly two points out of first place when the regular season ended earlier this calendar year, so it only stands to reason that with Vegas suffering some setbacks this offseason (more on that later) that the Oilers will usurp them for the division lead this season.

There are also some roster realities that will set in this season that will make the Oilers a stronger team than last season. Trade deadline acquisition Mattias Ekholm – who the Oilers paid quite a bit of trade pieces for in futures – will be with the Oilers for a full season this year. He will help to not only stabilize the second pairing with Evan Bouchard but also take some of the defensive heat off of Darnell Nurse, which should help both players as it will cut Nurse’s ice time and hopefully keep him more rested and maybe even increase his boxcars because of it.

Not to mention his effect on special teams too. The Oilers last season had the #1 ranked PP in the league, which was a historic 32.4%, but a fairly benign PK which finished 20th in the league at 77%. Ekholm was already on the second unit PK last season, and with Nurse manning the point on the first unit PK, the Oilers will have a great 1-2 punch from the point on the PK for an entire season, which will only bolster the PK in the future.

I’d also love to see what Ekholm can do offensively in a full season as an Oiler. Although not known as a scorer, he certainly does bring some scoring chops to the table, having put up multiple 30-point seasons and one 40+ point season as a Nashville Predator. The leftovers of Bouchard alone should be worth another 5-10 points for Ekholm here.

Not to mention the Oilers will also have another great PKer, Vincent Desharnais, for a full season as well barring injury. These two players should help the Oilers PK immensely and vastly improve it from last season.

Locking up Evan Bouchard for another two years ensures that Bouchard’s phenomenal play on the PP after taking over the point spot on the first unit from the traded Tyson Barrie will also be around for an entire season barring injury.

And that’s just for starters on defence.

At forward the Oilers will be led by an even hungrier and more determined McDrai duo, and both players will as usual terrorize the rest of the league and likely be in a 1-2 race for who can finish at the top of the league scoring race. For the second consecutive season McDavid set a career high – two of them, in fact, as he cracked the 60-goal mark and 153 points. Is 160 out of reach this season? Probably not. I would be super psyched if McDavid could break Gretzky’s single-season record of 212 points in a season, which of course is a long way off but if anyone can do it McDavid can.

The Deutschland Dangler also set a career-high (he’s the man in the picture, in case you didn’t figure it out) with 128 points and cracked the 50-goal mark for the third time in his career. On any other team, he’d be the franchise player and driver of offence.

Maybe he likes it better that McDavid grabs all the headlines and interviews and he can fly under the radar more.  🙂

In any case, the Oilers will have surrounded them with more talent and depth than ever before. Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, and the Nuge are all back again. Hyman blew all his boxcars out of the water, setting new highs in all three categories of 36-47-83. He might regress a bit as his shooting % last season was 13.04%, which is 0.54% above his career average, but IMO that’s nothing to worry about.

Ditto for the Nuge, who also set new highs in all three categories going 37-67-104 last season. This is off an 18.41% shooting %, a full 6.21% off his career average. But honestly, would anyone object if Nuge puts up 80 points next season? I sure wouldn’t.

Kane, on the other hand, probably had a season to forget by his standards as he suffered two major injuries last season and was only able to play 41 games plus playoffs last season.

If Kane can stay healthy all year this is another great indication the Oilers will move the needle. He scored 22 goals in only 43 games in his first season as an Oiler. If he can stay healthy that translates out to 42 goals in a full 82-game season. I think he can accomplish that if he’s healthy all season on a team as stacked as this one at forward.

And then there’s the one newcomer to the group, Connor Brown. Brown had been linked to the Oilers for years in either trade or free agency, and this past offseason the Oilers finally had a chance to make it happen.

Because he was out with injury for most of last season, Brown is eligible per the CBA for bonuses in games played, something that normally a 29-year-old player wouldn’t be eligible for for another six years. He’s here for the season making $775,000 in guaranteed money and another $3,225,000 in bonuses – which won’t count towards the cap until next season – if he plays 10+ games for the Oilers. Brown might be famous for being teammates with Connor McDavid in their junior days with the Erie Otters when they were both tearing up the OHL for two seasons before Brown graduated to the AHL with the Toronto Marlies.

Could the magic resurface in the NHL? The Oilers are hoping yes, and betting a significant chunk of the rumored increase to the salary cap next season in the process. Personally, I’ve heard predictions that if Brown can stay healthy and ride shotgun to McDavid he could score 30 goals. Frankly, I wouldn’t put it past him.

And that’s just the top six forwards. The bottom six forward group is almost as impressive.

