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Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Who Could Take a Step Forward?

Last season, the Oilers saw Kailer Yamamoto and Ethan Bear each take big steps forward and the contributions they got from those two were a big reason why the team had such a strong regular season.

This season, if they want to grab a playoff spot in the expected Canadian Division, they’ll need some other players to take similar steps forward. Earlier this week while hosting The Lowdown on TSN 1260, I asked listeners for their take on which players could really surprise Oilers fans this year and bring their games to another level. I was surprised at some of the answers, but here are some of the most common ones:

CALEB JONES

Dec 12, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Caleb Jones (82) shoots during the second period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

There is certainly some pressure on 23-year-old Caleb Jones to take a step forward next season. With Oscar Klefbom out of the picture and the organization having not added a left-handed defenseman this offseason, Jones is going to be given a chance to prove he’s a top-four defenseman and the team will need him to adjust to that role rather quickly.

In 2020/21, he appeared in 43 regular-season games but only played over 18 minutes in eight of those games. With Klefbom not in the lineup, Jones will likely need to play over 18 minutes every single night he’s in the lineup next season. If he takes a big step forward, like Ethan Bear did last season, then the Oilers’ defence will be just fine.

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I love his puck-moving ability and that alone gives me confidence that he can give the Oilers solid top-four minutes. I also like the idea of pairing him with Adam Larsson, who he spent 152 even-strength minutes last season. That’s a pairing that could be pretty decent for Dave Tippett. Larsson can shoulder a lot of the defensive responsibility while Jones’ puck-moving ability should work well with Larsson. I think the two of them complement each other really well.

If it’s going to be a good second-pairing for the Oilers, then Jones will have to take a step forward but I certainly think that’s possible.

JESSE PULJUJARVI

This is the most intriguing player on the list. Puljujarvi still has so much potential and there is not nearly as much pressure on him compared to the last time he was with the Oilers. Right now, he’s clearly third on their depth chart behind Kailer Yamamoto and Zack Kassian but I think that could change. He’ll likely be starting on their third line but he’ll have a chance to produce offence in that spot considering it will likely mean he’s playing with Kyle Turris. 

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If he thrives in that role then he will eventually get a look in the Oilers’ top six. It would just be a matter of time. At that point, he just needs to prove that he’s better at playing with one of the Oilers elite centremen than he was a few years ago. 

It’s totally possible that we see a completely different Jesse Puljujarvi than we saw back in 2018/19. If he starts to look like a legitimate top-six winger with the potential to score 25-30 goals, that will be huge for the Oilers organization. Last season they saw Kailer Yamamoto blossom into a reliable point producing winger and having Puljujarvi make a similar leap will go a long way in turning this year’s Oilers team into one capable of going on a deep playoff run.

DOMINIK KAHUN

Kahun is interesting simply because he’s new. We really don’t know how he’ll click with Leon Draisaitl or if Draisaitl is even the best fit for him. There’s a chance that Kahun works better on a line with McDavid. I also think he would look good on the third line with Turris and Puljujarvi.

He has 25 goals in 138 career games and he’s gotten the chance to play with skill before, spending a decent amount of time on a line with Jonathan Toews when he was in Chicago. He knows what it takes to be a top-six player in the NHL and he should recognize that he’s getting a great opportunity in Edmonton. Considering he’s only on a one-year deal, he should be highly motivated.

I could see a scenario where he scores at a 25-goal pace in the Oilers’ top-six but like all free agents, there’s a chance that this just doesn’t work. I’m optimistic when it comes to Kahun and I personally think there’s a good chance that next year is the best season of Kahun’s young career.

MIKKO KOSKINEN

Mar 3, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) in action during the game between the Stars and the Oilers at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

I was really surprised when I saw some Oilers fans saying that Mikko Koskinen will be the biggest surprise on the roster next season. It’s an interesting answer because usually when you think of potential breakout candidates, you don’t usually think of a 32-year-old goaltender.

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I already mentioned that Caleb Jones is a critical breakout candidate, but you could argue that a breakout season from Koskinen could singlehandedly make them a playoff team.

Koskinen had a very good 2019/20 season. I know that his performance in the qualifying round made some people forget that, but out of goalies who played in at least 30 games last season (there are 45 of them), he finished 12th in SV% and 21st in GAA. If he improves on those numbers, he could suddenly become a top ten goaltender in the league. This Oilers team with a top ten goalie? They’ll easily make the playoffs.

Of course, for Koskinen to be that good, he’ll need the team in front of to be good at limiting high-danger chances. That might not happen, and even if it did, I’m not sure I would bet on Koskinen suddenly becoming a top ten goaltender, but if he does, it instantly makes the Oilers contenders. That’s why he might be their most important breakout candidate.

Who’s your choice? Is it one of these four or is it someone who I didn’t mention in this article? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!