With the playoffs moving into the conference finals, we’ve had plenty of time to admire the teams that have moved on while also comparing them to our own squads that missed the dance. For the Edmonton Oilers, it’s hard to see where they’re at compared any of the remaining teams because they’re not really anything like them. That’s not to say that the Oil can’t be more like the Stanley Cup hopefuls, but after watching how these last four teams have worked their way through the playoffs it does show how much work is left to be done on our side. With that in mind, I put together five Oilers questions that are on my mind that will be very important to resolve before heading into next season.
1. WHO’S GOING ON THE BACKEND?
If the Oilers are going to upgrade their back end in any real way then somebody from the current roster has to go. I mean, think about it: Klefbom, Larsson, Sekera, and Russell are locked in with term on their deals, and it seems like only a matter of time before Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning get inked to new contracts as well. Chiarelli didn’t upgrade the defence at all last season, and I think it’s safe to say that we saw first hand that they weren’t good enough as a whole. But unless we’re thinking that one of Darryl or Benning is on the way out before they sign (I doubt it) then we need to figure out which of the other four guys is on the move to make room for an upgrade. If the Oilers are hoping to add a puck-moving defenceman this summer, then one of the six regulars will need to be traded as either part of the return or simply to clear space on the roster and the cap. The interesting part of that whole decision comes because two of the guys to potentially be moved — Sekera and Russell — have no-move clauses beside their names, which obviously limits the options. Does that mean Klefbom or Larsson gets traded because they don’t have the ability to nix a trade? That’s not ideal. But at the end of the day, someone has to go — who is it?
2. WHAT HAS TODD LEARNED?
McLellan got lucky this summer, huh? How else would you describe it? All of his assistant coaches got the boot or were relocated and ol’ Todd was last man standing. It’s like he avoided the firing squad by hiding behind some curtains and wearing camo pants, and now that he’s made it through, I want to know what that experience taught him. I want to know what losing the assistant coaches that have been at his side for ages has done to the way he’ll operate behind the bench. I want to know how he’s going to change his approach so that the 2017-18 season is something that we can all laugh about someday rather than the first step into another decade of darkness. I want to know how the Edmonton Oilers are going to get more out of Todd McLellan than they did last year and if he recognizes his mistakes and adjusts to fix them. At times, McLellan has been criticized for his line combinations, favouring of certain players over others, and some have even wondered if he’s lost the room. So what will be different? How will he rebound after what was likely one of the most trying seasons of his NHL coaching career? How will he get back in the good graces of any players that he may have lost along the way? How will he respond now that the scapegoat assistant coaches are gone?
3. HOW WILL THEY FIX THE POWER PLAY?
Speaking of coaching, we complained about the power play a lot this season and I’m really curious to know what they have planned for fixing it. The Oilers were dead last in the NHL on the power play after finishing the year with a 14.8% success, which is crazy for a team that has Connor McDavid. To put it another way, the Oilers had only 31 power play goals last season and that’s shocking. I wrote about it all the time, that I thought that the PP was way too predictable and the other team knew that everything was going to run through Connor and that he was always going to pass. There was no big shot option on the point, few one-timer options, and there was a lot of standing around and stringing together perimeter passes. Now that Jay Woodcroft will be coaching in Bakersfield, what changes will be made to the approach? Will any changes be made, considering that Todd McLellan is still around? How will they ensure that they will score more than the 31 power play goals that they had last year?
4. WHO PLAYS WITH DRAISAITL?
With McNuge locked in as a studly duo on the first line, Leon Draisaitl has seemingly assumed his rightful place as the second line centre behind them. The problem we have now is that we’re missing a winger (or two) to compliment Leon the way he did for Connor before Nuge jumped into that slot to end the year. Who will be Leon’s Nuge? Looking at the internal options, the obvious name that Draisaitl will likely have pencilled in on his left to start the season is Milan Lucic, but who lands on the starboard side is anyone’s guess. Will Jesse Puljujarvi come into training camp after a solid summer and work his way into finally sticking in the top six? Will Kailer Yamamoto surprise* everyone and find himself on the opening day roster like he did this past October? Will Chiarelli be able to find another Ty Rattie-type on a cheap deal that’s just looking for a chance to play?
*probably won’t be surprising
5. DRAFT OR TRADE?
We’ve talked about this one a lot lately so I’m going to buzz through it. Since the Oilers fell back a spot in the NHL Draft order, they’re unlikely to find a player at #10 that can help next year’s team, so trading the pick almost seems likely. I’m not saying that moving this year’s first round pick is necessarily the best idea or that it’s a bad idea, but I can see it happening with Peter Chiarelli likely looking at moves that will save his job. The team needs to make a tangible step forward next season and the GM knows it. If the Oilers drop another turd in 2018-19 like they did this past season, then Peter Chiarelli will be looking for a new job, and that makes me believe that he’ll be looking to pull the trigger on a trade with that pick. Not only will a move that sends the 10th overall pick affect the current team, but it would also change what happens in the future with the ability to dabble in free agency and even maneuveur the upcoming Seattle expansion. Is Chiarelli still looking that far ahead, or is he in ‘saving his job’ mode? What happens with the 10th overall pick could give us a peek into what he’s thinking.
For the Oilers to improve next season and get themselves back into the playoffs, they’re going to need a passing grade on all five of these questions to make it happen. From top to bottom, this franchise needs to improve, and that’s a tall order with no easy solutions, especially when you consider the cap issues that are looming and the pressure of needing to win with Connor McDavid. The GM will need to do a better job of adding players on value contracts that can contribute, the coach will need to get the most out of those pieces, and the players will need to greatly improve their ability to execute with consistency.
That’s a lot of pressure on a franchise that didn’t exactly handle expectations all that well last season, and while the type of expectations heading into next season will certainly be different, they will still have to deal with the pressure to get themselves back to being competitive. No longer will the Oilers be considered Cup contenders heading into this season, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t have to deal with some heightened expectations. To make that happen, first they’ll need to answer a few questions.