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The Five Biggest Question Marks for the Oilers in 2023-24

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Photo credit:James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
6 months ago
With a 3-1 win over Seattle on Friday night, Edmonton’s pre-season has concluded. Opening night in Vancouver is just four days away.
Due to their current cap-situation, the Oilers will be carrying a 21-man roster, with 12 forwards, 7 defencemen, and 2 goalies. Generally, the roster is nearly set when healthy, although the 12th forward spot still remains undetermined. 
Without further ado, here are my five biggest question marks for this team in the 2023-24 season.
*All NHL stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

Can Connor Brown be an effective top-six winger?

Sep 27, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor Brown (28) protects the puck from Vancouver Canucks defensemen Quinn Hughes (43) during the first period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Edmonton’s only notable major addition this past off-season was Connor Brown. 
Signed to a one-year deal on July 1, Brown is at a league minimum cap-hit of $775K for the 2023-24 season, but he has a potential $3.25M in performance bonuses. The performance bonus will kick in if Brown simply plays 10 games with the Oilers this season. If that occurs, the team’s final cap hit, plus the potential bonuses earned, subtracted by the $83.5M cap ceiling, will be an overage that counts towards Edmonton’s cap next season in 2024-25
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman mentioned he told owners that very preliminary revenue projections suggest an increase of ~$3.5-4.5M to the cap ceiling in 2024-25, meaning Brown’s bonuses could eat up a large chunk of that increase.
For 2023-24 alone, Brown at $775K maximizes Edmonton’s performance. A potential top-six winger making just league minimum is fantastic value, especially in a tight cap world where teams need players to live up to or above their cap-hits in order to be successful. So, can Brown reasonably produce at a top-six level this season?
I wrote a deep dive into Brown back in June. Generally, Brown has a consistent history of above-average 5v5 production rates throughout his career. From 2019-20 through 2021-22, 326 forwards played a minimum of 1500 5v5 minutes, and Brown ranks 116th with a production rate of 1.85 points per hour. If you consider that there are technically 96 first-liners in the league (3 per 32 teams), and 192 top-six players (6 per 32 teams), Brown’s production places him as a very respectable second-liner. 
Of course, the major question mark surrounding Brown is his injury. Brown played just four games with the Washington Capitals in 2022-23, as he underwent surgery for an ACL tear in November that ended his season. 
However, Brown’s injury history outside of the ACL tear isn’t discouraging (he’s played all possible games in four of his prior six seasons). From what we’ve seen thus far, it seems that Brown hasn’t faced any complications on his road to recovery, which gives reason for hope.
I’ve discussed this in detail in the past, but Connor McDavid needs a winger with finishing talent. His 5v5 play-making is not being maximized. 
This past season, McDavid led the league in 5v5 shot and chance assists per 60 by a solid margin per AllThreeZones, but he only ranked 86th in actual assists per 60. Overall, in the past two seasons at 5v5, McDavid has scored 54 goals on 42.6 expected goals (+11.4 goals above expected), but his linemates have scored 94 goals on 111.1 expected goals (-17.1 goals above expected). Outside of Draisaitl, McDavid needs a winger who can consistently capitalize on his passes.
A (hopefully) healthy Evander Kane should help. Let’s hope Kane and Brown can be the effective producers that McDavid needs.

Can Philip Broberg finally make an impact in his DY+5 year?

