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Photo Credit: Darcy Finley

Assessing Edmonton’s forwards, options in free agency, and the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins question

Over the weekend, I put together an overview of Ken Holland’s off-season and took a look at how he can use the Expansion Draft and the buyout period in order to create more salary cap room to work with this summer. This week, I’ll assess the Oilers’ roster, take a look at the players who are in need of new contracts, and how the team can be improved in free agency. Let’s start with the forwards.

You generally don’t like to draw overarching conclusions on small sample sizes, but Edmonton’s sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets painted a very clear picture of the team’s biggest weakness — a lack of scoring depth.

The Oilers scored six even-strength goals in those four games. Four of them came when one of or both of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were on the ice and only two came while they were both on the bench. The Jets proved that if you can shut down McDavid and Draisaitl, a difficult task made easier when they’re operating as a duo, you can shut down the entire team.

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This was no different during the regular season. McDavid scored a whopping 105 points over the course of 56 games. In doing so, he set a record by being involved in the highest percentage of a team’s goals in NHL history. McDavid was involved in 57.4 percent of Edmonton’s 183 goals, breaking the record held by Mario Lemieux during the 1988-89 season when he had a point on 57.4 percent of the Penguins’ goals.

Without either McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice, the Oilers simply got torched by their opponents. They were outscored 52-to-29, outshot 609-to-468, and out-chanced 187-to-153. There were only three Oilers forwards who broke even in terms of goal differential when not playing with McDavid: Leon Draisaitl (56.5 Goals For Percentage), Tyler Ennis (55 GF%), and Dominik Kahun (50 GF%).

Long story short, Holland needs to improve the scoring depth of Edmonton’s roster. The team needs to evolve past operating with two scoring lines and two checking lines. A successful team features a top-nine in which three lines can all score at even strength.

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Here’s Edmonton’s contract situation among forwards…

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Under Contract: Connor Mcdavid ($12.5M), Leon Draisaitl ($8.5M), James Neal ($5.75M), Zack Kassian ($3.2M), Kyle Turris ($1.65M), Josh Archibald ($1.5M), Ryan McLeod (ELC), Raphael Lavoie (ELC), Dylan Holloway (ELC), Kirill Maksimov (ELC), Ostap Safin (ELC).

Unrestricted Free Agents: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Ennis, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard, Patrick Russell, Alan Quine, Joe Gambardella, Adam Cracknell.

Restricted Free Agents: Jujhar Khaira, Kailer Yamamoto, Dominik Kahun, Devin Shore, Cooper Marody, Tyler Benson.

If Neal and Mikko Koskinen are bought out, Holland could have nearly $30 million in cap room to work with this summer. He needs to do some work on the blueline and he needs to find a goaltender or two, but that would leave Holland with quite a bit of flexibility to add some quality scoring options up front.

The restricted free agent housekeeping won’t be much of an obstacle. Cooper Marody and Tyler Benson’s entry-level deals have expired but neither has a body of NHL experience and won’t command much money. Both Dominik Kahun and Devin Shore are fine depth players with arbitration rights but don’t have the scoring results to earn significant raises.

Kailer Yamamoto is finished his entry-level deal and is best suited inking a bridge contract after putting up 21 points over 52 games in 2021. Jujhar Khaira is one year from unrestricted free agency and will cost the Oilers a little more to keep around on a multi-year deal. He doesn’t bring much offence but plays well as a shutdown centre and kills penalties.

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In terms of unrestricted free agents, Quine, Cracknell, and Gambardella are depth players for the farm and Nygard has already signed a deal to return to Sweden. Haas and Russell might follow Nygard back to Europe but both are fine press-box depth option types.

Chiasson has produced fairly well for the Oilers in three seasons. Over the course of 183 games, Chiasson has netted 42 goals, though 19 of those came on the man advantage. Ennis only scored three goals in 30 games in 2021 but was one of the few Oilers forwards who had a positive on-ice goal differential without McDavid or Draisaitl. Both of these players, especially the latter, would be worth bringing back on a cheap deal.

Finally, we have the big question… Is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a part of the solution in Edmonton?

