What an eventful 36 days for the Edmonton Oilers and their fans. When the Stanley Cup playoffs began on May 2nd, not many playoff brackets had the Oilers playing in the Conference Final, but the Oilers won two must-win games v. the Los Angeles Kings in game six and seven of the opening round. They got pounded 9-6 in game one before winning four straight over their arch-rival Calgary Flames in the second round.
They lost to a better team in round three, but for the first time in a long time, the Oilers took a positive step forward. The question is: Can they take the next step?
“It feels like it’s steps, right?” said Connor McDavid moments after their disappointing game-four loss. “Every team kind of goes through it: They become a playoff team, then they get there most years, they go on a little bit of a run and they learn that lesson. Then it becomes their time to win.”
After years of frustration, it is the Avalanche’s time to compete for the Stanley Cup. Over the past five seasons, Colorado won the second most regular season games, but this was their first trip to the Conference Final. Winning two rounds is difficult, never mind three or four. The Avalanche just won their first trip to the Conference Final in 20 seasons. There is no guarantee the Oilers go deeper next year.
“You look at a Colorado team that’s been in that situation many, many times,” nodded McDavid. “They’re knocking on the door right now. It’s a step in the right direction (for the Oilers), but that’s all it is.”
He’s ruthlessly accurate. The Oilers could have a great regular season next year, but it won’t guarantee they get to the third or fourth round. I sense most Oilers fans truly enjoyed the past five weeks. You lived the high-scoring-no-lead-is-safe games while pacing around your house or sitting anxiously on the edge of your seat. I hope you enjoyed the emotional rollercoaster, even though it ended before you and the Oilers wanted, because there is no guarantee next year will bring the same success. Defeating your arch-rival makes being a fan enjoyable, especially when another playoff series between the Oilers and Flames is far from a lock. It took 31 years for the two organizations to battle in the postseason. I hope it isn’t that long again, but nothing is guaranteed in the NHL.
Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. Steven Stamkos made the playoffs once in his first five seasons. Victor Hedman made it once in his first four.
They missed the dance in 2012 and 2013, then lost in the first round in 2014. They made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, before losing in the Conference Final in 2016, completely missed the playoffs in 2017, lost in the ECF in 2018 and then were swept in the first round in 2019 after winning 62 of 82 regular season games.
Then they won consecutive Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021 and need three wins over the New York Rangers to continue their quest for a three-peat. Their path to the Cup was filled with much heartache and disappointment.
So where do the Oilers go from here? How do they improve?
In the past few days, and mainly last night, I read many suggesting the Oilers need to upgrade in goal. How realistic is it?
The past two regular seasons Mike Smith had the sixth best Sv% among starting goaltenders. He also had a great value contract in terms of his contributions. He had the 44th highest AAV in 2021 and was 39th ($2.2m) this season. He’s currently played the fourth most playoff games the past two seasons.
In 2022, only 17 goalies played five playoff games. Smith had the sixth highest Sv% at .913. Yes, he makes a few highlight reel errors now and then, but thinking he is easily replaceable is misguided. Stuart Skinner has 13 career NHL starts, and only two came against teams who made the playoffs. He lost both of those. He’s a young goalie with potential, but at this point, I don’t think anyone can accurately say how good he will be.
I’ve heard rumblings that Smith is considering retirement. His salary next season ($2.5m) is higher than his AAV ($2.2m) so if he does retire he won’t count against the cap. He fought back his emotions in his post-game presser last night. He’s an emotional person, so maybe it was simply the disappointment of losing, but the structure of his contract, having his sons attend post-game pressers at times this playoffs, his age and his emotion last night, make me think retirement is a legit possibility. He will get a job in management/hockey operations somewhere when his career his over, if he wants it. He’s bright, works hard and is very likeable. He proved he can still compete, and play well, in the NHL this year, but does he want to do all the work in the off-season to get ready for next season?
If he decides this is it for him, I expect he will tell Ken Holland before free agency. He wouldn’t leave the organization later in the summer when the UFA market has dried up. It is short-sighted to think replacing Smith will be easy. There are good goalies available, but how many will sign for the same $2.2m cap hit that Smith has? And are you certain they will be as good in the playoffs? Playoff success, even for top-end goalies, is far from a certainty. Ask the Flames.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, Jack Campbell, Ville Husso, Martin Jones, Braden Holtby, Casey DeSmith, @Martin Jones and Thomas Greiss are the UFA goalies who played 25 games last season. Alex Georgiev is an RFA and wants an opportunity to play more. He won’t get that behind Igor Shesterkin in New York. There are some good goalies available, but they likely will cost more and there is no guarantee they perform as well as Smith. He is replaceable — most of us are in our jobs — but I would caution those claiming Smith was a major reason Edmonton couldn’t get to the next round. It will be difficult for him to be as good next season, that is a valid concern, and I’m not advocating they should not look at options, but scapegoating Smith isn’t a great look from my seat.
Whether you win the Cup, lose in round one, two, three or four, or don’t make the playoffs, there will always be roster moves in the off-season. The Oilers showed they can compete. McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were amazing in the playoffs. They elevated their play even higher than their usual regular season excellence. It was impressive. They are entering their prime and will be the drivers of this team for the next few seasons. Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are locked in to long-term deals.
But Oilers GM Ken Holland will have a busy summer constructing the rest of the forward group.
Evander Kane is the major question. His arbitration case with San Jose will play a factor in where he signs and for how much. If he gets 100% of the money owed, around $21m, he won’t get to double dip and make more with the Oilers. If they signed him for $3.5m then the Sharks cap hit would be lower. The crazy part is this article states if Kane wins his case outright, that the Sharks would retain his rights. WTH. If he loses the hearing and gets nothing, then he likely goes to the highest bidder. Kane was everything I expected him to be on the ice. He was a dominant power forward who could finish. He scored 22 goals in 43 regular season games and added 13 goals in 15 playoff games. If he departs, that is a huge hole to fill.
