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Oilers Off-Season Scenarios

This is an important off-season for Ken Holland and the Edmonton Oilers. I can’t say it is the most important of his tenure, as we don’t know where the team will be in the coming years, but it is accurate to say this summer presents the most opportunity he has had since taking over.

Holland has more cap space than the previous two summers, and he could gain another $3.83 million if he opts to buyout James Neal. But more cap space also presents an issue as agents assume you have more money for their clients. Contract negotations are rarely as smooth as you hope they will be.

Let’s focus on the Oilers’ UFAs.

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Tyson Barrie is looking for a longer-term deal. He seems destined to test the free agent market.

Adam Larsson and the Oilers have had discussions. The fact his AAV ask is lower, means the two sides are closer than say Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is at the moment, and I sense Larsson will re-sign in Edmonton. I could see a deal with a $3.75-$3.95 million cap hit. Likely four years.

Nugent-Hopkins and Ken Holland had a lengthy exit meeting last week. It was positive and cordial. Edmonton would like him back, but at the right price and term. It is interesting how different people perceive different players. Is Nugent-Hopkins worth $6 million on a long-term deal? I think he could get that from a team that isn’t a contender, but not from a team that is contending. There are many factors to consider when we see contracts that players get. Usually if a player wants to be on a contending team they don’t take the highest offer.

I do find it interesting how some view players. We all have some bias, and the challenge is to try not to let that bias impact our decisions. You can use analytics, but suggestions that analytics can remove your bias is also misleading. They are part of the equation, but there are other variables. It will always be this way. Analytics is helpful, no doubt, but look at a team like Toronto that has a strong analytics presence.

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What decisions did they make recently that were very different than teams without three, four or five people in analytics?

Was John Tavares’ contract driven mainly by analytics? The Mitch Marner deal? Using analytics will help, but how much different would their contracts be compared to if they signed with a team that is perceived to use fewer analytics?

What about the Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Nick Foligno acquisitions? Were those based solely on analytics?

I don’t think any one decision is. At least I’d be surprised if it was. Many factors need to be considered. Do they fit with how your team wants to play? Will their personality gel with the core of our team? And of course there is the question of skill and ability.

Let’s look at two players and compare their 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Player A:
2020: 15-19-34 points at 5×5 in 65 games (914 minutes). Total points of 22-39-61. Had a 48.9SF%, 57.9GF%, 49.6xGF% and 48.1SCF%.
2021: 7-7-14 points at 5×5 in 52 games (733min). Total points of 16-19-35.  Had a 51.09SF%, 48.3GF%, 55.5xGF% and 54.1SCF%.

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Player B:
2020: 10-29-39 points at 5×5 in 68 games (901 minutes). Total points of 22-39-61. Had a 59.2SF%, 55.8GF%, 60.2xGF% and 59.1SCF%
2021: 7-14-21 at 5×5 in 50 games (749 min). Total points of 10-20-30. Had a 60.3SF%, 53.7GF%, 58.89xGF% and 59.9SCF%.

Is there a clear difference?

Over two seasons they played 1,647 and 1,650 minutes each at 5×5. One had 22 goals and 48 points, while the other had 17 goals and 60 points. Their total points were 96-91 in favour of player A, but he played 200 more minutes on the powerplay and had 44 powerplay points to player B’s 22. So player A was more productive on the PP with more opportunity, while player B was more productive at 5×5.

If you look at their possession numbers, player B was higher in all four categories.

I didn’t include linemates, but that is something NHL analytics people would consider when presenting their analysis to the general managers, along with zone starts and other factors.

Which player based solely on the stats and possession numbers above would you value more? And why?

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If both were to get contracts this season, and both are in their late 20s, what term and salary would you offer them?

OILERS OFF-SEASON MOVES…

May 10, 2021; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal (18) reacts with teammates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers need to change their forward group. If RNH doesn’t re-sign we will see three new top-nine left wingers. Here are some left wing UFA options we looked at last week, but it is only a short list. I will have a more extensive one later this month. Edmonton also needs a third line centre, and here are some UFA options.

I believe James Neal, Dominik Kahun, Alex Chiasson, Tyler Ennis, Gaetan Haas and Patrick Russell will not be back. Joakim Nygard already signed in Sweden, so that makes seven forwards, although really only five from the regular top-14 forward roster as Nygard and Russell were on the taxi squad much of the season.

Devin Shore and Jujhar Khaira could be re-signed. Shore will be close to league minimum and he can play centre and wing. He could be the fourth line LW or the 13th or 14th forward.

The left side will have a massive overhaul. RNH and Kahun did not score as much as they should have playing with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Same with Kailer Yamamoto on the right wing. Those three combined for 22 goals at 5×5 with Kahun having the most at eight. It wasn’t close to good enough considering who they played with. That factor can’t be overlooked. While scoring chances matter, at some point top-six players have to produce. They didn’t produce enough.