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Nugent-Hopkins is the longest-tenured Oiler. He’s been around longer than Ken Holland and Dave Tippett and everyone on the roster. He’s the only player left from the Oil Change tanking days of the early-2010s. He’s played 656 games as an Oiler and sits 10th in all-time franchise scoring. He also might have played his last game as an Oiler last week.

The seven-year, $42 million deal that Nugent-Hopkins signed after his second season in the league in 2013 has come to an end. There was talk that Holland and Nugent-Hopkins were working on a contract extension but nothing got done and the veteran pivot appears poised to test the free-agent market for the first time in his career.

Back in the off-season, I looked at what Nugent-Hopkins was going to command on his next contract. After producing a career-high 69 points in 2018-19 and then scoring at a near point-per-game pace in 2019-20, I figured that another big season could vault Nugent-Hopkins to a contract somewhere in the realm of what Matt Duchene signed with the Predators back in 2019.

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After his performance this year, there’s no way that Nugent-Hopkins will warrant such a contract.

Over 52 games in 2021, Nugent-Hopkins scored 16 goals and 35 points. That’s a 25-goal and 55-point pace over an 82-game season. Pretty good at a glance, but it becomes less impressive as you break the numbers down further.

Of Nugent-Hopkins’ 35 points, only 15 came at even strength. He ranked seventh among Oilers forwards in goals-per-60 at even strength and 10th among Oilers forwards in points-per-60 at even strength. I wouldn’t discredit Nugent-Hopkins’ work on the power play as meaningless, but the fact he produced just slightly better than Kyle Turris at even strength despite playing over half of his minutes with McDavid is worrying.

To be fair, despite the decline in production, Nugent-Hopkins does a lot of things well for the Oilers. He’s competent as a two-way player and he has positional versatility, as he can play on the left-wing or as the centre of his own line. He was also one of the few Oilers forwards who out-shot opponents at even-strength and was Edmonton’s leader in terms of ice-time against elite opponents.

The offence might leave a lot to be desired for a skill player, but Nugent-Hopkins certainly brings value to the Oilers. The question for Holland is how much he’s willing to pay for it and whether he can do better on the open market.

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If Nugent-Hopkins walks, it means more cap room for Holland to work with, but it also means filling a hole on the roster. The Oilers will either have to commit to playing McDavid and Draisaitl separately or they’ll have to find themselves a new second-line centre.

Here are the free agent centres who outperformed Nugent-Hopkins at even strength in 2021…

  • Blake Coleman: 55 games, 14 goals, 31 points, 29 even-strength points
  • David Krejci: 51 games, 8 goals, 52 points, 28 even-strength points
  • Phillip Danault: 53 games, 5 goals, 24 points, 23 even-strength points
  • Paul Stastny: 56 games, 13 goals, 29 points, 21 even-strength points
  • Alexander Wennberg: 56 games, 17 goals, 29 points, 21 even-strength points
  • Nick Bonino: 55 games, 10 goals, 26 points, 21 even-strength points
  • Mikael Granlund: 51 games, 13 goals, 27 points, 20 even-strength points
  • Mattias Janmark: 56 games, 11 goals, 24 points, 16 even-strength points

If a player like Coleman or Danault who can drive successful results at even strength comes at a significantly smaller dollar figure than Nugent-Hopkins, it’s a reasonable swap to make because it would leave Holland with extra flexibility to add a quality winger or two, such as Tomas Tatar, Brandon Saad, or Jaden Schwartz.

When it’s all said and done, the Oilers need to add quite a bit to their roster in order to have a group of top-nine forwards that can carry them deep into the playoffs. They have two very good duos in McDavid-Puljujarvi and Draisaitl-Yamamoto, some young guys in Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway who could contribute, and a whole bunch of question marks and fourth-line platooners whose value is seen on special teams.

I’d like to see Holland add a middle-six centre who plays well at even-strength and a pair of wingers with skill and scoring ability. Will Nugent-Hopkins be one of those players? I like him as a player and see the value in what he brings to the team, but Holland can’t be overpaying to keep him around. There are too many holes on this roster and only so much money to go around.

Previously in my off-season series…