A look at how the Oilers’ bottom-six could be shaped in 2023-24

Photo credit:© Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
8 months ago
Following the coaching change in February of 2022, the entire team saw a major benefit, but perhaps the most significant improvement for Jay Woodcroft’s Oilers came from the bottom six.
Under Dave Tippett in 2021-22, Edmonton was out-scored at a ratio of 30 to 49 at 5v5 without Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl on-ice, equating to an abysmal 38 percent goal differential. It was a continuation of 4 and a half straight seasons of the Oilers consistently getting flat-out dominated when their two superstars weren’t playing.
However, under Woodcroft, the bottom six immediately improved to 47 percent in the second half of 2021-22. It was still a slight net negative, but it was a huge difference compared to before.
In 2022-23, they took an even bigger step. The Oilers were able to out-score the opposition at a ratio of 74 to 60 when McDavid and Draisaitl were not on ice, which works out to a strong 55 percent goal share. As Edmonton emerges into a true cup contender, a huge factor for their success is their improved depth scoring. They’ve finally managed to be a dangerous team even without their stars on the ice.
As we head into the 2023-24 season, what could the Oilers bottom-six look like? What do they need to do to ensure their success continues?

Why the Oilers will rely on internal growth

Jan 7, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Dylan Holloway (55) protects the puck from Colorado Avalanche forward Darren Helm (43) during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
With both McLeod and Bouchard requiring contracts, Edmonton was forced to let go of several of their forwards due to their cap situation. Kailer Yamamoto and Klim Kostin were dealt to Detroit for future considerations (Yamamoto was then bought out by Detroit and signed with Seattle), while Nick Bjugstad signed with Arizona in free agency. The Oilers simply couldn’t keep Yamamoto at $3M, while they also couldn’t afford Kostin and/or Bjugstad at $2M.
Connor Brown is intended as Yamamoto’s RW replacement in the top six. But as for the remaining spots in the bottom six, Edmonton will depend on their younger players on cheaper deals to step up. Specifically, Dylan Holloway and Raphael Lavoie.
Holloway is currently on his ELC, essentially making him a near-lock to make Edmonton’s opening-night roster. He played 51 games with Edmonton in 2022-23 but was sent down to Bakersfield in February in order to activate Yamamoto from LTIR. However, he was injured in his first AHL game and missed around a month of play. He eventually played 12 games and 2 playoff games in the AHL to end the season.
Holloway didn’t shine in the 51 NHL games he’s played thus far, but deployment played a big role. He averaged just 9:35 per game, primarily spending limited minutes on the fourth line. Woodcroft also often deployed Holloway at center, a position he hasn’t really played at the professional level. 
In spite of this, Holloway displayed flashes of speed and skill. He ranked fourth on the team in zone entries per 60, and third on the team in high-danger passes per 60, behind only McDavid and Draisaitl. With a 52 CF% and 51 xGF%, all of his 5v5 on-ice possession metrics were also above average. 
In 2023-24, Holloway should obtain an opportunity in a higher role in the top nine, as playing him on the fourth line is simply not putting him in a position to succeed. I would start Holloway on the third line, and if he performs well, he should eventually get a shot with McDavid or Draisaitl in the top-six at some point later in the season. 
In a tight cap world, you need all your players to play up to their contracts, making players that play above their cap-hit extremely valuable. Holloway breaking out on his ELC in 2023-24 would be incredible news for Edmonton.
As for Raphael Lavoie, he accepted his qualifying offer on July 14, signing a one-year contract at an $874K AAV. However, this is a gamble by Lavoie by not taking a league-minimum contract of $775K.
The Oilers were also exceedingly tight to the cap last off-season, as their 2022 opening-night roster was just $167 (not $167K, just $167, you read that right) away from the upper cap limit. Ryan McLeod did the team a huge favour by signing a $798K contract, just over the league minimum.
Lavoie taking roughly $100K more doesn’t sound like a huge deal, and perhaps it won’t be. But it does decrease his chances of making the NHL roster, as the difference between a $775K and an $874K contract could greatly matter in order to make the opening-night roster cap compliant. Not to mention, Lavoie will require waivers to go to the AHL, so there is the risk of losing him.
If Lavoie does end up on Edmonton’s roster, that would be good news. I’ve always advocated for a strong finisher in the bottom six, as lack of finishing was a big reason why Edmonton’s bottom six was so awful in prior seasons. In 2022-23, Kostin’s goal-scoring provided a huge boost (although he was on an unsustainable SH% heater).
For Edmonton’s bottom-six to continue its success, someone stepping up and finishing at a high rate would be heavily beneficial. Ideally, Lavoie is that guy, as he ranked 17th in the AHL in even-strength goals, and his production was even better in the second half of the season (as he was coming off a season-ending knee injury at the start of this past season).
I expect Edmonton to give Lavoie a lot of playing time in the preseason to see what he could potentially offer.