The Oilers have made improvements at 5×5 the past few seasons in both goals for and goals against.

Year          5×5 GF/game     5×5 GA/game
2019            1.78                      2.18              Team was -33  in GF-GA at 5×5.
2020            2.02                      2.17              Team was -10 at 5×5.
2021            2.05                      2.07              Team was -1 at 5×5.

We have seen improvement, but there needs to be more in 2021/2022. The four top-six wingers have to produce more goals and points than they did this season. I expect Jesse Puljujarvi to increase his totals. He will be making a small adjustment to his stick to allow him to stickhandle better and handle the puck in tight. His shooting is solid. If RNH re-signs he needs to ensure he finishes off more plays. You can’t play with the league’s top two scorers and only have seven goals at 5×5 and two primary assists.

And their bottom six must improve.

Ideally, Ryan McLeod starts as the fourth line centre, because that means Holland has found an upgrade in the third line spot. Asking McLeod to start as the 3C is expecting a lot and setting him and the third line up to struggle.

Zack Kassian needs to try and not worry about his contract. Easier said than done, I know, but he needs to just play and not focus on living up to his salary. If he scores 10 goals that is big jump from the two he had this season. He is more than capable of scoring 10 goals. Josh Archibald is also someone you can expect to chip in 10 goals. He had 12, 12 and 7 (in 52 games) this past season.

It is up to Holland to find a third line centre and third line left winger who can produce.

I would start Dylan Holloway in the American League. Expecting rookies to make significant contributions often leads to disappointment. Let him learn the pro game in the AHL and if he is ripping it up you can recall him during the season.

DEFENCE…

Nov 23, 2019; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear (74) is pictured during warm ups before a game against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

I can see Ethan Bear starting the season with Darnell Nurse, but I won’t be surprised if Evan Bouchard develops and slots in beside Nurse during the season. I believe Bouchard has more upside to be a full-time top-pair D-man. I expect the Oilers to re-sign Adam Larsson so their right side seems set.

The left side needs a second pair defender. A healthy Oscar Klefbom would be ideal for Edmonton, but if he can play, and for how long, remains a mystery at this point. For his sake I hope he can resume his NHL career. But if he can’t, then Holland needs to find a second pair left defender. Kris Russell and Caleb Jones are better suited in the third pair right now. Slater Koekkoek was very solid when he played and I think he could be in the mix to return.

I expect the Oilers to re-sign Mike Smith. I’d look at a one year deal with bonus incentives. Holland has said he’d be comfortable returning both Mikko Koskinen and Smith. That isn’t his first option, but buying out Koskinen is unlikely, especially if he buys out Neal. You can’t have that much dead cap space next season. So either Holland finds a trading partner for Koskinen, or he bites the bullet and brings him back. Koskinen’s contract combined with allowing that really soft goal every few games is the concern.

We can’t overlook the human element for Koskinen. He arrived on the last possible day, because his family wasn’t allowed to travel with him. He wanted to spend as much time as he could with his family. Then he quarantined right up to the first day of training camp. There were no preseason games, and then he was forced to play 10 consecutive games to start the season with Smith injured. It wasn’t ideal, and Koskinen struggled. With some preseason games and a healthy Smith, Koskinen won’t be as bad next year out of the gate.

Once Smith was healthy and Koskinen didn’t have to play every game the Oilers had the fifth lowest GA/game in the NHL last year from February 1st on. Goaltending wasn’t a major issue. Scoring depth is the main priority. I won’t like it, but I think it is more likely we see Koskinen/Smith return than many of the same forwards.

Ideally, Holland is able to change the mix up front and in goal.

Edmonton had 23 players play at least one game in the playoffs:
One goalie: Smith
Seven D-men: Darnell Nurse, Bear, Barrie, Larsson, Dmirti Kulikov, Slater Koekkoek and Kris Russell.
Fifteen forwards: McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Kahun, Kassian, Archibald, Chiasson, McLeod, Khaira, Shore, Neal, Ennis and Haas.

I see 12 of them returning for sure:
Smith, Nurse, Bear, Larsson, Russell, McDavid, Draisaitl, Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Kassian, Archibald and McLeod.

That leaves nine spots to fill on the 23-man roster. Some could come from the playoff roster in RNH, Shore, Khaira and Koekkoek, but the roster in September has to look different, mainly on left wing and in the bottom six.

This is an important off-season for Holland, but I’m not sold it will be his most important of his tenure. It should be the most impactful to date, but there are still many holes to fill on this roster before they are a legit Stanley Cup contender. Holland has to fill at least four of those spot this off-season and hope they get some internal growth from their young players.

How many spots do you think he will fill?

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