The Edmonton Oilers enjoyed a massive improvement from 2015-16 to 2016-17, jumping a whopping 33 points in the standings and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. A full season of Connor McDavid and Oscar Klefbom coupled with added depth around the lineup in the form of Milan Lucic, Adam Larsson, and Kris Russell helped transform the Oilers from basement-dwelling joke into one of the better teams in the Western Conference.
Now that the organization’s decade of darkness is over, it’s time to take the next step forward — Stanley Cup contention. Oilers fans, and the organization as a whole, were thrilled with what the team accomplished this year, but simply reaching the second round of the playoffs and injecting some excitement into Edmonton isn’t going to cut it again in 2017-18.
As I mentioned earlier, Connor McDavid’s health played a big role in Edmonton’s improvement this season. McDavid scored 30 goals and 70 assists, winning the Art Trophy race by a hefty 11-point margin over Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby. When looking at underlying numbers, McDavid had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the team, as virtually everybody saw improved production when on the ice with the team’s captain. I mean, really, I don’t have to walk through how good McDavid was this season. We all saw it happen. It was incredible.
Because of McDavid’s dominance, the Oilers tend to be characterized as a one-man team. While there’s some merit to that, it isn’t really accurate. Leon Draisaitl finished eighth in the NHL in scoring with 77 points and led the Oilers in playoff scoring. The team was also clearly better when Draisaitl anchored his own line as a centre than they were when he played on McDavid’s wing.
Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Benoit Pouliot, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were somewhat disappointing in their production considering their salaries and the easy minutes they were fed playing behind McDavid and Draisaitl, but cheap depth players like Patrick Maroon, Mark Letestu, and Zack Kassian stepped up and compensated for it.
Perhaps the most noticeable area of improvement was on the blueline. For years, Edmonton’s defence was a disaster, and suddenly, it’s become a position of strength. The Oilers finished ninth in the league in unblocked shot attempts against per 60 minutes at even strength, whereas in years past, they consistently ranked at the bottom.
Adam Larsson, who was acquired at a very, very high price last summer, stepped in alongside countryman Oscar Klefbom. Larsson played the role of the physical and reliable defender which gave Klefbom the opportunity to come out of his shell and produce offence. Kris Russell, a late-summer addition who’s maligned for his poor possession numbers, played with steady Andrej Sekera and the two were strong in shutting down the other team’s top competition. And finally, rookie Matt Benning came out of nowhere and formed a solid third pair with Darnell Nurse, who looked much better playing in a reduced role.
All told, the Oilers were a much more complete team than we’ve seen in, well, probably two decades, honestly. Their 103 points was the seventh best in franchise history and was the best Edmonton has seen since the mid-1980s. Also, when taking a look at underlying numbers, the Oilers finished with the sixth best Goals For percentage at even strength and a top-10 shot differential for the first time in over a decade.
It’s safe to say that the oil has finally been changed.
Depending on who gets taken in the expansion draft (we’ll get to that in a moment), the Oilers have roughly $61 million tied up into 11 forwards, six defencemen, and two goalies heading into next season. That’s assuming Mark Fayne and Jesse Puljujarvi are on the roster and it also counts all possible performance bonuses on entry-level contracts are met. In essence, it’s the most expensive scenario possible, and it results in the Oilers having about $12 million in cap room to work with this summer.
Offseason Game Plan
At the expansion draft, the Oilers are likely going to lose either Griffin Reinhart or Jujhar Khaira. Both players are young, cheap, under control, and can grow with the new organization. It would be nice if Vegas snagged Benoit Pouliot and his $4 million annual contract, but I’m sure George McPhee would rather have younger players with upside rather than an older player who seems to be past his prime.
When that’s over with, the focus immediately shifts to two key extensions — Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid still has another year left on his entry-level contract, meaning the extension he signs this summer won’t come into effect until 2018-19. Draisaitl, on the other hand, needs a new contract for next season.
After his second season, Sidney Crosby signed a five-year extension worth $8.7 million annually, which, at the time, was 17.3 per cent of the salary cap. Malkin signed an identical contract a year later worth 15.3 per cent of the slightly-increased cap ceiling. If McDavid signs for, say, 17 per cent of the $73 million cap for 2017-18 like Crosby did, he’ll be coming in at $12.41 million annually. The Oilers could get both players to agree to some kind of hometown discount, but, realistically, McDavid and Draisaitl, come 2018-19, are likely going to cost the team around $18-19 million per year.
There’s also this whole Jordan Eberle conundrum. After a very disappointing playoffs in which Eberle managed just two assists in 13 games while looking completely lacklustre, the final part of H.O.P.E seems to be on the outs in Edmonton. As noted earlier, Eberle has a cap hit of $6 million for two more seasons. It seems like a terrible use of money, but in reality, it’s the going rate for a forward who scores 20 goals and 50 points, which Eberle did. For example, last year, Lucic earned $6 million annually for seven years coming off of 55 and 50-point seasons and Loui Eriksson got $6 million for six years after scoring 47 and 63 in Boston.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Eberle moved this summer, but Peter Chiarelli really shouldn’t be in a rush to dump the winger’s cap hit. The Oilers won’t really be in a bind until 2018-19 when McDavid’s new contract kicks in. Also, Eberle’s value is at an all-time low, and we’ve seen way too many players jettisoned at their lowest points. While Eberle at $6 million seems terrible, there aren’t cheap replacements on the open market, and him in the top six is a hell of a lot better than Anton Slepyshev, Jesse Puljujarvi, or whatever other right shot the Oilers currently have.
Then there’s Kris Russell, who was quite solid for Edmonton this year. Andrej Sekera will miss the first couple months of the season after tearing his ACL in the playoffs, and the Oilers need somebody to fill his role. That said, it isn’t worth signing Russell, a 30-year-old who shoots left and doesn’t produce offensively, to a long-term deal in order to effectively fill a hole for two months. If they can get him on the short or cheap again, sure, go for it. But if somebody else is willing to pay the gritty blueliner money and term, you have to walk away.
Speaking of free agency, when it comes to improving the team via the open market, it’s unlikely Edmonton will make a big splash. They’ve done so in the past two years, handing out big, long-term deals to Andrej Sekera and Milan Lucic, but this year, based on their financial situation and the relatively thin market, the Oilers will likely be quiet. Some depth additions of solid veterans like Justin Williams, John-Michael Liles, P-A Parenteau, or Radim Vrbata would make a lot of sense for this team and it’s current composition.
In sum, I don’t expect a very busy summer in Edmonton as we’ve seen in previous years. There likely won’t be a mammoth Hall-Larsson swap, nor will there be a big Lucic/Sekera signing. This summer is about getting McDavid and Draisaitl locked up long-term, trying to free up some cap room, and making some low-key veteran additions before going on a playoff run with an older, more mature version of this group.
Previously in this series…
30. Colorado Avalanche, 29. Vancouver Canucks, 28. Arizona Coyotes, 27. New Jersey Devils, 26. Buffalo Sabres, 25. Detroit Red Wings, 24. Dallas Stars, 23. Florida Panthers, 22. Los Angeles Kings, 21. Carolina Hurricanes, 20. Winnipeg Jets, 19. Philadelphia Flyers, 18. Tampa Bay Lightning, 17. New York Islanders, 16. Nashville Predators, 15. Calgary Flames, 14. Toronto Maple Leafs, 13. Boston Bruins, 12. Ottawa Senators, 11. San Jose Sharks, 10. St. Louis Blues, 9. New York Rangers