Head coach Jay Woodcroft found a third line he really liked last season when he played defensive specialist Mattias Janmark, center Ryan Mcleod, and power forward winger Warren Foegele (Mclovin) together. Janmark put up a solid 10 goals and 25 points last season in 66 games with a career-best +9. Mcleod, who is fresh off a two-year extension at $2.1 million per (he had arbitration rights so what can you do?) broke open with 11 goals and 23 points in 57 games last season with a +4, first + season of his career. With only 138 NHL games to his name, we don’t completely know what we have yet with Mcleod as a player. Maybe he shows enough to graduate to the top six, who knows?

Mclovin on the other hand, topped the trio with 13-15-28 and a +7. The center Mcleod needs to up his game in faceoffs just a smidge more as he finished at 48.16% last season – and I can guarantee you he’ll work on it and get better – even Connor Mcdavid struggled in the faceoff circle early in his career, and he’s now been past the 50% mark for two seasons straight. I expect the same will happen with Mcleod.

So the Oilers have got this when it comes to depth scoring too.

The fourth line will have a ton of competition for the center position on it. Last season the Oilers rotated several players in and out of the position and so they brought in more depth to compete for it. Derek Ryan, who also re-upped with the Oilers early in the offseason, is definitely a candidate as he’ll play either that center position or RW on that line. 26-year-old journeyman Lane Pederson was signed for two years at league minimum on a one-way contract so if you read where the money goes it seems they see him in that spot, but training camp will be the final determination. Ex-Oiler Drake Cagguila, now an AHL bubble player, was also signed to a two-way contract to compete for that spot. If Caggiula doesn’t grab that spot in the lineup, he’ll probably be sent down to Bakersfield to shore up the forward ranks which have been depleted as of late with the graduation of Dylan Holloway and the trade of Reid Schaefer to get Mattias Ekholm. If all else fails Pederson can also be put on waivers and sent down to Bakersfield to perform the same role if he clears.

Manning the port side on the fourth line will be sophomore Dylan Holloway, who was called up mid-season and never went back down. In his rookie season, he put up 3-6-9 in 51 games last season, so I’m sure the Oilers expect him to build on that this season, and regardless of who wins the center spot, he’ll have some good veteran linemates beside him.

Unless of course, Raphael Lavoie makes the team out of camp, in which case the fourth line will have plenty of rotation in it.

I dare say this is the best forward depth the team has had in quite some time, and it’s a nice mix of superstars, stars, guys in their prime, older guys, and prospects.

Arguably the Oilers weakest spot is in goal – and I say this knowing that the weaknesses of the two players are likely to be more minor and not in any way debilitating to the team.

Second-year NHLer Stuart Skinner grabbed the starting spot by the horns last season which was fortunate as Jack Campbell struggled last season. Stuart had a fantastic rookie season, so much so that he finished third in Calder trophy voting last season for rookie of the year. But the question for Skinner is can he do it again? Hard to say for sure. The only way to know is to play the games. He’ll certainly have a great team of skaters in front of him.

And then there’s Jack Campbell, the prize free-agent pickup from the 2022 offseason. Campbell struggled with consistency in his first season as an Oiler, finishing with an ugly .888 sv% and 3.41 GAA……ouch. He redeemed himself in the playoffs, though, coming on in relief of Skinner four times and finishing with a sparkling .961 sv% and stingy 1.01 GAA. Only 118 minutes of action, of course, so limited sample size, but we certainly know that like a good veteran, he can raise his game in the playoffs. He has publicly vowed to be better next season. If Skinner can have the same solid season he had last year or better, then the best-case scenario between the pipes will have happened. The Oilers will have a goaltending controversy on their hands and could trade one of them for a great haul, or simply enjoy the depth they have and keep both. Skinner also re-upped with the Oilers for three seasons at $2.6 million per, a number I believe the Oilers could’ve accomplished for less than that but at least he’s locked up for a while now. If this tandem improves the Oilers will have another tool in the toolbox that makes them an even more dangerous team going forward.

They’re definitely cup contenders and will have a great shot at it this year if everything comes together. If you want more evidence look no further than Vegas player Jonathan Marchessault who out and out said the Oilers were the biggest test they faced in the playoffs. If the opposition praises you that much, that’s got to be worth something. You’ve also got to believe head coach Jay Woodcroft, who has the intelligence to see when something he changes isn’t working, will switch to a zone team defense as opposed to the man-to-man system he used in the playoffs last season when he sees how it didn’t work against Vegas, who will be the team they need to beat to get out of the division and into the Cup final.