Three of Edmonton’s top-four defencemen are locked in; Mattias Ekholm, Evan Bouchard, and Darnell Nurse. The fourth spot is up for grabs. Last season, Cody Ceci was their other top-four guy, but he mightily struggled on a pairing with Nurse, as the duo was out-scored 46 to 48 at 5v5 in the regular-season, and 6 to 8 in the playoffs. 
So, can Philip Broberg win that fourth spot? Can he finally make an impact in his fifth season since being drafted by Edmonton in 2019 at 8th overall?
Broberg is a natural LD, but there are three left defencemen in front of him on the depth chart.
“To play better, you’ve got to play,” said GM Ken Holland, in a Q&A in the summer. “When you’ve got Darnell Nurse on the left side, and Ekholm, and Kulak, they’re pros. It’s a dilemma.”
Barring injuries, it’s unlikely Broberg plays top-four minutes as a LD. As a solution, the Oilers may explore Broberg at right-defence. However, Broberg has hardly played on his off-side in North America, seldom playing regular minutes at RD in the AHL, and aside from a few games with Brett Kulak and Duncan Keith, he’s almost exclusively played at LD in the NHL.
Most of his experience at RD came in the SHL. This past summer, I dove into his SHL performance, but from what I found, his results were unappealing.
Broberg played on the Skellefteå AIK of the SHL in 2020-21, who were out-scored 22 to 26 at even strength with Broberg on-ice, while they out-scored opponents 80 to 48 without Broberg. In games listed as a LD, Broberg’s goal differential was 48 percent, but it dropped to an ugly 40 percent in games listed as an RD. Furthermore, I found that Broberg’s controlled zone exit rate was significantly better when playing on the left side, while he was much more prone to turnovers playing on the right side (if you’re interested, here’s a piece containing an in-depth analysis of Broberg’s SHL play at RD).
As a result, I have my doubts if Broberg could excel at RD at the NHL level. But if it’s going to happen, I’m much more confident it will occur alongside Ekholm. Broberg is not a good stylistic fit with Nurse, and perhaps Ekholm can be the one to “mentor” Broberg into a top-four role. Ekholm did have some experience at right defence in Nashville, so he can be the RD on that pair if needed.
Either way, the clock is ticking for Broberg. It’s not unreasonable at all to expect a former eighth-overall pick to make some sort of NHL impact in his DY+5 season. There have been 17 players drafted after Broberg who’ve played more NHL games, and that list includes numerous players already playing in significant roles for their respective teams, such as Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield, and Matt Boldy.
Regardless of your opinions on the draft selection, I think nearly all of us can agree it’s time for Broberg to be a difference-maker for the Oilers this upcoming season. 

Will the success of the bottom six continue throughout this season?

I’ve been a bit critical of Jay Woodcroft recently, most notably in regard to his confusing line-matching decisions in the playoffs, but I strongly believe he remains a fine coach. One of the most significant impacts he’s made on Edmonton’s roster since his arrival, if not the most significant, is the bottom-six.
Here’s a year-to-year look at Edmonton’s goal differential without McDavid and Draisaitl on-ice:
The rise of Edmonton’s bottom six was a major reason why the Oilers finally made the playoffs in 2016-17 after eleven straight seasons of missing the postseason. However, their depth was abysmal for quite some time after that season. Following Jay Woodcroft’s arrival in February of 2022, Edmonton’s bottom-six immediately improved by nearly 9 percent. In Woodcroft’s first full season behind the bench, the Oilers had a very strong 55 percent goal share without their two superstars on the ice.
Since the beginning of January, the Oilers had ranked second in the league with a 30-7-7 record (points percentage of 0.761). A major reason for that was their bottom six, which was at an even better 61 percent goal differential since January; in that span, that’s actually higher than their goal differential with one of McDavid or Draisaitl on-ice.
In order for Edmonton to finally go all the way this season, the success of their bottom-six under Jay Woodcroft must continue. Now, that isn’t an absolute guarantee.
For cap reasons, the Oilers let go of a couple of forwards from last year’s line-up, including Klim Kostin, Nick Bjugstad, and Kailer Yamamoto. Connor Brown is meant to be Yamamoto’s replacement, but aside from Lane Pederson (who isn’t guaranteed to make the roster at all), the Oilers haven’t really added any new bottom-six players. While Kostin and Bjugstad certainly aren’t irreplaceable, Kostin’s finishing touch significantly benefited Edmonton last year.
Kostin scored at a rate of 1.17 goals per hour at 5v5, ranking 39th in the league and 3rd on the Oilers. The bottom-six’s goal differential was 65 percent with Kostin on-ice, while it dropped to 51 percent without him. Of course, Kostin’s scoring rate was unsustainable, and 51 percent is still a huge upgrade over their prior goal differentials, but this demonstrates the impact of a good goal-scorer. The bottom six contains plenty of players that can drive scoring chances, but to sustain a strong goal differential, an effective finisher would greatly help.
The Oilers will be counting on Dylan Holloway to take a step forward this season. He played 51 games with the Oilers last season, primarily playing limited fourth-line minutes. As he’s on his ELC, Holloway will be a lock to make Edmonton’s roster, and he’s had a strong pre-season. I expect him to obtain significant top-nine minutes this season.
This is another reason why I believe Lavoie should have that 12th forward spot, as he does have scoring potential. Lavoie led the Bakersfield Condors with 25 goals in 61 games, and as he was recovering from knee surgery at the start of the season, Lavoie’s production was even better in the second half of the season, with 22 goals in his final 45 games. 
Several successful playoff teams have often had a “kid line” as their third line. Personally, I’d be very interested to see a line of Holloway, McLeod, and Lavoie, as I believe Lavoie could complement McLeod and Holloway quite well if his scoring translates to the NHL.
As a result, Edmonton may have to depend on some internal growth this year for their bottom six to continue their success.

