The expansion draft and NHL draft are over and the window to begin talking to pending unrestricted free agents is open. The rules state teams “Can’t negotiate terms,” if you need a good chuckle this Monday morning. I’m sure they just take tours of the city and arenas, but never discuss or negotiate contracts.
Chiarelli has two holes to fill on his blueline. The Oilers have five healthy D-men in Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning. Andrej Sekera won’t be available until December or January, so Chiarelli needs two more defenders for his opening night roster.
Mark Fayne is in the final year of his deal. He could be the #6/7 defender, until Sekera returns, but the coaching staff seemingly doesn’t have a lot of faith in him. Jordan Oesterle and Eric Gryba are unrestricted free agents. The Oilers have had discussions with Gryba’s camp, and I could see them bringing him back, but I can also understand why he will wait and see what the free agent market offers.
So far Chiarelli has taken a cautious approach this off-season, after being much more aggressive last summer. Is it the right strategy?
Let’s look at the what has transpired since the Oilers lost game seven in Anaheim on May 10th.
- In his end-of-season presser Chiarelli said his two main priorities would be signing Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. It makes sense. They are the Oilers two best players, and once Chiarelli has them signed he will know exactly how his salary cap position will look for the next five years.
- He traded Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome. Eberle is clearly the more proven player. He has 165 goals, while Strome has 45. Eberle has played 507 games, Strome 245 and Strome is three years younger and $3.5 million cheaper. The latter was the main reason the trade was made. I recognize the salary cap is always a factor in deals, and if Strome can score 20 goals then the deal will be much better for the Oilers. When you sign your top stars to big contracts, you eventually have to trade away players who are more proven, for younger players who you hope can evolve and be solid complementary players.
- Chiarelli signed Kris Russell to a four-year deal. Ideally, Chiarelli would have signed him for three years, but the way the contract is built the fourth year makes Russell tradeable if by then the Oilers feel they are better on the blueline. They likely are hoping one, if not, both of Nurse and Benning are proven top-four defenders by then. Russell only makes $2.5 million in his 4th year with a $1 million signing bonus due July 1st. After July 1st he will have $1.5 owing to him, but carry a $4 million cap hit. For teams wanting to get to the cap floor and have a veteran player he will be attractive. There seems to be a lot of concern surrounding Russell, especially from some of those who are strong believers in analytics. So let’s look at that.A.) I believe we can learn a lot from analytics, but I also believe, they are not always correct or accurate, just like scouting.Many of the same people upset with the Russell signing were strongly applauding Benoit Pouliot and Mark Fayne signings three years ago. I like Pouliot as a player, he is just overpaid for what he can do for a good team. Inconsistency is his biggest flaw. He can be a top-six forward on a bottom team, but on a good team, he is a bottom six winger. Which is great, because if injuries hit, he can moonlight in your top-six for a few games if needed. Fayne’s foot speed and lack of excelling in one area has hurt him in Edmonton. I believe he could still be a regular NHLer, but the production from those two has not been what the numbers suggested they could be. That is fine. Analytics is just like scouting. It will never be 100% accurate, just like scouting, because hockey has many uncontrolled variables that change very quickly and statistics will be a good guideline, but there will always be positive and negative outliers. I like to read analytics guys who recognize the line can change or evolve, often quickly in a season. Russell has weaknesses in his game, almost every player does, but he also has good aspects as well. I think it is important to include both when assessing or evaluating a player.I asked Russell about analytics and how they are incorporated or presented to players, and if there is an area of his game he could improve based on what the analytics state?”We have some stats/analytics in our room. As a team and for individual we do and we’re always looking to get better and I’m the same. If I can do anything to get better I’m going to do it. But most of the video is just with the coaches and things that they see and things they pick up on that can help you. Sometimes too it’s just watching yourself. Sometimes you don’t realize you get some bad habits and you don’t recognize what you are doing, so video can show that. You can knock them out pretty quickly if you watch the video. But, yeah, with the analytics there are obviously things that I can clean up, and I’m obviously going to try and do that,” said Russell. ***I will have more from Russell in another article***.
B.) Is it possible the analytics don’t present everything Russell does? The Oilers made it to game seven of the 2nd round. Some would argue a few tough calls prevented them from going to the third round. If Russell was such a liability why did the coach play him the 3rd most minutes of any skater, after Larsson and McDavid, in the playoffs? (Klefbom missed a game or he would have been higher, same with Sekera). Russell missed 14 games in the regular season and still logged the 7th most minutes on the team. The Oilers were a 103-point team. If he was such a liability, then the rest of the team is even better than people think, because they had to carry him around, or maybe the numbers don’t tell the entire story.
Russell is a very good skater. He can close gaps well when he is aggressive. He is very competitive and he battles hard. He is also an excellent shot blocker, arguably the best in the NHL, but a blocked shot is counted as a negative when tracking Corsi against. Sadly, shot blocking has become a vital skill in today’s NHL. I don’t love it, but it is a fact. Erik Karlsson, arguably the best defenseman in the game, was second behind Russell in the regular season in blocked shots. The premise from those who suggest blocking shots means you are out of position is incorrect. It has become a skill and Russell is one of the best in the league. He’s learned to time his entrance into the shooting lane very well. As analytics continues to evolve should they look at tracking the importance of a well-timed shot block. I realize Fenwick eliminates blocked shots, and if you look at Russell his FF% was 49.2% this season. Sekera was 50.8%. Larsson was 51% and Klefbom was 51.8%. Not a massive difference from the top-four defenders who played similar competition.
