1. The current situation
The issue facing the Edmonton Oilers is an obvious one: Now that they’re getting a generational talent, they have — at most — two years to get their acts together and put a presentable team on the ice.
The thing that I think gets overlooked a lot in all the pointing and laughing at the Oilers is that, despite every apparent effort to make themselves a laughingstock, they did in fact put together something resembling a decent core of players. If your top six forwards, even before you draft Connor McDavid, include:
- Taylor Hall (the best left wing alive)
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (soon to be an excellent No. 2 center)
- Nail Yakupov (a former No. 1 pick who seems to be taking big steps forward at long last)
- Jordan Eberle (a borderline first-/second-line wing), and
- Benoit Pouliot (a possession-driving top-six winger on any team in the league)
…then that’s a really, really good jumping-off point. Like, really good. Five guys who can play in any top six in the league, plus McDavid, and you’re good for a while. Plus Leon Draisaitl. Hmm, suddenly this Thin Team With Lots Of Problems looks like it might be Too Deep To Accommodate All That Talent. Tough spot to be in, eh?
This also does not take into account the fact that all are locked up for a while yet (with the exception of Yakupov, who only has two years left on his deal) and relatively cheaply — a combined cost of $24.5 million, which ain’t bad when you consider what, say, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be pulling by themselves next year.
Sorting out the bottom six really shouldn’t be that hard if you’re smart, and now with Peter Chiarelli running the roster (I’m confident he learned from his many mistakes here in Boston) and Todd McLellan running the bench (ditto his missteps in San Jose, some of which weren’t really his fault but something into which he was forced by a puzzling general manager), being smart might actually be a strength in Edmonton for the first time in years. And frankly, I think the Oilers have some good pieces in the bottom six as well; Teddy Purcell is expensive but has a track record of possession success, Anton Lander might be something, Matt Hendricks is okay, etc. You can fill out the rest of that group with ease.
That’s the forward group handled, and relatively cheaply.
Defense and goaltending is the problem, and that’s what needs addressing.
2. So you draft McDavid, then what?
Obviously McDavid, even if everything else goes sideways, buys everyone time and goodwill. Which is, I think, crucial here. The kid is, no joke, the kind of franchise savior Crosby was, not in the sense that the Oilers were ever in real danger of moving, but in the sense that they suddenly had to go, “Well we better not screw this up as colossally as we have everything else for the last decade.”
But even after all the confetti drops at BankAtlantic Center in a few weeks’ time, there are still three more picks to be made in the first round alone. So the first thing Chiarelli needs to do is consider whether he should stand pat (meh), trade up (yup), or move some or all of those picks plus a contract or two for roster help (yuuuuuup).
Will good players be available at No. 16? Yes. Probably at 33 as well. Maybe even 57. But those are a long way out from being meaningful NHL players unless you get really lucky. Patrice Bergeron lucky. Shea Weber lucky. And in the meantime, the Oilers’ defense is a disaster. That’s not news.
Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are two bright spots — maybe, more certainly so a year or two from now — and Mark Fayne may or may not have been a product of Andy Greene in New Jersey. But that’s three guys out of six or seven you need to have be any good, and that’s the place where I go shopping with those picks. Again, obvious.
Maybe you do it at the draft, maybe a little before. But that’s a space where I think Edmonton has more flexibility than most give them credit for. Because even if he doesn’t budge there, Chiarelli has other future options.
3. Learning from experience
Again, you have to consider where Chiarelli has made mistakes before, and what he might have learned from them.
Take, for example, the Boychuk-ing he went through last year. The Bruins were forced right up against the cap ceiling (in part due to Chiarelli’s mismanagement of the bottom six, i.e. overpaying everyone in it from the 2011 team) and in the end had to deal Johnny Boychuk — the clear No. 2 defenseman on the team — for a pair of piddling second-round picks from the Islanders. That alone is a big reason the Bruins missed the playoffs. The Islanders also did this to Chicago vis a vis Nick Leddy, though that seems not to have hurt them quite so badly, for obvious reasons.
But now, instead of being the guy having to make those tough decisions himself, Chiarelli is in a position to hurt the teams that have to make them. The cap is likely to go up very little it if does so at all, maybe $1-2 million or so at the outside, and as such a team like the Oilers, with scads of cap space and plenty of attractive picks and prospects to deal, might be able to do a little shopping closer to the start of the season. There should be at least a few teams that get backed up against the wall in this way, and buzzards with cap room and roster needs should be circling. The Isles, in fact, provided an excellent blue print in this regard.
Or, if the fancy strikes, they could even do something on the RFA market, though I wouldn’t hold my breath there, because no one offer sheets anyone in this league.
Moreover, that wealth of potentially high-end talent in the top-six and beyond — again: Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Draisaitl, McDavid, Yakupov, Purcell, and Pouliot, which is amazing — makes someone expendable (Yakupov in particular if you believe the rumors).
So basically: There are many options to acquire a defenseman from somewhere in the league, meaning that I’m not so convinced the situation is as dire as most people in the national media do.
Even if you can address the problem in one or two of these ways, that sorts out some blue line problems, but not others. You still have to play Andrew Ference, and Nikita Nikitin, and you have to hope some of the guys who struggled last year get their acts together, and you have to hope the kids come along nicely, and you have to figure out what to do with Justin Schultz, who seems only slightly closer to winning a Norris as you, the reader, are right this second.
And on top of that, goaltending is still a huge point of concern. Edmonton used three different goalies last season, and at 5-on-5 (where the league average save percentage is usually in the low .920s or so), the two that got by far the most use averaged .899 and .896. The likelihood that they do so again is remote to say the least, especially if the Oilers can shore up the defense in front of them, but even if they don’t, these guys are in the NHL for a reason, and it’s because they can, generally, stop about 91-92 percent of the shots they face at even strength. Even if nothing else changed in Edmonton, the team would likely improve because of just how dismal the luck was last year.
I was one of the very few guys outside Edmonton who thought the Dallas Eakins firing was a bit unfair but at least understandable. He had the team trending in the right direction possession-wise even as the roster decisions made above him baffled. He was doomed by horrendous luck, which diminished under Todd Nelson and will further do so under McLellan, just as a matter of course.
And even if they don’t, it’s actually pretty easy to go out and get useful goaltenders if you need to, mid-season or not. While you’re very unlikely to get performances from midseason goalie pickups like Minnesota did from Devan Dubnyk (“Oops,” says Craig MacTavish), you can at least get competent goalies on the cheap until such time as you may be able to sort out those issues internally if need be.
Point being: I roll with Ben Scrivens and (insert UFA backup goalie here) if I’m Chiarelli, at least for a few months. If Scrivens steadfastly refuses to turn back from the pumpkin of last season, the other guy you sign might help, and if not, you hit the trade market.
Average goalies are all teams need to be decent a lot of the time, and average goalies are easy to acquire because they’re just that.
5. One thing to root against
The danger, of course, is that Chiarelli, known for fetishizing things like “jam,” “compete,” and “size” (and not so much “good drafting”) goes and does that Boychuk thing to the Bruins for Milan Lucic. You definitely don’t want that to happen. The wheels are falling off for Lucic if they haven’t already.