Kailer Yamamoto, Jesse Puljujarvi and @Ryan McLeod are RFAs. Yamamoto and Puljujarvi have arbitration rights, and both carried a $1.175m cap hit last season. Puljujarvi needs to be qualified at $1.41m (can only be 120% of his current $1.175 AAV), while Yamamoto is qualified at $1.175. Both will be qualified, and both will command a raise, but to what extent? I’ve seen suggestions the Oilers should trade Puljujarvi to free up cap space to sign Kane. Puljujarvi doesn’t have the numbers to command a high salary, so clearing out $2m won’t create enough space to sign Kane. Also, Puljujarvi is still young. His ability to score is a concern right now, but he’s only 24 years old. He’s scored 15 and 14 goals the past two seasons. He’s been good value, and his production doesn’t put him in line for a major raise.
His agent, Markus Lehto, and the Oilers have had a rocky history, but Holland was very patient in his dealings with Puljujarvi, allowing him to play one season in Europe before signing him to a two-year deal at $1.175m. Puljujarvi struggled offensively in 2022. He posted 4-9-13 in 36 regular season games and then 2-1-3 in 16 playoff games. His ability to finish is the concern, but I’d be cautious to trade him away for a low return.
McLeod got better as the season progressed, and he looked even more comfortable in the playoffs. I’d argue he has the most upside of the three young forwards. He has great speed, can transport the puck very well, can kill penalties and play on the second unit power play. Like most young centres he needs to improve his face offs, but overall he showed he should be a solid piece of the group moving forward. He should watch tape of Anthony Cirelli and try to round out his two-way game like him. With McDavid and Draisaitl at centre, McLeod isn’t going to put up huge offensive numbers, but his value can come in his defensive play.
Holland’s construction of the bottom six will be interesting to watch. Zack Kassian ($3.2m for two years) and Warren Foegele ($2.75m for two years) are solid players, but their production-to-cap-hit ratio wasn’t great value. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of buyouts, especially if you are a contending team. The Rangers had just under $3.5m in buyouts this year, and have that much again next season, so it can work, but it isn’t ideal.
A Kassian buyout would give the Oilers cap hits of $666,667, $1.86m, $966,667 and $966,667 over the next four seasons. You could trade him and retain $1.6m over the next two seasons, which I think is the better option, if given the choice. I expect one of Kassian or Foegele to be moved this summer.
Derek Ryan ($1.25m) and Devin Shore ($850K) have one year remaining. They will be candidates for the fourth line and 13th/ 14th forward spots. If in the minors, Shore wouldn’t count against the cap, while Ryan would be $125K. They will come to camp to compete for jobs but aren’t guaranteed to stick on the roster.
Dylan Holloway will likely start in Edmonton. He and Brad Malone (will be UFA if not signed) are the only two forwards in Bakersfield I see ready to compete for a roster spot in Edmonton next season.
Josh Archibald, Kyle Turris, Derick Brassard, Colton Sceviour and Cooper Marody are UFAs. I don’t see any coming back.
Holland will need to go bargain shopping in the summer. He needs to find some players who can contribute on salaries between $800K- $1.2m. I’ll outline a few options in the coming weeks.
Darnell Nurse played very well under Dave Manson in the regular season. Manson and head coach Jay Woodcroft removed Nurse from the second unit power play, and told him to focus mainly on playing against the opposition’s best players. He and Cody Ceci were very good in that role. Nurse played 50.9% of his TOI against elite and was only on for three goals against. He tore his hip flexor late in the regular season, and that impacted his play, specifically in the Colorado series. He and Ceci give Edmonton a solid pairing, who will play the toughest minutes.
Evan Bouchard and Duncan Keith were a solid pairing down the stretch and into the playoffs. Bouchard is best served getting offensive zone starts and sheltered minutes at 5×5. He will continue to improve and could see more PP time next season. Keith had a solid year. His $5.5m cap hit isn’t ideal for the role he’ll play next season, but every team has a few players with higher cap hits than you’d like.
Brett Kulak and Tyson Barrie had solid playoffs. Kulak is unrestricted, and the Oilers should look at re-signing him. He loved playing in front of family and friends, and he has enough experience to not be bothered by being a homegrown player. I think it is more challenging to break into the NHL in your hometown, compared to returning to play in Edmonton after you’ve established yourself as an NHLer. I’m interested to see what he will command as a UFA. He made $2.2m in actual dollars in the final year of his three-year, $1.85m AAV contract. Re-signing him should be a priority, but the price could be steep. He’s #32 on DailyFaceoff’s top-50 UFAs, but the top-ranked left-shot D-man.
Barrie could be moved this summer. His offensive ability, especially on the power play, during a return to higher scoring games makes him a valuable trade asset. His $4.5m cap hit for two seasons is very moveable, when you consider he’s a perennial 40-point D-man. He is the seventh highest scoring D-man over the past 10 years, and was 10th in the previous two seasons. I see him as the Oilers’ best trade chip, among players they’d consider moving.
Philip Broberg could crack the lineup, and his versatility to play left and right defence, and his skating ability, makes him a strong candidate to make the opening day roster next season.
Holland will make some moves over the summer, but I also expect him to make a bigger move at the trade deadline when teams will move potential UFAs or RFAs with a year remaining on their deals.
The main three decisions I see in the coming weeks will be figuring out what happens with Kane, will Smith return and a potential draft-day (or draft week) trade involving Barrie.
Edmonton took a positive step this season. The team gained invaluable experience, but the next step, as many other franchises have experienced, will be much tougher to take than the steps that got them to the Conference Final.
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