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Photo Credit: Edmonton Oilers

Are the Oilers Better?

I don’t know if the Oilers are a better team overall, but they certainly will be different when the puck drops for the 2021/2022 season.

Edmonton had 28 skaters and three goalies play a game in Oilers silks last season, and there will be at least seven new faces on the 2021/2022 opening night roster, and possibly more.

These players are gone:

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Adam Larsson, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Dmitry Kulikov, James Neal, Dominik Kahun, Tyler Ennis, Alex Chiasson, Jujhar Khaira, Gaetan Haas, Joakim Nygard and Patrick Russell. Slater Koekkoek could be re-signed as the Oilers are still looking to sign another defenceman, but if not that makes 13 skaters who played between 8-56 games last year who won’t return.

The main changes will be three spots on defence in Larsson, Bear and the combination of Jones, Koekkoek and Kulikov, along with Kahun, Chiasson, Khaira and Neal/Ennis.

I believe Edmonton made significant upgrades at forward by adding Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan. Edmonton has two legit top-six left wingers in Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Foegele is a proven, solid third line winger. Ryan is a much-needed right shot who can win faceoffs.

Ryan only took 34 faceoffs on the PK in Calgary last season, in 43 games, but that was because he played a lot with Lindholm and he took more of the draws as both were righties and Lindholm was slightly better on PK faceoff%. Having a right shot, who is competitive in the faceoff dot, is a big add for Edmonton.

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I’m curious to see where Ryan plays at 5×5. He’s been productive at 5×5, so starting him with Foegele is an option, although Dave Tippett might start young Ryan McLeod there and give that line offensive zone starts, while Ryan will play with Josh Archibald and Devin Shore or Tyler Benson and be in a more defensive start role.

I don’t see much debate in saying Edmonton improved its skill up front.

DEFENCE…

Apr 15, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Cody Ceci (4) moves the puck against the Philadelphia Flyers during the second period at PPG Paints Arena. Philadelphia won 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton will be changing three full-time spots, while the third pair left defence will likely be a platoon spot with Kris Russell and whichever UFA D-man they sign. Ryan Murray would be a great signing to play there, but I sense he will cost too much. Edmonton did have interest in re-signing Kulikov, but they didn’t want to sign him for two years, which he got in Dallas earlier today.

Duncan Keith, Cody Ceci and Evan Bouchard will be three new additions on D. Bouchard did play some last year, but he was far from a regular. I break down the additions this way.

Keith > Jones/Kulikov/Koekkoek
Ceci < Larsson
Bouchard TBD Bear

I’ve seen Keith’s numbers in Chicago the past two seasons, and they weren’t great to be sure, but the Blackhawks were the worst defensive team in the NHL last year and he’s been paired mainly with rookies the past two seasons. Not a good match for how he plays. I think he will benefit from playing with Ceci.

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Ceci has been solid the past two seasons, but he doesn’t have the overall snarl of Larsson. He moves the puck better, but isn’t as solid defensively and not as physical.

Bouchard will get some offensive zone starts, likely with Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid’s lines, and I don’t expect Oilers defence coach, Jim Playfair, to overplay him early on. I suspect they will play him in positions where he can develop and grow his confidence. Unless there is an injury to Barrie or Ceci, he won’t have to play big minutes to start the season. He has better offensive skills than Bear, and his size and length could allow him to be equal defensively. He doesn’t have the penalty killing prowess of Bear, but I think we will see him get some PK time as the season progresses. His smarts, along with his reach could be an asset on the PK.

The biggest question I have on the blueline is: Can they match the penalty killing of the departed defenders? The Oilers PK has been excellent for two seasons, and until they show they are a better defensive team 5×5, the PK is going to have to remain in the top-10. Darnell Nurse will remain on the PK, as will Russell when he’s in the lineup, but I pencil him in as a 50-game player at this point. His size and style of play leads to him being banged up, so Keith, Ceci and the new LD will need to PK.

Edmonton’s penalty kill required the D-men to block shots.

Player TOI Blocks
Larsson 131 19
Bear 79 17
Koekkoek 34 10
Russell 69 9

Bear and Koekkoek were shot-blocking machines on the PK. Koekkoek was second in the NHL in shots blocked/60 at 17.15, while Bear was 11th at 12.89. Larsson was at 8.69.

Keith averaged 5.5 PK blocks/60, while logging 140 minutes on the PK and in 131 minutes Ceci was at 4.56. Part of that was the PK system in Pittsburgh, but his highest BS/60 was 8.39 in 2019 with Ottawa. I had Ceci on my radio show earlier today and asked him about shot blocking.

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“I’ve always been a shot-blocker myself so I’m not too afraid of getting in front of pucks. If that’s a big part of their system then I’m just going to have to do it,” he said.

I asked if he believes there is a skill to doing it, or if it’s simply about willingness.

“I definitely think there’s a skill to it, just in getting big. At the same time, I always talk to the goalies and make sure that if I’m in the way I’m going to block it. Or if it’s a long shot and there’s nobody else in the way, I’ll just let him see it,” Ceci replied.

From 2018-2020 Keith posted 8.76, 7.57 and 9.36 block/60. He and Ceci are capable of blocking shots, but I also think timing and positional play was crucial to the Oilers PK success, so it might take some time for them to get on the same page with the goalies. Smith mentioned a main reason the goalies have had such success on the PK the past two seasons is they knew where the shots were coming from.

Edmonton had the best PK SV% in 2020, were third last season and had the highest SV% over the past two seasons combined. The goalies have been good, but the players knew the system very well, and with so many changes on the backend I wonder how it will impact the PK.

The other obvious question is: How good can Keith be? “I feel I have a lot left. Once we hit the ice we will see who is a step behind. I’m not one for talking, but we will see what happens when we get on the ice,” said Keith earlier this summer.

Bouchard’s development will be fascinating. How will he play at 5×5? He has the potential to be quite good, but potential is just that until it’s proven. The potential for Keith, Ceci and Bouchard to play well is plausible, but so too is the reality if one or two struggle Edmotnon’s defence will take a step back.

GOALTENDING…

Feb 15, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith (41) is replaced by goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19) during the second period against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

No changes thus far with Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen under contract. Stuart Skinner and Alex Stalock will also be in camp, but Stalock didn’t play a game last season and I’m not sure if he is an upgrade on Koskinen.

Smith will be the starter, but he shouldn’t have more than 52 starts at the most. It is unlikely he matches last season’s numbers, mainly because they were excellent. He was eighth in SV% among goalie with at least 10 starts. I’d be surprised to see him fall off a cliff statistically, and if he hovers between .915sv% and .917sv% then he’ll still be in the top-half of the league.

There aren’t any free agents goalies available today who are better than Koskinen. Ken Holland had discussions with Arizona about Darcy Kuemper, but Colorado gave them a first round pick, a conditional third rounder and young D-man Connor Timmins to acquire Kuemper.

Edmonton offering their first and Dmitri Samorukov would have been a big commitment for a team that isn’t as close to being a Cup contender as Colorado. And Edmonton likely would have needed to offer more since they wanted to send Koskinen to Arizona. The Coyotes only retained $2m of Kuemper’s cap hit.

Is there a trade to be had? I think it is more likely we see a potential deal in-season or near the trade deadline if one of the goalies is struggling.

So have the Oilers improved overall?

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