34
Photo Credit: Andy Devlin/NHLI via USA TODAY Sports

Playoffs Begin Without the Oilers

The NHL playoffs begin tonight with four games. Well, they unofficially began on August 3rd with the qualifying rounds, as those stats counted as playoff stats, but according to the NHL the playoffs officially begin tonight.

So I guess, technically, that means the Oilers missed the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons. Good times.

Make no mistake: COVID is why the Oilers aren’t in the playoffs. On March 12th, when the season was postponed, Edmonton had a 94% chance of making the playoffs. They were going to make it, and had a very good chance of getting home ice advantage. Then COVID hit, the league had a four-and-a-half month hiatus, and when they resumed play the Oilers soiled the sheets.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Their four-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks should sting. The Hawks were beatable, but Edmonton didn’t battle consistently enough and their defensive zone coverage and goaltending cost them the series.

Now they have another four months off until the season resumes — best case scenario — in early December. In between, Ken Holland will have some decisions to make.

Riley Sheahan, Tyler Ennis, Patrick Russell, Mike Green and Mike Smith are unrestricted free agents.

It is very possible none of them will be signed. Green only played two games with the Oilers, and elected not to play in the qualifying round. I don’t see him signing in Edmonton.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Gaetan Haas has more speed and offensive upside than Sheahan, and he can kill penalties. I don’t think Sheahan is signed.

Russell works extremely hard, and I could see him being re-signed as an extra forward for the league minimum, but he doesn’t add much offence.

Ennis could be re-signed later in the free agent period. As I reported on August 6th, Ennis fractured his lower leg against the Blackhawks. He will need to rehab, and likely is a late free agent signing by someone.

Smith is the most interesting one for the Oilers. They know him, but there could be lots of goalies available this summer. Edmonton likely doesn’t have the money to sign Robin Lehner or Braden Holtby, but would they look at Anton Khudobin? I’m hearing he is looking for a three-year deal worth $3m/year. He is 34. His career-high is 37 starts, so I don’t see him as a starter, but he could be a great platoon option with Mikko Koskinen. His career .919sv% in 198 starts is impressive. I’d prefer to sign him for two years, not three.

Matt Murray could also be available, but you’d have to trade for him. I sense Holland will explore other goaltending options.

RFAs…

Feb 29, 2020; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Andreas Athanasiou (28) skates during warmup against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Andreas Athanasiou needs to be qualified at $3m. The Oilers could take him to arbitration and offer him $2.55 million (15% reduction of current contract), or get him to sign a new deal before qualifying period. They will try to get a new deal. I don’t think he would get more than $2.2m on the open market, so I sense either he re-signs for around that or lower with Edmonton, or they walk. It isn’t ideal, due to the draft picks, but the flat cap has changed how you build your team. The best GMs make the tough decisions, even when they aren’t popular.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
RELATED ARTICLE:
At Random: O Canada

Matt Benning needs to be qualified at $2m. I see Benning as a solid third pair defenceman. He isn’t flashy, but he always finds ways to be on the ice for more goals for than against. Edmonton doesn’t have much depth on the right side after Ethan Bear, Adam Larsson, Benning and Evan Bouchard. Lose Benning and now they are looking for another right shot D when injuries arise. Over the past three seasons the Oilers are -56 at 5×5. Benning in that time is +24. I realize +/- isn’t always the best statistic, but over three years, on a team leaked goals, he found a way to be a positive player. He is a third pairing defender. Cap wise, you’d like to get him a bit lower. He only played 13:14 minutes/game, and I sense the coaches didn’t want to play him more. I’d re-sign him.

Ethan Bear will be re-signed. With a flat cap, he might settle for a short term deal, and look to get a longer-term, higher salary in the future. Of all the free agents, UFA or RFA, he is the most important one to re-sign, and I’d expect they sign him first and then sign the others based on remaining salary.

SOMETHING HAS TO CHANGE…

The Oilers did improve in goals for and against overall, but most of that occurred on special teams.

At 5×5, their goals against was basically the same as last season.

In 2019 they allowed 179 goals in 82 games (2.18 GA/game).
This season they allowed 154 in 71 games (2.16 GA/game).

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Did they really improve defensively? Not much statistically, and they have had five of the same defenceman for the past four years.

In 2018 they allowed 2.14 goals/game at 5×5.

They averaged 2.16 the past three seasons which is exactly what they allowed this year. I’m sorry, I don’t see that as an improvement.

“I believe I have a way better understanding today of what we have in terms of defenceman and what I’d like to do going forward,” said Holland when I asked him today about his blueline.

In the previous 235 games, the Oilers had five D-men play at least 186.

Benning played 186, Oscar Klefbom 189, Adam Larsson 194, Kris Russell 205 and Darnell Nurse played all 235.

I think Holland has to make a change on his blueline. And I don’t think moving Benning solves the main issues. One of the other four needs to be switched out, possibly two, because there hasn’t been any improvement defensively for three years.

It won’t be easy, especially with a flat cap, but Russell and Larsson each have one year remaining before becoming UFAs. Maybe that makes them easier to trade, although Russell has a 15-team trade list. If the Oilers return with the same top-four D-men as last season, it is hard for me to see why they improve. Bear should improve because he’s only played one year, but how much more can Larsson or Klefbom improve? They are solid NHL D-men, but will they get better? Nurse might be able to make slight improvements, but I don’t think he is going to improve by 20%.

RELATED ARTICLE:
World Junior Championship will be hosted in Edmonton hub

While the Oilers need a dynamic offensive zone D-man, their entire D corps, along with the forwards, need to improve their play in the D zone.

Here is what I see as their main deficiencies defensively:

  1. Patience in positioning. They would vacate their area too quickly on specific reads.
  2. Defending around the net. Chicago outnumbered them too many times in the playoffs.
  3. Didn’t close off sticks well enough.
  4. Lost coverage by the down low forward. Too often Oilers forwards lost their man and it cost them.

Maybe Tippett can help them improve, but when I look at the blueline specifically, I feel there needs to be a change. Maybe Larsson plays in your third pair and Bouchard gets an opportunity, or Jones gets more of a chance, but I don’t believe they can bring back the same five D-men they’ve had the previous three years and expect to see large improvements.

PLAYOFF PICKS…

I was awful in the qualifying round — went 2-6. But I’m telling myself that wasn’t really the playoffs so those predictions don’t count.

Vegas-Chicago: Vegas in four. The Knights will dominate this series and it will illustrate further how uninspired Edmonton played when they lost to the Hawks.
Colorado-Arizona: Avalanche in six. Darcy Kuemper will steal a game, and the Coyotes will keep it close, but Colorado is too deep.
Dallas-Calgary: Flames in six. Stars can’t score consistently.
St. Louis-Vancouver. I’m taking Canucks in an upset in seven games. The Blues are 0-3-1 in the bubble. I don’t think you can just flip a switch.

Tampa-Columbus: Lightning in six. The Bolts learned from last season’s debacle and they added some more edge to their highly skilled lineup.
Philadelphia-Montreal: The Flyers picked up right where they left off before the season was postponed. Flyers in five.
Washington-NY Islanders: The Islanders play committed team defence, but the Capitals offence is deep enough to eventually break through. Caps in seven.
Boston-Carolina: The Canes get Dougie Hamilton back. They are fast, have a very deep blueline, and their only question is goaltending. I think they get enough saves and upset the Bruins in six.

Conference Finalists: Vegas, Colorado, Philly and Tampa.

Lighting defeat the Avs in six games to win the Stanley Cup.

Who do you like to win a series and ultimately the Cup?

Recently by Jason Gregor: