It looks like Ken Holland’s work is pretty much done for this off-season.
There’s still some stuff left to do, like singing restricted free agent Ethan Bear to a new contract, and there’s still some time to add a depth player or two who falls through the cracks, but the brunt of the work has been done. The group we see now is likely the one we’ll see on opening day when the 2020-21 season kicks off in January.
The Oilers were a pretty good team last year. They finished with a 37-25-9 record but ended up leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouths after they bowed out to the Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round. But still, despite that playoff loss, it was a positive step in the right direction for a team after a couple of miserable seasons in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
What about now? Where do they stand after the moves that Holland made this off-season? Are the Oilers better now than they were in 2019-20? Let’s go position by position and find out.
IN: Jesse Puljujarvi, Kyle Turris, Alan Quine, Seth Griffith, Adam Cracknell.
OUT: Andreas Athanasiou, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco, Markus Granlund.
Holland made the controversial choice this fall to not issue Andreas Athanasiou a qualifying offer. Athanasiou, who the Oilers acquired at this year’s trade deadline for two second-round picks, was arbitration-eligible and letting him go gave Holland a little bit of extra salary cap room to work with.
The frustration about giving away two second-round picks was eased when Holland inked Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton’s former No. 4 overall pick who had been playing in Finland, to a two-year deal worth $1,175,000.
Speaking of trade deadline acquisitions, Tyler Ennis, who Edmonton acquired from Ottawa, was re-signed to a one-year, $1,000,000 deal. That’s really good value for a versatile player coming off of a 37-point season.
Holland also let Riley Sheahan walk and upgraded the third-line centre role by signing Kyle Turris, who had just been bought out by the Nashville Predators, to a two-year deal worth $1,650,000. Turris didn’t have a great go in Nashville but he still scored 31 points in 62 games. That’s a big upgrade on Sheahan’s offence as the third centre.
And then there’s the depth moves. Scratch tickets Tomas Jurco and Markus Granlund were let go and grinders Adam Cracknell and Alan Quine were brought in instead. Neither Cracknell or Quine produce much offence but can be used in physical, checking roles.
IN: Tyson Barrie.
OUT: Oscar Klefbom (injured), Matt Benning, Mike Green, Brandon Manning.
Holland was dealt a curveball early this off-season when news came out that Oscar Klefbom needed to undergo surgery and would likely be out long-term.
Replacing your No. 1 defenceman on short notice obviously isn’t easy. Acquiring a top-pairing defenceman would have likely required either dealing away a key asset like Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, or the 2020 first-round pick or would have involved handing out a big, long-term deal in free agency.
Rather than doing so, Holland opted to sign Tyson Barrie to a one-year, show-me deal. Barrie had a rough time last year in Toronto and will join the Oilers looking to rebuild his value. While Barrie doesn’t replace Klefbom in a one-for-one, Barrie will be able to fill in very nicely on Edmonton’s power-play and will help the team produce offence from the blueline.
Replacing Klefbom will have to be internal. Darnell Nurse will need to step up and become the No. 1 guy and a young guy like Caleb Jones will also be expected to take on a larger role. Evan Bouchard will also have a clear path to a gig on Edmonton’s blueline since Matt Benning was let go.
IN: Anton Forsberg.
OUT: Shane Starrett, Angus Redmond.
This was easily the biggest shock of the off-season for Holland.
Everybody wanted to see the Oilers upgrade on their goaltending situation. We heard rumours that they were interested in Robin Lehner and then there were reports that they were close to coming to a deal with Jacob Markstrom.
But, when it was all said and done, the Oilers ended up bringing back Mike Smith on a one-year deal. Smith posted a .902 save percentage last year, putting together some solid stretches but also having extended stretches in which he looked totally washed. It’s difficult to imagine Smith, who’s now 38, being better this year than he was last.
One area Edmonton did improve when it comes to goaltending is their third-string insurance. Anton Forsberg, who has a .901 save percentage over 48 NHL games, is probably a better option than Shane Starrett, who has never played an NHL game.
What does it all mean?
So, are the Oilers better now than they were last year?
That’s a difficult question to answer because last year features two different teams. There’s the team that got hot early on and started to slow down and then there’s the team that hit its stride in the new year with Kailer Yamamoto called up and some trade deadline additions like Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou
Are they better than they were at the start of the 2019-20 season? Yes, easily. But are they better than they were when the season got stopped due to COVID-19? That’s a bit tougher.
Jesse Puljujarvi could be better than Andreas Athanasiou. Kyle Turris is an upgrade over Riley Sheahan. Losing Klefbom really, really hurts but getting Barrie in the mix does help ease the pain. The goaltending tandem is the same as it was last year and the only way we’ll see an improvement here is if Mikko Koskinen plays more games than Mike Smith.
The key to Edmonton’s improvement will be internal progression. Can Bear and Yamamoto continue to be as effective as they were last year? Can Jones take a step forward? Can Puljujarvi and Bouchard hit the ground running?
Given the cards Holland was dealt — a flat cap and a Klefbom injury — coming out with a team that’s, at the very least, on par with the one that was cruising into the playoffs when the league got shut down is a positive.
I wasn’t optimistic heading into 2019-20 about the Oilers making the playoffs. I’m confident they will in 2020-21.