How will the goaltending fare?

Edmonton’s goaltending situation will be fascinating to monitor throughout the season.
Can Stuart Skinner be a starting goalie on a cup contender? Skinner did have a rough playoff performance back in the spring, but so did every goalie who played a hot Vegas team. This includes prominent netminders such as Connor Hellebuyck and Jake Oettinger, who had save percentages of 0.886 and 0.877 respectively against the Golden Knights in the 2023 playoffs.
Goalies don’t necessarily develop in a straight line, but after a strong rookie campaign in which he finished second in Calder voting, Skinner should be expected to improve in his second full NHL season.
As for Jack Campbell, his struggles have lasted since the beginning of 2022; can he finally break that streak? 
In a tight cap world, it’s difficult to win with players performing significantly below their cap hits. Campbell was signed to a $25M, five-year contract last July, but in his full season with the team, he allowed nearly a full 20 goals less than expected. Out of all Oilers goaltenders with at least 20 games played in the past fifteen years, Campbell had the lowest save percentage out of all of them in 2022-23, which includes some pretty awful goaltenders from the Decade Of Darkness.
This season, Edmonton will need Campbell to bounce back. If he can perform well, that prevents them from burning out Skinner, and grants them a viable backup option if Skinner ever struggles.
On the bright side, I don’t see Campbell being as awful as he was last season, and he’s had a strong pre-season. To what exact degree could Campbell improve this upcoming season? Only time will tell.

Will the Oilers finally win the Stanley Cup?

Connor McDavid was drafted by Edmonton on June 26, 2015, over eight years ago. They drafted Leon Draisaitl on June 27, 2014, nearly a full decade ago. In that span, the Oilers have yet to win a single game in the conference finals, let alone win a Stanley Cup. As we head into the ninth season of McDavid and Draisaitl on the Oilers roster, the team is finally beginning to embrace a “cup or bust” mentality, which they should’ve had a long time ago. 
Sometimes, I don’t think a lot of fans acknowledge just how fortunate this team is.
The term “generational” is often thrown around a lot, but if anyone in the league currently deserves that label, it’s unquestionably McDavid. Edmonton may never have a player of McDavid’s caliber ever again, and he’s going to go down as one of the greatest players of all time.
Leon Draisaitl is also an incredibly talented player. He’s a perennial 100+ point player, and ever since the NHL officially started tracking TOI, Draisaitl has the highest career even-strength playoff points per hour of all time. A player with both his finishing and passing abilities is incredibly difficult to come by.
Teams would be extremely lucky to have just one of McDavid and Draisaitl. It instantly gives them an outstanding piece to build a cup contender around. 
But having both of them, at well below their market value to boot? Alongside another former first-overall pick in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as well? I’d strongly argue that the expectation shouldn’t be just a single cup; they should be aiming for a dynasty.
When all’s said and done, McDavid and Draisaitl should be retiring with multiple cup rings, and multiple new cup banners should be hung in Rogers Place. I’d argue that anything less than at least two cups is a waste of their talent. And if the team ends up not winning a single cup with these two? It’s not an exaggeration to say it would be one of the greatest disappointments in all of hockey history.
Thanks to some incompetent management, the organization has already wasted several years of their respective careers. Now, Draisaitl’s contract expires in two years, and McDavid’s deal expires in three. Alongside Draisaitl’s contract, consider that Edmonton will also have an aging Hyman, Kane, Ekholm, and Campbell on $5-6M deals in two years, alongside a very unexceptional prospect pool and the fact that Evan Bouchard is expected to require a huge payday. As a result, it will be difficult for the team to be better than it is now, so their ideal cup window is the next two years.
The clock is ticking. We’ve reached the point where the organization should not be satisfied with the false achievement of simply making the playoffs, or winning a round or two; barring unforeseen circumstances, anything less than a cup should not be seen as a successful season. It’s time for this team to finally go all the way.
“It’s Cup or bust for this group,” said McDavid on May 16, two days following Edmonton’s second-round exit to Vegas in the 2023 playoffs. “With where everyone is at in their career, that’s the expectation.”
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