He is also versatile. He can play both sides. The majority of defenders aren’t as effective when they play their offside, and many can’t play their offside very well at all. Russell can play in the second pairing and he can play LD with Benning or he could play RD with Nurse.
C.) Re-signing Russell did not cost the Oilers any assets. Had they acquired Travis Hamonic, Tyson Barrie, Justin Faulk or some of the other rumoured names, it would have cost the Oilers picks, players or prospects. The Oilers depth chart, outside the NHL, is not very deep. Over the next five seasons, they will need to develop some young players who can enter the lineup and contribute with a low salary.
- During his May media availability, Chiarelli said he wanted to be in a position to let his young D-men develop. He was going to be patient with his defence and give the young players an opportunity to grow. “We’ve got some young D who had a terrific experience in these playoffs,” said Chiarelli. “You saw Darnell move up with Larsson and I think you saw a good pair. You see some promise there. You saw Benning move up with Russell, you saw some good performances. There’s room for growth, we have to allow space for that. We made some major additions this past year, I’d like to let it evolve a little bit,” he said.He is sticking to his plan. The Sekera injury means Benning and Nurse will see more icetime. Benning will likely start on the 2nd unit PP, while Nurse will take Sekera’s PK minutes. Sekera led the Oilers in PK minutes, and Russell was 2nd despite missing 14 games. Both Benning and Nurse will see an uptick in their EV minutes as well.
The Oilers have 13 forwards signed, who we expect to compete for jobs in the NHL: McDavid, Milan Lucic, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Patrick Maroon, Zack Kassian, Strome, Puljujarvi, Slepyshev, Pouliot, Caggiula, Letestu, Iiro Pakarinen and Jujhar Khaira. Draisaitl is an RFA and Pitlick is a UFA. Pitlick should test the market. The RW free agent market isn’t very deep, and most of the big names are older. The only RW free agents under the age of 30, who played 30+ NHL games last season are Tommy Wingels (7-5-12 in 75GP), Brian Flynn (6-4-10 in 51 GP) and Pitlick (8-3-11 in 31GP). Older guys include Jaromir Jagr (45), Shane Doan (40), Jarome Iginla (39), Radim Vrbata (36), Justin Williams (35) and Ales Hemsky (33).
When they sign Draisaitl they will have 14 forwards. The Oilers could use some more centre depth. A centre who could play both wing and centre would be welcome, but the centre UFA depth pool is also shallow. Sam Gagner and Joe Thornton lead the UFA centre crop with 50 points last year. Martin Hanzal will be sought after. He is big, strong, decent offensively and good defensively. Nick Bonino will garner a lot of attention as well. He had 18 goals last year playing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. He will get a big raise from his $1.9 million cap hit. Brian Boyle is 32 and a solid 3rd line centre.
Jordan Weal is guy who could help in the depth department. He turned 25 in April. He’s paid his dues the past three years in the AH and produced 186 points in 192 games. He was named Calder Cup MVP when Manchester won in 2015. Last year he got a chance with the Flyers in Philadelphia and in 23 games he scored 8-4-12. I wouldn’t break the bank on him, and some team might in a shallow free agent pool, but he is very skilled and on a soft minute third line matchup I think he could produce.
Moving forward I expect McDavid and Draisaitl to face the toughest matchups, just like we saw in the playoffs vs. Anaheim. If Draisaitl plays centre for much of the season, I believe RNH will have every opportunity to produce against softer competition. The Oilers have told him they want him to rediscover his offensive creativity, and by playing against the other teams bottom six he should be able to flourish. Having a skilled guy like Weal alongside him might be an option, or if they move Draisaitl to the wing for a few games and RNH up to the 2nd line then Weal could centre the third line.
Chiarelli’s off-season isn’t over yet. He could surprise and make a big splash, but thus far he has remained fairly patient. The Oilers are only one year removed from the Decade of Darkness. They still need more organizational depth, and this summer won’t be as exciting or sexy as last year for Oilers fans. I’ve read some people suggesting Chiarelli is wasting McDavid’s final year of his ELC and that is ruining a great opportunity to win.
I believe the final year or ELC is slightly over-stated. The last seven Stanley Cup Champions didn’t have an elite forward or D-man on their ELC. Boston had Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand in 2011, but Seguin only played 13 playoff games. Marchand had 41 points in the regular season and was wasn’t their star forward. Chicago, LA and Pittsburgh have each won twice in the past six years, but their core was comprised of proven vets. Matt Murray was huge for the Penguins, but they had Marc-Andre Fleury and his $5.75 million cap hit as the backup. They weren’t getting great goaltending on the cheap.
The 2010 Blackhawks were the last team to win the Cup with two star forwards on their ELC. Of course it can help, but the Oilers don’t have a Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook (both Olympians in 2010) on their blueline like the 2010 Hawks did. It is rare to win a Cup with your star on his ELC. The Penguins have won back-to-back with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on their third contracts making big money. If you have a superstar in the NHL, then you have a chance to be successful well past his ELC.
I understand why Chiarelli has been patient thus far this summer. The Oilers exceeded everyone’s expectations last year, including Chiarelli’s, and I sense he wants to see more from this group before he starts making moves to take his team from playoff contender to Stanley Cup contender.
That path is much more difficult to climb than going from a non-playoff team to a playoff team. The most challenging part of the Oilers ascent up the NHL mountain is just beginning.
NATION NIGHT AT THE BALLPARK
On Thursday night (June 29th), we’re hosting our first Nation Night at the Ballpark as the Edmonton Prospects take on the Weyburn Beavers. As you’d expect, we’ll have some prizes to give away and stickers for the kids (big or small) so clear your calendar and plan to be at RE/MAX Field on Thursday night. Tickets are available here.
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