There was a meme circulating Wednesday as the free agency season opened that Pete Chiarelli has already done more to re-shape the Edmonton Oilers in five days than the previous regimes had in the previous five years. There’s some truth to that in terms of quality, if not quantity.
After trading Boyd Gordon for Lauri Korpikoski on Tuesday, Chiarelli upped his game by snagging sought-after defenseman Andrej Sekera with a six-year deal worth $33 million and centre Mark Letestu to fill the hole left by the workmanlike Gordon.
That tidy bit of business came on the heels of landing goaltender Cam Talbot and defensemen Griffin Reinhart and Eric Gryba in trades at the Entry Draft after Chiarelli called Connor McDavid’s name with the first overall pick. All that player personnel enters the fold after the hiring of head coach Todd McLellan, who brought in assistants Jay Woodcroft and Jim Johnson.
All of which prompted Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones to write one of the most optimistic pieces I can remember about the Oilers in his assessment of Chiarelli’s work to this point. You can read that in its entirety here.
Jones was a touch too hopeful in my estimation but my point here is not to rip him for that because, quite frankly, the Piss-and-Moan about Everything Club has had the floor (with good reason) far too long in this town. From where I sit, optimism is a nice change-up from cynicism.
NOT THERE YET
I would, however, like to offer my take on two excerpts from what Jones wrote, starting with his eyeball-grabbing first paragraph: “As of right now, today, for the first time in a long time, the Edmonton Oilers are a complete National Hockey League team instead of pieces and parts of a team.”
With seven new players in the equation, pieces and parts of a team are exactly what Chiarelli has assembled. There’s some upgraded pieces in that group, McDavid, Talbot and Sekera being the key guys, but we don’t know how they’ll perform individually or how they’ll fit together.
My best guess is the top six forwards will be Benoit Pouliot, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, McDavid and Nail Yakupov. Does McLellan run Hall with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle and play Pouliot with McDavid and Yakupov? While Yakupov made some strides under Todd Nelson, I’m not convinced he’s ready for a steady top-six diet of ice time.
In the bottom six, the left wingers are Korpikoski and Matt Hendricks. The centres are Anton Lander and Letestu and the right wingers are Teddy Purcell and Rob Klinkhammer. Where does Leon Draisaitl fit? I’m not a Purcell guy. I think the Oilers will miss Gordon on the dot. If McLellan wants three line that can score, I’m not sure Korpikoski fits into that.
Then, there’s the blue line. Sekera is a very good addition without question because he’ll help insulate Oscar Klefbom. Will Sekera play in a first pairing with Mark Fayne? Perhaps Klefbom slips into second-pairing minutes with Justin Schultz, leaving Reinhart, Gryba, Nikita Nikitin and Andrew Ference to sort out the third pair and who gets a press box seat. Best bet for the third pairing looks to be Reinhart and Gryba. Might Darnell Nurse be ready?
Again, there’s some pieces to work with, but a lot has to fall the right way for this collection to be significantly better than the group the Oilers had before Jeff Petry was shipped away last season. A “complete” group? Not now. Not until Reinhart builds on the eight NHL games on his resume. Not until we see a minute-munching first pairing emerge. Lots of maybe here.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Jones: “How much better are players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Leon Draisaitl and the top-drafted young stars going to be, surrounded by a much more complete team with a chance to win every night and not be deflated by bad goals early?”
Good question. We don’t have the answer. Fans are rightfully pumped about the acquisition of McDavid. He’ll provide McLellan with a one-two punch with RNH down the middle. There is no negative in that. The question is who plays the wings on the first two lines?
Might everybody Jones mentioned benefit from the addition of McDavid? You’d think so, but we don’t know. Like I said earlier, the biggest question for me is Yakupov. It would be terrific if he’s a fit for McDavid. If he’s not, the other RW options are . . ? I’ll take Draisaitl over Purcell all day long in the top-nine.
To borrow from Jones, “how much better?” After sounding a bit like a wet blanket, I don’t think there’s much question the Oilers look better on paper up front with McDavid, on the back end with Sekera and in goal with Talbot. If all the cards fall their way, this team could be a lot better under McLellan. The reality is, though, it seldom goes that way.
There is reason for optimism – McDavid alone is a kick in the ass — and thank goodness for that after nine straight years out of the playoffs, but a complete team? Let’s awhile before making that pronouncement.
THE OTHER SHOE
What a lot of people are waiting for now is for Chiarelli to offload some salary from the back end – that’s a buzz Bob Stauffer of 630-CHED started with a mention of that as a possible scenario on his show Tuesday, which he followed up on via Twitter Wednesday. Everybody is on it now.
Again as mentioned on @OilersNow earlier today. Could get in the game on UFA puck-moving D if Oil could move out another D with $$$
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) June 30, 2015
Chiarelli got in the UFA game with Sekera without the move Stauffer telegraphed, but if you look at the players vying for the final pairing – Reinhart, Gryba, Nikitin, Ference and Nurse — and the combined salary of that group, there’s a pretty good chance that shoe will drop.
It will surely involve a miracle and Nikitin with the Oilers retaining some salary or taking some back in a trade. We can only hope it’s soon.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.