A glance at the rest of the bottom-six forwards

I wrote all about Ryan McLeod last week, so I won’t dive into him in detail here. Projected as Edmonton’s 3C, McLeod has proven to be a very versatile and useful two-way player, and moving forward, volume shooting and overall production are areas of improvement.
Derek Ryan is probably one of the best fourth-liners in the league. In 2022-23, he scored 0.85 5v5 goals per 60, which is roughly second-line rate, while also possessing the best defensive shot suppression metrics on the team. I think Edmonton prefers Ryan on the wing, but he can play center if needed.
I thought Warren Foegele played quite well in 2022-23, especially towards the end of the season. He ranked 5th on the team in 5v5 goal differential (55%), and 4th in 5v5 expected goal differential (59%). Finishing is certainly an area of improvement, but Foegele is nonetheless a very strong third-liner.
That said, Foegele’s spot on Edmonton’s roster is not secure due to his $2.75M cap-hit. I think it’s very likely that Edmonton will make moves at the 2024 Trade Deadline, so they will need to move some cap space. If Dylan Holloway proves himself as an impactful top-nine forward, Foegele could be a cap casualty.
Janmark is your typical fourth-liner; unexceptional at 5v5, and a decent penalty-killer. He will likely spend the majority of the season at 4LW.
Pederson and Caggiula are both fringe NHL players signed at the league minimum, and both have rotated throughout the NHL and AHL in the past few seasons. Considering that Pederson is a right-handed center, he has a much higher chance of making the NHL roster (unless Caggiula kills it in training camp and pre-season).

Will the Oilers add another forward?

In his press conference on July 1, Ken Holland mentioned that he would like for the Oilers to add another bottom-six center, preferably running a 22-man roster (13 forwards, 7 defencemen, 2 goalies). There are some intriguing UFA options still available late in the summer, most notably Pius Suter. However, will the Oilers have the room?
It seems that the Oilers are not close on contract talks with McLeod. The Oilers would prefer to have him under $2M, but McLeod’s camp may want that number closer to $2.5M. If McLeod signed for, say $2.1M, it would give them around ~$3.4M to sign Bouchard with a 22-man roster. With a 21-man roster, the Oilers would have roughly ~$4.1M-4.2M to sign Bouchard (depending on if Lavoie or Pederson is on the roster)
Consequently, it seems more probable that Edmonton will run with 21 men in order to have more money to fit Bouchard. If they do sign another forward, that player would have to be at the league minimum. I’m uncertain if Suter signs for $775K, as he does have a higher PPG rate than McLeod in the past two seasons, and could receive better offers from teams in a better cap situation. 
With a 21-man roster, the Oilers will run 12 forwards. In regards to the bottom six, McLeod, Foegele, and Ryan will be on the NHL roster. Holloway also seems like a lock on his ELC, and although Janmark isn’t a guarantee, it’s likely that he will be on the roster as well. The 12th spot will be a battle between Lavoie, Pederson, and a potential league-minimum UFA signing. Due to his age and potential, Lavoie is the best option as a player, but depending on what McLeod and Bouchard sign for, Edmonton may be forced to keep a $775K contract over him on the NHL roster. 
I would start the season with a third line of McLeod, Holloway, and Foegele. In the past two seasons, the Oilers have out-chanced opponents 267 to 188 with McLeod and Foegele on-ice, equating to a fantastic 59 percent chance differential. In terms of high-danger chances, they’re at an even better 61 percent. If Holloway can provide a good scoring touch, that would make them an excellent third line. The fourth line would consist of Ryan, Janmark, and whoever wins the battle for the 12th forward spot, although Jay Woodcroft is fond of the 11F/7D format, so that 12th F (or preferably Janmark if Lavoie makes it) could be a healthy scratch on many nights.
Overall, Edmonton’s bottom-six does seem in good shape for 2023-24. For their success to continue, it will depend on several factors, most notably internal growth.
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