The Oilers have played a quarter of their games this season and the results have been disastrous. The team finds themselves in 29th place and ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes in the Western Conference. This team needs a fundamental change of results in order to challenge for a playoff spot.
While some are finding ways to blame Connor McDavid (?!) for the woes of the team, I think it’s plain as day who the real culprit has been. Edmonton finds themselves in a rather untenable position today because of the job General Disappointment Peter Chiarelli has done. I’m not blaming the best player the club has had since Gretzky. I’m not blaming the man that the club got in return for Jordan Eberle. I’m not even blaming Kris Russell. This is on Chiarelli.
The Oiler GM made this team worse on and off the ice between the end of Game 7 against the Ducks and opening night of this season. Instead of taking advantage of McDavid’s final season at less than $4 million in annual average after max bonuses, the team hoarded cap space and traded or bought out veterans without replacing their skill levels on the roster.
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From day one in the offseason, it was known to both management and the public that the Oilers would be without their second best defenseman for at least the first two full months of the next season. Even as teams moved blueliners ahead of the expansion draft (for which the Oilers were well positioned) the team stood pat.
Peter Chiarelli admitted that his blueline wasn’t up to the standard of the teams that advanced to the third round of the playoffs and yet he did nothing. Worse than doing nothing, he committed to doing nothing a very long time. With Sekera, Larsson, and Klefbom committed long term and Benning and Nurse under club control long term he signed Kris Russell to a four year, $16 million dollar deal complete with no trade and no movement clauses.
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Even if you completely hate/disagree with my analysis of Russell’s play, committing to Russell with an anchored contract forces the top 6 to remain static in talent and unbalanced with left and right handers for four seasons. As it turned out, Russell was dropped to the third pairing before Andrej Sekera even returned to the lineup because of Nurse’s play. So that’s $4 million a year dedicated to the third pairing or worse for three more seasons after this.
Edmonton’s blueline has taken a hit in terms of total effectiveness without Sekera. Oscar Klefbom is having more problems managing the game than he did last year and there’s no veteran on the left side to ease any pressure off of him. It’s a problem that the Oilers seemingly didn’t plan for because they didn’t believe would exist. It was an avoidable problem if the team pushed to upgrade their blueline.
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Oct 17, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Strome (18) controls the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period at Rogers Place. Carolina Hurricanes won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Up front, the Oiler General Manager took the playoffs as a glimpse into the future of Oiler hockey. Any reasonably competent research into the playoffs would have shown that both Draisaitl and Eberle went on thoroughly unsustainable runs in the playoffs. Eberle couldn’t add a thing and Draisaitl could do no wrong. Neither was bound to last.
Still, Draisaitl was paid more than any of his comparables in the NHL by about $1.5 million dollars a season because he was going to be the 2C of the Oilers for the future in the mold of Evgeni Malkin. 20 games into this season and even when he’s finally been split from McDavid, Draisaitl is still a right winger, as he was for the majority of last season. The team is paying a premium to a very good player for doing a job that he isn’t actually doing. As was a concern when the contract was being negotiated, the Oilers are effectively paying for McDavid twice with Draisaitl’s massive contract.
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Eberle was traded away for Ryan Strome because he posted a goose-egg in the playoffs. Strome was not brought in to be the 3C of the Oilers and that was clear from the opening of training camp. He was supposed to be Eberle’s replacement. That was the spot he was gifted in September by management and coaching staff. However, he lost it faster than my kid loses mittens and toques at school. He is scoring at exactly the same pace he had last season with the Islanders. He is exactly what should have been expected. If management is as disappointed with the deal as they were reported to have been earlier this season than that’s because management made a stupid deal.
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The added “benefit” of trading Eberle for Strome was the extra money in cap space that the Oilers saved. Cap Space has scored zero goals for Edmonton this season so far, but at least they have it in spades. As of today, the Oilers have $10,971,460 in cap space without bonus cushions. I checked with NHLNumbers and found out the Oilers will have effectively $38 million in cap space at the trade deadline. This does not count any relief provided by having Sekera on LTIR. It is the result of trading Eberle for Strome, buying out Benoit Pouliot for no reason, and refusing to add help to the team. Edmonton is spending less on salary than the Florida Panthers and the Winnipeg Jets and only a hair more than the expansion Golden Knights.
The buyout of Benoit Pouliot in a season where they were not using the cap savings is especially confusing. Because buying out contracts forces the teams to pay out for twice the time remaining on the deals, Edmonton will have Pouliot on the books for another three seasons after this. If they bought him out after this season then they could have had him off the books a year earlier. Pouliot has six goals for the Sabres this season and the team is paying him $1.3 million plus his replacement on the roster another $1 million. Neat.
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I don’t want to get into the overall loss in talent factoring deals from before this season because that will happen on a day when we are reviewing Chiarelli’s Oiler career as a whole. I’m just trying to look into this season only. That said, it gets hard not to mention because things like the Lucic contract will affect what happens here on out too.
Before we ever get into the individual players and what they have or haven’t done, the General Manager committed significant amounts of present and future cap dollars to players based on roles they do not actually play (2C for Draisaitl, 2LHD for Russell, 1LW for Lucic). He downgraded the talent in the top 6 forwards by moving Eberle for Strome. He refused to improve his blueline from obvious positions now and for years to come. He downgraded talent in the bottom six in the name of cap space that he never used.
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Jun 26, 2015; Sunrise, FL, USA; Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli makes the Oilers pick of Connor McDavid (not pictured) in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Overall, Peter Chiarelli made the Oilers worse in 2017-2018 than they were in 2016-2017 and did it knowing health would be a problem early on. He can hide from the local media who want to ask him questions about the start of this season, but he can’t hide from the blame he rightly deserves.
Chiarelli has very likely wasted the final year of McDavid’s entry level contract. The contract landscape he has created has forced the club into the position of being unsure whether they can afford the next contracts for players like Nurse and Benning on the blueline and Maroon on the top line without first parting ways with quality players like Nugent-Hopkins.
Oiler fans and players alike deserved better than this from the man in control of the roster. These were avoidable problems that are now in full control of the season. Everything that Chiarelli does from here on out is about fixing the mistakes he made blowing assets and opportunities. This is about disaster control and containment. At the quarter mark of this season, my only concern is about how to get beyond this season without having to trade RNH, Maroon, and one of Nurse or Klefbom just to survive. It’s grim, true.
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This season isn’t about McDavid’s backchecking or Klefbom’s decision-making in the defensive zone. It’s about sheer incompetence from the top of the organization.