After an underwhelming start, the Oilers have pulled up their boots and have gone 9-2-2 since the hiring of Ken Hitchcock. The streak has undoubtedly saved the Oilers season, but nothing is certain. The roster, while currently looking like a playoff team, still has holes and issues that need to be addressed. Given the way things are headed, you have to assume the Oilers will be buying come trade deadline time.
What do the Oilers need?
There are two points of strength on the Oilers: down the middle and in net.
Mikko Koskinen has been an absolute rock and Cam Talbot has started to look better in December. The duo is the best the Oilers have had between the pipes in a very long time. If one falters, the other is a reasonable bet to pick up the slack.
The Oilers are also fairly deep down the middle. Right now, they have one of their top three centres, Leon Draisaitl, playing on the top line as a winger with Connor McDavid. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is developing into a very good two-way second centre right behind them. After dealing away Ryan Strome, the team could possibly use another bottom-six centre, but I wouldn’t say the need is pressing.
Then there are two areas which could use an upgrade: the blueline and the wings.
At full strength, Edmonton has a good-not-great blueline. Injuries to Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell have resulted in players having to take on more minutes than you’d like which magnifies the need to upgrade the blueline. Ideally, when healthy, you have Klefbom and Adam Larsson as your top pairing, Kris Russell anchoring the third pairing, and Matt Benning and Kevin Gravel as your six and seventh defenceman rotating in depending on the opponent. Darnell Nurse is a second-pairing guy lacking an ideal partner. It’s difficult to bank on the injured Andrej Sekera coming back and being that guy.
Then, finally, there are the wings. Outside of their big three centres in McDavid, RNH, and Driasaitl, only Alex Chiasson is consistently producing offence. The team has yet to find good wingers who can help either Draisaitl or RNH drive a dominant second line. The team has fair depth, with competent NHL players rotating in and out of the lineup to fill a bottom-six that can thrive playing a tight-checking game, but one more good scoring winger to place on the second line would be huge for the Oilers as they look to take pressure off their top line.
Two-and-a-half months into the season, we can start to see the playoff picture forming. There are some teams who were obviously always going to be sellers come deadline time but there are also some surprises in that mix. Probably the biggest surprise is the St. Louis Blues, a roster loaded with strong talent currently sitting in the league’s bottom five.
Jeremy Rutherford, a Blues reporter for the Athletic, suggests that rival executives believe no players on the Blues are off limit. That would mean guys like Colton Parayko, Brayden Schenn, and Vladimir Tarasenko could be had for the right price. The Kings and Blackhawks have quickly fallen off the grid in the Western Conference. Both teams are in salary cap hell and you have to assume they’ll be open up for business too.
The Eastern Conference is a little more enigmatic. The Flyers and Devils, two teams who are tied for last in the conference, are only six points out of a playoff spot right now. Teams like the Senators, Islanders, Rangers, and Red Wings, who everyone expected would be having throw-away seasons, are right in the mix. Then there are teams like the Hurricanes and Panthers who are struggling despite having playoff aspirations this season. The month of January will decide the fate of most of these teams come deadline time.
Names we’ll possibly see flying around as rentals would be Kevin Hayes from the Rangers, Gustav Nyquist from the Red Wings, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone from the Sens, Michael Ferland from the Hurricanes, and Wayne Simmonds from the Flyers. Some names with longer terms attached to them would be the aforementioned Parayko, Schenn, and others from the Blues, Jake Muzzin and Jeff Carter from the Kings, and Justin Faulk from the Hurricanes.
What does it all mean?
There’s no doubt making the playoffs is important for the Oilers. The team had a terribly disappointing 2017-18 season after their run to the second round in 2016-17. The difficulty, of course, is judging what the team’s window is and whether or not Peter Chiarelli should (or can be trusted to) sell the farm in order to make a run this spring.
Looking long-term, the Oilers have their core of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Klefbom locked up for the foreseeable future. RNH and Larsson each have two years left on their contracts before they can hit unrestricted free agency. With McDavid in the mix, the window is always going to be open, but you have to assume the Oilers would like to take a stab at winning before RNH and Larsson’s deals expire in a few years.
The needs on the team are a top-four defender and a top-six winger. Obviously, I’d rather the Oilers acquire a long-term asset given the fact they don’t have a window that’s slamming shut after this season. That said, the salary cap is also a thing, and adding a guy on a multi-year deal would mean another player with a fixed salary cap commitment is on the way out.
Edmonton already has about $68 million committed to their roster next season. The salary cap could reportedly rise to $83 million next year, which would give the Oilers $15 million to work with. They have to sign two goalies and deal with RFA contracts for Jesse Puljujarvi, Drake Caggiula, and Tobias Reider. Parayko, who costs $5,500,000 annually, could fit in there, but money would also have to be going back the other way. We’ve seen three-way trades in the past in which one team takes on a contract to make the money work for the other teams in exchange for a draft pick.
There are a lot of different avenues the Oilers can take here. I expect them to be active at the deadline as making the playoffs is huge for the organization this year. I imagine Chiarelli will be looking at longer-term assets like Parayko from selling teams, but he’ll have to get creative in order to make it fit with the team’s current salary cap structure. If it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of good rental options out there to upgrade Edmonton’s two major areas of need.